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"There have been times where people walked directly underneath me, but never saw me," he said. "People don't look up." He said that once he climbed the side of a building in Oakland, and braced himself on the ledge over a doorway in order to get to the roof. As soon as he got on the ledge, someone walked out of the building, got into a car, and sat there for ten minutes. Levin was stuck standing on a tiny crossbar just wide enough to shield the doorway from rain. Finally, the guard left.
"When you're standing in the cold, ten minutes can seem like forever," he said. "It gets worse when your equipment is out, knowing I might have to leave it behind. I'd probably take the memory card and ditch the camera. A few thousand dollars' worth of equipment aren't worth the price of freedom."
Besides the risk of getting caught, there's also the danger of falling. Climbing the stairs of a ten-story bridge tower doesn't quite compare to that of a narrow ledge or a fifteen-story crane, but it's still a dicey situation. The steps follow a steep zigzag, and a gap between the stairs and the railing is big enough for an adult to slip through. And there's always the chance of a guard waking up and checking his security monitor. Not to mention that November nights are cripplingly cold on the waterfront.
Levin returned to the bridge on Saturday, which might have been the coldest night of the year to date. By 2 a.m., temperatures had dipped below forty degrees, and an arctic wind rustled the trees below. Levin wore gloves and a light windbreaker that crinkled when he walked. He climbed swiftly. He appeared to be sweating.
There's a large gap between the top of the stairs and the upper deck. Levin straddled it easily, grabbing on to a big locking pin. (It appeared to be part of the mechanism for raising and lowering the bridge.) The upper deck ran about a hundred yards long, made of steel bars and railroad ties with five or six inches between them. Levin pulled out his tripod and set it up at the east end. Then he crept to the other side, careful not to jam either foot in the gaps between the railroad ties, and wind up with a 127 Hours-type scenario.
"People drive across this bridge every day," he'd say later. "But they never go a hundred feet up and look down."
It was, indeed, a mesmerizing view, if you could overcome the fear of falling. Oracle Arena stood in the distance, its neon sign twinkling over the water. Taxis drove by intermittently, but mostly, the night was quiet enough to make the squeak of the recycling plant seem overbearing. Looking east, cars glided like hovercrafts across a seductive curve of the 880 freeway. Levin moved his tripod to photograph houses by the water. He saw a man and woman go underneath the dock, the woman ditching her bicycle on the shore. At one point, a little blond speck trotted across the lower deck of the bridge.
"Oh," Levin said. "That must be a dog."
He took 54 pictures in all, then snapped up his tripod and stuffed it in a backpack. He climbed back over the gap, gripped the locking pin, and righted himself on the stairwell. He began running down the steps, sweat bubbling from his forehead. "Go, go, go!" he said. "At this point, it's all risk."
But there was no need for fear. At the bottom of the bridge, the guard was still sleeping, TV screen flickering in the background. Cameras, signs, tower, Venetian blinds, and Ford Bronco all remained in their proper place. Levin walked briskly to his car, wiping his brow and breathing heavily. He didn't pause until he was standing across from the recycling plant.
"I'm coming back for that one," he said.