I don’t remember when the panic attacks began, but I remember where.
The first one hit as I ascended the deck of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the twin span across the Delaware River connecting Delaware to southern New Jersey, a bridge I’d driven across hundreds of times over the past twenty years. My mouth began to fill with saliva and my throat felt swollen, on the verge of closing altogether. My tongue seemed to swell and I felt my heart pound as both my hands sprang off the wheel and clasped tightly over my mouth. Somehow, I managed to keep control of the car till it reached the summit of the bridge—and immediately, I felt normal again, not dying at all, just casually driving down the western side of a bridge that moments before had tried to kill me.
These attacks must have happened a dozen times since their onset, though I don’t know why. The Delaware Memorial Bridge. The Commodore Barry Bridge a few miles north. The Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin, both entryways into Philadelphia. Every time I tried to cross them, my body rebelled and I nearly passed out—until, of course I reached the summit and slowly and comfortably descended the other side.
I began using avoidance strategies, sometimes driving miles out of my way to cross lower bridges like the Tacony-Palmyra north of Philly, or even driving as far north as Trenton where I-95 crosses a much narrower stretch of the Delaware on a lower bridge under which no commercial freighters need pass.
Let me stress this: to be unable to cross a bridge is to be forever trapped in New Jersey. And that is a trap no one would wish to be caught in.
Then, years later, during a desperate chain of Google searches, I found an unlikely savior in the sky blue uniform of the Delaware River Bridge Authority. “Acrophobia Escort,” a service provided free of charge to those, like myself, constitutionally incapable of driving themselves over the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
Masculine ego, I assure you, takes a back seat the first time you dial a cell phone and ask someone to send you a hero to save you from driving your own car.
This is how it works. You park in one of the secure areas off to the side just before driving onto the bridge. On the Delaware Side, this is Memorial Park, a wide place on the shoulder with a row of flagpoles commemorating the war dead of Delaware; on the Jersey Side, it’s a place called the “Jersey X,” a central median where two lanes criss-cross, also presided over by flagpoles. You dial a number, select from an automated menu, and finally you get a human voice.
“Yes, um,” I muttered unintelligibly the first time I called, “I need an escort.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“I need an escort,” I blurted out. “An acrophobia escort.”
“Where are you located, sir?”
“I’m on the New Jersey side.”
“In the X?”
“The X—the place with the flagpoles?”
“Uh, yes,” I said, blushing. “I’m by the flagpoles.”
“Make and model of car?”
And then you wait. Eventually, a police car pulls up behind you. You wait for a moment and one of two officers inside leaves his vehicle, approaches yours with a liability release, you sign it, then he climbs into your car, adjusts the seats for his decidedly more masculine frame, and barrels your very own vehicle over the bridge at police velocity.
“I, uh, don’t know what happened,” I told the officer sheepishly that first time. “I’ve driven across this bridge all my life, and then about ten years ago, I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
“You wouldn’t believe how many times we hear that, sir,” the officer said. “It’s a pretty common story. And we drive five, six people across almost every day.”
I was so relieved to hear he didn’t think I was some sort of effete freak, that I began to use that line every time I used the service: “I just don’t know what happened . . . “
One day in mid-summer, feeling rather confident if not proud, I pulled my Subaru into the Jersey X and made my call.
“Okay, sir, as soon as we get two men available we’ll have someone there to assist you.”
“Thank you!” I practically sang, then sat in air-conditioned comfort, jamming to the radio, drumming along on the steering wheel as I waited for my personal chauffeur to arrive.
Before long, I saw a cruiser pull up behind me with only one cop inside. His partner must be driving up separately, I thought.
And then I saw a figure in the back seat: a large man, little more than a shadow sitting behind the driver on the passenger side.
Jesus, I thought. What the hell’s going on—he arrest somebody on the way to drive me across? I strained to look in the rearview mirror, hoping to see another cruiser. And where is his partner?
Then the back door opened, and a giant emerged.
6’4” if he was an inch, 280 pounds or more, the man from the back seat unfolded out of the police car and towered over it. Wearing a white tank top—a wife-beater, my mind insisted—his bald head sweating profusely, he slammed the car’s door and stepped over to my car. I unrolled my window just a crack.
“Well?” he said.
“Well what?” I said weakly.
“Get out the car, man. It ain’t going to drive itself across that bridge.”
As I watched, he pulled on a midnight blue shirt with a patch sewed onto the shoulder—a patch with a picture of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
Uneasily, I climbed out of the car and went around to the passenger’s side. When I got there, I found the door was locked.
He clicked me in and said, “Why you got the doors locked? You think somebody’s going to kidnap you?”
I could feel my face redden as I got in and fastened my seatbelt.
“Who’s going to kidnap you?” said this giant sweating man behind the wheel of my car. “You got a face only a mother could love.”
I looked at him doubtfully as he pulled out into traffic.
“I got to baby you and drive in one of the center lanes or can I keep it here on the outside?”
“Uh, here’s fine.”
He drove for a moment in silence, then he sucked his teeth and said, “You know you could drive across this bridge if you really wanted to. Couple shots of Jack and you be just fine.”
My eyes widened in shock. “You’re not supposed to be telling me that!”
He squinted at me and showed his teeth. “Fuck I look like, a cop? I’m a working man, son.”
Then I guessed what had happened. Dispatch must not have been able to round up two policemen to share the duty of driving me across the bridge. The one they did locate must have grabbed this giant off a job painting or operating a crane—that explained the sweat still gleaming on his head. It might not have been regulation, but at least I was crossing the bridge.
“You look like you from the sixties,” he said. “Why don’t you just fire one up and drive your own ass over this bridge?”
He looked at me. I looked at him. And suddenly we both exploded in laughter.
“You lived in Colorado right now, you’d be going out your way to drive over bridges just to see if you could get Rocky Mountain higher.”
We laughed the rest of the way over the bridge, I telling him how my dad had worked with Bob Marley for a year in the Chrysler assembly plant outside Wilmington, he saying how he was almost sixty and thinking about retiring from the bridge crew and starting his own business driving people back and forth over the Delaware. When he got to the other side, he stopped the car and put it in park. I pulled out a ten and handed it to him.
“The cops won’t take tips,” I said from experience,” but come on, let me give you this.”
“No can do,” he said, lifting his hands in surrender. “Against regulations.”
“Well then let me give you this, then,” I said offering him my hand.
He took it, shook my hand and said, “All right man, you have a good one.” Then he stepped out of my car and was gone.
I was still laughing as I pulled through the toll booth and drove on my bridge-free way. I thought of the big man’s pipe dream of driving people like me across the bridge for a living. People like me, I thought, smiling and shaking my head. They’re in for a hell of a ride.
R.G. Evan’s Overtipping the Ferryman won the 2013 Aldrich Press Poetry Prize. His novella The Noise of Wings was published by Red Dashboard Press in 2015. His poems, fiction and reviews have appeared in Rattle, Margie, Paterson Literary Review, and Weird Tales, among other publications. His original music, including the song “The Crows of Paterson,” was featured in 2012 documentary All That Lies Between Us. Evans teaches English and creative writing at Cumberland Regional High School and Rowan University in Southern New Jersey.