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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.

Waste Collectors by Charulata Sinha

OBJECT: Tons of Silt

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


 

No one thought much of it when the garbage men went on strike. They had a list of twenty demands pinned to every signpost and streetlamp. Later I would learn that it was a city-wide effort, but at the time, I thought it was only local. One demand was bolded and italicized: We prefer to be called waste collectors. I supposed this was valid in the same way prostitutes prefer to be called sex workers. Both groups wanted to do away with euphemisms and get down to the nitty-gritty: we collect waste; we have sex. I thought this was only fair enough. Everyone in my building figured it all would be resolved quickly. My landlord assured us these man-babies would cave for the right number. Mostly, people didn’t care about the waste collectors and their fledgling revolution. Evidently their demands weren’t met, because the flyers started multiplying on stoops and doorsteps, escaping their paperweights ten-fold and fluttering in the breeze like many-winged birds. And then there was the trash.

Piles of trash, abandoned on every street corner. Big, black-tar garbage bags down to tiny takeout boxes littered the sidewalk, spilling out of bulging bins. All manner of filth, strewn across the concrete, baked in the summer sun: fish heads, milk jugs, moldy bread, tampons, cheese rind, toilet paper, plastic coffee stirrers, socks, water bottles, beer cans, old sponges, mattresses, an entire toilet, prescription painkiller bottles, curtains, empty soap dispensers. Odd things. Things that used to be whisked away and sunk. After, I thought a lot about what a comforting bit of sorcery that was. What charitable magic the garbage men used to make of the trash, to disappear it. Now the trash sat gross and naked in the accusing light. Every piece was a tiny ghost. It was impossible to escape these reminders of what you had used or not used, but, in any case, had thrown away.

That first week, it was summer. The sun was insistent. The light would glint off the garbage, sparkling and burning. It hurt to look at it. The smell alone; street hawkers began selling nose-plugs. People walked around with scarves wrapped around their faces or else balaclavas, so you could only see eyes, scanning for trash heaps, watering from the fumes. I wore a surgical mask for a few days, then ripped it off in frustration. It didn’t matter. Think about if your smelliest pair of socks or shorts or whatever was large enough to cradle an entire island in its girth. Now, think about going grocery shopping in that clammy, yeasty biodome. Think about three million people and think about that insistent sun and also the sweat. This is what it smelled like.

The mayor released a spineless statement. Something about the concerns of the garbage men being heard, some plan in place for city-workers to sweep up the trash. Soon after his office was swarmed with garbage. Protestors stormed city hall, heaving their Glad bags and Amazon boxes with Styrofoam peanuts through the heavy windows, blocking the entry and exit-ways, setting off the fire alarms, which then set off the sprinklers, which then sprayed tinny water on the trash, which made it soggy and solidified and even more impossible to circumnavigate. Those poor civil servants in that building. This was probably when the first undocumented death occurred. We didn’t hear from the mayor after that. The remaining city-workers quietly quit their jobs. No one wanted to take care of the trash. It was already filling the streets, pouring into parks and highways and every inch of public space. It became impossible to drive a car. People deserted them in the streets, and they too would fill with garbage, stale noodles decorating the headlights, plastic cups pressed up against windows.

The garbage men were somewhere laughing. Think about the profession that we value most. Neurosurgeon, maybe. But what do we stand to lose if neurosurgeons stop doing their job? A couple thousand lives, tops. Probably your grandmother. Sad, but workable. What we stood to lose if the garbage men stopped doing their jobs—this is what we found out.

People tried staying indoors, holed up in their apartments, faces turned resolutely towards the hum of tired fans. Then we lost power. The trash had toppled the wires, destroying the electrical exoskeleton of the city, phone lines curving artfully out of their posts. The Internet disappeared not long after. Still, like children, we curled up in our tiny rooms high above the streets, which were, by this time, completely covered with a brown-red mass of filth, hardened, mold-like. But the garbage soon forced its way into every building, knocking down doors, squeezing people out of windows and onto fire escapes. The sheer force of the trash cannot be overstated. The garbage flood flung us out of our rooms and back into the streets. Those that didn’t escape their apartments were buried alive in the garbage, limbs sticking out of the plastic-cardboard-glass mishmash. This is how my brother died.

Those first few days without power, without Internet, and without roofs over our heads were terrifying. Crowds of people gathered in the streets, dumbfounded, all of us walking aimlessly on top of the trash, which was piled on the concrete about 15-feet deep, forming a squishy but stable ground. I roamed for hours, unsure of what to do with myself. In most places, the trash had completely coagulated, so that you could walk on it like you would a beach or marsh. In some areas, though, the garbage melted into something more liquid than solid. In these cases, you had to swim, holding your breath, hoping a piece of plastic didn’t lodge in your throat. Enterprising young men built makeshift boats out of old bed frames and cardboard boxes and maneuver them through these tricky spots like gondoliers in some terrible Venice.

I met Henry while scavenging for a pair of shoes. I lost mine to a trash rivulet. He handed me a pair of men’s dress shoes, fancy with soft interiors. For a time, we sat wordlessly on a pile of old picture frames, fishing spare goods out of the rubble. It could have been two hours or three days. A middle-aged Slovakian woman named Bubba joined us. She didn’t speak English and this absolved us of small talk. We slept in a row, curled like question marks around each other.

People constructed tiny forts out of sheet metal and cloth, families huddled inside. In this way tent cities popped up in the more populated of areas. They were no match for the angry rain that beat against us as summer slumped into fall. The rain filled even the most solid of trash heaps, so they wept a strange pus if stepped on. Children began to get sick, the babies crying loudly and angrily as the storm grew deeper and more Biblical. Thunder struck a particularly oily spot of old Chinese food and electrocuted everyone within a block radius. Eventually the babies stopped crying. I saw a toddler who had forgotten what food was chewing contentedly on a flip-flop.

Food was everywhere and nowhere. Mold grew on every surface. Each potential meal was covered in the stuff. Fruits and vegetables were long gone, disintegrated into soupy sludge. Eggs lay cracked open, bleeding yolk onto old TVs and heaps of office paper. Bread was unrecognizable, radioactive. Our best hope was nonperishables—cans of preserved corn, chewy crackers in bulk boxes. But even those were overrun with roaches. The roaches, I think, had undergone some sort of rapid Darwinian transformation, discovering that this was indeed the environment to which they were most aptly suited. They grew wilier, smarter, scarier. They developed huge pincers, and would hide in boxes of cereal and wait for us, daring. When they bit, they drew blood, and did not run away but simply hung on, lodged indefinitely, their glassy black backs hard and smooth against our skin. The rats grew to the size of house cats. They lounged liberally in the middle of the street, stomachs distended and veiny, exhausted and satiated.

