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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.

Sacrificial Objects by Sleepy Peopl

Sleepy Peopl created this artwork for an event in collaboration with Marie Lorenz's Flow Pool at Recess. See pictures and read more about it here.


OBJECT: Sacrificial Objects

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


Photographs by Nate Dorr and Dan Selzer


Sleepy Peopl are Maya Edelman and Nate Dorr. While their daytime callings are "animator" and "photographer" respectively, by night they like to break out of the minutia of applied arts and roam the beaches of New York City in search of sacred objects. The proves difficult as the sacrificial animals and offerings of fruit and flowers are made of paper and disintegrate on contact with water. They have managed to rescue a few rare specimens--they don't know their application or meaning, and are forced to seek guidance from botanica proprietors and old New York City newspaper headlines.

(Untitled) by Lauren Creight Clark

OBJECT: Human Skull

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


What will we call these bones?
We will call them ours.

We packed tight this useless mother tongue
and hurled it into space.
How far could we get?

And back, now, reel it in.
Just water rotting on the vine:

a broken fish, its language teeth,
snake-faced from the swim,

a pool of our collective
brackish thinking
waving.

Is that my mouth
is it a long-bodied word
sword-headed
blue like an infant
did I say it?

Only with the sun
do the bones take on
their terrifying white. 


Lauren Creight Clark is a poet and historian from New Orleans, Louisiana. She currently lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The Fish Fisherman Call Trash by Robert Farrell


 

Are not trash, but fish:

Scup, dogfish, wolf eel, skate; sand dabs, lion fish, monkfish (aka “allmouth;” aka “sea devil”); the sea robin, blood clams, rainbow smelt; leather jacket (Oligoplites saurus), sheepshead, barrelfish, almaco jack;

Triggerfish, pink porgy, spinycheek scorpionfish; finger squid, goldeye tilefish, “the amusingly named” mother-in-law; butterfish, pin bream, mangrove snapper; bigeye, redhorse suckers;

Rosebud seabass; the blue runner, redfish (unusual for giving birth to live young); the lake sturgeon, bowfin, big mouth buffalo, black

Drum, flounder; longtail bass, queen snapper, bull head cats; the white grunt. Whether dragged in nets, hooked on trots, or farm-

Raised; whether bow-shot, by-caught, or reeled: no longer “underappreciated,” but still unappreciated, even, or perhaps especially, by those who value them for “food,” by scientists looking for collagens, sportsmen seeking a challenge, restaurateurs in quest of novel ceviches, hipsters out for kicks, and other motherfuckers

Who would kill and swallow, play locavore, or create a market for the unmarketable, a fashion for the unfashionable, or who say they wish

To eat “low on the food chain,” but not low enough to let them be. And what to do with carp? Do nothing and, like Hippocrates, do no harm.

 

Writer's Statement: Several fish in this poem can be spotted in the waters of New York City beside the bull head catfish and carp, which live in the Bronx River among other places. Starting from City Island in the Bronx, you can find skates, sand dabs, sea robin, and flounder in the submerged bottom habitat of Long Island Sound. In more open waters you’ll find monkfish, dogfish, butterfish, and scup, though not the pink porgy, which is found in warmer waters. People have also seen black drum. The white grunt makes an occasional appearance.  Once plentiful, the sheepshead is still occasionally found in Sheepshead Bay.


Robert Farrell lives and works as a librarian in the Bronx, New York. His essays have appeared in various publications including photographer Erik Madigan Heck's Nomenus Quarterly. He will be attending the Ashbery Home School poetry workshop in the summer of 2015.

Following the Water: Snapshots of my Everyday Journeys by Cheryl French

BODIES OF WATER: Saw Mill River, Harlem River, Bronx River, Hudson River, Rum Brook, Sheldon Brook, Silver Lake, Andre Brook


Sitting beside the Bronx River with the sun warming my back and a gentle breeze tossing my hair in my face, I hear the whistle and clatter of the trains as they rumble to and from Grand Central. I hear the hum of traffic along the parkway. I hear the high-pitched whir of the HVAC system for the train station. I also hear robins, chickadees, sparrows, and orioles chirping, geese honking, new spring leaves rustling, and water flowing in eddies and currents down the river. This is what I love, and this is why I walk.

Nearly three years ago, I decided to leave the stability of my full-time job and return to the uncertain world of freelancing. I also let go of my car, choosing instead to rely on public transit and my own two feet. My work takes me all over Westchester County, where I live--a land of suburbs and small villages just north of New York City--and the city itself.

