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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.

The Quiet Edge by Lauren Dockett

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.

OBJECT: Dead bodies, Contaminated Fish

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River

Moving to the northern edge of Manhattan can be a lonely venture. The island’s tip is formed where the Harlem River pushes west into the Hudson, and in my first days living there, coming home felt like trekking into a metropolitan wilderness. Train lines sputtered out, the city’s streets gave way to an untidy landscape and big waterways, and wildlife that would normally be road kill in midtown squawked and scurried about.

I had lived in this part of town as a small child—it’s where my parents grew up—and moved back for the solace of family memory after a close friend threw herself out a Flatiron window. We were estranged when she died and the guilt stayed thick on me for a year afterward. I figured the farther uptown and into my own past I travelled, the farther I’d get from my shared past with her.

Though few friends found it novel enough to visit, I took comfort in being in a place where video stores and bars catering to seasoned drunks could cover the rent. The food was cheaper, there was a Dominican vibe and a counterweight of cologne in the cleaner air, and on days when the city felt like a prison, there was always a big river in the background that opened north to anti-urbanity.  

Shortly after moving I went out in the gloaming and perched on a rail at the quiet edge of Dyckman Pier. With the ruffling darkness of the Hudson below, I called my seventy-year-old father in Florida. He didn’t know anything about R.’s death when he said, first thing,

"You are standing on the spot where I saw my first dead body.”

“I’m surprised the cops didn’t shoo you off that day,” I said.

“Ah well, there was a crowd. Awful, though. They yanked her out of the water with poles and she skid onto the boat like a dead fish. And the things they said...”

“Like what?”

“They could carve her up and have her for lunch, for one.”

River corpses are almost always police cases. Homicides and suicides. My dad was eight when the naked, bloated body of a woman surfaced near a crescent of sand north of Dyckman Pier. He’d told me this before. He and his friends were chasing each other through the crumbling asphalt at the end of Dyckman Street when they saw a police boat anchored off shore.

Sixty years later, plenty of women still float up to the Hudson’s surface like broken mermaids. Two were found along Manhattan’s tip a couple of months apart last spring, one again here at the pier. Men appear too, especially in the warmer months, when the heated water reinvigorates decomposition and gives their sunken bodies a gaseous lift. But they mostly emerge with their clothes still on.

Dyckman Pier isn’t far from the George Washington Bridge, maybe twenty blocks north by foot, and the Hudson—part river, part tidal estuary—flows both ways. I turned toward the bridge’s lit towers and tried to see the woman my father saw not as a murder victim but as a jumper too, in control of her own fate, who aimed herself downtown so she could merge eternally with her city, and got swirled upstream.

Despite the ending, R. used to tell me she never felt better than she had when she first arrived in New York.

“Finally,” she would say, “a sense of belonging.”

But the city was no match for her collapsing life. She couldn’t make a job work. Her husband was divorcing her and living a few blocks away with someone younger. Her only real comfort was a sweet, white-haired dog with a panic disorder that wore kerchiefs soaked in lavender to calm him down. The two of them slept together every night on a big bed with red sheets.

Toward the end R. continued to cook lavishly for a shrinking circle of friends but she had begun to eat like a dancer, all cigarettes and watered-down coffee. In her beautiful apartment with the giant windows that looked out onto Gramercy’s water towers, she had a silver fridge big as a sci-fi movie set piece and just as empty. She kept no food, only flavorings: tiny cans of truffles or sprigs of sage in little plastic trays from upscale bodegas. I’d be sure to bring nuts on the train and open the bag on her counter between us and for a minute or two she’d eat, palming five at time and talking with her mouth full until she noticed the bag getting emptier and stopped.

R. asked me about suicide once. We were drinking and in our pajamas and I told her we owed it to those who loved us to hang on. After that I tried to take us to happy places. She’d want to scan the shelves at Chelsea Market without buying anything and I’d steer her toward the river and down to 10th Street where we could watch the sun go down on tough gay teenagers trading hats on the pier. But the river was never really her thing. She wanted the inner streets with their tall buildings huddling overhead like guardians, herding and containing us. Nature was less a respite from her problems than an opening for more painful contemplation.

She and I finally fell out on a busy street on the edge of Chinatown. Standing in the blaring light of an accessories store, its bins overstuffed with bedazzled hair combs, I insisted she pay attention to my problems. But she couldn’t do it. I remember turning from her with a tiny bag of barrettes swinging from my middle finger. I took my rage up Broadway, cursing the precedence of her depression.

When R.’s husband called, I knew she was dead. He held a memorial service for her in a sun-drenched loft near their apartment and stood her photo on an easel before a window as tall as any of us.

That night on Dyckman Pier, suspended over the Hudson with the darkness deepening and the phone growing hot in my hand, I wondered why I couldn’t stop imagining what R. must have looked like jumping. How in the beginning I’d thought of her crying and flailing as she fell but later I’d come to see her full of peaceful intention, her hair a floating fire and her face lifting to the sky. And then, as the months passed, how that dreamed-up image of her, quiet as a restful swimmer, had come to supplant so many of my real memories of her.

“So what do you think of the old neighborhood?” my father asked.

I shifted on the railing, hesitating, not wanting to talk about how untethered I still felt here. What I really wanted were more details about his dead woman, at least enough to give his ghost the power to overshadow mine for a little while. But I was afraid if we went there I’d spill about R., and I had no intention of being soothed, of having the ugliness of our estrangement plucked with parental certitude from the many reasons she was gone.

I told him instead about a fish, a sturgeon big as an arm that I’d just learned lived at the bottom of the Hudson. It had swum past Dyckman Pier since dinosaur days and endured a noxious last century by pointing itself low and dropping its jaw under the moting silt at the bottom of the river.

“In my day the river was no place for fish. It reeked of sewage,” my dad said.

Yes but this fish was indiscriminate, I told him. It vacuumed in everything: the sediments of fresh poison and rotted trash, but also the little shelled and crawling creatures whose skin mottled and glowed but didn’t disintegrate. They and the ancient sturgeon held on together until a dozen years ago when mussels striped like zebras loosed from the hulls of European container ships, multiplied on the river floor and became the sturgeon’s miracle—endless food; so constant that pulling one of the fish from the river now is like holding a fat, slick bag of castanets.

I let go of the railing to mime “castanets” to no one and ended up lurching forward. The black river rose up, rattling me, and it took a moment to quiet my breath.

“Are you alright?” my dad asked.

 “It’s OK, just a slip.”

“Jesus kid,” he said. “Hold on.”

 


Lauren Dockett left New York to teach journalism at the University of Hong Kong, where she had a view of the floating commerce on Victoria Harbor. She now lives near a creek in Washington, D.C. and is a print, online and radio journalist and an editor. She’s published a mix of fiction and nonfiction, including three books that have been translated into six languages.