Bridge and Tunnel

Hello?  Hello can you hear me?  Sorry, I get nervous.  I get nervous sometimes when I don’t know if anyone’s listening.  I get nervous and I just talk and talk and hope that someone’s listening, that someone hears me.  It’s really bad in times like right now when I’m riding BART.

I get so nervous on BART when we go under the water—I talk and talk and talk to anyone and everyone.  The other day I had to take BART to the East Bay because my car was on the fritz.  The starter was busted, or something, the darn engine wouldn’t turn.  There was no spark, no connection.  I must’ve sat there chugging and chugging at it for a half-hour that morning.  Probably flooded the thing, but I knew that wasn’t the only problem.  So it was to the mechanic with the car and there I was stuck riding BART.  I was running late that day and afraid I’d miss my transfer, so I was extra nervous.

Now, there was this elderly Chinese woman on BART that day.  I sat next to her.  She wore one of those pink and purple neon windbreaker outfits that look like they’re made of paper and they crinkle and swish with every move?  The sound would drive me crazy, but I guess she couldn’t hear it because she was Deaf.  I could tell she was Deaf by the piece of paper that was bobby-pinned to her head, tucked right in there with her thinning hair, a torn scrap that said DEAF.  Strangest thing.  You’d think a tag on the shirt or something would do the trick, but the note was pinned right there to the side of her head, just like that.  Her face was mottled with liver spots and her hands were folded like birds in her lap and she just sat there, staring out the window, silent.

She was a great person to talk to.

And I wondered: Do the Chinese Deaf use the same sign language as the America Deaf do?  I mean, do you think they can all communicate with each other, or only if they speak the same kind of sign language?  I asked the old woman about it, but she just looked at me and pointed at the sign on her head.  I kept talking though.  I was nervous—we were about to go underwater.  “I’d like to think it all works the same,” I told her, “otherwise you’d see Deaf people getting into silent fistfights over silly misunderstandings, you know, like one Deaf person’s ‘Hello” is another deaf person’s ‘I fucked your mother!'”

I felt so bad when I said that last part—there were children on the BART with us, a mom with her baby in a stroller and two little kinds bouncing around on the ugly BART seat cushions.  I never like to swear around children, them being the future and all.  I apologized to the woman, too loudly I guess because everyone in the car looked at me all of a sudden, everyone except the Deaf Lady who just stared out the window.

I kept talking, because the BART was underwater now, I could tell by how my ears get plugged up and I asked the Deaf Lady if she could feel her ears getting plugged up too. She just looked at me and pointed to the sign on her head again.  I told her about how nervous I was and how I hated the tunnel when we went underwater.

“I’m okay with a tunnel when it’s running underneath the city,” I said.  “The MUNI is no problem.  It’s just the underwater part that gets to me—somehow all of that concrete and steel overhead seems far more stable than a million gallons of water, you know?  To me, ‘underground’ evokes secret clandestine safety, while ‘underwater’ means drowning to death.  I guess I worry about making across, about the transition across the water through that unnatural connective tube.  I feel like I’m neither here nor there.

“I’ve never been afraid of bridges, though.  I trust them.  Why do I trust bridges and not tunnels?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s because a tunnel is a negative space cut through the solid world, while a bridge is a solid piece stretched across a negative space.  It seems more natural, more meaningful somehow.  I blame politicians.  They always talk about building bridges, I guess the rhetoric just stuck.  You never heard anyone talking about digging a tunnel to the twenty-first century, that’s for sure.

“Digging tunnels,” I told the Deaf Lady, “that reminds me of a story from when I was young, how my friends and I were playing that age-old rite-of-passage game where we tried to dig a tunnel to China.  I wonder if you tried to dig tunnels to America when you were a little girl.  Is that a universal thing?

This is the story I told her:

We were what, eight, nine?  It was my friend’s backyard, he had a house in Twin Peaks—the only friend with a real dirt backyard so we were over there all the tome, you know.  We’d dug maybe three feet down, when my friends’ older sister caught us.

‘What the hell are you dorks doing?’

‘We’re digging a tunnel to China!’

‘Don’t you learn anything in school?’  I remember the tone of her voice, like how much smarter she was than us, it made me drop my little metal digging spade.  ‘First off,’ she said ‘that’s not a tunnel, that’s just a hole.  You can’t call a hole a tunnel until there’s an “other side,” somewhere for the light to come through.  That’s why they say “The Light at the End of the Tunnel,” and not “The Light at the End of the Hole.”  And secondly, did you ever look at a globe?  You manage to dig a tunnel to the other side of the world, well, besides probably winning Nobel prizes, you’d end up at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and all the water down there would drain out like an emptying bathtub and then spout up here like a geyser and flood the whole state, and how fun would that be?’

‘Cool!’ We all started digging with renewed enthusiasm.  The sister sighed dramatically and went inside.

Of course, we never did turn that hole into a tunnel.

“Maybe that’s why I like bridges better than tunnels,” I said, “because I like the idea that at least an unfinished bridge is still kind of like a pier, jutting out into the water, that even without a connection it can still have value.  But an unfinished tunnel is nothing more than a hole in he ground, one more empty thing to fill up again.”

But the Deaf Lady was slumped over in her seat by now.  I guess she’d fallen asleep.  I’d love to be able to sleep like that on BART, but that high-pitched whine keeps me awake.  Another reason I like bridges better.

“My uncle is terrified of bridges, though, and so is my mother, to a lesser extent.  I guess it runs in the family…maybe it skips a generation?  Maybe my kids, if I ever have any, will be terrified of bridges too.  And maybe my grandkids will be afraid of underwater tunnels.

“In a way,” I told the sleeping Deaf Lady, “that’s a kind of soothing idea.”

“Now, my uncle is so terrified of bridges and when his job moved from the City out to San Rafael a few years ago, he moved his whole family over there to follow it, just so he wouldn’t have to commute across the bridge every day.

“I asked him once why he was so afraid of bridges.  He said that when he’s up on a bridge, especially a high up bridge, he gets dizzy and panicked, like vertigo, from being so high up above the water, and he starts to feel like he might lose control of the car and swerve and plow through the railing and crash into the water.  Ker-splash, you know?

“But here’s the thing: all that stuff isn’t really what freaks him out about bridges.  Sure the vertigo and the fear are uncomfortable, but he knows that he’s not going to lose control of his car.  He trusts himself enough to make it through the fear.

“The part that really scare him, get this, is the idea that there’s someone else driving on the bridge, at the very same moment who has the very same set of anxieties, the same vertigo, but who can’t make it through the fear, who will lose control of the car, who will crash, of course into him, and kill them all.  And it’s that idea, of the uncontrollable other, that really scares him about bridges.

“My aunt joked, ‘He’s just as terrified of letting me balance the checkbook.'”

The sound of the BART changed then, as we came up out of the tunnel and into the daylight.  “Well, looks like we made it through this time,” I said to the Sleeping Deaf Lady.  “Thanks for listening, well, you know what I mean.”  My stop was coming up next—I had to transfer trains, so I shook the old Lady awake, so she wouldn’t miss her stop.  But she didn’t wake up.  I shook her again and my hand crinkled against that ugly neon tracksuit, but nothing.  I put my fingers under her nose—she wasn’t breathing.  I was about to tell someone, call for help, but then the BART slowed to a stop and the doors slid open.  I left the Deaf Lady sitting there in her chair, slumped to her side, her mouth dangling open.  What could I do?  It was my stop, and I had a connection to make.

Copyright © 2008, Kevin Hobson

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One Response to “Bridge and Tunnel”

  1. Unadulterated words, some truthful words dude. Totally made my day!!

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