Water shapes my days and nights. From my perch on top of the hill, nearly every step out my front door propels me toward water. The mighty Hudson pulls me forward. It provides a constantly changing landscape and a reassuring familiarity at the same time. I follow the Hudson to and from work most days. I bid it farewell as I turn to follow the Harlem River, and I greet it upon my return. There are other waterways, too, many of which I never would have noticed from a car. Like me, many of the smaller rivers and streams eventually make their way to the Hudson, or they flow into the Long Island Sound, which then mixes with the East River, which finally joins with the Hudson in the Upper Bay. 

As with walking, relying on public transit requires time and patience. My schedule is not fully my own. Half the time, I have to rush to make a train or keep an appointment, only to arrive at one place with time to spare before the next leg. I have learned to savor those in-between moments as opportunities to explore; water is everywhere. The Saw Mill River, the Bronx River: I used to drive the parkways; now I walk beside the rivers themselves. Mamaroneck used to be the name of a town I could never remember how to spell or pronounce. Silver Lake was a preserve I read about online and thought I needed a car to visit. Then there are the streams, brooks, and tributaries: Andre, Sheldon, Rum, and others whose names I am still learning. They appear and disappear, forced under roads and buildings.

Taking photographs reminds me to pay attention. Sometimes I want to remember a particular moment or the play of light and shadows on the water; sometimes I want to return to a photo to try to identify a flower, tree, bird, or stream; sometimes I merely want to document how a scene changes from week to week.  

I can’t always stop to take photos, nor can I always capture images the way I see them. Even when I do not actually snap a picture, the habit has changed the way I see and experience the world around me. I have discovered tranquil water in the midst of urban and suburban settings where busy highways, parkways, and city streets lie just outside the frame. I see the trash, the abandoned shopping carts, and other signs of human carelessness, the ways we try to control nature and direct the water to suit our purposes, and the birds and other creatures that thrive in and along the waterways despite it all. Following the water means being rewarded by moments of quiet beauty, by the gangling grace of long-legged birds taking flight, by the glassy smoothness, gentle ripples, icy patterns, rough whitecaps, and angry currents of the water. I move slowly, and I stop to look.


Cheryl French is a writer, educator, editor, and photographer. She lives in Tarrytown and spends her days traveling around the Greater New York City area trying to engage her students in the wonders of the English language. She takes photographs along the way. You can follow her on daily rambles on Instagram: http://instagram.com/csfrench

Eels Swim by Aileen Bassis

OBJECTEels

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


 

eels swim in the rivers around the Bronx

my home, the Bronx where the

shanties stood once

by the river and people fish

eels and fires flared up

from big tin barrels

 

i was there by the river in the Bronx

and a passing barge made waves

that knocked me down and my shoes

were all wet and my backside

and I sat on hard rocks

in wet underwear and waited for

the bridge to open and let

big boats through and under

the highbridge while the tower

the tower pealed out songs

to mark an end each day


Aileen Bassis is a visual artist and poet, living in Jersey City, NJ. Her artwork has been widely exhibited across the US. Her interest in book arts has led her to writing poetry. Her work can be read online at Mobius: The Journal of Social Change and will be at Eunoia Review in the fall.

The River and the Skull by Rich Villar

OBJECT: Human Skull

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


for John Rodriguez

1
The Skull of Jordan L. Mott

This is all mine.
The iron they pull from the water
came from my hands.
You can find me, if you don’t believe me,
in the names you hold in your teeth
like a pipe. In the smoke rising
over Mott Street, Mott Haven,
Mott Ironworks. The root is mine.
The name is mine. Your heroes died
on streets named after my grandchildren.
My picture hangs in Cooper Union
in a painting called Men of Progress.
What do you know about progress
that hasn’t been hitched to the backs
of what I created for you? Gratitude,
if you please, for I gave you the iron
bleeding heat into your apartments.
Without me, you would not know steam
on your grandmother’s kitchen windows,
the poems you think you pull from the air.
Even the river belonged to someone once.
Jonas Bronck’s River, which flowed past
my doors once. This is my birthright.
I earned this. What pride do you carry
that I didn’t forge first?

2
The River

A man sings: Cada cabeza es un mundo.
Yours was the world you needed.
Iron will rust. The factories repurposed.
Everything comes back to water.
What does it say, then,
when even I won’t keep you?

