A Walk on the Lonely Side


“It’s a nice little slog to get up there,” Richard Melnick said. “Just like why people climb mountains.”

With that, he went up the concrete stairs, leading the way to something most New Yorkers think of as a horizontal landmark, not a vertical one: the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. Of course, that was not the name on his lips — aficionados like Mr. Melnick still call it the Triborough Bridge. More about that later.

Yes, you can walk the R.F.K., one of the legacies of Robert Moses, who gave New York a labyrinth of bridges and parkways. Monday was the 75th anniversary of the day the first car paid the first toll, collected after a ceremony that was attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a motorcade that featured 14 cars and 35 police motorcycles.

Some accounts said that the first ordinary person who actually made it to the tollbooths was a boy on a bicycle. Nowadays, signs are posted saying bike riders are prohibited, and advising: “Walk bicycles across bridge.”

made his way across. All were pedaling, or braking, hard. The Queens stretch of the bridge that he covered on foot includes a quarter-mile or so that he said was “one of the toughest inclines anywhere.”

Mr. Melnick is, among other things, a licensed tour guide. He is also on the board of the Greater Astoria Historical Society and he was trailed by organization’s executive director, Robert S. Singleton (“ ‘Bob’ on this side of the East River,” he said). Mr. Singleton was busy over the weekend helping to open a photography exhibit at the society’s Quinn Gallery on Broadway in Long Island City — he said he had walked the Triborough only once before, in the 1980s.

Mr. Melnick said he had walked the bridge “maybe 50 or 60 times, and I’m still enthralled by it; the view is that great.”

Others have been similarly mesmerized over the years — the architect Lewis Mumford said the bridge had “one of the most dazzling urban views in the world.” But somehow the Triborough never acquired a personality. New Yorkers are charmed by the Brooklyn Bridge or intrigued by the Verrazano-Narrows. But for generations, the Triborough has been little more than the first leg in a getaway, to the airport or to Long Island.

“I had friends come in from Wisconsin,” Mr. Melnick said. “They wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I said, ‘That’s too touristy.’ ”

Walking across the R.F.K. is not as easy as walking across those other bridges. “It just doesn’t lend itself to walking,” Mr. Singleton said. Walking from Queens to, say, Manhattan means leaving one bridge where the walkway ends on Wards Island and finding the way to another walkway — and another span — leading to Manhattan.

Mr. Melnick said that means the R.F.K. is less than popular with walkers and pedal-pushers. “I ride my bicycle to and from work — I’m a night doorman in the city,” he said. “I passed 88 people on the Queensboro Bridge” one morning last week. “Friday morning, I went from Manhattan to Randalls Island. Then I took the main span to Astoria. I saw one person the whole time.”

The walkway puts pedestrians close to traffic and, Mr. Melnick said, danger. There is a shoulder-high barrier, a concrete wall. “Once, when I was a better runner, I was up here and I heard ‘tink, tink, tink,’ ” he said. “There was a bouncing hubcap rolling along the wall to my left. It was going 60 miles an hour.”

Monday’s walk took a little less than two hours. Forty-seven minutes into it, somewhere between the two giant towers of the suspension span from Queens, the matter of the name came up. In 2008, Gov. David A. Paterson renamed what had been the Triborough Bridge in honor of Robert F. Kennedy, who was a United States Senator from New York from 1965 until his assassination in 1968.

Mr. Melnick was diplomatic. “We’re not all in agreement with the renaming,” he said.

Then he described a brush with greatness. It happened a few months after the Triborough became the R.F.K., when he went to a Jets-49ers game on the West Coast.

In the airport in California, he saw Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and introduced himself.

“I did not have the guts to object,” he said. “I chickened out. He could have yelled out ‘Security,’ and I’m tackled in an airport and my personal friends would have seen me arrested.”

“But I do have it on my personal list: I shook his hand.”