Neighborhood lines faded away. Each area was defined only by its trash. You could tell the higher-income districts by their specific garbage—organic linen instead of two-ply, artisanal jars of sundried tomatoes and wheatgrass concentrate. But high-class trash was still trash. This was at least an equalizer, which was comforting for some of us. We navigated the island by newly formed landmarks—the mountain of staplers and chip bags south of the waterfall of margarita mixer. It was quicker and easier to move by swinging from the sides of buildings using the high-fiber cable-wire Bubba had discovered by the heap of coffee stirrers. This was not as graceful, or as fun, as you might imagine. It was a complicated, fiddly piece of business, hooking the wire into our belt loops, securing it onto a fire-escape ladder. Henry nearly tumbled to his death trying to navigate off a high-rise which had no neighboring building because, as we later figured out, it bordered a park.

A new world order emerged from the trash. Tribes formed and warred. A favorite tactic was setting the garbage piles on fire. Sulfurous pillars of smoke marked the contested spots. Gormless, we stumbled headfirst into danger and each time extracted ourselves, sticky and panting. Henry once set up camp for the night, only to discover the next morning that his cable-wire had been stolen by guerilla fighters. A barter economy developed. One could trade a piece of cloth for a bag of gummy worms, but one couldn’t trade a bag of gummy worms for a toothbrush, because toothbrushes were now useless. These were the types of unspoken rules that we all had no trouble learning. Bubba was particularly adept at trading for food. She would leave with a single metal shower rod and come back beaming, arms stuffed with cans of sweet potatoes.

The days slid into months, which slid into years, and I discovered a slimy film developing over my skin, the result of hundreds of grease fires and the collective chemical oil of the island. I wondered if I would turn green, like a slice of supermarket sheet cake. Henry developed a hacking cough. Bubba and I worried for him. There was no time for sickness. We were always moving. We had to be smart and mean. If someone asked me for food, begging on the ground, crying, I turned away, eyes slanted towards my destination. Which is how I moved through the world before all of this happened.

One morning I heard a voice, ringing clear and true as a bell through the usual ruckus of the dawn. I crept up carefully, so as not to wake up Bubba and Henry. I followed the voice.

“You are good, you are motivated, you are helpful.”

I stepped around a corner, dodging a rolling ball of crusted-up underwear.

“Try to think of one positive change you can enact today.”

I discovered an old man in a lavender beanie, crouched with his knees pressed to his chest.

“You are a shining light of goodwill. Pass along a kind act.”

He was listening to a self-help book. Everyone’s electronics had run out of battery years ago. It had been so long since I had heard a voice from a machine.

“You are more than the sum of your parts.”

I slunk closer, and accidentally stepped on his coat. He flinched, drawing back to look up at me. He looked angry, as if I had stolen something that was intimately his.

“Fuck off,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

That morning the sun rose like fire over the grainy horizon. Sunrises were beautiful here, it had to be said. The greasy air bent the orange into prisms of hollow, pure light. I nudged Bubba awake. We were moving further uptown that day. We each hooked an arm under Henry’s armpits, hoisting him up. By this point, he was too weak to stand. The sludge had found its way into his lungs, breaking apart cilia like matchsticks. We found a quiet spot underneath an old signpost. Caution: Slow Down, Children Crossing. Time unspooled, and the sky remained a fickle grey as weeks flickered past. It was impossible to tell whether it was night or day, the air so thick and opaque that Henry simply lay down and never got up.

About a year later, Bubba and I were scavenging for Nilla Wafers, since we had heard there was a box underneath a pile of child-size sneakers. This was when we heard the shouting. A monstrous ferry was nearing the island, the kind of big boat that seems like an affront to the laws of physics. A man in a hazmat suit motioned us towards the onboarding line, and, unquestioning, we shuffled into place. It was winter, and the snow crunched beneath our feet. It was a yellow-green color. We were careful not to sniff it or get the watery residue on our hands.

I hadn’t considered leaving the island before this. The rich had been air-lifted out of the city within the first week of the disaster, but the rest of us had stayed, through the garbage and the death. It’s not that we rejected the idea of leaving, only that we had never sought escape. It was part of an unwritten social contract that we had all signed upon moving to the island all those years ago, blithely unaware of what was to come. You move to this wretched place from your small towns, from your boring flyover states, determined to thrive, no matter what the stupid, unbearable cost. Once you get here, there is slim chance you will leave, because wherever you came from was decidedly worse than this, which is, after all, why you are still here, miserable, fishing spare change out of Swiss-holed-pockets to buy a twelve-pack of ramen at the bodega.

I stood with the rest of the exodus, pressed against the railings of the ferry, sailing across the river slick with silt. I looked out at the trash city, and mostly I was sad. Living inside the muck had flattened me, made me part of a collective, sinewy whole. For years, we had crouched in the heart of a massive and terrible organism and every breath we took, it took also. The city was the trash was us was the trash was the city. There was a poetry to it that I couldn’t name. I knew that I couldn’t go back now that I had left, that to do so was to violate something sacred. I peeled my fingernails clean from their nail beds and yielded each to the water below. For every fingernail, a navy funeral.


Charulata Sinha is a student at New York University. Her work has been featured in Mcsweeney'sThe RumpusAfropop WorldwideVice, and Write Bloody Publishing

 

 

 

 

 

The Fact That it Can Do This Without Falling Apart by Tia Anae

OBJECT: Rubik's Cube

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


The evening skyline in late August looks cold from the High Line, but it’s 75 degrees with humidity. People are up here with me—the 22-year-old west coast naïf—but I’m the only one around watching the black sky and blacker water. A loud someone takes a photo to my right and the flash lingers, icy and white, when they walk away. I stand at the railing, pretending to look native, despite my backpack, and not clueless, despite the Google map I’ve got queued up on the phone in my pocket. I’m short a dad double-fisting a hot dog and a Big Bus brochure—which is my actual dad right now in our Times Square hotel.

