Bridges to Nowhere
by Larry Ciptak
For years the enormous concrete slab hung over the Allegheny River like the many projects I’d later start and never complete. Locals called it the “Bridge to Nowhere”, stopped about 120 feet shy of its goal of touching land because politicians couldn’t agree on what landing point would do the least or most damage. The city took an affectionate pride in this oddball tourist attraction. The mills might be closing, tens of thousands would lose their livelihoods, three generations of hunky steelworkers displaced—but we had the most expensive and impressive fishing pier in existence.
Construction on what would eventually be called the Fort Duquesne Bridge began in 1959, a couple years before I was thrown into this world. Like the bridge I doubted if I’d ever reach shore. Others would feel the ground beneath their feet while I remained suspended in limbo, like the aborted babies the nuns wept for. I identified with this incomplete span—incomplete, directionless, a laughing stock. Some engineering was simply faulty by design.
While the bridge finally opened to more efficiently transport the masses to their irrelevant destinations, I had yet to find my own means of delivery.
There were times when I believed that those who said they had the answers were like small children brandishing a colossal axe, but such moments were fleeting and left me hungrier than before. The idea of my bridge ever being completed was preposterous.
Nothing like the foolish death of your best friend to put you in touch with your mortality. On paper Bill had died of a heart attack, but everyone knew it was the heroin. Years of abuse had taken their toll on his body. First it was arthritic pain, then the heart problems. Death simply knocked sooner for Bill and no one was crying out for justice either.
It was the morning of December 31 when his wife found his pale body on the floor of their bathroom, needle still in his arm. His head was half propped up on the toilet. He wore a stupid grin on his face. It was as if he had finally discovered some great secret that only he was privy to. Let you lesser mortals speculate as to what I now understand, his mug declared. And whatever he found was far better than where he had just come from. I was envious.
They were preparing to have their annual New Years Eve party, and Bill had stayed up all night cleaning. At least he left the house tidy. Whether that was incidental or by design, who know. Good old Bill. Thinking of others even when killing himself. Bill was quite a character, perhaps to make up for his lack of it.
Bill’s body was still warm when his wife decided to hold the party anyway. Whatever gets you through the night. My best friend was dead and I wasn’t going to see him again. Screw the party. There are some things worse than death, like attending such a morbid affair. I stayed home and got drunk.
Bill’s wife buried him 12 feet deep. She said she wanted to be buried on top of him. This was appropriate as even on her best of days she was an embittered, volatile woman. She wasn’t going to let Bill have any peace even in the afterlife. I guess deep down Bill was a good person—and that’s where he ended up.
When I die and if there is an afterlife I expect Bill to be the one who first welcomes me into the realm of final understanding. But until then it’s all conjecture.
x x x
The next day I went walking around the city’s deserted industrial district. I needed some appalling sights and smells to complement my insides.
A stray dog slowly approached me. No signs of domestication, collar or tags—just matted fur and muddied paws. The thing was looking for some sign of compassion, of acceptance. I leaned down and extended my hand, palm up. I had no food on me—what did the dog want? Tramps can tell when you’re holding the goods. The cur slowly swayed side-to-side until, with head lowered, he lay in front of me, allowing me to scratch his bumpy head.
The dog rose and started walking away, turning to see if I was following. I followed him around the corner into a filthy alley with a pungent stench of urine, one of dozens of little-traveled passageways housing cardboard condominiums in this grimy part of the city.
Coming to a dumpster, the dog turned to me, whining. His tail wagged slowly and sadly. Behind the dumpster was a street bum, draped in a tattered blanket. Blood was oozing from the corner of his whiskered mouth and cauliflower nose. His eyes were half open. Did they find Bill this way? His long, gray hair was stained in a puddle of crimson. He wasn’t moving. The dog stood over his form and looked up hopefully to me, as if I could do something about his master’s condition. But animals understand the irrevocability of death, and the dog’s faint hope didn’t last long. His fears confirmed, he whined and lay down with his master one last time while I found a pay phone and called the police.