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and facilitator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

Oshun's Bolero by Rich Villar

OBJECTPiano

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


for Peggy Robles-Alvarado

When I came to the mud
she said she knew
I was coming. She heard
windchimes, was moved
to answer back. She said
she’d never played before.
This, I do not believe.
To improvise, one must know
music, the way water knows
the stone it shapes,

and Tony surely did.
He used to find me
the nights he’d come home
borracho, or trying to find himself
bloodshot on the living room floor.
He would wake at 4am,
lost child toddling on 181st street,
the old sirens in his head,
needing to escape.

You cannot invent boleros
with your head swimming
in the rum bottle
unless you once found
something at the bottom.

The notes would fill the building
y la gente had stopped complaining,
because Tony wasn’t right,
and the old women knew it.
That was enough explanation.
Someone tried to say it was
his mother. The belt. Tecata.
A string of dead end jobs.
A daughter’s fist in Bayamon.
All I knew were his hands,
the deft swaying of fingers
over my keyboard,

a old knowledge Nancy tried to understand,
even as she lifted him from the toilet,
when she found him strewn
like the torn pieces of a son suite
discarded. He always said the music
was hers, but the only bolero
she could remember
was the clanking of the beer bottles
she dragged to the curb with no help.

No one asked why there were no tears
the day she buried him
next to his mother. No one tried
to stop her the day she wheeled me
ten blocks, uphill, to the bridge,
to the spot she knew,
just beneath a tree of glass,
and pushed me off the side,
and didn’t stop to listen
to the furious rumba resulting
from the crash of notes, and wood,
and water, and ivory.

Water fills my belly and carries away
the fury in the Nancy’s back,
the chaos in Tony’s fingers.
The woman in yellow is playing,
the way I expect Alice Coltrane
called for the response
in her son’s trumpet,
the way Nancy sings Periodico de Ayer
and smiles, bouncing down the sidewalk,
the way she must play, I suppose,
with windchimes in her ear.

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and facilitator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

The Orisha of Iron, or How the Horseshoe Came Back to Homeboy by Rich Villar

OBJECT: Horseshoe

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


Homeboy did everything he was told to do.

He asked which Orisha was the one for iron.
He found out it was the same one for war.
He took this as a sign.
He said some words and danced when nobody was looking.
He found some beads and started wearing them.
He did not make the connection between tricksters and St. Anthony.
He listened to Aguanile, and was really feeling it.

On a dead run, he flung a horseshoe into the river.
He tripped and fell by the bank and swore he heard laughing.
It was a sign when they came to kill him.
There was a reason for the iron he let fly like rain.

He was protected by something greater.
He had faith in this,

even when the policia broke the door down
and flung his protected ass to the kitchen tile.
The orisha of iron is in these bars.
He said, I will not stay here.

And he didn’t. But the orisha of iron
kept him for fifteen years anyway.
He was protected from something.

Upon release, he came back to the river,
Still wondering where he went wrong.
When he got there, an old man in yellow waders
plucked an old horseshoe out of the mud.

“I think you dropped this, brother,”
he said.

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and facilitator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

Poem in Which the Poet Attempts to Teach Children... by Rich Villar

Poem in Which the Poet Attempts to Teach Children on a Walking Tour of their Own Neighborhood about the Purpose of Urban Poetry, Completely Ignoring the Tree and the River in Front of His Face



On the 174th Street Bridge

spanning the Bronx River
what you tell your children
about the nature of poetry
is that it’s not so much
about their assault rifle cadences
as it is about what they are able
to record between their mama’s Con Ed bill
and the scattering cucaracha
because their mamas were here before them
and the cucaracha will be here

after the last bomb drops and
shit like that could be considered pastoral
since nature poems in the urban setting
involve concrete and brick
weeds and trees bursting through
unfriendly ground to snake around
the rusted necks of overpasses
project brick compared to French cathedrals
winter sealed inside by landlords
who resemble Ronald Reagan and

you are satisfied with your lesson
because you have taught your children
to see the Bronx as it is but

the flaw in your theory is named Gerald
and he is Puerto Rican
and he is Gerald not Jerry
not salsa or bachata or bad language
and he keeps to himself as you walk and talk
the language of spray paint and breakdance
and he does not know who Afrika Bambataa is but

there’s a bottle in the grass near the river
which you can see if you crane your neck
it says East Tremont Bottling Company
and it reminds you of the anecdote of the jar
by Wallace Stevens who is suddenly
the realest motherfucker you ever met
and Gerald will tell you without words
that it’s been there since the river was the river
and there is a river underneath your feet
which was never meant to be a sewer
which is older than hip-hop and you
older even than poetry and