I didn’t know until eavesdropping on a tour that this place is called the High Line, and I found it by following the water. I walked from Greenwich Village through I think the Meatpacking District then down a side street. In new places, I’m almost always geographically stupid, and here is no exception. In my solo ambling, I forgot New York had rivers, or honestly, water. So coming from California—a place well known for its water (and more recently its lack of it)—when I saw what I didn’t know until later was the Hudson, instinct reeled me in.

Another thing I didn’t know until later is that about three summers ago, a giant Rubik’s Cube sailed down this Hudson River for its 40th anniversary and its creator’s 70th birthday. Architecture professor Erno Rubik, who invented the cube to teach 3D movement, created an object that didn’t disassemble when it twisted and turned. Originally it was named for this phenomenon: the Magic Cube.

Walking along the High Line, I’m interested in the lookouts that line the path and face the river. I stop at one, a blue metal table and matching chair. Perched awkwardly near the middle of the pathway, under this low concrete archway, they’re inviting in a somber way. I sit there for the view of the water, which is not much of a view because of the arch, but I can see the white and yellow city lights twitching and poking out of the black sky. I don’t sit in this spot long because I soon feel in the way. A herd of people drifts by. Like a boulder in a current, I’m by no means a barrier—they slip around and past me after all—but I feel obtrusive. Too aware of my singularity here, I stand up and keep walking. And anyway, that’s how they do it here. No one stops.

Well, but I do. Two minutes later, I turn right and stop again at another railing to watch the water from a different angle. From here, I can see on the water’s surface the reflection of the W Hotel’s red ‘W,’ big and ostentatious across the river. The red light has lost its shape in the water and moves like crimson oil in the ripples. The surrounding water is deeply black against the skyline’s halation.

It’s almost ridiculous now to think of a massive toy floating downstream here. Maybe it’s the nighttime, or something high brow I’m sensing about this well-groomed High Line, but New York—while home to eccentricity, no doubt—seems severe; severe in a way that could call an icon ersatz or shrug off avant-garde as camp. A Rubik’s Cube on the Hudson sounded like Lady Liberty on ice. After all, the cube itself looks, despite its complex mechanics, elementary. And apparently this was intentional. When designing it, Erno Rubik needed a type of coding to orient the cube’s rotations. The simplest and strongest answer, he said, was color. So he assigned one to each of its six sides. The cube’s a black skeleton covered in color—blue, green, white, yellow, orange, and red—making it a kind of a geometric circus box. Maybe it’s fitting then that the giant Rubik’s Cube that floated down the Hudson River was inflatable. The ballooning that typically makes recreational air-filled things hard to take seriously actually made the scrambled cube immobile, and thus unsolvable. New York seems too smart to have missed this.

A couple joins me on the railing, so close to me that I try to slide away in that subtle polite way we’re taught to give space to people who didn’t ask for it. I’m out of railing though—we’re sandwiched between beds of greenery—so I turn away and rest my elbow on the rail’s edge. Watching the water this way is a neck cramp, so I look to the right and see a sculpture among the plants. I leave the railing for a better view; the sculpture is white and wraith-like in the evening backlight. Growing out of the black dirt in a line are four structures that look to me like melting steamboat cylinders. The plaque below tells me this is an abstraction of a hand called Amulet II, part of a multi-artist exhibition called Mutations. The High Line Art website tells me Mutations examines “how the boundaries between the natural world and culture are defined, crossed, and obliterated” and asks, “as technology becomes more invisible and genetic engineering more conceivable, how do the delineations between nature and culture shift and transform?” A woman in an orange cardigan moves to stand between the sculpture and me. I side-step her and twist through an oncoming wave of humans.

***

The Rubik’s Cube is made of 20 small cubes called “cubies”—12 edge pieces and 8 corner pieces—and a 6-bolt rotating core. Speedcubers, competitive Rubik’s Cube solvers, advise beginners to think of the whole cube in terms of these smaller cubies, rather than the stickers on each edge. They refer to memorized solution sequences as algorithms, which in math speak are instructions for arriving at a final state through successive, defined states. Some steps in the sequence affect others, some don’t—some have side effects, some are solo shifters with delayed realignment. There are 43 quintillion ways to scramble a Rubik’s Cube; if you had one cube for every permutation and laid them end-to-end, they would stretch 261 light years or cover the earth in 273 layers.

By now I’ve left the sculpture and found a chessboard, an art installation called chess: relatives. It’s an interactive piece and you play the game by replacing the chess pieces with people, who represent different family members. The board is white with 64 squares, each with the word “white” or “black” written on them. Standing beside it, I read that the artist, Darren Bader, “bridges absurdity and sincerity, resulting in humorous, tongue-in-cheek works that question how certain things—objects, events, thoughts, or concepts—come to be honored as art objects.” Given my conditioned fear of scolding for touching artwork, I don’t want to know the consequences of stepping on it. I make a point of walking around the board to get back to the path.

Rubik’s official website will tell you, “Erno has always thought of the Cube primarily as an object of art, a mobile sculpture symbolizing stark contrasts of the human condition: bewildering problems and triumphant intelligence; simplicity and complexity; stability and dynamism; order and chaos.” When I found this, post-High Line, I thought of the John Guare play, Six Degrees of Separation. I first saw the film adaptation in high school. Two of the main characters are an affluent couple, an art dealer named Flan and his wife, Ouisa. They own a double-sided Kandinsky, which in the film is painted on one side with his radical Black Lines (1913) and on the other with his geometric Several Circles (1926). There’s a scene where Flan spins the Kandinsky around and around as Ouisa chants hypnotically, “chaos, control, chaos, control.” In another scene, she tells her daughter about the theory of Six Degrees of Separation—the idea that each of us is connected by six other people. She says, “I find that extremely comforting that we’re so close, but I also find it like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the connection.” Years later, it was always her “chaos, control” bit that haunted me. But now it’s her frustration with this hex-web and her concern with human proximity—at once invisible, precise, and obvious—that either intrigues or depresses me; I can’t tell which.

I walk along the High Line a bit longer and search for a place to view the river one more time. I find it near the restrooms. When looking for a way to explain three-dimensional movement to his students, Erno Rubik took inspiration from the Danube River in Hungary. Watching it one day, he saw how the water moved around the rocks, and from this emerged the cube’s twisting mechanism. “The fact that it can do this without falling apart,” he said, “is part of its magic.”

