queensborough_bridge_wide

Queensboro Bridge, 2001

After one strange year in Bensonhurst, I have relocated to Greenpoint, along with a roommate. Our new place is an ancient railroad with bad wiring and brittle drop ceilings and no ventilation to speak of. But it is closer to where things are happening, which is enough at my current age.

The new apartment has a little area that could serve as a living room, provided we had a couch, which we do not. Neither of us are in a position to drop big bucks on furniture, but we fall ass-backwards into a couch when my roommate’s uncle informs us he bought one he doesn’t like or can’t use; he apparently dislikes the couch so much, he can’t decide exactly why he doesn’t want it. If we want to come get the couch, it’s ours. I can’t conceive of someone who’d just give away a couch, but if that’s what this man wants to do, who am I to stop him?

We rent a U-Haul, and realize when we pick the truck up that we’ve acquired way more truck than we need. It’s not a van, but a real truck, with a lift gate in the back and an overhang that extends across the cab, and a clearance height notice printed backwards so you can see it in your rearview.

I’ve driven a U-Haul in the city before. The first time came when I relocated post-college. That mission went off without a hitch, apart from the moment when I had to stop short on the Verrazano Bridge and heard all my earthly possessions shift, fall, and crash behind me. I also U-Hauled all of our stuff from one end of Brooklyn to the other when we moved to Greenpoint. That too went well, except for when I went to gas up the truck just before returning it and backed it into some dude’s van. Also on my driving résumé: negotiating band vans through city streets (high school–present), owner of an angry little Passat with manual transmission (1999–present). Therefore, I outrank my roommate in city driving experience. It falls to me to get this truck to his uncle’s apartment in Manhattan and back again.

The key to driving a truck in the city is to remember that you are bigger than pretty much everything else and you should act accordingly. Being timid and safe, pulling half out into traffic or stopping to allow a little sedan to move past you, that’s how pile ups happen.

I pilot the truck from Brooklyn to the uncle’s apartment building with no issue. He lives in a huge towering thing on the same block as the Queensboro Bridge, with a spectacular view. It is a spectacular view of the East River and Long Island City, granted, but it is a view nonetheless. Climb high enough and anything on the horizon looks special.

The couch is off-white, with a material somewhere between burlap and corduroy. More importantly, it is a couch and it is ours once we get the thing back to Greenpoint, which seems a mere formality to our naive selves.

The first roadblock: the building’s freight elevator doesn’t go to the lobby, due to some union regulation or condo association dictate. “Sorry, forgot about that,” the uncle sighs, and sends us on our way.

To escape this building with the couch, we must descend to the basement and squeeze it through the boiler room and dingy underground corridors. As my roommate and I bang our elbows against exposed pipes and scrape the couch’s back across tight, dust-caked doorways, the building’s doorman lumbers in front of us, waving his hand, lowing, “Easy, easy…” at periodic intervals to make himself feel like he’s helping.

We haul the couch up a narrow set of stairs and into the back of the U-Haul. The sight of the couch on the truck makes me laugh. We could fit five more couches in here, easily. Since we have nothing to secure it with, we try to wedge the couch’s feet into the little crevices in the truck bed, but the feet are slightly too big. So we shove the couch toward the front, behind the cab, and hope for the best.

Across the street from the building is an entrance to the lower level of the Queensboro Bridge, one I’ve never seen before, almost hidden under the grander rise of the upper level as it takes off from 59th Street. It occurs to me, for a nanosecond, that this might prove a tight fit for the truck. But then I think about fighting my way through traffic to get to the upper level.

So mystery ramp it is. It leads to a claustrophobic ledge on the bridge’s outer extremities, one that barely seems to be attached to the rest of the structure. The “road” is made of slats of corrugated metal, the kind you’d see on a fire escape staircase. For a moment, I wonder if this is even a real lane, but a few cars ahead of me confirm that it is. Unless they’re breaking the law, too. In which case, all us criminals are in the same boat.

I’m 50 feet up the ramp before I notice an enormous yellow DOT sign warning CLEARANCE 10’6″. I glance at that backward notice in the rearview: 11′. Six inches too many. There are several cars behind me. Backing up is not an option. I must keep going, toward certain doom.

My roommate, who catches on to our predicament at virtually the same time as I do, can only let out a prolonged “Fuuuuuuuuuck…” The couch rattles around behind us, several feet to spare between it and the roof of the truck, just in case the sheer futility of this exercise wasn’t impressed on us already.

