Longform

When you think of a new bridge opening, or a subway debut, or a highway inauguration, you think of Omero Catan. Or is it Michael Katen? For these two brothers, it's no joke. For them it's

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It was such a notable achievement that Omero was reluctant to miss the opening of the second, northern tube of the tunnel in 1945. He didn't have much choice, though, because he was serving in World War II as a clerk in Thomas H. England General Hospital. (He claims to have been the first pre-Pearl Harbor father to be drafted.) Desperate to maintain his reputation, Omero sent V-mail to Port Authority officials asking if they would find a proxy for him, someone to be at the opening in his stead. He put in a special request for his brother Michael. "Maybe the worst mistake I ever made," he growls today.

The Lincoln Tunnel opening was the first time Michael had entered the picture. Omero's older brother claims to have loaned cars to Omero and to have accompanied him to a number of openings. He even told The New Yorker he was the first person to travel the Merritt Parkway in 1938, though Omero was the one actually driving the car. No, Michael first made headlines as Omero's Lincoln Tunnel proxy.

For four days, Michael, a jukebox repairman and former mechanic for Trans World Airlines, camped outside the 40th Street entrance to the tunnel's north tube, shivering in the wicked January weather. He wrapped himself in fourteen blankets and ate ice cold spaghetti with meat sauce out of a Thermos. Dozens of reporters interviewed him, lapping up the story like good news during a war. In every newspaper photo, Michael smiled broadly and pointed to his sign, which read, "Mr. First By Proxy." In every interview, he gave credit to his brother. "Omero asked me to do it for him," he said at the time. "I'm just doing him a favor, that's all."

When a whistle blew at 11:00 a.m. on February 1, 1945, Michael, accompanied by reporters from the Times and the Associated Press, led a procession of cars through the 7500-foot-long tunnel. "Well, Omero, I made it for you," Michael reportedly said while riding under the Hudson River. He hummed snatches of "The Old Rugged Cross on the Hill," a hymn of thanksgiving after so many chilly days.

Before long the story faded, as all news does, and Michael slipped back into obscurity. Later Omero was discharged from the Army and returned to his hobby with gusto. After all, there were still hundreds of public works to inaugurate. Admittedly, some were more exciting than others. While Omero was the first to drive the New Jersey Turnpike in 1951 and first across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952, he also has the dubious distinction of being the first person to drop a quarter in a Hackensack parking meter in 1955. And in Secaucus on July 1, 1963, his car received the first New Jersey automotive inspection.

By May 26, 1967, when Omero was the first to drive across Teaneck, New Jersey's new Grayson Place Bridge, he had "MR 1 1" license plates on his car, 525 firsts to his credit, and ribbon and scissors in the glove box just in case any civic official forgot.

He quit the concession trade in 1976, and settled permanently into retirement and his Fort Lauderdale trailer home. A "Mr. First" wrought-iron sign now hangs over the carport, and "MRFIRST" vanity license plates adorn the front and back of his aging blue Cadillac. Until his wife's illness, the couple traveled extensively, visiting Europe, Africa, and their daughter in Hawaii. A rock and shark-tooth collection from their travels is stored in Tupperware containers in the trailer's small, wood-paneled office.

The space is crammed with mementos from one or another of his hobbies: framed pictures of Omero crossing some bridge or tunnel occupy every square inch of wall space; 60 dusty shuffleboard trophies litter the floor. A large, odd-looking slab of linoleum leaning against his desk is part of a three-dice gambling game. He, his wife, and another man received patent number 4334685 for the game in 1982. Like the professional shuffleboard league Omero founded, the dice game didn't catch on. "If the Indians over here at Seminole Bingo would get their hands on this, they'd make millions," he says of the complicated game. "Nobody got it."

He doesn't like to talk about the Mr. First business, mostly because of the attention his brother has been receiving lately. Sitting at a small wooden table with an inlaid checkerboard (from the days when he was a champion player), Omero sighs deeply and laments his brother's encroachment on his title. "I don't want you to get misled about my brother and about Mr. First," he says. "There's only one Mr. First and that's me. It's not my brother or anybody else. I would take a dim view if you were misled."

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