Saturday, April 17, 2004

O harp and altar, of the fury fused

Boston has a lovely new bridge, the Zakim bridge, that rises like a big white harp from the industrial lowlands around the harbor. Its gleaming white cables stream from two wishbone-shaped arches at either end whose capping towers echo the obelisk of the Bunker Hill Monument, visible in Charlestown just to the east. Leonard Zakim, the much beloved former director of the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, died of cancer in 1999, quite young, after a life dedicated to "building bridges" between communities and fighting for the civil rights of minorities. To commemorate this brilliant local activist, the new cable-stayed span was to be called "The Leonard P. Zakim Freedom Bridge."

In fact, the bridge's full name became the Leonard P. Zakim - Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, an unwieldly mouthful cobbled together after some Charlestown residents objected to naming the bridge for Zakim. "What," some asked, "do Jews have to do with the Battle of Bunker Hill ?" (A question that historians quickly answered.)

Nonetheless, the community indignation was signal for Governor Cellucci -- known more for being prickly, irritable and defensive than courageous or visionary -- to expand the original dedication to include homage to the waspy obelisk. It was an ugly little moment, imbued with a whiff of anti-semitism. Angry, ignoring Zakim's peacemaker spirit, I took to calling it "The Leonard P. Zakim - Adolph Hitler Memorial Bridge."

I'm pleased to report that, today, it's mostly called the Zakim bridge.

Which brings me to the question of the bridge's gender.

My husband, the sharp-witted and ever-patient DK, thinks I am too prone to give a Freudian reading to objects, landscapes and architectures. He's probably correct. "What does that remind you of," he'll snicker, as we drive through a tunnel or buy bananas.

The obelisk is, of course, the bull goose looney of phallic symbols. And the Zakim bridge boasts two of them, one at each end. One would think that to be a case-resting, QED-ing, argument-ending talking point. But approach Boston at night, I challenge you, from the south, and emerge from the Bigly Dug underground highway: I defy you to tell me that what faces you is simply a boy.

The beautiful archway, the thick-strung cables, the pulsating red aviation light at the top, the inwardly vectoring road -- how could it not bring to mind the silent film-within-a-film in Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Me, in which a miniscule man, "The Shrinking Lover," traverses the undulant landscape of his paramour's sleeping body and, finally, walks in ? It is a similar vulvoid archway through which I pass, shivering with delight, onto the brilliant, harp-strung expanse of Lenny's beautiful bridge. Not, as I said, simply a boy. But not just a girl, either.

The Zakim bridge invites us to re-examine the antiquated, repressive notions of gender and sexuality that are fueling the current efforts -- gubernatorially spearheaded, or, in keeping with stereotype, obelisked -- to undo the supreme court's recent clear and correct expansion of marriage rights to include all citizens.

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