Walking with Morley
Christopher Morley (1890 – 1957) was a prolific writer and well-known resident of Roslyn Estates. In his 1921 book of essays Pipefuls, Morley writes of walking over the Brooklyn Bridge as "a curiously delightful place to watch the city from."
Read the essay below or click here to view the full digitized book.
A windy day, one would have said in the dark channels of downtown ways. In the chop house on John Street, lunch-time patrons came blustering in, wrapped in overcoats and mufflers, with something of that air of ostentatious hardiness that men always assume on coming into a warm room from a cold street. Thick chops were hissing on the rosy grill at the foot of the stairs. In one of the little crowded stalls a man sat with a glass of milk. It was the first time we had been in that chop house for several years ... it doesn't seem the same.
As Mr. Wordsworth said, it is not now as it hath been of yore. But still,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her foster-child, her Inn-mate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known.
It's a queer thing that all these imitation beers taste to us exactly as real beer did the first time we tasted it (we were seven years old) and shuddered. “Two glasses of cider,” we said to the comely serving maid. Alas
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive.
There is a nice point of etiquette involved in lunching in a crowded chop house. Does the fact of having bought and eaten a moderate meal entitle one to sit with one's companion for a placid talk and smoke afterward? Or is one compelled to relinquish the table as soon as one is finished, to make place for later comers? These last are standing menacingly near by, gazing bitterly upon us as we look over the card and debate the desirability of having some tapioca pudding. But our presiding Juno has already settled the matter, and made courtesy a matter of necessity. “These gentlemen will be through in a moment,” she says to the new candidates. Our companion, the amiable G—— W——, was just then telling us of a brand of synthetic[Pg 177] whiskey now being distilled by a famous tavern of the underworld. The superlative charm of this beverage seems to be the extreme rigidity it imparts to the persevering communicant. “What does it taste like?” we asked. “Rather like gnawing furniture,” said G—— W——. “It's like a long, healthy draught of shellac. It seems to me that it would be less trouble if you offered the barkeep fifty cents to hit you over the head with a hammer. The general effect would be about the same, and you wouldn't feel nearly so bad in the morning.”
A windy day, and perishing chill, we thought as we strolled through the gloomy caverns and crypts underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Those twisted vistas seen through the archways give an impression of wrecked Louvain. A great bonfire was burning in the middle of the street. Under the Pearl Street elevated the sunlight drifted through the girders in a lively chequer, patterning piles of gray-black snow with a criss-cross of brightness. We had wanted to show our visitor Franklin Square, which he, as a man of letters, had always thought of as a trimly gardened plot surrounded by quiet little old-fashioned houses with brass knockers, and famous authors tripping in and out. As we stood examining the façade of Harper and Brothers, our friend grew nervous. He was carrying under his arm the dummy of an “export catalogue” for a big brass foundry, that being his line of work. “They'll think we're free verse poets trying to get up courage enough to go in and submit a manuscript,” he said, and dragged us away.
A windy day, we had said in the grimy recesses of Cliff and Dover streets. (Approaching this sentiment for the third time, perhaps we may be permitted to accomplish our thought and say what we had in mind.) But up on the airy decking of the Brooklyn Bridge, where we repaired with G—— W—— for a brief stroll, the afternoon seemed mild and tranquil. It is a mistake to assume that the open spaces are the windier. The subway is New York's home of Æolus, and most of the gusts that buffet us on the streets are merely hastening round a corner in search of the nearest subway entrance so that they can get down there where they feel they belong. Up on the bridge it was plain to perceive that the March sunshine had elements of strength. The air was crisp but genial. A few pedestrians were walking resolutely toward the transpontine borough; the cop on duty stood outside his little cabin with the air of one ungrieved by care. Behind us stood the high profiles of the lower city, sharpened against the splendidly clear blue sky which is New York's special blessing. On the water moved a large tug, towing barges. Smoke trailed behind it in the same easy and comfortable way that tobacco reek gushes over a man's shoulder when he walks across a room puffing his pipe.
The bridge is a curiously delightful place to watch the city from. Walking toward the central towers seems like entering a vast spider's web. The footway between the criss-cross cables draws one inward with a queer fascination, the perspective diminishing the network to the eye so that it seems to tighten round you as you advance. Even when there is but little traffic the bridge is never still. It is alive, trembling, vibrant, the foot moves with a springy recoil. One feels the lift and strain of gigantic forces, and looks in amazement on the huge sagging hawsers that carry the load. The bars and rods quiver, the whole lively fabric is full of a tremor, but one that conveys no sense of insecureness. It trembles as a tree whispers in a light air.
And of the view from the bridge, it is too sweeping to carry wholly in mind. Best, one thinks, it is seen in a winter dusk, when the panes of Manhattan's mountains are still blazing against a crystal blue-green sky, and the last flush of an orange sunset lingers in the west. Such we saw it once, coming over from Brooklyn, very hungry after walking in most of the way from Jamaica, and pledged in our own resolve not to break fast until reaching a certain inn on Pearl Street where they used to serve banana omelets. Dusk simplifies the prospect, washes away the lesser units, fills in the foreground with obliterating shadow, leaves only the monstrous sierras of Broadway jagged against the vault. It deepens this incredible panorama into broad sweeps of gold and black and peacock blue which one may file away in memory, tangled eyries of shining windows swimming in empty air. As seen in the full brilliance of noonday the bristle of detail is too bewildering to carry in one clutch of the senses. The eye is distracted by the abysses between buildings, by the uneven elevation of the summits, by the jumbled compression of the streets. In the vastness of the scene one looks in vain for some guiding principle of arrangement by which vision can focus itself. It is better not to study this strange and disturbing outlook too minutely, lest one lose what knowledge of it one has. Let one do as the veteran prowlers of the bridge: stroll pensively to and fro in the sun, taking man's miracles for granted, exhilarated and content.