because there are green bottles in the trees
over your head
dozens of them filled with water and totems
bottles which ring and harmonize
every time the wind picks up
and Gerald calls them muerte bottles
because this is his neighborhood
and his cousins’ names are made of glass now
and that’s just what they do
to remember the dead and

this information overwhelms you
because suddenly you realize
that a teen on a bridge between a river and a tree
know more about surviving
than you will ever be able to teach her
about the poetics of struggle
because he is only enacting
the erratic line structure
of a walk home that is never the same
from one sunset to the next
because your lack of faith keeps you
from simply hearing a green windchime
simply harmonizing with a river
simply flowing beneath a bridge
simply plainly Oya speaking to Oshun

a child teaching a teacher
with no words needed to explain

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and faciliator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

They Come to Me by Allison Amend

OBJECTVoodoo and Santeria Objects

BODY OF WATERBronx River


They come to me, reeking of desperation, eyes glassy with tears, weak brown like coffee. Señor Gold, they say, can’t you help me?

Can’t you help me get my man to stay?
Can’t you help me find a job?
Can’t you help me make the demons go away? They burrow in my skin like snakes.

Of course, I always answer. Here, take this bat’s blood and mix it with Fire of Love Oil. Then add just a drop of Narcissus. Use it when you wash his pillow case. He will never stray again.

Take a bit of the Manteca de Corojo, yes, the same as you anoint Changó with. With your index finger, smear some on this candle. Let it burn to the ground. Here is a special holder that will make sure the Orishas see it, and also make sure the candle does not fall over and burn your apartment building down. You will have a job within two weeks.

Take this angelica root. Put it in your shoes and wave incense over it for an hour a day. When was the last time you went to a bembe? There is one on Friday in the basement.

When I opened the business, I was my only employee. I made up potions, invented love spells, picked unhexing herbs at random. But after a while I started to hear what works. And then I began to know.  Lemongrass helps joint aches. Mosaka Oil cures baldness. One customer arranged for ten chickens destined for sacrifice to be delivered to the loading dock in thanks for curing her husband’s stomach cancer with a mixture of apazote and star anise. I have heard of answered prayers for wealth, for vigor, for fortitude, for love. And while I’m sure there are scientific explanations for these coincidences, also, I’m not so sure.

So when he gets sick, my child who has my heavy brow, my brooding nature, I know what to do.  I leave the upstairs office and walk the long floor like I used to, taking inventory in my head out of habit.

“What you looking for, boss?” Teofilio asks me.
“Just making the rounds, Babalawo.” Ten years ago I advertised a janitor position. When I hired Teo I hired a priest, a bodyguard, a spiritual advisor.
“What his symptoms are?” he asks. And a psychic.

The next day, while my wife takes our son to the doctor I sprinkle calamus root on his bed. I take the palos and make an altar to Inlé, which my wife takes down when I go to work. She leaves a note: “We are Jewish, Josh.”

Now she says, “Go home, Josh. Take a shower. I’ll stay here.” I look up from the floor. The tile in the hospital looks identical to the store’s flooring, the same large white squares marred by black pock marks like finely shredded bladderwrack. Her eyes are dull, as though she’s wearing a film over them.

I don’t look at our son, breathing heavily in the too-big bed.
“And Josh,” she says, “If I come home and find any of that voodoo crap, I’m leaving you.”

I stop in at work. It’s a Friday afternoon and the Wiccans have the basement worship space. They sing in minor harmonies which drift like incense smoke up to the store floor.

I get what I need, and instead of going home, I take the 12 bus to the river. I pick a spot where I won’t be interrupted, and I toss the twigs, the bits of plastic, part of a sock, to the side. Then I rake the sand so that the undulations point toward the water, wiggling like something caught. I kneel on the bank and put the trident in the sand. Silver snakes climb its tines, and I stroke them to feel their cool scales. Around the base I arrange the three fish and I make Ochosi’s arrow point toward them. The wind lifts and sets the pendants swinging on their tethers, the fish hook balanced by the caught fish, writhing on its lure. I hurry to sprinkle the narcissus flower water before the wind dies again. Then I look at the river and in its rippling I see my desperate brown eyes glassy like coffee. I scoop it all up and throw it as far as I can into the middle of the river. It floats for a moment—silver plated only—then sinks slowly as it travels downstream. I use the sage brush to sweep the raked sand into the river.