Furious, filth-encrusted iron girders loom ahead. I think about the billion traffic reports I’ve heard in my life, and all the times I’d hear about some truck that got itself wedged under a overpass and thought to myself, “What a dumbass.” I am now destined to be a notice on one of those traffic reports, to be one of those dumbasses.

Panic-logic tells me, Maybe if I go fast enough, these things will simply graze the roof instead of sardine-can it. This thought is never clearly articulated, only felt, as I stomp on the gas.

The truck takes a while speed up, as would any U-Haul with harsh mileage driving up an incline. Eventually, I get the thing up to a solid 50 mph. In a U-Haul driving on a tiny outside lane of the Queensboro Bridge, the East River several light years below you and the Roosevelt Island tram clanging nearby, and a phalanx of low girders advancing on your head, 50 mph might as well be Mach 3. I break into the flood of adrenaline-tinged sweat known to few outside of fighter pilots. I feel like Chuck Yeager.

I take my foot off the gas just as we hit the girders, bracing myself to fly through the windshield. Nothing. Not  even a scrape against the roof. Clearly, my technique helped us avoid death and destruction. So I step on the gas even more, daring to keep my foot to the pedal as we skirt through the next set of girders, unscathed again. The bridge begins its descent toward the other shore.

I’m reminded that there are traffic lights and other cars on the other side at Queens Plaza. I’m reminded of this by the series of brake lights headed toward me, backed up on the off ramp. I slam on the brakes. The truck skids across the metal lattice roadway but doesn’t seem to slow down. I remember what my uncle, a former tow truck driver, told me about these outer roadways: No traction. Tires slip and slide like crazy. It’s like a pinball machine out there.

The truck screeches to a full stop an inch or two behind an oblivious Accord. Our cargo ricochets against the back of the cab. I can hear its feet scraping the floor as momentum slides it backwards. All my nerve endings crackle with a primal energy, as if I just fist-fought a bear.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” my roommate howls.

This is not a question I can answer.

This, I assume, is the end of our struggle. But when we arrive back at our apartment, we discover the couch will not fit through the front door of our apartment. One attempt to shove it through anyway leaves a jagged gash in the surface of the door, which we discover is made of balsa wood and Bondo. Someone who wants to bust down the entrance to our new apartment would have a harder time punching his way through a wall of saltines.

To overcome this latest obstacle, we jockey the couch down a rickety staircase, carry it across the paint-can littered basement, up through a storm door, and out into the weed-covered backyard. From there, we shove the couch through the enormous window in our kitchen. It is finally inside.

This proves a Pyrrhic victory. The couch, brand new when we picked it up an hour ago, is now stained with soot and rubbed thin at the joints. One foot is wobbly, an injury it probably suffered when I stopped short on the bridge. Efforts to tighten it prove fruitless. Neither me nor my roommate remembers stepping on it, but there’s a clear shoeprint on the couch’s back. Thanks to our backyard trip, there’s dead leaves all over the cushions. If we’d tied the thing to the rear bumper of the U-Haul and dragged it home, it couldn’t look any worse.

All we wanted was a couch to chill and watch TV on, but the couch became so crappy so quickly that it is destined for a different purpose: landing pad for visitors with the dire need to crash. Not “I’m in town for the weekend” crashing. I mean “I need a place to stay while I figure shit out” crashing.

But something happened to that couch. The trying journey it had endured bestowed upon it some kind of spiritual understanding, one that it shared with anyone who crashed on it. You may wonder how a couch could possibly have spiritual life. I wonder, too. All I know is those who found themselves having to use that couch found their bottom, and that their lives rebounded once they it behind.

Some did much more than rebound. I can think of at least a half dozen such folks who crashed on that couch, then went on to great success in their chosen fields: music, criticism, cuisine, business…

Ten-plus years after that nearly disastrous trip on the Queensboro Bridge, I’m in the West 4th Street station, on my way to work. I’m caught by a new ad hanging in the tunnels leading up to the exits. This ad prominently features a Fomer Couch Crasher and his appearance at an upcoming Event Of Renown. I’d known he was doing well, but a subway ad is something else. It says you’re not just doing well. You are Official.

And I was glad for this man, remembering his Couch Time. But it made me wonder why the couch chose to only bestow its blessings on visitors, not on its actual owners. I carried the couch to its new life, after all. Maybe the couch, for all its enlightenment, resented me for putting it through hell. Maybe all the blessings I would receive I’d already received when I was able to transport the couch home without destroying a truck or myself.

Or maybe life is just like that. Some of us are the crashers. Some of us are the slobs who haul the crashers’ bed through basements and over bridges, defying physics as they do, so the crashers may have their time to dream.