A Bridge Adventure Near 59th Street

Since four out of five New York City boroughs are on Islands, living in New York means dealing with bridges (and subway tunnels) if you want to get anywhere. Since I became a driver in New York a few years ago, I have mostly driven over the Whitestone Bridge, which is closest to my home.

Lately the authorities have gotten into the nasty habit of adding or changing names to some of its bridges. The 59th Street Bridge was officially called the Queensboro Bridge until a few years ago when they decided to also name if after former New York City mayor Ed Koch. It’s now the Ed Koch/Queensboro Bridge. The Triborough Bridge has been renamed the RFK Bridge after Robert F. Kennedy, who was a U.S. Senator from New York when he was gunned down. This has been aggravating. I don’t want to call the Triborough the RFK Bridge. Triborough works better – it connects three boroughs and the name sums that up nicely.

The 59th Street Bridge is a depressing and aggravating bridge for drivers. It has all of the congested traffic of midtown Manhattan with the sooty industrial character of the more neglected parts of Queens. But it is free, so people will stew in hellish traffic to save themselves the $7.50 it now costs to take the Triborough Bridge. (Public policy experts note that the systems of tolls we have on bridges in New York is backward, that we should charge tolls for bridges over the East River that cause more traffic congestion and instead encourage people to use the larger, highway-connected bridges, which now charge tolls).

This past Saturday I was driving home after dropping off some good friends in midtown Manhattan. I made my way east from Times Square and seriously considered taking the Triborough home. No, I thought to myself, I must overcome my apprehension about taking the 59th Street Bridge and make a success of it this evening.

I found myself on First Avenue but did not make the first turnoff I saw for the bridge. I came upon another turn for the bridge and took it, following behind another pickup truck. I saw a sign saying that the outer roadway of the bridge was closed between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. I thought nothing of it; I hadn’t planned on taking the outer roadway of the bridge, which I had never heard of anyway, and those signs usually referred to weekday construction.

The truck ahead of mine came to the entrance of the bridge, which was closed. It was blocked off with orange traffic barrels. The man got of his truck and just moved some of the barrels. He looked at me as he got back in his truck and his face wore the expression of someone who just did not give a fuck about closed roads. For all I knew he was an off-duty cop. I paused for a minute, not sure if I should follow this driver to a new illegally-opened section of the bridge. Fuck it, I thought. If the cops stop me then I’ll play dumb and just say I didn’t know the bridge was closed because the roadway wasn’t closed. That was technically true.

I could have been driving into a dangerous construction zone or have been tailgating some kind of undercover police operation or been intruding on some other kind of high crime or misdemeanor taking place over the East River. All of those unfortunate circumstances still sounded a lot more fun than contending with the convoluted traffic that would have been required to stay law abiding. I drove up the closed ramp of the bridge.

The outer roadway of the 59th Street Bridge (a.k.a. the Queensboro Bridge a.k.a. the Ed Koch Bridge) is one narrow late separated from the lower roadway by bridgeworks and thick concrete walls. Every once in a while there is a break in the wall and someone driving a smaller vehicle than my pickup truck could probably get away with maneuvering in and out of the lane. I was stuck on the outer roadway until the bitter end.

I drove on the closed outer roadway as quickly as I could while trying to look normal and blend in with the traffic, though there was no other traffic in my lane at all, except the daring barrel-mover, whose tail lights I could dimly make out far ahead of me. I drove on expecting the law to come bearing down on me any minute or to dead end into an impassable construction site. None of those things happened. I drove over the bridge with a paranoid mania until the regular traffic patterns of the bridge shunted me into a lane that didn’t help me get home.

The worse thing about it for someone driving home from Manhattan over it is that it is very tough to find your way when you reach the other side of the bridge. Whether you take the upper or lower roadway and what lane you take on either roadway can quickly determine your options when you reach Queens. Driving eastbound, it transports you from an anger-fueled Byzantine knot of Manhattan streets to a clustered maze of impossible roadways of Queens.

I eventually disentangled myself from whatever unappealing part of Long Island City I was in and found my way to Northern Boulevard and a more pleasant drive home.

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