Here at the Hudson, I lean over the corner edge of the railing and wonder what this water looks like in the daylight: if it’s blue or green, stagnant or depthless. Maybe during the day it’d be easier to see how it moves. I turn away from the water, and I notice for the first time that most of the passing pedestrians up here are, as far as I can tell, alone. They duck through and around each other deftly and without thought, sometimes reconvening a little down the path, sometimes not. Their flow is confounding and comforting and, I realize now, necessary. It’s a matter of physics: people here move to stay in motion.


Tia Anae recently graduated from Northwestern University's School of Communication. She's from the Bay Area and has been to New York exactly once. She currently lives in LA.

Bloodworms by M. A. Istvan Jr.

OBJECT: Bloodworms, Fish

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


It was striper season in the early nineties

on the eastern bank of the Hudson River,

just south of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. 

My dad, bareback-sloshed with beer and sun,

had his deep-sea pole cast for food. To him

no matter were the toxicity warnings 

on most fish north of the Tappan Zee. 

 

When my dad reeled in a hook gone empty, 

it was my job to pass him the white carton

of gas station bloodworms—too little 

to do much more than pass, too afraid 

to dig through that mesh of moist seaweed

for a seven-inch aggressive: venom-fanged, 

a band of pulsing skin tags down each side.

 

Inevitably my dad would slur, “Wanna try 

baitin’ the bitch?” His casual delivery,

so he knew, painted the task so trouble-free

that the command at the core of his question 

stood out all the more. But he was not serious.

He knew me. He would leave me nerve-racked, 

just a moment, before showing how easy it was. 

 

A squeeze to protract its eversible proboscis,

my dad would let the four black fangs pierce

his nicotine finger, leaving the worm to dangle

for me. Then he would drive the hook down 

the retracting mouth, throughout the pink body.

So much blood, the color of ours, would pool 

in the creases of his hands, dripping to rocks.


 

M. A. ISTVAN JR. is a zodiac surgeon and respected board member of the National Council for Geocosmic Research. Whereas most other zodiac surgeons are equipped to shift your sign only one position forward, Istvan can shift your sign either one position forward or—barring the unlikely circumstance that you are a menopausal Pisces with a quadruped gait—even one position back. Istvan hopes that increased awareness about zodiac surgery will help bring in the funding required for researching zodiac sign transplantation, which ideally will allow a shift to any of the twelve signs in a matter of hours (as opposed to the years it takes currently to shift just one spot). As Istvan recently revealed in an interview with Shadow Transits, he envisions a future where there will be a zodiac donor box on driver’s licenses. https://txstate.academia.edu/MichaelIstvanJr.

Mother of Exiles - the Hudson speaks to New York City by Laura Fairgrieve

OBJECT: Statue of Liberty

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


Liberty was not delivered to us in an envelope
she was shipped from grayer pastures and I
breathed life into you in a new land
I brought you here and into her arms
and I am awash of postcards and trapped lightning
I am scabbed over from the coins tossed into me
my currents were made for larger bodies

I yawn and a hundred years worth of trash
gives way to bronzed shores
bronze arms
all greenness is forgotten by the wish for heat
the hope of skin and blood to greet it

keep your pomp, my waters were meant
to rush like a busted dam
to tangle and mix with bodies tossed by
the Atlantic, the Mediterranean
born by the Queiq
to clean off the pomp of their regimes
not to paint on a new one
to surge beneath foreign ships
not to knit a net against them

ban your own pomp and if you don’t know who I mean
imagine a fountain
a pipe bursting outwards like a rocket
a rising tide erupting from an index finger
pointing into its own pale eye

my waters were meant for mightier shores
and the woman above me
shrinks at the seams
while my currents stretch like fingers
searching for the worthy whose rafts
are kept away
our golden door is bolted and
my currents itch outwards.


Laura Fairgrieve received her MFA from Adelphi University where she currently teaches. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Inscape Magazine, Mortar Magazine, Ink in Thirds, The Bitchin' Kitsch, East Coast Ink, and Words Dance Publishing. She is a recipient of the 2016 Poets & Writers Amy Award. She lives in Brooklyn. 

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.

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The Hudson River, The Trains Below by Tobias Carroll


Tell me about memory and distance and time. I don’t quite understand how they converge even now, pushing forty. I used to view distance solely in terms of time, used to think any trip that was an hour north was in the same place: visiting cousins in Bergen County, going on trips to museums in the city, venturing off to my dad’s office in North Brunswick. They were all in the neighborhood of an hour from my hometown and, being a child, I never looked at a map, never gleaned where they all were in relation to one another. I thought of everything with a flawed logic, without a sense of space or geometry. That was something I had to learn. It shifted when I went from passenger to driver, changing my relationship to the roads on which I traveled.

Cue up the next course, then; cue up the next track. In this case it was public transportation: at the age of eighteen I moved into a Manhattan dorm and began to familiarize myself with the New York City subway system and its cousin, the PATH train. I’d taken the subway once or twice before, most memorably to save money on parking when friends and I had driven up to see Pink Floyd at Yankee Stadium in the summer of 1994. But the subway took some work, even considering that I was taking it in the most simplistic manner possible: largely, between Greenwich Village and Midtown. Brooklyn was a mystery to me then, a place where I’d travel with carefully remembered directions; Queens and the Bronx and Staten Island were even less on my radar.

I’m pretty sure that the first trip I made on the PATH was to the Newport Centre Mall, along with my oldest friend. I don’t remember what the purpose of the trip was. It might have just been that most archetypal and predictable of decisions made by people who grew up in the Garden State: we missed seeing the inside of a mall. The PATH is similar enough to the subway that it shouldn’t feel all that different, and yet it does. Some of that pertains to the stations, with tiled floors and walls that look more roughly hewed. Some of it is the smell–-not a bad one by any means, but a more industrial one, and one that’s sufficiently different from the subway to be easily recognizable as such. Blindfold someone and place them in the 9th Street PATH station, then lead them one block away to the 8th Street entrance to the station housing the A/C/E and B/D/F/M lines. There’s a noticeable difference there, despite their proximity and similarity of function.

In those days, the train seemed to take ages between the Christopher Street stop and its next destination, either Hoboken or the Pavonia-Newport station, depending on the line for which you’d opted. In college, I made that trip frequently–-sometimes to see movies at the Newport Centre Mall, sometimes to meet up with a friend at the Hoboken stop and drive around the northern part of the state talking about punk bands. The spaces between stops in Manhattan felt fast and regular: 33rd to 23rd to 14th to 9th to Christopher. And then, the wait.

