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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Crossing that Bridge: Author Day on Beat Street

The George Washington Bridge… the night I saw it, someone said the lights made it look like a pearl necklace…”

 “We cross the Brooklyn Bridge and I remember how Nell-mom said it was painted a color called Rawlins Red… Blue says a man named Wahsington Roebling built it. His wife had to help him finish because he went too deep in the water and got a disease called the bends…”  The Beat on Ruby’s Street

Brooklyn, 2014.

Ruby’s favorite bridges are mine. As a child growing up in New Jersey, I loved the George Washington Bridge because it brought me to New York City, the land where everything is possible. One of my parent’s friends was an artist and described the bridge as Ruby does, above.

When I moved to Brooklyn, I had a choice of the Manhattan or the Brooklyn Bridge when I crossed the river by car service or taxi. 

(Give you three guesses which one I’d choose.)

I’m not sure if you have any bridge stories or if you like bridges even half as much as I do. But beautiful as the covered bridges are in my adopted Midwest (and of course the Golden Gate owns San Francisco), my favorites will always be the ones I know in New York.

Both of my bridge stories are in Brooklyn:


A 1980 transit strike in New York meant no one could get in and out of the city by subway or bus. I was living in Park Slope, Brooklyn and had just gotten my first job. Luckily, it was just a few blocks from my apartment, so I didn’t need to get into the city. Still, I had a lot of friends who did.

Tens of thousands of people ended up walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan,—and Mayor Koch came out to see them.

“Walk over the bridge! Walk over the bridge! We’re not going to let these b-stards bring us to our knees!”

People started applauding. Someone called the Mayor a strike breaker and Mayor Koch called the man a wacko. For the next 11 days, Koch went out to talk to people walking to work. People left early in the morning and walked for hours on their way home at night. After the strike ended, it seemed like everyone crawled into bed and stayed there—for days.

A few years later, I would write my first play, a musical about the Polish union Solidarity. But it never occurred to me that the mayor was against the strikers. It just seemed like another New York story; something crazy happened and New Yorkers dealt with it; and then the mayor went out and gave a pep talk and things finally turned around again.


 I was working at Dramatists Guild on 44th Street as a drudge (set up the room for council meetings, pick up David’s Cookies and file, file file). I also worked at backer’s auditions for people trying to mount Broadway shows who needed investors.

One night a composer-lyricist named Stephen Chapin came in with a musical called Landmark that told the story of how the Brooklyn Bridge was built, It was one of the first new musicals I’d heard in ages that sounded like something I wanted to see.

The story focused on Washington Roebling, who built the bridge in the late 1800s and suffered horribly from going down into the caissons, huge, bottomless, underwater boxes at the bottom of the East River .In the musical, at least, it was Roebling’s wife Emily who supervised the completion of the bridge.

One week after I first heard it, the composer came back and I asked if I could be part of the cast during future readings. I sang him a snatch of chorus I’d remembered and some months later, I read a few small parts in a private reading with the cast.

Though I think it was one of the best musicals ever written, Landmark has never been produced (as far as I know). But if someone is reading this who knows the play and can prove me wrong, I’d love to hear it.

Now, I can’t see the Brooklyn Bridge without thinking of the Roeblings and all the people who went down into the caissons to build it. I inserted the story into The Beat on Ruby’s Street during Ruby’s cab ride home with her mother, because it’s a sad story and Ruby’s life is about to take a sad turn.

Those are my bridge stories. What are yours?

Brooklyn Bridge: ilaria