Two weeks later the nameless, unclaimed body was laid to rest in the local Potter’s Field. The coroner said he died of a variceal hemorrhage, commonly associated with alcoholic cirrhosis.
And I had a new dog.
x x x
I named the dog Bill. After a trim, bath and a trip to the vet to check for worms and other parasites, Bill looked like a different animal. The shine came back in his fur, his tired eyes sprung back to life. He followed me everywhere, slept at the foot of my bed, knew how to “heel” during walks, obeyed me. Had Bill protected the old sot as he lay drunk in the gutter, pissing his pants? I wondered about the experiences of my new friend, and decided that if I was to give anyone a new life, then Bill was a worthy enough recipient.
So I inherited a street drunk’s dog, and my kinship with Bill developed quickly. He gave me renewed energy, and vice-versa. The apartment didn’t seem so empty anymore. Instead of turning on the TV after work, Bill and I would go for long walks. We took rides in the car for no purpose other than to get out. Bill eventually stopped sleeping on the floor and joined me in bed. I didn’t care. It had been a while since I had a warm body beside me. I even bought Bill a heated dog bed so he could keep his aging bones warm while I was gone.
One day I came home from work and found my place broken into—and Bill dead. Whoever broke in beat him to death. He must have been sticking up for my inanimate objects. His head was caved in and his left eye hung out of its socket. I fell to the ground and grabbed Bill, caressing his face, rubbing his ears. I held him for an eternity, unwilling to let go of another friend. Two dead Bills in as many months. Finally I let out an anguished scream, rolled into a ball and cried for hours. I cried at losing Bill the Man, but losing Bill the Dog—well, that struck me at the marrow.
It’s not like a friend’s and a dog’s death thrust me into a state of confusion concerning life in general and in particular my role in it. Things had been brewing, well, for nearly 40 years. These deaths were simply a catalyst, a point of departure.
I’d read numerous books of philosophical disposition, had dialogue with various soldiers of religion, dwelled in deep meditation but nothing reduced the fear that was menacing me. I attempted to place my existence into a variety of social, spiritual and cultural contexts, something to provide me some definition, some form. Statements like “there is no God if there’s nothing but God” tormented me. The assorted drudgeries of daily life bought me temporary respite but not much else—you can only hide in the ridiculous for so long. I had a few bucks saved so I quit my meaningless job, packed up some essentials and got in my car and started driving.
The proven and the familiar is no comfort to me. I never had the illusion that I was secure. So I decided to hit the road. What did I have to lose? I had no idea who I was anymore, but knew I wasn’t going to find out chatting on the Internet or going to multiplex cinemas on the weekends.
Something about driving aimlessly has always appealed to me. You drive, you stop to eat or piss. It becomes purely custodial after a while. Hours pass mindlessly trying to find something worth listening to on the radio. After a day or two of hard driving you develop this acute sense of all that exists on the highway to where you can even predict others behavior. Some instinctual sense protects you when you’re exhausted but driving on anyway. Life passes you by at 65 miles an hour and there’s nothing you can or care to do about it. The road takes over. People that pass or fall behind are merely phantom travelers who exist only for a few seconds. Perhaps that’s the way eternity views the totality of our lives.
Having no plan or purpose is a beautiful, liberating feeling on a good day, and a terrifying proposition on a bad one. When faced with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, some people retreat to and find respite in a doctrine of their choice. Others like me are forced to rely on tenacity and coffee.
This exit looks like so many others—three gas stations bickering over a penny a gallon, fast food joints, a strip mall full of transient businesses servicing a similar population and corporate “super centers”. There’s a Starbucks on the corner, staffed with sullen baristas with body piercings taking liberal arts classes at community colleges, selling coffee for $10 a pound that the world’s 25 million coffee farmers get less than a dollar for. A volatile world price set by a Wall Street commodity exchange determines the economic fate of coffee growers. The United States consumes a fifth of the world’s coffee. Perhaps my contribution to the employee tip jar will go to purchase drugs grown by agrarian peasants who found that in a capricious global coffee market it often cost them more to produce product than they could sell it for. The cultivation of marijuana and coca are a far better investment. Either way, they get a piece of my pie.
