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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.



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. 

 

East River of My Devotion by Lindsay Sullivan


Watch video of Lindsay and her collaborator Doug Keith performing this song at the American Folk Art Museum here

 

Lyrics

I took the sea to the C

searching for ghosts at Dead Horse beach

a ship appeared to me

I swam out so I could see

"Come aboard my darlin

it's the last time I'll be callin

come aboard and sail with me."

We sailed along the water's edge

Brighton Beach over Dreamland

cut right and towards the bridge

first Brooklyn then Manhattan.

"It wont be long my darlin

until you are drownin

and you belong to the sea."

Then the wind began to blow,

lightning struck and hit my boat.

I swam hard but fell below

I sang out to the River, don't let me go.

"You are the waves to my ocean,

East River of my devotion

I'll drink your salt

I'll breathe your sea."

I sunk down onto my knees,

Threw my head down to Her Sandy feet,

I begged Her please to let me breathe,

one breath of Her Salty Sea.

"You are the waves to my ocean,

East River of my devotion

I'll drink your salt

I'll breathe your sea."

<>

And I became the River Bed,

Dead Fish, Stripped Cars and Soda Cans.

River City below Manhattan,

Piano Keys, Submarines and The Princess Ann. 

I am the waves to Your Ocean,

East River of our Devotion.

I drink Your Salt and 

I breathe Your Sea.

Yes I am the waves to Your Ocean,

East River of our Devotion.

I drink Your Salt and 

I breathe Your Sea.


Lindsay Sullivan is a student, yoga and meditation teacher, singer, songwriter and piano player living in Los Angeles. In 2008 she released her debut LP, Long Road Home with her band Clair. 

You Have the River by Michelle Wildgen

OBJECT: Contaminated Fish

BODY OF WATERHudson River


Years ago I had a plan. I lived over a hill from the Hudson River, past Sacred Heart Church, past a crumbling downtown and menacing, empty train station. The river in my town was brown and slick, banked with old cranes and unused piers, the bones of heavy industry. A few miles south, men fished in the water, casting lines off docks across 12th Avenue from Fairway, dropping disc-shaped fish into plastic buckets at their feet. They often stood several yards away from one another, not speaking, not looking over their shoulders at the people with shopping carts and their cars’ negotiations of the narrow parking lot. I was always curious whether the fishermen ate the fish they caught or simply poured the bucket back into the river when they’d gotten bored. The fish were small and yellowish, a discolored silver, something metallic and toxic, and I would not have eaten them.

My plan was this: I would tape a knife around my leg. The calf. Let’s say the calf, though the thigh might have been easier to reach. But also more likely to cut me before I was ready, so I planned to secure the knife on the outside of my calf. I would not overdo the tape. I didn’t want to be out there in the river, trying to work the adhesive off my skin, tearing hairs out by the roots, and floundering as I worked. Perhaps if the knife was sharp enough I could simply twist the blade right through the tape. This seemed the proper approach. I decided to have the knife sharpened professionally.

There are many places to enter the river. Docks, train tracks, scabby green banks. When I was making this plan, it was summer, so I knew I wouldn’t slip on ice. I could walk right down to the water, wherever I chose.

A quiet spot would be best. No cars. No shopping carts and fishermen.

I am a good swimmer. It’s been years since I tested myself, but I once swam across a lake, flanked by friends in two canoes trailing life buoys in the water in case I panicked or tired. My wife was in one of the canoes, watching me the whole time. She said very little, though the rest of our friends were laughing, making dinner plans. She watched me and she kept one hand near the rope with the life buoy. It’s true I switched from the crawl to a backstroke and back again. I did tire. But I never reached for the life buoy. I swam to the opposite bank, waited until my feet sank into the sludge of the lake floor, and stood. I rested and then I swam back.

And so I knew that I could swim out into the Hudson. I believed that I could make it to the center, where I would tread water in the trough between the currents, and then I would untape the knife. The plan was very thorough. If blood loss didn’t work, drowning would; if drowning didn’t work, infection would. There is a reason I would never eat those yellowed fish: the river is a filthy place to swim, and one should avoid all contact with a wound of any sort.

But the knife itself became the problem. My wife and I had received some good knives for a wedding present, a fine heavy paring knife among them, and I thought this would be small enough but effective too. She did not use the paring knife as much as I did; she liked the ten-inch chef’s knife. There are tasks a four-inch blade is ideally suited to, however, and I kept imagining my wife coring an apple with a chef’s knife the length of her forearm, or trying to slip its great blade beneath the skin of an avocado. I saw her getting in the car to buy a new knife, standing at a counter to choose from a selection, testing edges with a fingertip. In my fantasies she bought a top-of-the-line filet knife instead, a long light blade that would be more versatile in the end. I was being very maudlin around this time.

Gradually it became obvious that my plan was not a good one. Like so many of my ideas around this time—I was drinking then; I couldn’t stop—it was grandiose and over-complicated. There were too many places to lose control, too many opportunities for mere injury. You have the river, who needs a knife? Weeks passed, July and then August ended, and still I never went down the hill to stare into the Hudson, waiting for someone to ask me why I was there so much. I let the knife go dull. The plan began to waver and then to disperse. For some time that plan had been heavy and substantial, a thing I tended to. I often imagined it rounded as a heart and netted with blood vessels—an eyeless, pulsing creature I had cupped my hands around for months at a time—but now it thinned and flattened to a membrane, until I could pass my hand right through it.


Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not For Long and You’re Not You and editor of the anthology Food & Booze. She is a senior editor at Tin House Magazine.

By that Park Up the River by Sing Sing by Aldina Vazao Kennedy

OBJECTContaminated Fish

BODY OF WATERHudson River


You lay me by the Hudson. By the Prison.
Searchlight tower gone dark in kiddie park.

You came to Ossining to fetch me back.
Drove to Bronx, 2 am, for Kansas Chicken.

But I couldn’t eat, not behind their bullet-
proof glass. Not by grass, nor rocks, nor River.

Undid my strappy shoes and wet my knees.
We used to tease: fish here have three eyes.

I wished for one to jump five feet high to me.
But nothing jumped. Fish here swim furtively.

You touched my hair, then left cheek, nose, lidded
eyes, and beading downy skin leading to my lips.

Slid down my chin, round my neck, to my chest.
Stopped. My hands stilled. Half aware of where

I was. I recall flying, watching, herons
billing, shad running, hunting seagulls.


Aldina Vazão Kennedy is writing a nonfiction novel about love, authoritarianism, and rebellion in 20th century Portugal. She won a BCA BRIO fellowship in 2005 for a collection of short stories about her family’s history. Kennedy directed the 2010 Sarah Lawrence College Poetry Festival, the largest free poetry festival in New York State. Her poetry appears in Underwater New York, an online anthology. Kennedy won a Pulitzer for spot reporting in 1992 for her team covering of the Union Square subway crash. She majored in foreign policy and diplomacy at Brown University and has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.