Garbage Connector


Our Correspondents

How the Brooklyn Bridge became a living landfill.


Photo: Brooklyn Daily Eagle/Mary Frost.

I too saw the satin ribbons, the scrunchies, the clothing tags, the fat knots of underwear and panty hose, had my eyes dazzled by the foil of a bag of potato chips, the ripped labels of Poland Spring water bottles, look’d on the clear plastic rosary with a cross, the teak mantra beads strung on red thread, look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of a plastic spoon, and saw how four black locks neatly proselytized in gold marker (JESUS <3’S YOU, BE A CHRISTIAN, KEEP GOD <3 FIRST <3, GOD IS GREAT). Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge one evening last week, I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me when I saw the white diaphanous fluff of tampons—unused, I hope—that had been tied to the railings by the living crowd. 

Whitman first published “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in 1856, before the bridge was completed, though his waterborne commute followed more or less the same path. Walking last week I had to wonder what he—or Marianne Moore or Hart Crane, or any other Brooklyn Bridge–loving poet—might have made of the hot-pink-and-green boondoggle that I saw partially woven onto the bridge’s railing, its plastic laces draped lazily onto the walkway, or of the gummy curtain of faded red earphones on the north end of the bridge. The latter trend was so rigorously on display that you’d think it might point to some greater political statement. It turns out the earphones are handed out for free on New York City bus tours. Tourists knot them on the bridge as they pass, inspired perhaps by a docent who tells them, through a crackling loudspeaker, that lovers like to commemorate their bond on the bridge by clipping a padlock to the railings and tossing the key into the river. (You’ll need a good arm to follow suit: there are a few lanes of roadway to clear if you want to ensure your key safely sinks to the bottom of the East River).

Before garbage became the bridge’s primary ornament, only those padlocks—on which lovers’ names were hastily Sharpied, or etched in elaborate cursive—hung from its railings. The practice blew over from the Continent, where it’s been popular for at least a century. The origin story involves a Serbian schoolteacher who fell in love with a soldier and lost him when he was sent off to fight in World War I and fell in love with someone else. To ward against that fate, Serbian girls began attaching locks to city bridges.

More recently, an astronomically popular romance novel published in 2006 encouraged broody Italian teens to padlock their love to the Ponte Milvio, in Rome. Locks quickly took over Paris’s Pont des Arts, too, forty-five tons of them, which had to be cut off last year because the weight threatened the bridge’s structural integrity. The tradition has even spread to Taiwan, where locks hung on a bridge in Fengyuan are thought to grant wishes by harnessing the energy of the trains that pass underneath.

Workers from New York’s Department of Transportation make periodic sweeps of the Brooklyn Bridge to cut off locks and clean up trash and generally discourage people from tying anything to the bridge’s railings. Still, when I crossed the bridge one evening last week, I hoped to catch someone trimming a handrail. I wanted see if I could gain insight into how they’d found their way to these railings, and why.

It was spitting rain when I arrived, but the tourists were undaunted. They passed by frequently, often in pairs, murmuring to each other while walking arm in arm. I was moved by one gesture in particular: a man wore his partner’s Chanel purse, its gold chain strapped across his chest. Families with rowdy children paused now and then to snap a portrait with a selfie stick—what would Whitman make of that?—and almost everyone stooped to examine the locks or to run their hands through the sprays of discarded headphones. More than once I saw people reach urgently into their bags and produce something small, a hair tie or a rubber band, to add to the collection.

I hurried toward everyone I saw who was contributing to this grand assortment of leavings and failed every time to procure a story. I heard “no English” from a pair of Italian teenagers, a Chinese family, and a father and daughter who all but ran away from where they’d been carving their names into the bridge’s beige paint. I gave up after approaching a Spanish-speaking mother, who shook her head at me and returned to photographing her son as he tied a piece of string to the bridge. The city skyline gleamed just beyond him, and I hoped that she was able to get the Statue of Liberty into the frame, too. I sometimes forget how noble that monument can look at night.

I sat for a moment on one of the massive cables, taking in the ambient chatter and the expansive night, and I thought about how odd it was to be still on the bridge for once. “Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current,” Whitman wrote. “I stood yet was hurried.” Though none of the passersby wanted to talk about their experiences, I think I still understood some part of it. Wonder, after all, like trash, is a universal condition.

Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.