And then when he gets better, I know.

 


Allison Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the Independent Publisher Book Award-winning short story collection Things That Pass for Love and the novelStations West, which was a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her newest novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, was just published to much acclaim. She lives in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at Lehman College in the Bronx.

The Right Way to Tell a Story by Carolyn Ferrell

OBJECT: Piano

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


November 24, 1993

Minutes before their first official date, Ralphie felt his confidence flag. He was standing on a street corner, and had to reach down to the hydrant for support. Why was he doing this? It was raining, just a touch, and the air was opaque; when he recovered, Ralphie walked into the bodega on 7th and sat upon a tower of rice bags. He closed his eyes. Any minute now she’d be coming, and he had to be ready.

Subrena Woods—it was her name that got him first.  Twenty-three, never married, one kid in hiding. Lovely brown voice, eyes that swept the room in one raging bound. Long legs, box braids, and golden doorknob earrings.  Technically, she was someone he shouldn’t have wanted—growing up on Sedgwick Avenue, he’d walked by girls who looked like her everyday. They were in the same graduate school; he, to finish his dissertation in psychology, she to quote unquote better herself. She wanted to be a schoolteacher. She loved action movies. She had a son she talked about in hushed tones. They couldn’t have been any more different than Manhattan and the Bronx. Quote unquote.

He wondered if this was him falling in love.

They knew each other from long afternoons in the Student Commons, where she would wax philosophical on 18th century women writers and he would remain mute in some corner, drinking a beer from a bag. One day she mentioned that she’d wanted to check out this one soul food place in the Village—chicken and waffles, hoppin john, cranberry collards—and when he looked up, he saw she was staring straight at him. Of course he didn’t tell her this, but he’d been to that very restaurant before, to disastrous results. Who the hell came up with the idea of chicken and waffles in the first place?

Let’s go out, you and me, he ventured. Let me find us a better spot.

His mother had always been of the opinion that he was not a soul food kind of boy, that he was, in fact, more like his Scandinavian ancestors on his father’s side, those people with their strange red berries and constant fish.  As far from the Bronx as you could get. You never found that sort of animal in the Bronx River—no sir.  Dexter, his mother’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, used to angle behind the stone mill at the Botanical Garden, catching an occasional trout, which she would then fry up just as lovely as chicken.

The day after his first date with Subrena, his mother listened and said, If you want this girl to stick, you better take her someplace like the Ikea restaurant in New Jersey.

What the hell did his mother know?

Her old boyfriend’s name was Dexter; and long ago, when he was about eight or nine, Dexter had taken him fishing in the Bronx River.  Late November, just before the first snow. A Botanical Garden guard came by after some time and told them to put out the fire they’d built on the river’s edge.

Why pick on us, Dexter shouted back. Why not clean up this place first before you start hollering?

You got a problem sir, the guard asked. His hand was on his hip flashlight.

Don’t you read the News, Dexter screamed. This place has gone to hell.  There’s nothing sacred anymore.

He was blue in the face. Ralphie tightened his grip, and soon the old man calmed down.

Stone cold crazy, the guard said, and kept walking, until he was a speck by the Conservatory.

Eventually the pair headed on home to his mother’s apartment on Sedgwick Avenue. Ralphie was sure he had frostbite. His mother scolded him and told Dexter to sleep on the fold-out.

Now the rain was getting worse. Ralphie got up off the rice bag tower and walked back outside. Subrena was supposed to meet him under the awning of GO SUSHI; hopefully she would know how to use chopsticks.

Hopefully she wouldn’t look too ghetto.

Hopefully she wouldn’t mention her son in that sad voice of unrequited love.

Hopefully he would look like someone she would perhaps admire, maybe want to kiss.

Was he a schizophrenic—why should he want her? He had no idea. The main thing would be to stay cool. To look like he was having fun. He was feeling something wide just then, unwieldy and yet tidy. Was this love? He looked around for a payphone.

And then, like a fairy tale, he saw her coming down the street, Subrena Woods, wearing a pair of golden ballet slippers, looking like someone he’d never seen.

November 23, 1979

It was the removal of the piano that had gotten Dexter so upset.

He’d been sitting in the kitchen of his girlfriend Candace’s apartment looking over the headlines in the Daily News when he came across the following: “Everett Upright Found at Bottom of Bronx River!”