I’d been driving for a while so it was time to sit with an overpriced cup of joe, keep an open eye on the indulgent while re-reading a frayed copy of Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. The book caught the attention of a man in his mid-50’s who sat next to me and asked where I was at in the book. I told him I was reading about the difficulties Carlos was having with “seeing”, his term for tapping into an alternate reality. I started providing some context to the concept but he shook his head to display that wasn’t necessary.
“If I recall correctly he has that difficulty throughout the whole book,” he laughed.
“What is ‘seeing’ anyway? Is there really a separate reality, or realities? And what is reality? I once asked myself those type questions. But don’t waste valuable time with such philosophical gibberish. Take a look right around you, right now. What do you ‘see’?
“Just looking around right here, I see the systematic deconstruction of all that was once good about these little towns that at one time had a strong a sense of identity. Now the mega-chains like Starbucks and Wal-Mart and Target dot the landscape like some type of unstoppable virus. Did you know that for every two jobs created by Wal-Mart three local jobs are lost? This particular commercial development has effectively killed our Main Street. The hardware store in town—there for over 70 years—closed less than a year after Home Depot opened. We once had a neighborhood with social and economic cohesion. People knew and looked out for each other. Now we have unemployment, crime, violence, drugs. We used to go to church to worship as a community, now we go looking for something we don’t even know we’ve lost. Some blame the 60’s, other the indulgent 80’s or the disintegration of the nuclear family. Whatever the cause or causes, the soul of this community is gone, and it’s reflected at every level down to the individual."
It seemed like the old bugger was coming alive as he spoke, but I wasn’t so sure I was too keen on this particular life form.
“Now that our town is effectively hollowed out, people are left with similar feelings about their individual lives. We didn’t need self-help books thirty years ago. People knew who they were. My friend owns the local bookstore. Guess what she sells most of? Romance novels and self-help nonsense. People either choose to dissociate from reality by indulging in fantasies or obsessively search for something they feel is missing and attempt to pinpoint and fix something they think is out of kilter. Face it—Main Street culture is dead, and with it the last remnants of social cohesion that once gave people a sense of belonging and continuity in their collective and individual lives.”
My coffee was getting cold. I understood the sociological implications of urban sprawl and the resultant disintegration of the economic and social structure. Yes, rural as well as urban areas continue to be disfigured by this infectious disease. But what about individual choice? People didn’t have to patronize these “big box” monstrosities. And some communities have banded together to successfully fend off such invasions. Not to mention the free market system that people seem to cherish until it threatens their welfare. I commented that Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “The ultimate freedom is the right to choose my attitude in any given situation” and argued that this applies to the community level as well.
“Fuck Frankl,” the man said abruptly. “These chains are predators sucking the heart and soul out of our communities. The economic vitality of most towns has been systematically usurped by a lie. The extra tax revenues promised and brought in by these developments have been surpassed by the cost of building up and maintaining the infrastructure required to support these concrete eyesores, virtually all which exist on the outskirts of the towns that need the revenues to survive. After catering to these corporate invaders, there is no money left for local business development. It’s a grandiose lie that communities afraid of being left behind have bought into en masse. The result? There is no longer a town center, no Main Street, no epicenter of community and culture that is necessary to foster social cohesion. There’s just decay and filth and boarded-up storefronts and a communal feeling of hopelessness that filters down to the individual level.
“You talk about individual choice and quantify it by throwing out a simple quote from another era, another world. You probably use quotes as others use religion, to fend off personal responsibility and justify your excesses.
“We are supposedly members of a community. But where there is no community there are no individuals, just perhaps some overeducated shitheads who buffer themselves with faulty premises so they can march on pretending everything’s okay, at least in their own little worlds. Perhaps you’re such a shithead.
