The Bridge

August 8, 2014

“Ain’t much of a difference between a bridge and a wall.”
-Hedwig And The Angry Inch

The bridge was a few blocks away from the school, but still felt like part of it. Names, the years of various classes, strange scribbles, and even pictures were spray-painted on, covered, and re-painted not just through the school year but through the year. Summer was only a few months, and knowing we’d have to go back meant high school was still a part of our identity even when we weren’t there. Not everyone used spray paint. There was at least one elaborate painting of a columned temple. It was one of the few items respected enough to stay for years, long after its anonymous artist must have graduated. Another, shorter-lived piece that appeared at the end of one school year, was a four-by-four foot block of yellow with “YOU SUCK MR. HARRISON!-Kevin J.” carefully written in red. Mr. Harrison taught an electronics class. He was a laid-back guy with a mullet and a beard, and when he wasn’t telling us how capacitors worked or helping us put together a circuit board he was sitting in his office listening to The Who. When “See you in class next year” was added to Kevin’s canvas we were all pretty sure Mr. Harrison had done it himself. Not everyone left their mark on the bridge, but all school buses passed by it or under it every school day.

It was the middle of the summer, and my parents were gone for the weekend. That meant only one thing: eight teenage boys with free run of a house. I have mixed feelings about saying that my parents’ trust in me and my friends was well-placed. On the one hand we didn’t get into any trouble, we didn’t do anything we wouldn’t have done if they’d been home—other than running up and down the stairs screaming at ten o’clock at night. And earlier in the evening I’d locked a couple of the guys out, so they came in through the bathroom window. I think my parents did eventually discover that the screen was bent, and wondered how it happened. And my friend Dave found a six-pack of Miller in the refrigerator, opened one, decided he didn’t want it, passed it around, and, finding that no one else wanted it either, poured it into my mother’s iris bed. That was the extent of our nefariousness. I now think we could have gotten up to a lot worse things and that my parents’ trust would have been great cover, but maybe it’s better that we did what we wanted and that, contrary to what some people assume about teenagers, we just didn’t want to do anything remotely criminal. Until three a.m., anyway.

We’d slain about three thousand orcs, and at least as many pizzas, bags of chips and pretzels. An empty beer can was buried under half a ton of two-liter Big K Cola bottles. There was only one thing left to do: explore the garage. Why my friends focused on the garage is beyond me. Maybe it’s because it was next to the rec room where we’d shot most of the night, and exploring the attic would have required climbing stairs. And maybe there was something alluring about the detritus of rusty tools, fish tanks, bags of dried bulbs, flower pots, coffee cans full of nails, a baseball cap with grayish splotches that said “Damn Seagulls!”, nuts, bolts, screws, drill bits, mousetraps, mouse corpses, insulation rolls, and strips of birch bark my parents had brought back from a trip to Maine ten years earlier that they were planning to use for something eventually. And, behind an old dart board and the remains of a lawnmower, there were a couple of old cans of spray paint. We couldn’t let them go to waste. We had to paint the bridge. My friends did, anyway.

I’m still not sure why I stayed behind. My parents had probably asked the neighbors to keep an eye on the house, but what were the odds any of them would still be up that late? And the guys coasted the car down the hill, so it didn’t many any noise—not until they came back, that is, since they didn’t want to push it back up. The expedition itself turned out to be a bust—the paint cans dated back to the Eisenhower administration, and were completely dry. But my friends got credit for at least trying. Except Jim, who fell asleep before everyone else. I listened to the radio. There’s a saying that as you get older you find that you regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did. That’s true of my experience with the bridge. Whether I left a mark or not it was still an opportunity that wouldn’t, and couldn’t, come again. And yet the regret isn’t as strong as another, stranger feeling, that it hasn’t passed for me, but that this rite of passage is now extinct, and forgotten. I can see the bridge from the interstate, and pass it regularly. It’s still painted, but only a dull institutional gray. There are no names, no symbols, signs, dates, or messages. Things have changed. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that graffiti has become passé, that kids don’t sneak out in the middle of the night with cans of spray paint because they can send each other messages at any time. The means of communication may have changed, but that doesn’t mean there’s less communication. It’s just strange that the bridge now stands as a divide between one generation and another.

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