Ever since that summer day in 1973 when my parents’ station wagon broke down on the

Goethals Bridge between Elizabeth, NJ and Staten Island, NY, (with all 9 of us kids

aboard having to exit the car as we waited nervously for that tow truck hero to rescue us,

while fully-loaded, rumbling tractor trailers and loud billowing diesels powered past

children only inches away on the narrow 4 lane highway bridge, tiny helpless faces

peering curiously and dangerously over the thigh-high catwalk railing hundreds of feet

above the marsh below us) I’ve had an incredible fear of heights and bridges.

Jeez, I can’t imagine why.


This intense phobia did not surface right then and there…

However, it was the catalyst for what would follow. 


My next direct encounter with a bridge of any significant magnitude occurred maybe

3 or 4 years later while on a family outing in Manhattan. The fates had led us toward the

far side of the city where the East River faces Brooklyn. Mom and several of my siblings

decided we should walk across the Brooklyn Bridge… I guess just to say that we DID it.


That seemed like a good enough idea to me at the time, at least until we actually got up

there onto the friggin’ wooden walkway that suspends archaically above the clanking and

impatient automobile traffic on the lower deck.


As the others strode adventurously up the incline leading to the iconic first tower, I found

myself gripping the hundred year old handrail in petrified panic while waves of water

could be seen lapping below us through the gaping spaces between the aging boards

under foot.  I thought, “SHIT, if I could only make it to that first tower to read what it

says on that plaque…” Every step I took forward seemed to make the enormous Gothic

masonry arches appear further and further away. Maybe this is what they call tunnel-vision.


Finally, an eternity later my mother happened to look back at her lifeless, white-as-a-ghost

son who was now trailing miles behind the pack. A few words were spoken and my ringing

ears were relieved as she abruptly put an end to my Brooklyn Bridge nightmare by giving

me permission to turn back…  In my life, I don’t think I ever ran as fast as I did that day to

get the hell off that shaking, rickety bridge and back to the firm safety, comfort and stillness

of our beloved mother earth. Even if it was in the form of the cool, hard slate and concrete

sidewalks of New York City, amen. There are some places humans are not supposed to

walk… the sky is one of them.


Growing up in a port city and eastern coastal state meant that everywhere we went, there

were colossal bridges to encounter. We were surrounded by the Arthur Kill, major rivers and

waterways. It didn’t help my anxiety much when I landed a sweet job as a driver for Eastern

Bearing Company and learned I had to occasionally make deliveries and pickups on Staten

Island. That’s where I would discover and face the greatest nemesis I had known to date…

the leviathan known as The Outerbridge Crossing. It even sounds like something from the

Twilight Zone.


I would literally drive miles out of my way to find alternate routes to avoid using the major

bridges. Getting in and out of Staten Island by car or van without crossing a major bridge is

impossible, unless you ventured into Manhattan by tunnel and drove across town to the

Battery Park Terminal to use the Staten Island Ferry. What a goddamn nightmare.


When I arrived in Los Angeles in ’86, it would seemingly mark an end to a long and painful

relationship with skyways, viaducts, suspension, and cantilever bridges.


As I began having some measures of success with each band I played with, touring

and travel would bring us to places where bridges were inevitable, and crossing

them would become an issue among me and my band mates. It’s good policy for

band mates to take turns at the wheel on the long drives between shows. Anytime

my turn would come up, I’d vigilantly scour my trusty Rand McNally Road Atlas for

any spans before getting behind the wheel of the motorhome or touring van,

especially in areas unfamiliar to me. I’ve been known to hastily pull over upon

encountering a frightful, looming bridge, and with sweaty, debilitating panic

attack in throat, chest and arms, (not to mention cowering in dire humiliation),

have to plead with someone else to drive us across. Needless to say, relying solely

on the ever unpredictable GPS further intensifies the feelings of anxiety.


Determined to conquer my fear once and for all, it crossed my mind that perhaps I could 

de-mystify the whole thing by studying bridge building and learning about the physics,

principles and techniques involved, the science of engineering and the numerous types of

structures and their histories. Though it ultimately did nothing to quell my fears, I’d soon 

become completely obsessed with and fascinated by these fantastic, gigantic erections and

hence realized my love for them and just how much I am in awe of their might. (Okay,

insert penis joke here, go ahead, I can wait... Meanwhile, here’s mine:

“That’s What SHE Said”).


As I educated myself further, the fear I’d experienced for years was justified as I learned

about the many, many lives that were and still are lost creating and maintaining the

world’s greatest and most notable bridges. I read about how during the Great Depression

era many civic projects were underway, and regular men, unskilled workers, some having

families to support, would gratefully sign up for a day’s wage and get up there with a flask

of whiskey in their coat pocket to comfort their nerves, risking it all for a dollar while

working with no real safety equipment or regulations. Project leaders used to measure the

mortality rate and cost of completion together- One life per million dollars. Were these

lives expendable?


As an artist and painter, I felt an empathy for and a kinship to the obscure bridgemen,

especially the painters, the ones who get up there on the end of a rope in a bosun’s chair

with paintbrush in hand, dangling in the wind performing the ceaseless job of painting

their bridge. What a thankless fucking job. (Can you name ONE person who worked on

ANY bridge? Help me out here.)


Inspired by these “Joe-unknowns,” these invisible heroes, these nameless and faceless

magicians that people have no clue about nor ever gave a single thought to or wonder

about as they mindlessly and ungratefully drive across their hand-built master pieces, I

set out to pay homage in a series of works focusing on one of MY favorite suspension

bridges, the Golden Gate Bridge.


My “BRIDGEMEN” project received the support of GGB Company itself, and soon I was

painting with the actual “International Orange” paint, a hue that is specially mixed for and

used absolutely nowhere else in the world… except on the Golden Gate Bridge! My requests

for tired old brushes and bridge materials were accommodated and soon I was the recipient

of steel suspension cables, hard hats, wire brushes, goggles, and other fun stuff including

what has become one of my greatest treasures in this world, a handful of used, badly worn

original rivets which were taken out of the bridge during a safety upgrade.


The significance and power that these rivets hold is intensely meaningful to me. Handled by

the now deceased and forgotten men who originally drove them into one of the world’s great

wonders BY HAND, they represent the drive and determination to overcome adversity and

obstacles under extreme conditions to accomplish a common goal. 


Each rivet is quite magical and talisman-like. They help connect the dots for me in a personal

way between what it is to be an artist following his vision, no matter how lofty, regardless of

fame, fortune, or accolade, and balancing that with being of service to the world in some tiny

way... perhaps one rivet at a time.




ARTWORK by Joe Normal:

Bridge Painters in action:

Bridges mentioned in this article:


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