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 Rescue by Asya Graf

The man took off his white t-shirt, then removed what looked like a gold chain from around his neck. Balancing on one leg, then the other, he pulled off his white sneakers and lined them up on the wooden boardwalk. Lastly, he laid aside his cell phone, on which he had just been talking, vaulted over the railing, and jumped. We heard the thud of his body hitting the water and the shouts that followed. No one looked prepared to jump in, but everyone had their phones out, ready to call 911. If the police had cared to ask, I would’ve said he was in his thirties, black, thin and wiry, and here the semi-certainties would have ended.

We had been sitting on the strip of grass running down the middle of Christopher Street Pier. The sun was descending onto the rooftops of Jersey City, spilling a russet patina over our faces and the sheen on the water. A woman was lying near us face down on her towel, her bikini top untied. A pair of teenage girls sprawled on their backs, schoolbags serving as pillows, absorbed in their phones. A sunset tango class was in session at the end of the pier, and we could hear fragments of music, the poignant plaint of violin and bandoneon. Even though we had noticed the man’s careful undressing some way down the pier, neither of us thought to interrupt the halfhearted argument we were having until several beats after the jump. The man’s methodical actions had seemed scripted and distant, right down to the moment when he slipped beyond the railing, as though we’d seen it already, on Law & Order perhaps.

“He jumped,” you said and squinted into the light reflected off the water. You were still holding my hand but you let go absentmindedly, and at a really bad time, I thought.

“Who did?” I asked to say something. It was reassuring to talk about it, calmly, side by side watching the sunset. I wanted you to tell me the story of what happened, in your calm, reasonable voice.

“People are idiots,” you said and looked on grimly, as though you’d seen scenes like this every other Tuesday. “Now there’s going to be a multi-million dollar operation to save him, just watch.”

“Maybe he’ll be fine,” I said. “The river doesn’t look so fast tonight.”

“What are you talking about? It’s about 4 miles an hour in there. He’s gone.”

You always knew things I didn’t. Or rather, you managed to lay them out like a straight flush in the course of a conversation—the speed of a river, the difference between analgesics and anti-inflammatories, or the source of the inscription on the pediment of the USPS building across from Penn Station (Herodotus). And so you’d know, I suppose, when a body becomes a corpse.

Just then the crowd parted around a man pulling off his t-shirt. It was like we had to watch it all over again, a black man getting ready to jump, but taller and younger than the jumper. He took off his shoes, emptied his pant pockets, and dove in. Now the two piles were next to each other on the pier. As the group at the railing grew, it divided naturally into two types—those who shouted into their phones, at each other, at the second man in the water, and those who stood by mutely, hardly moving, as paralyzed as we were by the sense of hyperreality that made action seem not only difficult but irrelevant. The would-be rescuer dove, resurfaced, made signs to the onlookers. Those belonging to the first group made signs to him back and he went under again. The first group was mostly young black men and trans women, the regulars at the pier. The second tier of onlookers was predominantly white female joggers and tourists. We looked on at four removes, watching the outer crowd watching the inner crowd watching the man searching for the other man, just two more white women, not really talking, not holding hands.

We had been walking on the river this hot July evening to kill time before dinner with friends, to loosen the day’s tight knot. We’d been talking about pulling up stakes and moving up the Hudson, like so many couples of our age—those of us who could afford to dream of escape, anyway, and had the means to pull off our own rescue. As we walked along the newly landscaped promenade, in my mind I was already following the river up past Spuyten Duyvil and the sheer rock faces of the Palisades, around the eddies and islands past Bear Mountain where the river narrows and passes under the looming mass of Storm King. Already I could see us up there, where the air smelled like cut grass and sun-warmed pine needles. Down here, it smelled like mud and barnacles, or maybe I imagined it did, picturing the body tangled up among the slimy legs of the pier.

Within minutes, Coast Guard, NYPD, and FDNY boats converged on the scene. Two fire trucks pulled up. An ambulance. A helicopter flattened the water. As they positioned themselves into some sort of formation, 15, 20, 25 minutes passed since the man had jumped. One of the police boats pulled out the would-be rescuer and handed him a blanket. He sat very still in the boat, wrapped in his blanket, and watched the operation, or rather watched, along with the rest of us, the lack of any definitive action. The core group of pier regulars had stopped pointing and was watching the activity, or its lack, in grim, tense silence. I wanted to know if this silence was resignation, an impromptu wake, or condemnation of our collective failure.

“Maybe he was his friend,” I volunteered. It was hard to read the man’s face from here, but I sure was trying. If they had known each other, he was our last remaining link, the key to the meaning of this story unfolding before us.

“Then he should’ve stopped him,” you said reasonably enough, but something about the way you suggested this would be an easy thing to do bothered me.

“At least he jumped after him. No one else did.”

You shrugged. “I wouldn’t jump either. Do you know how strong the currents are? You can’t pull out a man just like that. You have to know what you’re doing.”

“So why aren’t they doing anything?” I asked, biting off a good chunk of nail.

“Tax dollars put to good use,” you said glumly. “We should get going before they block off the pier.”

“Wait, I want to see what happens.”

