I Am So Not A Throggmorton
by Elizabeth Powell
A bridge is an emblematic thing. And I am no longer scared of traversing bodies of water based on my trust of men fifty or 100 years ago hence to construct a magic carpet over the likes of Throggs Neck, the Hudson or wherever I find myself wanting and needing to get to the other side. A journey has two sides, supported by a long middle span that makes narratives come and go.
Maybe you have met the Throgg’s Neck Bridge? Throggs Neck sounds like a menacing place. All I knew then as a child as I do now more concretely is I would never want to be throgged. The urban dictionary says to be throgged is to be strung along sexually. I always thought being throgged, whatever it was, would hurt quite a lot
Throggs Neck is a really a peninsula where the East River empties into the Long Island Sound. Once it had been the home of Reverend John Throggmorton, my mother said to us in the back seat, giving us a history lesson. “Don’t be such a Throggmorton,” my sister whispered in my small six year old ear.
We were crossing from Queens to the Bronx on the said Throggs Neck Bridge on our way back home as from Long Island. Just get me to Manhattan, thank you very much. Sassy mouthed me in the back of the country squire. Do we have to cross this?
“How else do we chicken’s get to the other side—“ mother would cajole. I wished for a 1,000 different ways. I was afraid of bridges before my father told me this bridge was only four years older than me. Or when my Park Avenue Freudian Analyst Jewish uncle asked me as we rode over the old elevated West Side Highway if I trusted such an old rickety thing. This was long before New York was gentrified for those who care not a thing about heights.
There were entirely too many bridges in Long Island. Long Island: the place of our family dead in their faraway plots in Mount Ararat cemetery. Long Island the place of riptides and water slides, ferry rides to Fire Island where I always got lost with the red wagon or taken by the undertow—the weight of my snotty private school cousins so much smarter than me. Always my gentile mother on any ocean we found ourselves on escaping on a small sailboat while all her children under seven cried thinking she’s set sail for the Mount Ararat cemetery she couldn’t be buried in. I suppose she could have shown us how to navigate the waters of the Atlantic, to dispel our fears, but then her lonesome isolation she loved would have been forever destroyed by her needy children. My mother was fond of saying that drowning would be a superior way to die. This startled me, every time she said it, which was more than once. Such an indelicate discussion topic for me at six or twenty or thirty-nine.
‘The British Navy—that’s what our people are built of,” all her uncles had gone off to England to be Naval officers before the US even got into World War II. One of them stayed after the war, and though he was a lawyer, moved to Spain to build yachts for other ugly Americans like himself and spent his free time with Ernest Hemingway drinking when he was around. When he finally decided to move home to Boston he and his crew set sail, only to wind up in a terrible storm at sea where the crew mutinied against him and he perished in the Atlantic—drowning that best death my mother could imagine.
They now say memory is inherited in our DNA, so of course I’d prefer ferries to bridges.
“No ferries here,” Dad said from the helm of the car.
“Over the Throgg’s Neck or the Whitestone is the only way, and we are on the Throgg’s Neck, which lost one of its G’s when Robert Moses shortened the name so it would fit on highway signs. You want to stay in Long Island forever?”
“No,” we’d all scream, my little sister and brother and myself. No offense to anyone from Long Island.
Besides the dead, clients lived on Long Island. My father’s business associates who he had to please and we had to endure and be cute for so as my father could get contracts signed for my Jewish mafia grandfather, head of their office furniture business.
No one else was scared of the bridge except me. I slid off the sticky seat and sat on the floor so I couldn’t see out the window, with my brother’s blankie –the one he was yelling for—over my head- windows closed. All I knew was the windows could not be open under any circumstances or somehow I would disappear and fly out into the wind and off the bridge into the sound.
“Honestly Lizzy!” my mother would say, upset for my father allowing me to sit on the floor like a baby when I was already six.
“Look, it is absolutely gorgeous! You don’t know what you’re missing!” Certain Death, I thought, that was what I was missing.
“You might think drowning is the best death, but I don’t” I stoked up the courage to say, only making my sister start crying.
“Now look what you’ve done! Let’s talk some sense here. Did you children know that George Washington called it Frogg’s Neck” my mother said continuing on with our New York history lesson all the while knowing she’d get a laugh from my brother, whom we called Freddy the Frog after a cartoon character we liked. I preferred what my father called the wild blue yonder traversing the sky in a plane, so much safer than a country squire ford and Robert Moses’s one g bridge.
It was the year I had almost drowned twice and my brother once. I had just turned six and I was swimming in a rushing creek and got pulled away. Usually at the moment where I thought I could swim no more Mother would spot me and scream “Lizzy paddle harder and I’d miraculously make it to shore. This was how I became a strong swimmer at such a young age, which Mother pointed out would help me if I ever found myself overboard a bridge. I’m sure this was meant to be reassuring.
The other near recent drowning was when my brother four years old fell in the pool and all the grown ups and clients had gone to freshen up their Gibson martinis and I rescued him, somehow and improbably.
“Isn’t Lizzy such a good little swimmer,” Mother would gleen to the other grown ups.
“Too bad she’s deathly afraid of bridges!” she’d laugh. I wanted her to understand, but even at that tender age I knew it was never going to happen.
As the Throggs Neck bridge expanded to the center I could feel myself getting lightheaded.
“You’re just lightheaded ’cause it is all in your head,” Mother said.
“Let’s everyone sing!” she said.
I could see we were very high up where the span was so high so that ocean going vessels like the one my great uncle might have built headed out to sea.
And so it went, “89 bottles of beer on the wall take one down pass it around 88 bottles of beer on the wall.”
It was then I started to look forward to getting to the other side, where someday I’d take a bottle down and not pass it around, but instead drink it far from this menacing bridge, and this place that demarcates the passage between the East River Estuary and the Long Island Sound, where once people like John Throggmorrton escaped the Puritans and their religious persecution, just as someday I would escape this Robert Moses playground for a nirvana far inland from the sea and fly like the bird named Throgg that is now extinct and never has to worry about anything anymore, especially drowning.
Elizabeth Powell is the author of The Republic of Self, a New Issue First Book Prize winner, selected by C.K. Williams. Her second book of poems, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances won the 2015 Anhinga Robert Dana Prize, selected by Maureen Seaton.