Because of the consistently low temperatures I haven’t been able to do this in a while, but I have an obsession with taking long walks along the streets of Ann Arbor. You really can’t get to know a place by studying a piece of paper, so I ditched my map of the city months ago and opted instead to get myself lost by wandering among the many university buildings and businesses. You have to get out there and make a few wrong turns and end up in places you wouldn’t have explored otherwise.
On my first Saturday morning at the University of Michigan last fall, after two hours of walking I succeeded in finding the cluster of buildings situated on what students refer to as “the Hill.” I heard that one of the buildings had a dining hall in which you could find the best cookies on campus, so finding this building took top priority.
The dining hall wasn’t open when I got there and wouldn’t be open for another couple hours, so I wandered about the Hill for a few minutes before discovering a narrow bridge high above Washtenaw Avenue. I walked along it until I reached what I thought was dead center, then leaned over the edge and stared down at cars rushing by. Rubbing the small collection of coins in my pocket, I contemplated the consequences of dropping one over the edge. I think I saw something on TV once about how it’s bad to drop objects off of bridges because of the potential damage to the cars. I thought for about two more seconds and then took a penny out. To heck with caution. This penny was going overboard.
I dangled the coin over the edge with my thumb and middle finger apart just enough to feel the miniscule weight of the penny pulling down towards the pavement below. Just as the last car in a long line of vehicles disappeared underneath the bridge, I let go. For a short moment, it felt like I was moving away from the coin, maybe flying upwards into the clouds, but before I could really understand the feeling, the penny and the moment were gone.
As the semester went on, I began to take my walks earlier and earlier. I’m a morning person, much to the misery of my roommate Jan. Once my alarms started going off before the sun had even begun to shine through our window, Jan threatened me with bodily harm unless I promised to wake up later on weekends. I compromised by waking myself up at my usual time without using an alarm. I think I should put that on resumes: “can wake up without use of alarm clock”.
Every Saturday I’d leave the dorm around seven and walk the fifteen minutes to the bridge. It became something of an anchor for me; no matter where I went, I started at the bridge and ended at the bridge.
The second Saturday, I went exploring through the Arboretum. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to be there that early in the morning, but I’ve always lived by the philosophy that if you don’t know if something is permitted, do it until someone tells you to stop. And then sometimes keep doing it anyway.
The third Saturday, I discovered the residential areas north of Central Campus. I began taking random turns and quickly lost track of the roads I’d walked down already. Luckily, my sense of direction is reliable, and I was able to find my way back to campus and the bridge without getting in too much of a panic.
The fourth Sunday was the day the man first showed up. I didn’t even know he was a man at first, just that someone was on my bridge. The sun had been up for less than fifteen minutes, so I didn’t see his dark gray silhouette until I had already taken a step or two onto the bridge. When I did notice him, I guess my brain and my feet went out of whack because I tripped over my own toes. Arms splayed to regain balance, I frantically ran through my options. I couldn’t go forward with my usual routine; he even had the nerve to stand almost exactly where I liked to stand, leaning over the side in the spot I usually leaned over. I thought about alternate routes I could take, but immediately my stubbornness stalled that idea. Instead, I went to the end of the bridge and sat down cross-legged, glaring at the man the whole time. We stayed like that for ten minutes, him in my spot and me on the ground. Finally, he raised his head, stretched, and walked in the other direction.
On the fifth Sunday, the man was in my spot again. I took my place at the end of the bridge on the ground, willing him to leave. You always read about people looking daggers at other people, but in my experience those moments tend to happen when the other person isn’t looking and so the moment passes without any kind of metaphorical wounding. As it happens, the one time I wasn’t looking at the jerk was the moment he chose to turn his head around and call out, “You know, we could just share the bridge….?”
I was staring down at my scuffed shoes at the moment, but when I heard his voice my head shot up and I blurted out, “You mean my bridge?”
I had been hoping that would discourage him from conversing with me, but evidently something about the way I said it was funny enough to elicit laughter from him. He looked out at the road again and shifted his weight to one leg in an annoying “I’m comfortable where I am right now” sort of way. I sighed and stood up. Hands in my pockets, I walked over and stopped next to him, copying his pose.
We were there for another minute before either of us said a word. Finally, he asked, “So, come here often?”
I snorted. “Really? That’s the line you choose?”
He shrugged. “Seemed appropriate. Do you come here every Saturday morning?”
I turned towards him, leaning on the bridge with one elbow. “As a matter of fact, I do. I come here and then I take a walk and then I come back here. Got a problem with that?” That made him laugh again.
The two of us did a bit more bantering that transitioned into small talk. I learned that his favorite band was Styx, that his family owned two cats (a black cat and a tabby), and that he was a junior at U of M studying computer science. I told him about my brothers and I vented about the obnoxious students in my organic chemistry class.
We parted ways with a short “bye”.
The next few weeks went the same way. By the time I got to the bridge, he was already there. I hadn’t bothered to ask his name, but in my mind I referred to him as “Greg” because I thought the name was funny and didn’t fit him at all. I would greet “Greg” with a new insult, usually about the state of his hair (which didn’t seem subject to gravity). We’d then stand next to one another, gazing out at the road and talking about little things.
One Saturday, I brought my iPod so I could play the music from RENT. The week before we discussed musicals and he had mentioned he’d never seen it, which I deemed unacceptable. And the second-best thing to seeing it was listening to the original cast recording.
We stood on that bridge for almost two hours singing along to the whole soundtrack. During Tango: Maureen, “Greg” and I clasped hands and tangoed across the bridge with imaginary roses in our mouths. I had to play the song three times just so we could get through it without cracking up. During the slower songs, though, “Greg” sat and listened to me sing. While my friends usually avoid eye contact with me at all costs while I sing, he looked straight at me and nodded whenever I sang some particularly difficult part well.
Afterwards, we sat next to each other and talked about what the songs were really saying. I said I wasn’t sure exactly because they seemed to simultaneously glorify and condemn existentialism. However, “Greg” shook his head.
“I think it’s just about the balance, you know? You have to know the consequences of your actions, but you also have to live in the now because tomorrow, it’s gone.”
The few times I saw him after that, our discussions were a lot heavier. We talked about things like racism and poverty and politics. The shooting in Ferguson was still a hot topic in the news, so we talked about the existence of “white privilege” and systematic racism. We also talked about life in general. It felt like, whenever I went up to that bridge, I stepped out of the real world to a much simpler one for just a moment, a world where I could talk about everything without having to resolve anything.
On the second Saturday in December, I went to the bridge a little before seven in the morning. “Greg” wasn’t there. I walked up and down the bridge for a few minutes. He didn’t come. I stood by the side of the bridge, looking down at the traffic, wondering if my glasses would fall off and land on a car. I thought about dropping something but decided not to.
I haven’t seen him since. I’m not sure I remember what he looks like. Sometimes when I’m walking to my classes, I’ll look for him in the crowds of students. I went to the bridge a few more times, but I stopped after a few weeks. It’s too cold for that anymore.