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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Wages of Water by Steve Mentz

OBJECT: Little Red Lighthouse Swimmers

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River

 

This fragment has two parts. The first splashes through the Hudson River one early morning this past September. The second will take place next week, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, inside the canal of my left ear.

 

1.     Flotsam

 

At 4:04 am at the Battery on Saturday September 26th, the tide turned. An instant of stillness – though nothing remains still in the water -- and then the flood came, and the vast Atlantic started rolling up the Hudson. By high tide at 10:09 am, the water level at the Battery was 5.7 feet higher than it had been six hours before.

But by that time I was upriver, flotsam in the current, swimming north.

I jumped into the water at the 79th St. Boat Basin just before 8 am. I swam north for five miles, aiming for the Manhattan stanchion of the George Washington Bridge and the Little Red Lighthouse in its shadow. Passing under the span, I reached land near the northern tip of the island at the Dyckman Street Marina. I finished in 2:14:10. The winning time was 1:38.

Long distance swims are solitary events, spent mostly with your face underwater. I went out with the second wave and, feeling good in my new sleeveless wetsuit, soon caught many swimmers from the first wave. There may have been a moment, say around 8:30 am when I caught a glimpse of the tower of Riverside Church at 121st St, when I may have been near the front of the pack. Then a bunch of fast swimmers who started behind me surged ahead at the bridge, and I finished in a crowd.

I’d never swum that far in that strong a current before. The flood was behind me, which was better than the alternative but meant that the ocean was crawling up my back all morning, sloppy surges tickling my legs, shifting me off-keel. Travelling north were millions of gallons of salt water, me, two hundred seventeen other swimmers, maybe thirty kayaks, fifteen larger boats, twenty NYPD zodiacs, and a dozen blue-capped “Swim Angels” there to help anyone in trouble. It didn’t seem at all crowded at first.

All that fast-moving water and debris meant turbulence. I swam through constant movement: little waves pushing upriver, eddies, wakes from powerboats which left us tasting gasoline. Maybe half-way, with the Bridge not looking much closer, I started to feel seasick.

Longs swims mix exertion with meditation.  Diana Nyad calls swimming the “ultimate form of sensory deprivation.” I remember a wordless feeling, flowing forward with flowing water. Mobilis in mobili, is what Captain Nemo calls it, mobility inside a moving thing. For a little while that morning, I was part of the biggest moving thing in New York. Inside what Tim Morton calls “the mesh,” surrounded by a moving environment that buoyed me up and threatened me at the same time, swimming seemed part fool’s errand and part deep-down encounter with reality. Humans aren’t aquatic.

But when you’re in the big river, heading upstream with the flood, and your arms and legs move machine-like, and you’re churning upstream with New York City on your right and the Palisades on your left, you feel in your disoriented body why “flow” is a good thing to be inside.

 

2.     Excess

 

The knife will enter my ear canal deliberately on the Monday before Thanksgiving. It will move down three-quarters of an inch until it encounters two lumps of bone. These bone masses narrow my ear canal as rocky headlands narrow an estuary. A passage that was ten mm wide constricts with these bone-headlands to a single mm. That’s where the knife will start cutting.

 

The skin will peel back in still-attached flaps, flooding the canal with blood and exposing bare bone. The drill will start there. Several hours later, the extruding bone will be gone.

 

The bone-headlands grew and made that narrowness because of exposure to water. A lifetime of immersion in oceans, lakes, and rivers, cold water-fingers flowing into my ear canal up to the eardrum. Water didn’t go away when it got inside my head. It lingered, thick and heavy, an alien presence inside my skull. Eventually it flowed out – but for a long time, the insides of my ears have been intermittently wet. I’ve been living with a little salt ocean in my head.

 

There is a moral to this story.

 

We love oceans, but they don’t love us. We’re semi-aquatic apes who can’t endure the excess of ocean. Swimmers feel it: the water is no place to stay.

 

After the surgery, I won’t be able to put my head under any water for at least three months. Not until next spring.

 


Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St John's where he teaches Shakespeare, oceanic literature, and literary theory. He's written two scholarly books, including most recently *At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean* (2009), edited two more academic volumes, and also published many articles on literary culture and the maritime environment. His works in progress, performance reviews, and swimming autobiography can be found on his blog, The Bookfish (www.stevementz.com)