That gap under the Hudson no longer seems as long, and I’m at a loss as to why. Maybe the speed of services has improved in the last twenty years. Maybe I’ve gotten more familiar with the route and it simply seems faster. I’ve kept on taking the PATH from Manhattan to Hoboken. I’ve kept on taking it to Pavonia-Newport, to visit friends or pick up rental cars in the mall’s parking garage. I’ve taken it to Grove Street for bookstores and bars. And in recent years I’ve also become familiar with the World Trade Center’s PATH station, traveling to Harrison repeatedly to watch soccer games and, for a little less than a year, to the Exchange Place station as part of my morning commute.

***

It’s a strange corner of Jersey City. Pavonia-Newport abounds with towering apartment buildings and office spaces. Grove Street and Journal Square feel comfortable and residential: they’re places where people live, shop, and eat. Exchange Place felt disorientingly generic, as though I was walking through a video game’s idea of what a waterfront business district looked like. The PATH train was the last leg of my trip there in the mornings and the first leg of my trip home at night. Sometimes I’d sit and drink a cup of coffee and write at the Starbucks next to the station first. Sometimes I’d be there late and I’d go straight to the station and begin the slow trip home.

After a while the routine got to me. The temporary platform to which the train ran in Manhattan made for a bleak start to the commute back, and the tendency of those waiting on the platform for the New Jersey-bound train to push their way on before those of us who were heading into the city had had a chance to disembark added to the frustration. Atop an already-jittery work situation, this seemed to be one source of stress that I had some ability to work around. So the trip home found some variations; I sought new ways to cross rivers.

I began to take a roundabout way home: a ferry from Jersey City to South Street Seaport, and then a second ferry from there to a stop closer to my neighborhood. A large boat on the East River, and a smaller boat to cross the Hudson. It was a welcome change; it was nice to sit and stand and look out and see the open sky, to watch the blue and the clouds above. The sensation of moving down the river with skylines on either side, the sense of being surrounded by life on all sides. There’s a certain point where the sky starts to seem like something alien, where cloud formations resemble structures and vessels hanging impossibly in the distance. I welcomed it.

It wasn’t an everyday occurrence. And for all that I live near a ferry stop, it isn’t really a service I use regularly. It is hard to argue with the frequency and utility of the city’s train systems. Even so, the drift and the different types of motion are welcome. It’s a reminder of something older and something rapid. It’s a trip out of the tunnel; it’s an elision of time and distance. It’s a crossing of an empty space, or the realization of new ways to move, and a welcome conveyance home. 


Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has been published by Bookforum, Men's Journal, Tin House, Hazlitt, and Rolling Stone. He is the author of the collection Transitory and the novel Reel. He's on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.

Hudson Everyday by Maxine Henryson

This group of photographs was a part of the AIR Gallery summer exhibition, "If These Walls..." on Governor's Island. AIR Gallery and UNY initiated a collaboration where three writers created poems based on a water-inspired work from the exhibition. Poet Katy Lederer worked from Maxine Henryson's "Hudson Everyday"--you can read her poems here



Artist's Statement

The photographs in the series Everyday were taken from the train windows during my weekly commutes from New York City to Vermont. (1997-2006)

1.
Mountain, Everyday, 1999
Ektacolor print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

2. 
Lower Hudson River, Everyday, 2000
Ektacolor print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

3. 
Winter, Everyday, 1999
Ektacolor print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

4.
Castle, Everyday, 1999
Ektacolor print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

5.
Autumn, Everyday
Ektacolor print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

6. 
River, Everyday, 1999
Ektacolor print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

7. 
Treetops, Everyday, 1999
Ektacolor print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

8. 
Reflecting, Everyday, 2001
Ektacolor, print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

9.
Spring Again, Everyday, 1999
Ektacolor print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

10.
Still Light, Everyday, 2002
Ektacolor print
20 x 24.25 inches
Edition 1 of 6

 

 


Maxine Henryson is an artist and bookmaker who creates sensual, poetic photographs of the seemingly everyday. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, she lives and works in New York. She studied sociology at Simmons College, Boston (Bachelor of Science), and the University of London (Master of Philosophy) and has a Master of Arts in Teaching degree in studio arts from the University of Chicago and a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her photographs have been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe and are in numerous public and private international collections, including the former Celanese Photography Collection, Frankfurt; the Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg; and the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida.

 

Web Waters by Alice Neiley


There’s a perfect view of the ocean if I sit on the highest monkey bars of a Battery Park playground, or on one of the blue chairs that face north in the Poets House library across the street. Tree branches block the reality of an opposite shore. Green and yellow leaves catch Manhattan’s gauzy sunlight and the water appears endless; the Hudson River is the sea.

This won’t work in the winter of course, but for now, early October, my imaginary ocean and I still have another month or so together. Soon, I’ll just be watching as the river flows toward the New York Harbor, underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and into the darker, truer sea I can’t see from here.

Sometimes I wonder if love is fate, a choice, or what. Can you make a list of what’s in it? 

*

Before moving to the city, I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a small fishing village at the tip of Cape Cod. I jumped in the water every day my last year there—no wetsuit—even in January. Patchy sheens of ice over the beach some mornings, I’d dive in head first, breath leaving my body as if sucked through a vacuum. The quiet cold would tighten around me fast, squeezing all the energies I’d ever had through my body and just like that, I’d be wrapped in a rumpled towel, strangely warm. The whole experience never lasted more than five minutes. It was like being shot from the belly of a firecracker for the hundredth time—both mechanical and explosive.

I told people I did it for the invigoration, the kick-start to my day. But really it was for the moment between underwater and running to shore. When I’d burst back into the December, January, February air, only my skin noticed if there was sun, or snow, or waves. My skin woke up, questions disappeared, and for that moment there was nothing else to say or think, nothing else about me at all.  

 

Since moving to New York, I’m prone to anxiety attacks. Sweaty, chest tightening choke holds that seem to come out of nowhere—in the middle of a quiet stretch of Central Park, in the middle of a meal, in the middle of the night. I found Battery Park a few weeks ago, and watching the boats drift on their moorings, I can breathe.

I’ve started to make a mental list of all accessible bodies of water near the city, researched where the water is deepest, most swimmable.