Volunteers had offered to help remove the instrument from the water; there was a number listed that you could call to donate, time or money. Dexter closed the paper in disgust. A piano like that was a perfect starter instrument; it wasn’t something you’d keep around forever, but if you were just learning the notes, or the lay of the keys, you couldn’t ask for anything better.

How could someone go and kill an instrument like that? It was like killing the gods.

The doorbell rang, and Dexter shut his eyes. Let Candace see to that, he muttered. Then remembered she’d gone out.

About ten years ago he’d had a gig in the Amalgamated Houses—Jazz Saturdays, it was called at first, and then, when they couldn’t get the teen kids to attend: Senior Living Fun. The idea being to get the old folks—neglected by their families, left alone in overheated apartments—to stop wanting to kill themselves. Dexter knew jazz could calm any savage beast. Even the old folks at the Amalgamated Houses.

He knew this because he’d had always loved jazz, going back to the time he saw Lester Young at the Famous Door in 1946. He’d spent many years trying to impart to others the religiosity of that first experience, though his efforts were usually in vain. No one understood the real workings of jazz the way he did—no one saw its true origins not only in the blues and early black musical traditions—but also in the tonality and precision of Bach.

There, he said it: Bach—the first jazz musician. When he first told Candace how he thought jazz had come into being, she laughed.

Bach? Wasn’t he around with Beethoven and all them other white guy powderheads? Dex, you best do something productive with your time.

(Candace had never given him his true props as a jazz musician. If it had been up to her, he’d be working overtime at the janitorial gig over at P.S. 24 in Riverdale.)

Luckily the boy had shown a talent for loving music. Candace’s boy Ralphie.

Dex and Candace had been dating on and off for years, and for truth, he’d wanted to leave her many times. The thing that kept him was Ralphie.

Rafael, Dexter called him.

Dexter loved holding the boy’s hand and experiencing that child warmth he’d never known himself. He showed the boy the Bronx as if it were a treasure chest: the Paradise Theater on the Grand Concourse, where you could catch a great double feature. The toughened landscapes of the Botanical Garden, when they were still coaxing trees and shrubs into life. The wide-hipped boulevard of Mosholu Parkway, which in certain lights reminded one of a Parisian thoroughfare.

Paris in the springtime.

Once Dexter played a record album for the boy: Lennie Tristano at the Half Note. Rafael’s eyes nearly popped out his head. He was only six. You play like them, he asked. Daddy Dex, you play like that?

I play like that but don’t anybody really know I can, Dexter said. Nobody until you.

He had taken the boy everywhere by then, and would continue to do so, even well past the time the boy learned to be ashamed of him.

They traipsed all over the Bronx. Bruckner Boulevard—the old Estey factory. Longwood Avenue and Southern Boulevard; Hunt’s Point and its garrulous market. The Botanical Garden was the favorite destination. Is this your grandson, the ticket sellers would ask, and the boy would bow his head.

They spent time by the old stone mill standing in the Botanical Garden, trudging up and down the wooded cliffs, sliding into the banks of the River, where they came upon many things: a few abandoned cars and shopping carts, bicycle chains, dog skulls, broken bottles, tires, once a coffin. The boy—he was about eight—grew frightened at that coffin, but Dexter was able to calm him down. I think they was filming a horror movie here, he told the boy. One that might be playing up at the Paradise. You want to go and see?

They caught the last showing of Monster-A-Go-Go and The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. They ate butter popcorn and drank purple soda. They came out and counted the early evening stars on the Grand Concourse.

The boy, he was practically Dexter’s own. Six, seven, eight, nine. Then Candace said she was thinking about moving down to Manhattan, where the sun seemed to shine a bit brighter than it did in the Bronx.

Dexter was thinking about her and the boy’s move on the day he picked up the Daily News and saw the photo of the crane lifting the piano out of the Bronx River. All the volunteers smiling at the camera, white people with nothing better to do, he thought. Shame that.

Footsteps approached; had Candace returned? Hopefully it was her, carrying a last tray of lunch. Maybe a few extra Tylenol. He was feeling pain in his piano fingers.

Dexter opened his mouth and felt the air come crashing in. Why you sitting like that, he heard a voice ask. Why you got your mouth open like that?  Are you in pain?

Dex sighed.  You didn’t need a heart for anything anymore. At every bend in the river there was a large crane waiting to scoop everything out.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, felt his insides grow cold. Where was the boy when he needed him?