“He’s dead,” you pronounced, and though I knew you were right, I wished you’d leave some room for doubt, for possibility, for hope. Maybe he’d grabbed onto a pier column, maybe he was playing a trick on whoever was on the other end of the line. Hadn’t he been on the phone right until he decided to hang up and undress? Maybe it was something he’d threatened to do unless the interlocutor—a wife, let’s say—took him seriously. Maybe he didn’t set out to die. I’d read somewhere that the water on this side of the river was only ten feet deep and the currents only grew stronger toward the middle. If he wanted to change his mind, he still could. Weren’t most suicides a plea for help?

The helicopter hovered over the water, smoothing it to a bald patch, like the slick left behind after a whale has breached. The flatness of the water is what finally made me see it. It looked like ice. The man was never going to break through that hard, slate surface. Nothing that is lost resurfaces, no one lost in this city finds himself, and least of all a young black man who’d come to Christopher Street Pier to die, if that’s what he did. Other objects surface, other people emerge blinking from tunnels, but there is no return, retrieval, rescue. This is one of the things I know and yet don’t know where to insert in a conversation: rescue, etymologically speaking, means to deliver, free, protect, keep safe. None of those was going to happen, at least not for the jumper. 

This wasn’t by far the first of those moving-up-the-Hudson conversations and we’d both grown weary of them, I because I saw no possibility of change, you because you didn’t want to change. On the subway, my throat would seize up from the pressure of all the people, looking at me, like the weight of all the water of the East River pressing down on the Cranberry Street Tunnel as we crossed from Brooklyn to Manhattan. On the street, if I accidentally met a stranger’s eye, my throat would spasm and my lips freeze into a corpse smile. When I finally worked up the courage and the words to tell you about it, you said, you don’t really want to leave New York. You just want life here to be easy. I retorted that you were not doing your part to help make our lives easy, with your dead-end office job, wasting your fancy degree. And you, in turn, accused me of doing everything possible to complicate our lives, right down to going back to school and becoming a social worker, which is sort of like watching people jump off the pier every day. I was supposed to be the one who tried to help my clients find alternatives to jumping long before jumping ever occurred to them.

At work, men like the jumper came to us looking for help with housing, with life after prison, with management of their HIV and psych meds, with addiction and more addiction. Automatically I scanned the group on the pier to see if I knew anyone. Many of our clients, especially the trans ones, hung out here, scoring any number of hot commodities that they’d report breezily in our counseling sessions. And those were just the ones who showed up every week. Dozens of others would come through for intake, slouch through a group session or two, then never return, leaving me feeling like I had failed to throw out some thread of connection, frail and tenuous, but enough to bring them back. Enough for both of us to find reasons to hope. I didn’t recognize anyone in the crowd, and anyway I wasn’t the one to do anything about it, me in my fourth tier of onlookers. Even my so-called queerness bore little relation, and brought me no closer, to the queerness of the Christopher Street Pier divas, those fierce fighters for every last scrap of dignity and survival and love. Ultimately, I was a half-hearted social worker, one who wanted to move to the mountains where people suffered no less per capita, but there were fewer of them to go around. What I really cared about was saving myself first.

“You’re going to find reasons to be unhappy no matter where we live,” you’d said minutes before the man began to undress.

“I’m not unhappy here,” I said, then changed tack. “You don’t know that. We can’t know how something will make us feel until it happens.” To show my good will, my willingness to change, I took hold of your hand.

 After that you were citing my track record—six years in the lovely green suburbs of New Jersey, all unhappy, according to you—when we were interrupted by the thud of body on water. And you let go of my hand.

What I’d been about to tell you just then was that you never know if tomorrow someone will wake up happy, to use your term. If you decide they never will, you are robbing them and yourself of freedom. The freedom to become, change, recover, be recovered. But you were right: my persistent demand to move wasn’t so much about a sweet cabin on Esopus Creek, and it wasn’t about being sick of the commute. It was about a joint rescue operation. Deliver, free, protect, keep safe. Maybe you knew that the inscription on the James Farley USPS building was not the postal motto, but did you know I’d just found a motto for the two of us, one word to describe all that we’d done and could still do for each other?

“They got him,” you said with grim satisfaction. We’d kept vigil, done what we could in seeing through the retrieval of the body. Indeed they did get him, though we could see little beyond a cluster of rescue workers around a stretcher wrapped in blue tarp. We’d stayed long past when we were due for dinner, after most of the second-tier crowd, the joggers and failed helpers like us, had drifted off. The pier regulars lingered, casting occasional glances out to the water, retelling what they had witnessed in order to inscribe themselves in the story, to testify to their own and each others’ survival.

The helicopter lifted off and spun away down toward the tip of Manhattan. It was a while since the sun had set and a hint of a breeze stirred from up the Hudson, an early promise of fall, a bit of cut grass and wetlands. You picked up my hand again and said, let’s get out of here.

Asya Graf’s poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in Absinthe, anderbo, Boxcar, Cimarron Review, Comparative Literature, decomP, DMQ Review, and Vestal Review, among other journals. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and no pets, and is currently completing a collection of essays about swimming.