The Problem with the Third Time across the Brooklyn Bridge

BrettontheBridgeI like running to Manhattan and I love running back to Brooklyn—though running may not be the right word. I have trotted across the Brooklyn Bridge three times. I go slow enough not to miss much.
According to an unreliable source, more than 4,000 pedestrians and 3,000 bicyclists cross the bridge each day. No one is counting the scooters, skaters, and skateboarders. The great majority are not from around here. The parents wear Yankees caps they bought 15 minutes earlier. The children wear foam Statue of Liberty headdresses. They debate the merits of a New York key ring versus a New York key chain—which I’m pretty sure are the same thing. They gawk, gaze, and ogle. Their eyes are wide. Their jaws are slack.
My third trip across the bridge was on July 4th. For the first time I reacted like many real New Yorkers. I was annoyed.
The lanes are clearly marked. Distracted pedestrians to the left, racing bicycles to the right, and sluggish joggers on the line that divides them. There is room for three people to walk side-by-side, so tourists tend to spread out in groups of six. This puts the slow-moving runners on a collision course with the fast-moving bicyclists.
Tourists take lots of pictures. The selfies are bad enough, but the selfie sticks are infuriating. These monopods allow the photographers and their enraptured subjects to be six feet apart and send everyone into the high-speed lane.
When I pass a shutterbug I wave. I am part of several Iowans’ photo albums of their trip to New York. These omnipresent tourists make you understand why New Yorkers keep selling the bridge to them.
I want to say, “If you want a New York experience, don’t rent a pedicab, get in line at Grimaldi’s, or buy an Empire State Building mug. Get a bagel at Cranberry’s and read The New York Times.”
I am at my most annoyed when, a block from home, a family from Czechoslovakia has their smiling seven-year-old—whose English must be the strongest—ask, “Where to walk Brooklyn Bridge?”
I am jealous. They are more excited about the bridge than I am.
Here’s the problem. On your third trip across the Brooklyn Bridge you might not notice how many love-struck couples write the date and their initials on a padlock, latch it on to a cable, and throw the key in the East River. This romantic act represents the love that will last until the city sends workers to cut the locks off.
On your third trip across the bridge you may cease to be curious about the bridge on which you saunter. If you don’t read the historical marker the first time you may never read it. You might not notice that the bridge is 133 years old. At the opening, they had a band, fireworks and President Chester Arthur. The bridge cost $15 million. 27 people died during its construction.
On your third trip across the bridge you might not even care that early on there were rumors the bridge was going to collapse, so P.T. Barnum led a parade of 21 elephants over the bridge, or that they used to store wine under the Manhattan end, because it was easy to keep at 60 degrees.
What if I stop being amazed by this amazing bridge?
I live in the greatest city in the world. What if I start taking it for granted? What if I stop hearing the multiplicity of languages? What if I cease to be astonished by the ethnic restaurants? What if I stop noticing the Statue of Liberty?
I want to be a tourist—wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and surprised. People come all over the world to visit my hometown, because New York is busy and beautiful and something astounding is going on all of the time.
My hometown has coffee places not named Starbucks, book stores not named Barnes and Noble, and pizza places not named Domino’s. We have neighborhoods that do not look like the next neighborhood. I want to feel surprise when I see dogs in baby strollers and feel peace when I sit on my stoop. I want to be a sightseer.
We get so used to the extraordinary that we stop seeing.
To be a person of faith is to be a tourist. In some ways, the longer Christians are at the business of being Christians, the more difficult it is. We are dulled by our familiarity with what we have been given. We do not feel the excitement a visitor feels.
When the community of Jesus’ followers acts the way Christ dreamed we would, there is nothing like it. We pay attention to those around us. We listen carefully, speak kindly, and overcome differences. We find grace in welcoming strangers. We are amazed.
I plan to keep running on the Brooklyn Bridge, so the tourists can teach me to see.

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Sermons at Plymouth Church, Brooklyn

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