November 24, 1993

Subrena hated it when her school friend Ralphie phrased her situation as “one kid in hiding.” That was so not the case. Her son—Jay short for Jayquan—was staying temporarily with her mother on Longwood Avenue; and in this case, temporary was going on four years, but so what? She was going to give him a better life, one so far removed from the Police Athletic League on Fox Street and the miserable public school on Southern Boulevard and the doctors wouldn’t stop going on about the boy’s fragile mind—their true life was just a graduate degree away. But the first step was getting Ralphie to stop saying she had a kid in hiding. He thought he was being quote unquote funny.

The outside of GO SUSHI looked paltry, with a tattered paper lantern hanging above the ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT sign. Jesus H. Christ.

She was so not into a man at this juncture in her life, though she did kind of get a kick out of Ralphie’s persistence. He was doing something in psychology, already at the end of his studies, a dissertation perhaps. He talked to her with his hands in his pockets, a shyness in the dark-ringed eyes.  She liked that about him.

She also liked that often, in the Student Commons Ralphie told her a few stories about his life. One was about an absent father—been there, done that, she’d wanted to say. Another was about a job his mother had taken working the night shift in the looney bin of Montefiore Hospital. You really had to be there, Ralphie repeated, which made Subrena roll her eyes in boredom. Wasn’t the point of a story so that the listener didn’t have to be there?

She planned on getting this English degree and teaching in the public schools. It didn’t matter which one. Jay could come back and stay with her. He could be her little boy again.

Not a thing in hiding.

A light rain had slowly begun. The air looked and felt like Milk of Magnesia. Ralphie was late. How she hated late.

There was something about him, though. Subrena started looking for a pay phone—she would quickly call Jay and ask him if he loved her—when Ralphie suddenly bounded down the sidewalk toward her, his faced fixed in glow.

And Subrena suddenly recalled a story he’d told her one afternoon, one that moved her. This was just after the other students had left the Commons and they were alone. Evening had started to pour into the plate glass windows and the old radiators hissed.

When I was a boy, Ralphie said, my stepfather took me to the Bronx River, to fish. Dexter, his name was Dexter. I last saw him when I was thirteen, but I remember feeling much younger than that.

We got to the old stone mill that stands on the banks of the Bronx River—before then, we used to just jump between rocks and count the trees. I never knew there was an actual Bronx River. I thought it was a made-up place, a fairy tale. But here it was—here we were, poles in hand, Dexter rifling through the tackle box, a chilly day.  I tore off my shoes and walked out to rocks in the middle of the water.

It was November, already winter cold. Dexter was on the shore building a fire. I was looking at the trees—the old oaks hugging the shore, the new chestnut trees buckling the earth, the needy birches grabbing hold of what soil they could in order not to drown. Everything pointed upwards. Dexter put on his transistor radio; he began telling me the story of how he met my mother at a dance, and the way she chewed him out for being so old, and the nice kiss he left that dance with.

I looked down at my feet in the stream; I’d never felt anything so alive, so tingly, so beautiful against my skin.

Dexter had promised me that there was winter flounder to be caught, striped bass in the river. Those names sounded so lovely. Though the river was really just a stream, Dexter came out in waders; his hat was full of beautiful flies—mostly for trout and minnows, but one crazy looking spider tie. Come on back, Rafael, he said to me, the only person on earth who ever used my real name. I think I’ve caught a beauty. Come on back and let’s get this party started.

Then he looked at my bare feet on the rocks. He removed his reading glasses.

Come on, Daddy Dex!

He screamed, dropped his pole, lurched over to me and swept me up into his arms: Leeches, he cried. I looked down and saw that three leeches had attached to my left foot, suckling the length of my toes.

Daddy Dex, I shouted.

Son, he said, trapping me in his arms, carrying me back to the fire. I never wanted to move again. I can’t remember if I ever did.

(At first she thought this story was corny as all get-out. And yet—years into their marriage, Subrena Walker never stopped feeling it kick in her ribs.)

THE FUTURE

They married. Years passed. They had two children, both graduating from the Horace Mann School; one later died in a car crash. Dexter passed away from a heart attack in 1980. His mother moved to a room in the Riverdale Manor, a nursing home just inches shy of the Yonkers border. More years passed. Decades. Who understands the passage of time?

Because then it was Rafael and Subrena Walker celebrating their diamond anniversary at the Kingsbridge Assisted Living Center, where a pair of ninth graders from Fieldston came to interview them. The kids had been summoned to do a community service project. They took out a list.

Question one:  Where were you born?

