by Tim Gilmore, 5/5/2023
We set out to beat the rain and walk the highway over the river, with nimbostratus clouds woolgathering at 7,000 feet. Between the convex concrete curve of I-95 and the walkway, I spot the skyscrapers of the 1950s a mile distant. Jesus walked the Sea of Galilee, and we walk the St. Johns River, Riverside to San Marco.
A skateboarder with earbuds arcs past us. A woman walks her Scottish terrier, a pink tongue in a black beard topped with pointed ears. The new Fuller Warren Pedestrian Bridge, or Shared Use Path, 12 feet wide and 4,654 feet long, nine 10ths of a mile, runs alongside the eight-lane Fuller Warren Bridge, which carries Interstate-95 across the St. Johns. One slick black grackle perches contentedly and oddly natural on the highway berm and sings toward oncoming semi-trucks and Escalades and motorcycles and Corollas.
We look out and over at the great oak behind the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, its herculean branches touching and rising from the earth, at the white cloud of oleanders blooming, and in the distance, the Mid-Century Modern architecture of Taylor Hardwick and Roy Benjamin’s Park Lane Apartments, 15 stories, a century ago the tallest building in the city.
Jacksonville prides itself on its seven bridges. Way out in the suburbs, Seven Bridges Grille and Brewery serves happy hour for corporate office parks; elsewhere, a radio broadcaster, a private school and a chiropractic clinic all call themselves Seven Bridges. For two or three years, Bridge Eight Magazine hosted fiction and poetry readings in bars and restaurants around the urban core.
Now, walking the interstate over the St. Johns, I fall in love with this hometown I both love and hate all over again. A month ago, in Stockholm, we walked a dozen of the 57 bridges that connect the city’s 14 main islands. Far more Swedes cross bridges on foot than in cars; the trains stream across their own bridges in between. In the early spring snow, we walked Skeppsholmsbron and Strombron and Centralbron and Vasabron. Now, we stand at the apex of Jacksonville’s new highway footbridge, halfway across the river, and I breathe the city’s gritty, troubled, convoluted pandemonium up through my feet and my loins and my lungs and my skull.
(The word “pandemonium” meaning “chaos,” comes from John Milton’s great 1667 poem Paradise Lost, where Pandæmonium is the capital city of Hell: from Greek pan-, meaning “all” + Latin daemonium, or “evil spirits.” A city, however, is whole when it’s a whole world; it’s a shame it’s harder to celebrate the Panangelicum – the Great Coming Together of All Angels. It’s a shame readers prefer devils, a shame when writers blame readers.)
Seen from San Marco, the footbridge embraces the interstate above it, the drooping dewdrop heads of lights on the lower bridge contrasting the right angles of highway lights. We are creatures of smaller spaces. Cities are for people, not cars. We evolve our complexities in acute angles and corners, in privacies and darkness, down off the side of the speed smear of endless automobiles zooming by.
Now we’re down by the old Prudential Building, harbinger of tall structures of the 1950s, by men fishing on the concrete feet of towering pylons. Down from above, we do what archaeologists and mapmakers call ground-truthing: chronicling joggers and drunks, nurses in scrubs, dogwalkers and name droppers, yoga moms and old yuppies, jarheads and cyberpunks, ground-truthed on the newest rendition of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.”
We pass hospital honeycombs filled with physicians and children with leukemia, their parents housed here in hope from all across the United States. We walk down River Road, through the spray of the crashings of the river, by pastel tiles surrounding doorways, then up San Marco Boulevard, to the line of camphor trees behind which you lived when we were younger and first fell in love.
Out on River Road, you used to walk down to the river and look from San Marco to Riverside, where I lived in a shabbier brick foursquare in Five Points, and wonder if at that moment I might be looking across to you.
I used to walk from my gritty bricks across the bars and head shops and thrift shops to the river near the Cummer oak, its herculean branches weighed to the ground (the demigod Atlas maintained his strength only while touching the earth) and arrive at the river and wonder if you might be looking across from San Marco.
