Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Student Scribes: “The People’s Bridge”

I served as crew on the Pride of the Susquehanna for three months in 2013. Never much a people person, I happily accepted the extra hours cleaning the engine room instead of serving in my proper capacity as water-bound customer service.

I spent days cleaning, often hanging from the I-beams comprising the ceiling until my inner ear had started to forget the right way round and my up and down began to run crooked to gravity, long after my fingers had gone numb.

Each day, I’d scour and clean and take my breaks on the top deck, enjoying the sweat and oil on my perforated “work” clothes as something so different from the clean white of my cruise uniform.

On one of the indeterminate nights of that fall, six hours after I’d left Capt. Richard with the paddleboat and biked home, past the mostly empty island and over the open grate bridge that used to scare me, I sat, still in those work clothes, staring at the bridge and the darkened outline of a tree that hid from me the lighted dock of the Pride but left the brighter outline of the bridge unobstructed.

Acrophobia not gone but subdued, crossing the bridge on my bike had taken less than a minute. It might have taken two if I’d been battling pedestrians.

City Island seems too close to Harrisburg proper to really be an island, the bridge too solid to allow one to overlook the connection between the two. The separation seems ineffable.

I’d learned, through inescapable repetitions of the Pride’s tour disc, that the mode depth of the river is 3.5 feet and that, save for a few deep spots that hit 8 or 12, even someone my height could walk from shore to shore.

On the bridge, I’d looked straight and over my handlebars, slightly down to 10 feet in front of me, peripheral vision handling the farther off. The rails of the bridge didn’t call me toward the air and the water below as much as they had once, but, even after 22 years of living within 60 feet of one of the East coast’s largest rivers, 464 miles long and nearly a mile wide, I couldn’t swim.

The horse crap from the previous week had finally washed through the bridge’s walkway. The horses really needed diapers or the waste catches like the carriages in Philadelphia and New York have. Every time the Pride passed under while riders went over, I expected to hear a splash followed by screaming and disgusted passengers.

The river was still low, but not as low as it was before the rain. The pylons of Walnut Street, the over-river portion, this bridge, were really exposed, like the teeth of an overzealous brusher. The rain washed away most of the logs built up against the steel prow bar caps on the upriver side, so no broccoli in the braces or further dental analogies available.

No cruise that day. No horses that last cruise. It had been safe to stand on the foredeck and really look at the bridge. Giant brown stones, black-painted and comfortably rusted I-beams, same blackened grating. This was the cleanest of the bridges we passed under, its design such that it got a wash every time it rained, while the others just formed silt and filth stalactites.

The eroding roots of the intermediate supports still firmly anchored through the mud into the underlying river-bottom stone. One wonders why, when looking up at the bridge from below, he doesn’t get the same fear sense of height as when he looks down on the spot from above.

Eight hours since the engine room.

The problem is always how to tell time passing when you know the reader doesn’t take so long to turn a page.

My fingers still stink. The bridge is different in the dark. From here, from my window, it’s an inverse outline, pretty lights dotting the frame of a prosaic and antiquated pass. Quaint and calm. Solid like a memorial, never mind that half out of view, the half that would connect the far side of the island to the farther shore washed away 15 years ago. From here, it’s just a frame.

It was always just a frame. The bridge doesn’t make me afraid of heights or want to jump, doesn’t tease me with the fantasy of scandalized and be-scatted Pride passengers. The bridge is a quarter-mile span of steel and stone on which to hang memories accrued through 20 years of Harrisburg citizenship. Something to give boundary to my self-reflections. A sedentary place for transient thought.

Alexander Clark is an English major at Penn State Harrisburg.

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