Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Bridge by Gay Talese

Everyone has a plan B. This is what you'll do when the economy collapses, when the apocalypse happens, when you have some sort of cheesy American movie light-bulb moment - whenever something big and impacting enough happens for you to finally do whatever slightly dumb and romantic thing it is that you've always wanted to do.

Me, I'll be a bike mechanic. Ten years ago, my plan was to climb electrical poles in third world countries and do whatever it is exactly that people do up there with all those tools in their tool belts. I have this idea that I'm mechanically inclined because I like to take things apart and put them back together, and because I'm always the one who ends up assembling the shower caddy, or the wine tower, or the entertainment center. I know how naive this sounds, but blue collar work just seems so honest. I like getting my hands all greasy. I like to sweat. And to curse. I even like the cuts, the way they sting is a reassurance, a reminder, and later, the small scars. At the end of the day, you've accomplished something that you can lay your dirty cut up bruised hands on. You go to the bar and have a beer and bullshit and feel like you're part of something. That's what I'll do when the shit hits the fan. Become a 1950s man.

In the meantime, I'll read books like The Bridge.

It's a slim book, just 147 pages, and sort of squat and square shaped, with some really cool pictures and drawings of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in various stages of completion. The Verrazano connects Bay Ridge Brooklyn to Staten Island, and is the longest suspension bridge in the US. The bridge was completed in 1964, and the book was published that same year (though I read a revised paperback edition published in 2003). At that time Talese was a reporter for the New York Times, and writes that he often donned a hard hat and joined the workers on the catwalks. Talese romanticizes the workers quite a bit, even though many of the individual stories he tells end with premature death, comas, or crippling accidents. Here's how he opens chapter one:

"They drive into town in big cars, and live in furnished rooms, and drink whiskey with beer chasers, and chase women they will soon forget. They linger only a little while, only until they have built the bridge; then they are off again to another town, another bridge, linking everything but their lives.... They are part circus, part gypsy - graceful in the air, restless on the ground; it is as if the wide-open road below lacks for them the clear direction of an eight-inch beam stretching across the sky six hundred feet above the sea."

Maybe it seems silly to some to write like this about bridge builders - can you imagine similar odes to bus drivers, or trash men, or plumbers? - but I'm feeling it. I'm one of those readers who thought Christopher "Alexander Supertramp" McCandless was idealistic and brave, not foolhardy and suicidal, when I read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. Also, I've got this thing for bridges. Someday, I will design and complete the Ultimate Bridge Ride, where I ride my bike over 17 or 18 of the New York City bridges in one day. But until then, well, there's my couch and The Bridge.

Talese touches on quite a few historical heavy weights. This book could have been a whole lot longer - in league with something like Thomas Kelly's Empire Rising - and I wouldn't have minded. He mentions Robert Moses as a polarizing figure, but like a good reporter doesn't take a stance on how he personally feels about him displacing so many families and businesses in Bay Ridge for the bridge. (As a side note, I find it super absurd that Robert Moses, champion of car culture, never learned to drive!) Talese mentions James J. Braddock, the "Cinderella Man," who years after winning the heavyweight title in 1938 ends up working as an oiler, maintaining a welding machine, nearly 60-years-old. The assassination of John F. Kennedy and its effects are briefly noted.

But for me, the best part of this book was learning about the building of the bridge itself. Listen to this:

"But now the Verranzano-Narrows Bridge presented Ammann with an even larger task. And to master its gigantic design he would even have to take into account the curvature of the earth. The two 693-foot towers, though exactly perpendicular to the earth's surface, would have to be one and five-eighths inches farther apart at their summits than at their bases....It's steel cables would swell when hot and contract when cold, and its roadway would be twelve feet closer to the water in summer than in winter. Sometimes, on long hot summer days, the sun would beat down on one side of the structure with such intensity that it might warp the steel slightly, making the bridge a fraction lower on its hot side than on its shady side."

For the most part bridges seem immovable to me - so solid and unbending - I certainly never think of their cables capable of fluctuating twelve feet! However, Talese writes that in the mid 1800s, as many as forty bridges might collapse in a single year, meaning that for every four bridges built, one would fall down. The most memorable story of bridge collapse is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which fell into the waters of Puget Sound in 1940. The fashion of the time was for increasingly slimmer and sleeker suspension bridges, and it was cheaper to to build the span and roadway floor with solid plate girders, instead of trusses that wind could pass through. The result was that on a windy day, the Tacoma Narrows bridge kicked up and down, and earned the cutesy (instead of terrifying) nickname "Galloping Gertie." Apparently, no one was bothered by this, until one night it started "kicking" up and down by about twenty eight feet, and twisting in the wind at a forty five degree angle. Bridge Authorities closed the bridge, and it fell the next morning.

In terms of maintenance, every ten years the Verrazano has to be scraped of rust (and, perhaps, pigeon shit?) and repainted. That process takes five years and costs about 75 million dollars. In the afterward Talese wrote that 250,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day, and deposit a daily sum of 1 million dollars. I could go on and on, but by now you probably have an idea whether or not this book is for you. I enjoyed it immensely, and my only complaint is that it's not longer and more detailed. It's a quick read that scratches the surface of a lot of different issues, and has me reaching for more in-depth books about bridges and urban planning and manly dirty men.


Lila said...

Wow, who knew that much pressure is riding on bridge builders to be exact in their science (and math).

Curvature of the earth?

I'll start saving old bicycles in my garage for you when you retire.

Richmond Writer said...

I wish I had seen this review before Christmas! My father is an engineer and was asking for books on big machines, he likes bridges too, especially since he used to work for Chicago Bridge and Iron company.

I married an engineer who doesn't read but stops at every old bridge and takes pictures. That it is a short book heavily reliant on pictures is great. Thanks.

Oh yeah and I suppose our marriage is doomed, I read and he doesn't, and my father-in-law speaks Russian, does that count for anything?

Thorn said...

The company that built this bridge is a client of mine. How funny. I'll have to see if I can find this book.