The Man on the Bridge

This post was originally published in the Asbury Park Press on Jan. 26, 2018   

There’s a small pond on the north side of Allaire Rd. in Wall Township, New Jersey about 50 yards west of New Bedford Road.  On the edge of that pond is a little bridge and on the edge of that bridge is a man. To the locals he’s the “man on the bridge”. I know him as Matt.

Matt’s become somewhat of a celebrity around these parts. His fishing line in the water, a worm  dangling enticingly below the bobber to attract some unsuspecting resident. Mostly bluegills who can’t pass up a good worm or, for that matter, corn, bread, baloney or anything else that can be impaled on a hook. Or sometimes a sharp-toothed pickerel that can’t pass up a good bluegill. But Matt’s not there just for the fishing anymore. His evenings are spent enthusiastically smiling and waving to the people driving by.

It wasn’t always like this. He used to just fish. But you can’t cast from the bridge with cars whizzing by your back. One day, while he paused for the traffic to pass, a driver smiled and waved to him. He returned the smile. He returned the wave. The next car in line thought he was addressing them so they smiled and waved. This scenario repeated itself through a long line of cars. Some on motorcycles; a few on bicycles.

The euphoria he felt from this simple fleeting non-verbal exchange would become an integral part of his life. Pass over that bridge almost any late afternoon and you’ll find the “man on the bridge”. He’ll grin and wave; maybe you won’t reciprocate but I doubt it. When I first saw him, I drove on by. I’m far too jaded and cynical to be bothered. But after a few trips, I relented. Something quite unexpected arose in me: that forced smile on my face didn’t go away. I found myself looking forward to seeing him there whenever I traveled that route. I felt disappointed when he wasn’t at his post.

Now I’m a nosy-Nellie. I needed to know more about him; so I pulled over one day and introduced myself. Not without some degree of reservation. Let’s face it –  a grown-up man standing on a bridge waving to the passer-bys. Could be an idiot savant or a serial killer. Fortunately I’m a grizzled old Jersey guy; I didn’t really care.  What I did find was one of the most well-adjusted men I’ve ever met. We got together for coffee at Wendy’s; then at Whole Foods; and the Allenwood General Store. Now we meet regularly just to trade pasts, commiserate, and laugh at each other.

Matt works for a well-drilling company. It’s a physically grueling job and he’s not a young guy anymore. Because he has a CDL license, he drives one of their big trucks to the job. Once the drilling starts, there are no stops. Other than a quick bag lunch, no coffee break, no time-out for a smoke or cellphone call. Just bone-crunching hours of shoveling sand and grit into a holding pan. Some days so cold, fingers crack before they just go numb. Under summer’s scorch, sweat trickles down into stinging eyes. And always mud; by the end of the day mud so thick he looks like some aboriginal tribesman. All that sticks out is that smile. No complaints, no regrets. It is what it is.

It’s a living. But today a living’s not nearly enough to live on.  So he delivers pizza on weekends. Should be an easy gig, but not so much for Matt. He’s devoted to doing that best job he can no matter what and his time here is micro-managed. Maybe it should take only twenty minutes to drop off a pie somewhere. He’s committed to that timetable but it doesn’t take into account people who first have to take up a  collection to pay him or the people who decide they never ordered it. One time he got an excessively large tip. When he left, he called them up to thank them and to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. That’s the kind of guy he is.

Sitting in a diner with him, I watch as he greets people walking by. Moms with their kids in strollers; salespeople catching an early lunch; construction workers warming up with a cup-a-joe. That infectious smile – some folks recognize him; some folks don’t; but everyone smiles back. Once in a while he’ll entertain me with a few bars from Kenny Rogers “Lady” or Heatwave “Always and Forever”. A  pleasant melodious voice that I encourage to join a church choir. We spin our stories and laugh some more. I see no reason why he can’t be the next Chris Rock.

I’ve come to admire a specialness in this man. He reminds me of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”. A dissolution teenager, he wishes he could catch all the children running naively through a field of rye before they hurdle themselves off the cliff into the abyss of adulthood. Matt fits, unknowingly I’m sure, that role. As you drive over his bridge, past that expanse of teeth and flailing arm, you get to lose yourself. That silly innocent childlike gesture takes your mind off which bills you’ll put off this month; who you might have offended and what you’ll say; when was that dentist appointment. No, you get to take a breath and revert back to that kid on the schoolbus waving to a car at the red light. It lasts only a moment and you’re transported back to reality. That is until the next time you pass the “man on the bridge”.

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