“Hell’s Gate,” a portion of The Narrows tidal straight where the New York Upper Bay, Long Island Sound, and the Hudson River intersect, is 35’ to 40’ deep. But even though the tides keep the area relatively clean, I’d need a boat in order to take a dip out there, and probably a tether to attach myself to its cleat. That same tidal flow can speed up to 5.0 knots depending on the wind and lunar cycle, increasing the depth and current to a swirl unforgiving to swimmers.

When my girlfriend, Karen, and I are  apart, I think about her hands a lot. Even for the longer, three month stretches we’ve spent in each other’s company, I’ve never been able to stop looking at them: her long fingers typing, turning a key, braiding between mine like the beginnings of a web.

One winter visit to Ottawa, near sunrise, Karen threw on a giant hoodie sweatshirt and went downstairs to get a fire going. I got up, stood by the window, and rubbed my eyes. There. There was the ocean. I pressed my nose up against the snow spattered glass and almost yelled out why didn’t you tell me it was here!, when a pink and blue tinted cloud lifted, and the smoke stacks across the city appeared, the hard angles of houses.

“Hey do you think the almond milk from last week is still good?” Karen called up the stairs; she knows I like it in my coffee.  

I sat down on the bed. I covered my eyes with my hands and rubbed, trying to get the ocean back.

I sometimes still wish she would figure out a way to bring it to me, even just a little piece—a piece of my old self for this new, concrete self I don’t recognize at all.

“I’m never going to be able to buy you a nice sweater for a gift, am I?” she joked once. I wanted to tell her that of course she could. I wanted to say I’d love anything from her. A sweater, a bunch of flowers. I wanted to be an easier person. But what I wanted even more was proof that if I was to forget who I was, she would remember. I wanted her to know that one rose and a bouquet of carnations were found in New York City’s Dead Horse Bay, still fresh and colorful, probably not even a day old. I wanted her to know—osmosis, telepathy—that those flowers would be a perfect gift. Or a photo of those flowers, or even if she had been the person to tell me about them—how they survived underwater and died when they were pulled out.

 

There’s a tangle of cross currents known as the “The Spider” off Battery Park. The Hudson’s breadth and the East River’s fast flow converge at their worst about two hours after high tide. The current rushes north in the Hudson River and west from the East River. This spidery water movement can cause ships to be trapped, unable to turn or change course under their own power. For hours, no one realizes they’re motionless, stuck, even in the place they most understand how to navigate.

*

When I turn all the other lights off, my room is illuminated only by a string of Christmas lights, completely green. For a moment I’m not pretending to be somewhere else. I’m not wishing whatever I’ve left behind would come back.

The Hudson River is not the ocean, but they’re the same color, especially when the light hits at 6pm. My room is suddenly the flashing safety light on top of coast guard stations, buoys, lighthouses, ship masts, underwater forests. 


Alice Neiley has a BA in English from the University of Vermont and an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from Hunter College in New York City. Her work has been published in Vermont Quarterly, Nashville Review, Eckleburg Review, Brandeis University’s Kniznick Gallery, ReSearch: Ezine of Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, ReviewYou, Tottenville Review, ReviewYou.com, Tahoma Review, Provincetown Arts Magazine, and now Underwater New York. She currently works as a creative writing professor for undergraduates at Hunter College.

 

The Bicentennial by Claudia Isler

OBJECT: Eels, shoes, fish

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


All these white people with blankets and bottles of wine and bits of cheese were camped out along the river to see the tall ships. It was hot as fuck, New York summer wet, with the stink of garbage and something worse, something I don't have a name for.

Mom took me and my little brother to the West Side to see them. The boats were pretty cool, from all over the world. The best was the Amerigo Vespucci, from Italy--I had just learned about that explorer at school. The ship was huge and had more sails than I'd ever seen before. The closest I'd ever been to a sailboat was the models people played with in Central Park. We just went over to a railing and watched for a while. While we were watching, all of a sudden it started pouring. It had been sunny but we were drenched. We ran for a bus, and when we got back east, we saw it hadn't rained there at all. For laughs we told our older brother we'd fallen in the river, and he believed us. Dummy.

Not everyone was excited about the boats and the Bicentennial, though. No flag-waving. Plenty of illegal fireworks lit on rooftops uptown later that night, but not patriotism, not hooray for America.

Sitting with Indira and Saribel that night, after the heat of all the July Fourth celebrations, talking a little but mostly listening to their parents, we heard about Ray and his family. Kids knew to shut up. It was the best way adults would forget you were there and say all kinds of stuff—gossip, curse words, dirty jokes. Saribel's dad, Mr. Desoto, was saying that Ray's mom never took good care of him and that his older brother was a waste of space. "Of course that kid died. Ain't nobody looking out for him." But then Mrs. Desoto and Indira's mom started speaking in Spanish, real fast, "takatakatakak" and I lost the rest. But we looked at each other, like, Ray died? What?
Saribel said, "Mamí, did you say Ray died?"
Mrs. Desoto looked at us then like she just noticed we were there. "Pobrecito," she said, "he fell in the river, mi iha. He couldn't get back out."

We didn't know what to do. We just sat. No more talking. Sounds of adult conversation, iced drinks, traffic, radios, and basketballs ran together into a peace of white noise that held us, suspended. Seems like we were always finding out stuff that way, overhearing our mothers. The only protection from bad news was to walk away, to do anything not to hear. My mother was always talking on the street to somebody, no matter where we were going or what kind of hurry we were in. We'd be standing there forever, but I'd hear how my friend's father was a drunk, how they all got in a big fight and even the women left with black eyes (somebody hit somebody with a big, heavy telephone receiver). How he'd been drunk when he drove us across town to the movies, how he'd drink in the bathroom in the morning when I was there for a sleepover. I heard about my own dad's cheating. I heard how my brother was selling drugs to my teacher.

It's pretty amazing that most of these people are still alive.

But not Ray.

They were messing around, Ray and his brother ’Nesto, and ’Nesto threw one of Ray's sneakers into the water. They were laughing and all, I heard. I guess Ray thought he knew what he was doing, and I know he would've caught hell from his mother over the shoe, so he jumped in after it. While I was looking at boats, Ray was drowning. Kids kept talking for months about how an electric eel came and wrapped itself around him, but that didn't happen. The kid drowned, is all. But there always has to be some story.

I looked it up the other day. There are eels in the river. But they're not electric eels. Those critters pack around 600 volts, get to be eight feet long, and live in the Amazon. Different jungle.