(I loved the blue-black of the ringlets of your hair, the blue satin of the blouse on your skin, cinnamon just tinted pistachio in the retrograde chlorophyll of memory, your eyes deep oaken corridors recessed to mystery and kind above cheekbone gateways sensuous as sandalwood and camphor, secure as cedar.)
(I won’t apologize, though I seem to have lost my way. Ways are for losing. So say James Joyce, Joseph Mitchell and the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, who drowned when he fell from his boat, drunk and trying to embrace the reflection of the moon.)
Whenever I travel, I first read the poets, the novelists, the psychogeographers of the place. In London, in Dublin, in Edinburgh, I’ve visited their statues. This spring in the snow I walked across Old Town, Stockholm, to Humlegården, outside the National Library of Sweden, to the statue of Hjalmar Söderberg in overcoat, his hat in hand, whose first novel Förvillelser has been translated both as Diversions and Digressions. Translator David Barrett explains in his foreword that the closest English word might be bewilderings, its root meaning both turning and being lost, so that wilder-ness, the state of wilding, becomes native to people today, ironically, in the convolutions and spaces turned within spaces of our cities.
“And in the very centre of the city you can stand for a long minute,” Tomas, the central wanderer of Förvillelser realizes early on, “astonished and alone,” and “look out over the square in wonder, letting your eyes follow the human shadows, silently gliding forth in straight lines through the twilight as if along invisible threads.”
So up in the heights of the highway bridge, the river winds screeching in the April heat, and even as the sun stays hidden in dark gray voluminous depths of clouds yet lays new sunburn on the last sunburn on my face, we’re but the shadows of highway traffic, cutting personal swaths atop the city’s circuits.
We loop over to walk the industrial blue Main Street Bridge, pass a broken bumper sticker for Stereo 90, the classical music station that gave way to the local National Public Radio affiliate back in the 1990s, then – ALL TRAFFIC EXIT 1200 FEET – CLEARANCE 16 FT – and the alarm sounds over the river – distant cousin to the sirens of Greek myth who lured sailors to their deaths with sweet song – and the grated central span rises just as we step beyond it – NO PEDESTRIANS BEYOND GATE – slowly rises as it has for a century, blocks Main Street traffic heading south, heading north, for a sailboat called Barquito II – three stop signs, side by side, before you’d plummet into the river where this new city started 200 years ago in the place of indigenous people from the last 6,000 years.
We pass that rusted old railroad bridge and the corkscrew footbridge winding up beneath the massive Acosta Bridge undergirders, then slope down over McCoys Creek, down to brick-calved joggers and cyclists and feral cats who subsist on fish and rats.
Or, parallel path, we launch up the Acosta Bridge between the Southbank and Brooklyn and rise in battering winds over the hulking Florida East Coast Railway Bridge. When the locomotive clears the river, the pivot point called the trunnion balances against the great counterweight called the bascule, which raises the road to point to the sky to allow boats to cross underneath. In 1925, the bridge, centered on several stories of bridge tenders’ shacks, replaced the bridge built in 1890, when newspapers reported gawkers gathered on wharves to behold the unbelievable sight of the long metal serpent thundering over the waters.
A city’s a city you can walk. Any other city’s a lie. On Friday nights, when my daughters were little, we used to walk the Main Street Bridge, pointing out the city below, spying a dolphin, or perhaps the St. Johns River Monster, talking of flowers and birds and dogs and poems.
Now the morning descends into afternoon and we’ve looped the center of the city, wandering Walt Whitman’s Open Road via the psychogeography of Hjalmar Söderberg, between the old apartments in Riverside and San Marco where we lived when we were first in love and young, imaginative and ambitious, hopeful for the places we might go and the things we might accomplish, the ways we’d grow together, evolving into one another, all the future nothing but promise.