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Over Troubled Waters

Ken Nesmith

The Harvard Bridge, so named because it leads directly into the heart of MIT, which is near Harvard, is a long bridge -- about 364.4 smoots at last measurement. As the New England cold draws closer and closer, Smoot’s height seems to grow with each walk across the bridge. Every ten smoots, so conveniently marked off by the caring pledges at Lambda Chi Alpha, becomes a greater and greater distance as the temperature falls. Nonetheless, the numbers are comforting on the coldest days, when the bite of wind and freezing rain allow us little more than a peek out from our coverings at the ground as we walk.

On more temperate and even pleasant days, the demarcations reassure us that we are indeed getting farther along the bridge should we accidentally lose our thoughts of forward progress, be it on our walk across the bridge or our broader journey through MIT, amidst the sun setting over Cambridge, the lights of Fenway and the Citgo sign playing off the water, or the tall city, dotted with lights and lit by the moon.

Whatever our reason for staring at the ground as we traverse that waterway, there’s plenty of sidewalk literature to keep us company, and a few drawings of sharks and the occasional mouse. Besides the evenly spaced 10-smoot marks, special marks relating to one thing or another abound; there’s a pi smoot, Rebecca’s smoot, and a 69 smoot. At the halfway point, bridge-goers are alerted that they are “Halfway to Hell,” which is probably fairly accurate.

There is a plethora of leftist radical slogans on the bridge. Concerned citizens, at various times, have demanded that walkers “don’t fuck with our food,” -- at which point I promptly stopped fucking with their food -- and have inquired whether we’ve “Got cancer?” This was an original, creative parody of the “Got Milk?” campaign, protesting the use of bovine growth hormone in the cows from where we get our milk. It didn’t take long for some other dutiful citizen to ask “Got a life?” under the initial inquiry. One bridge-writer encourages us to seek peace through anarchy, and another asks us to save the trees. Yet another suggests we value human beings over profits, presenting his thoughts in rebus with a stick figure, the word before, and a dollar sign.

The bridge has taken on patriotic colors in the past few weeks as those who enjoy communicating through sidewalks decided that patriotism deserved its own place on the bridge. The smoot marks are now colored in red, white, and blue, and a few flags dot the cement expanse. Some writings call for war, others for peace. It’s a balanced forum.

In the past month, bridge-writers have churned out a few more notable pieces of work. “Flushes, you own this town,” curiously reads the latest scrawling. Only a few weeks prior, Lambda Chi Alpha, the original writers, had their name besmirched in an expansive writing done in feminine tones that declared their name to be LC Gay instead of LCA. Their newly minted slogan was to be “Carpe Puerem,” Latin for “Seize the boy.” Now that one of the two pillars of juvenile insult has been publicly aired on the bridge, we’re all waiting for the other to follow shortly; surely before too long, this same group that alerted the bridge-crossing world to LCA’s homosexuality can find a way to call someone retarded, thereby completing the twofold cycle of ignorant admonishment plaguing the ranks of the puerile and uneducated everywhere.

Urban legend has it that when the name of the bridge was to be determined, Harvard requested that it bear their name, while MIT examined the plans and, upon finding them riddled with defects, also requested that it bear the name of Harvard. I wonder if, at the outset of bridge construction, planners foresaw the use of the bridge as a forum for childish insults, inane slogans, and various other graffiti, all of which contribute to the unique sidewalk pollution.

I suspect they did not; the sidewalks aren’t quite wide enough to write anything substantive or worthwhile, but what does fit does a fine job of making the long walk entertaining, if repetitively so, when we tire of looking out at the tremendous world around us and decide to put our heads down towards the ground for a while. We count with brutal precision our steps towards our goal: 30 smoots, 40, all the way to 364. In class, it’s semester-long steps of 8.01, 6 whatever, and 18.0x, all the way until we’re counting down the last few HASSes we have to take.

We can almost always make it across the bridge, even on the worst days of winter. And we can almost always get through MIT, even in the worst days of this nine-month academic season. Let’s try to take a glance at something other than the numbers under our feet once in a while. After all, what’s at the end isn’t that cool anyway.