After the Bicentennial, I thought about Ray a long time, not with the eels, but what it must be like to drown. The river wasn't clean, for sure. Not like some blue Caribbean paradise. It was dark green, and it was hard to see anything moving in it. Except for its flow, it looked almost like a solid, like Jell-o made from the liquid that runs out of the garbage cans on the corner. When I lay in bed at night trying to go to sleep, I'd imagine Ray suspended there in the deep dark green, and I'd panic. He didn't struggle. He floated there in my imagination, wide-eyed, looking straight at me while small fish nipped at his shirt, at his sneakerless foot. It haunted me in the dark--during the day I could shake it off.

Raymond was the kind of kid you were friends with at school but not at home. You might invite him to your birthday party, but only if you were inviting most of the class. He was small boned and light brown, and he had a scar near his right eye in the shape of a crescent moon. I asked him a couple times how he got it, but he said he didn't remember. I didn't believe him. It looked like something anybody'd remember. His older brother was kind of a jerk. Ray was nice and all, but he was a little hyper, and that just got annoying sometimes. Thinking about it, it isn't so surprising he jumped in the river. But he was the first person I knew who died. And he was just a kid, a little kid, like me.

After a month or two, the dream of him floating there in the river didn't scare me anymore. It became like a visit we would have. He didn't look sad or scared, and sometimes he even smiled or waved at me, so I'd know he could see me, too. I started to look forward to it. I think it made me feel better, like he wasn't really dead.

And in the fall, kids at school talked like it was gossip, not like something really bad happened. None of the teachers said a word about it, and there was no assembly or grief counseling. It was one of those things that happened, like when Meryl's sister got arrested for beating Meryl so bad she couldn't come to school for a week, or when Cindy's brother went to jail and got disowned by his family for stealing from St. Francis, up the street. Cindy's mom crossed herself every five seconds, but she couldn't erase the shame.


Claudia Isler is a New Yorker living in the South. Naturally, she writes about the city of her memories. She's the Vice President of Seven Cities Writers Project, a non-profit bringing free writing classes to under-served communities in southeastern Virginia. Previous publications include five non-fiction books for children and young adults.

Water by Elizabeth Bradley

Elizabeth L. Bradley has contributed to Underwater New York, Salon, Smithsonian.com, and Gothamist. "Water" is excerpted from her new history, "New York," by permission of Reaktion Books, London, England (please note Anglicized spelling throughout). "New York" is available for purchase here


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.

It is tempting to suggest that circumnavigating the island is the best way to enjoy its coasts. How else can a visitor be sure to see the fabled ‘Little Red Lighthouse’ perched on Jeffrey’s Hook just under the George Washington Bridge? Or catch a glimpse of the mysterious and deadly East River strait of Hell Gate, made famous by the stories of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and by HMS Hussar, a British frigate that sank there in 1780, supposedly with a cargo of gold that has never been recovered? For the intrepid, the non-profit group Shorewalkers hosts an annual ‘Great Saunter’ around the island every spring: 32 miles, rain or shine, extra socks encouraged. But Manhattan’s shores are easier than ever to discover in smaller increments, thanks to Hudson River Park, a 550-acre park that runs from 59th Street south to Battery Park and includes every possible amenity from batting cages and a carousel to rock climbing and a trapeze school. It also includes the busiest bike path in the United States, which pedestrians cross at their peril. Brooklyn Bridge Park, on the other side of the East River, compresses some of the same programmes into a much smaller footprint: 85 acres in the shadow of the bridge, including public boating, a restored 1922 carousel in a Jean Nouvel-designed acrylic-and-steel hangar and artisanal lobster rolls. Unlike Hudson River Park, on the Brooklyn side visitors can actually dip their fingers (and their feet) in the salty estuarial water of the East River, thanks to several pebbly bays scattered throughout the park, and when a passing barge or ‘booze cruise’ sends a wake towards the shore, the gentle waves breaking on the shore might briefly be mistaken for an oceanfront beach – briefly.

If circumnavigation still appeals, there is a smaller, more verdant island that can satisfy the most ardent shorewalker without risk of blisters. That is Governors Island, the former military base, now partly open as a public park and easily covered on foot or by bike (after a quick ferry ride to the island from Brooklyn or Manhattan). But for visitors hoping for a chance to do their best On the Waterfront, New York’s coastline offers plenty of challenges, minus the longshoremen. Begin by canoeing with the Gowanus Dredgers on the Gowanus Canal, a nearly 2-mile-long waterway that has just been designated a Superfund site by the u.s. Environmental Protection Agency. The canal, which still serves as a shipping channel for deliveries of gravel and scrap metal to industries located on its banks,is noteworthy for the opaque, grey-green colour of its water, its noxious odour (stronger in warm weather) and its near- complete lack of animal life. No birds float on the surface of the Gowanus, and the only animals that have been spotted swimming in it are those that have made a wrong turn from New York Harbor into Gowanus Bay. Still, the canal intrigues residents and visitors as much as it alarms them. Despite its peculiar hue and stink, the Gowanus suggests something romantic and vigorous in Brooklyn’s past – and it looks quite beautiful in the moonlight. The canal’s Superfund cousin, the Newtown Creek, divides Brooklyn and Queens and has a more noble purpose: it is home to New York’s Wastewater Treatment Plant and the plant’s spellbinding, stainless-steel ‘Digester Eggs’, which look as though they were taken straight from an MGM lot to the plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The Digester Eggs are open for public tours once a month, but reservations are required, and the waiting list is long. Closed-toed shoes are a must.

In lieu of a Superfund site or two, true devotees of New York’s coasts take to the beach – in particular Coney Island, in Brooklyn, which is more famous today for its amusements (including the shiny new rides of Luna Park) than its narrow seashore, and Rockaway Beach, in Queens. The Rockaways, as the skinny Rockaway peninsula is known, comprise a diverse set of communities, from public housing projects to single- storey beach bungalows to private, gated communities, surrounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the calmer waters of Jamaica Bay. The Rockaways, and their neighbouring island of Broad Channel, were all but obliterated by Hurricane Sandy in the autumn of 2012, and the turn-of-the-century character of some of the older neighbourhoods may never be fully restored. But the A-train subway service has been restored, and with it comes one of the most peculiar of New York summer traditions: surfing the Rockaways. It is not unusual to see Manhattanites board the A-train to Far Rockaway with a longboard tucked under their arm, prepared to take public transit to the only legal ‘surfing beach’ in the five boroughs. For boarders, or those who wish to rub (wetsuited) shoulders with them, the ideal place to end a day at the beach is Rockaway Taco, a brightly-painted tin shack just off Beach 90, famous for its surfer cool, even in the face of hurricanes. The boardwalks may not yet be completely replaced, but the fish tacos are definitely back.

