First across the NJ turnpike. Photo via N.J. Turnpike Authority Archives.
Brooklyn-born Omero C. Catan died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the age of 82 on October 19, 1996. Most probably don’t recognize that name. Other than a profile in The New York Times published only a year before his death, there is little about him that has made it into common knowledge. Decades ago, however, he was known by New Yorkers as Mr. First. The name is quite literal. Simply put, in a career that began in 1928, Catan has been the first person present at more than 500 historic opening days across the east coast.
In 1932, he was the first to buy a token on the newly opened Eighth Avenue subway. In 1936, he was the first to skate on the Rockefeller Center ice rink. In 1951, he was the first to use a token on a city parking meter. Four years later in 1955, he was the first to drive across the Tappan Zee Bridge. In 1962, he was the first to cross the lower level of the George Washington Bridge. The list goes on.
It began in 1928, when 13-year old Catan heard of a family friend who had been the first to cross the Brooklyn Bridge when it opened in 1883. Soon after, he journeyed to Lakehurst, NJ, and was the first aboard the tour of the famous airship, Graf Zeppelin. He has been to 536 grand openings since then.
The event that put him on the map, however, was in 1937, when Omero Catan became the first person to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel, back when it had only one opening, one lane going to New York, and one going the other way to New Jersey.
When the Tunnel’s third opening was unveiled in 1945, Catan’s brother, Michael Katen (having changed the spelling of his last name in his teens), was the first to drive through it. Omero had been overseas serving in World War II.
Michael Katen brings up an interesting relationship between the two brothers. Namely, as of Catan’s death in 1996, they hadn’t spoken more than a handful of times in fourteen years, despite only living 20 minutes from each other in Fort Lauterdale, Florida. Catan’s last ‘first’ in 1989 was the drive through the newly opened I-595 highway from Fort Lauterdale-Hollywood International Airport to the Everglades.
Long story short, Catan accuses his brother of attempting to wrest the ‘Mr. First’ title from him, among other things. Competition between the two brothers drove them apart, likely until the the day they died. Omero denied his brother had anything to do with the Mr. First title. Michael, in a report from The Miami New Times, said this: “Even though he’s number one — Mr. First — we’re still tied together. That’s the way it wound up now. We’re one. We’re not two any more. We’re one. That’s just the way it is.”