“I don’t know where you’re from, and frankly it doesn’t matter. The same situation is being propagated nationwide, which is why confused people like you keep turning to meaningless drivel like Castaneda.”
x x x
I bet if this guy was around when the light bulb was invented he would have shaken his head and lamented that it was indeed a sad day for the candle industry. Some people need a battle to fight, even if it’s from an armchair or at a table at Starbucks.
Discontented people routinely blame the condition of their existence on outside forces—society, politicians, God, Wal-Mart. They take a quick look at their little world and if they perceive any personal failure assign culpability to something external. Some take it a step further and rigidly attach themselves to some ideology—that way they can feel some level of power in a world that otherwise scares the hell out of them. Through their fixed routines they domesticate the arbitrary, and so neutralize deep feelings of worthlessness. The poor favor disenfranchisement while the rich prefer stoic conformation. Flip sides of the same coin, I say. One stands in awe of the surroundings they’re immobilized by, the other sits in high judgment with a great degree of certainty. The right-wing Christian republican with stock options and a dutiful wife is just as destitute as the poor sap drinking from a brown bag in the bowery.
I came out of the coffee shop and noticed a homeless guy sitting outside a Chinese restaurant. I always wanted to see a homeless person with a “home sweet home” or “screw food, I need a drink”. That would be shrewd marketing. This guy didn’t have a sign, just a little plastic jug with a few coins in it, and I added a few to his collection.
I started walking away when he called to me. “Hey buddy,” he said, “gaining something burdens you with the fear of losing it.”
Driving away I thought of the street bum. How liberating would it be, having nothing left to lose? Perhaps Janice Joplin was onto something. But I wasn’t about to find out. As a presentable overeducated suburbanite with a modicum of street smarts I always seem to land on my feet, no matter how stupid my decisions are. This current nomadic experiment is faulty because there’s the underlying fact that I have a place to return to, a comfortable hole that precludes me from relating to despondency on an experiential level—a wayfarer with an exit clause. Unlike the Romany who left Persia in the 10th century and have been wandering around in diaspora since, my exodus was one of preference and could be reversed at any time.
For a few summers I worked on commercial fishing boats in Alaska. We long-lined for halibut, black cod, ling cod, red snapper, seined for salmon, herring. The icy waters of Prince William Sound, Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet and Shelikof Straits were our domains. On the vessels were Norwegians with fisherman blood lines going four generations deep and Native Alaskans whose livelihoods depended entirely on salmon not being intercepted at high sea by Russians and Koreans. The globalization of the salmon market in the 1980s created a market glut and drove down prices. The fish were making it to shore in smaller numbers every year, and those in the industry were feeling the pinch. But I could retreat to the lower 48 anytime and the variety of opportunities afforded in the megalopolis. The fishing domestic industry could collapse and I’d march on unfettered. It was no different with this homeless guy. He could mutter cryptic messages proprietary to his circumstances all day long and it didn’t mean a thing to me. No matter how bad it might get better memories will still be fire in my veins.
x x x
Back in those terrible days of pre-pubescence I remember listening to the older neighborhood boys gloating about their sexual conquests. I was still waiting for pubic hairs to sprout and they were miles ahead, gleefully describing the feel taste of the female anatomy. The scent, taste and touch of a female seemed so remote a possibility that I hated them. Their conquest was my degradation. That was one less vagina that would be available to me someday. Discontent seems inversely proportionate to the distance of the desired object. Feeling less than remote possibilities, I rode a masturbatory wave through adolescence, fueled by loathing for those who had genital access and increasing frustration as I slowly aged yet was no closer to my own invasion. Those who had their first furtive sexual interlude seemed far most driven toward subsequent invasions. The taste of better things—however brief—incites people to action. Schmucks like me led lonely lives of resignation, obsessively beating off to underwear ads torn from our mother’s magazines.
So here I was nearly 30 years later, meandering around without destination or motive, again feeling the frustration and ignominy of watching the world pass by me without really being a part of it. Does it really matter if I evolved from the noble ape or was created by some omnipotent deity?
x x x