Question two:  What is your favorite part of the Bronx?

Question three: When did you know that this was your soul mate?

Raf and Subrena looked at each other. They could not, in good conscience, say it was love at first sight. But they also couldn’t remember when love entered the picture.

Question Four: Well then, what was it that got you two together?

It never occurred to them to say cheap sushi or 18th century women’s literature or the permanent institutionalization of Jayquan Woods or the deaths of their parents or subsequent life as two middle school teachers—one with a PhD, the other a mere Master’s.

Rafael said, I think we fell in love over an Everett piano. Me playing, her singing.

To which Subrena laughed, a mouthful of elegant dentures. Had she always been this beautiful, Raf wondered.

Husband, Subrena said, Just when did you ever put your hands on anything resembling music? Don’t confuse these girls.

(The couple laughed and held hands and the ninth graders took a photograph of them and left. Later that evening, Raf and Subrena looked into each other’s eyes. To have said they got together over a story about the Bronx River would’ve been such a sentimental piece of sap. Corny as all get-out. Yet had there ever been any other version?)

 


Carolyn Ferrell is the author of a short story collection, Don’t Erase Me. A recipient of grants from the National Foundation of the Arts and the Bronx Council on the Arts, Ferrell’s work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of the Century and This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers. For several years she worked at Bronx Educational Services in the South Bronx, where she led literacy classes for parents and children. She currently teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Ferrell recently moved to Yonkers from Riverdale, where she lived with her family for more than a decade.

The Fish Building by Gabriela Bertiller

OBJECT: Fish 

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


Editors' Statement

Although the Bronx is the only one of NYC’s five boroughs attached to the mainland, it is bordered on three sides by water, as well as traversed by the Bronx and Hutchinson Rivers and dotted by lakes and ponds. It is possible to kayak along sections of the Bronx River, surrounded by trees, and feel a world away from highways, high rises, Highbridge. Conversely, walking along the Grand Concourse, the Bronx’s most famous thoroughfare, it is almost impossible to feel that water is anywhere close by. But—at 1150 Grand Concourse, right by the Housing Court and the Bronx Museum, there is a building lovingly referred to as The Fish Building. The Art Deco facade’s iridescent underwater mosaics are a striking reminder that, while the Grand Concourse is a conduit for people, buses, bikes and cars, other nearby channels are, at the very same moment, being traveled by bass, bullhead catfish, blue gills, turtles and carp.

Underwater New York has been enthralled with 1150 Grand Concourse for quite some time. After discovering that the artist Gabriela Bertiller had done a community-oriented project on the building for the Bronx Museum, we were delighted to invite her to share her work on the site.


Adapted from a press release on The Fish Building by Gabriela Bertiller written by Madre Buenos Aires who sponsored the project.

Supported by The Bronx Museum of the Arts AIM program (Artist in the Marketplace), Argentine-born artist Gabriela Bertiller developed The Fish Building, a project that highlighted and contributed to the dialogue between the Museum and its community.

The Fish Building is an Art Deco structure, appropriately named after the aquarium mosaic flanking its entrance. Bertiller, inspired by the building’s unique details and its loss of appreciation over time, transported stunning visual elements of The Fish Building into the exhibition. The artist used it as a vehicle to highlight and facilitate an exchange between the Museum and the Bronx community.

During the exhibit, Gabriela honored the emblematic construction, giving it a new appreciation in a fine art setting by replicating some of the buildings interiors in the lobby of The Bronx Museum. The artist included The Fish Building’s tenants as a fundamental part of her work. The bond she proposed to stimulate materialized on the opening day when the tenants of the building formed a symbolic line in matching red t-shirts reading “Proud Tenant of The Fish Building” from The Fish Building’s entrance to the Museum Hall. This active participation of the tenants, the neighbors and museum’s visitors turned The Fish Building into not only a piece of art but a collectively constructed one. The exhibition at the Bronx Museum ran from June 26th through September 5, 2011.


Gabriela Bertiller was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, studied at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes Prilidiano Pueyredón and received her MFA at School of Visual Arts, New York.

In 2011 she was selected for the AIM program at The Bronx Museum of the Arts. She has been artist-in-residence at Changdong Art Studio run by the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, (2005), Red Gate Gallery in Beijing (2004) and The Banff Centre in Canada (2004). Gabriela Bertiller has exhibited at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, The Soap Factory, Minneapolis, Gallery Hyundai, Seoul, Hyogo Museum of Art, Japan and Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires.