Sunday, April 13, 2008


On a fresh April morning after breakfast, I took a walk across the Williamsburg bridge, which connects the cultural hash of Manhattan to the ethnic scramble of Brooklyn. On the Manhattan end Jeffrey’s Meat caters to a diverse group of carnivores, who inhabit the Lower East Side. To appeal to all tastes, the butcher shop is decorated with a Caribbean palm, a Chinese Buddha, an Egyptian hound and paintings inspired by film noir.

As I began to walk across the bridge, the excitement of colliding culture that was embodied in the d├ęcor of Jeffrey’s Meats, gave way to a different sort of New York thrill. The bridge was so physically dynamic that memories of human differences were suspended just long enough to demonstrate a fundamental human connection, i.e. the kick of defying gravity.

Who knows the most about gravity? Astronauts know how to deal with its absence, but acrobats know how to overcome it, which, I think, gives them the edge. Maybe bridge engineers actually know more about attraction, since they can interrupt the pull of things and suspend masses in space for centuries. Ultimately, everything collapses, so this debate is pointless. But when one is standing in the middle the bridge, hovering 135 feet above the East River, the tension between mass and the fundamental force of gravity is magnificent.

This suspension bridge, built at the end of the nineteenth century, is a stunning instance of mass in defiance. The material burden of cars, trucks and trains is collected by four cables, which arc in perfect parabolas between pillars that accept the load and transfer it to the ground.

It’s an ecstatic moment in which matter is relieved of its gravitational burden so that independence of form can be expressed.

The poise of the steel bridge is magical, transforming pedestrians into elegant illustrations of the mechanics of movement. The knee straightens and raises the torso so that the free foot can pass the supporting leg. The left hip swings forward bringing the leg with it, while the right shoulder falls back for balance. The right arm swings forward in unison with the left leg, adding momentum to the advancing figure. Like cables to pillars, tendons transfer the weight of muscles, organs and fat to the bones which accept the load and transfer it to the ground.

And all of this is accomplished with little break in the conversation.

At the Brooklyn end of the Wiliamsburg Bridge, the cultural collage began again. I was met by bedraggled George Washington just back from Valley Forge.

And to gain the strength to overcome gravity during the return trip, I ate an excellent budin (bread pudding) at a Spanish bakery with a French name that serves a community primarily composed of Yiddish-speaking, Satmar Hassidim.

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