 

Funeral Train by Devin Kelly

OBJECT: Freight Train

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


There were four men on that train in 1865,

and all the other passengers just belongings

and the baggage of stranger souls. A Wednesday

evening. No fog. The signal given as the bridge

divided and the sloop went past. The Catskills

peeking over Peekskill like sad lovers

at a funeral. Two men hoping for a free ride

south from Albany jumping into water

to survive the crash. And the other two

drowning. And all those ignorant travellers

moving or standing miles away not knowing their things

were lost. A book of tintype photographs wearing

at its seams. The faded signature of a father. A stone

smoothed and taken from Lake Tear of the Clouds.

An hour north, a man drunk from whiskey

wandered onto the tracks and was struck.

And from that same train, another man fell

from motion sickness off the car and died.

It was all death that day. Death of memories,

and death of things that hold them. And not even

a chance to reach the city, where some stranger

might have dusted off a shirt now drowned

to dance his wife around a room and make it swirl

with the rhythm and life of things. The next day

the trains ran without delay, as usual, over that narrow

stretch of man-built land that sliced the Hudson

in two, over buoyant belongings and two dead men

finding cause to still float like children playing.

And the mountains rolled and watched, as lovers do,

some mornings, still under sheets, watching each other,

their curves of flesh like earthen things, topographic

and, even in motion, still. Just over a month later,

the train carrying Lincoln’s body rolled slow and forever,

this time north above that thin bridge where such deaths

had occurred. And people gathered at the water

to watch those nine cars pass by. And some lowered

their heads. Just as now, in this city, some stranger dies

at the moment I drop a penny. And I stoop low

and bend my chin, not knowing any circumstance

other than that there are some things worth

taking, and some worth letting go.

 


Devin Kelly is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, where he serves as the nonfiction editor of LUMINA. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Armchair/Shotgun, Post Road, RATTLE, The Millions, Appalachian Heritage, Midwestern Gothic, Meat for Tea, apt, Big Truths, Kindred, Dunes Review, Steel Toe Review, Cleaver Magazine, Passages North, Lines & Stars, and District Lit. He co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in Upper Manhattan, and teaches Creative Writing and English classes to 7th graders and high schoolers in Queens, as well as the occasional children’s poetry workshop at the New York Public Library in Harlem, where he currently lives. You can find him on Twitter @themoneyiowe.

 

 

(Untitled) by Melissa Murray

OBJECTS: Kangamouse, Monkey Blanket, Blue Crab, No Swimming Sign

BODIES OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay, Plum Beach, Hudson River



Melissa Murray is an up and coming artist living and working in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her works are large scale mixed medium on paper, with concepts focused on the combining of multiple environments in one still image. Selected group exhibitions at the MOSI Museum in Tampa, Florida, the Target Gallery in Alexandria, VA, Chashama in New York, NY and Causey Contemporary, and 3rd Ward in Brooklyn, NY. Solo exhibitions at Fuse Gallery, AdHoc Art and Causey Contemporary and Gallery SAS in Montreal. Her work has been published and/or reviewed in The Wild Magazine,  L magazine, The Village Voice, The Montreal Gazette, Juxtapoz Magazine, Beautiful Decay Magazine, Muse Magazine, Big, Red and Shiny and the NY Arts Magazine.

Stacked by Jennifer Ray Morell

OBJECT: Two Shipwrecks on Top of Each Other

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


From our beginning we've been joined, eager to take up the same space, breathe the same air. In our mother, we acted as one. We were almost born stacked, though that couldn't be. Instead we felt a moment of brief separation, a fissure. When the doctor plucked me from my mother, I reached out for my sister. I had never felt alone. 

As girls we slept in bunk beds with matching pillows and sheets, though the colors were transposed. We pulled pillows from the top and threw them to the bottom. We pulled blankets from the bottom and covered the top, until we forgot which set was ours. When I slept on the top, alone, I longed for my sister, throwing a blanket to the bottom bunk and feeling listless until she pulled to let me know she was still there. Sometimes she wouldn’t pull, pretending to be asleep or having vanished completely, and I would listen above the noise of the ceiling fan and cars driving past to hear her quiet breathing. 

If I were one, then I wouldn’t be on the top bunk. If I were one, there wouldn’t be two small desks lining the wall. If I were one, I wouldn’t feel like two. I was afraid to look over the edge to see if she was still there, to see if she ever was. Finally, she would laugh, but only when she heard my breathing change, small cries coming in waves.

I swapped cubbies in school so that ours would be stacked. Our lunches, sweaters, crayons would spill from above to below, mixing and always belonging to two. She would challenge me, trading with others to see if I would follow. High school was the same, and I wished that it was possible to remove the divider between the top and bottom lockers. 

One morning I tugged at my sister's lock after spinning right, left, right and felt resistance. She told me that it was new, that she would offer up the new combination, so I waited. It was our second severing. Later, she was not where we were supposed to meet: by the tree that looked like a deep V. I stepped up to stand in the crook between the two necks, hoping I would see her behind the crowd. I waited until the sky grew orange and pink, then dark, but my sister never appeared. When I got home, she was sitting on the couch, clutched by our mother who cried that I had been missing. “I was waiting for her!” I shouted over her wailing, and through the noise, I heard my sister’s laugh. I dragged my body, anchor and all, up the stairs and to our room. 

I saw that she had forgotten about me, like in those moments after birth when I reached for her, and she lay swaddled, alone. 

That night, in my bunk, the top bunk, I was quiet. I didn't have the words for her, and as I lay there, all I could think of was the bunk collapsing, crushing her beneath me. I thought I'd never be able to sleep. But then dreams came like flipping through a photo album: a wall being ripped from an apartment building like a doll house, people standing above and below but never knowing; a graveyard, coffin above coffin; and then, two ships in the Hudson, colliding and sinking, stacked. 

 


Jennifer Ray Morell is an MFA student in Fiction at The New School. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Sundog Lit, New School Writing, and xoJane.


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

West Side Highway by Erin Baer

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.


OBJECTTunnels

BODY OF WATERHudson River


I heard a story on NPR recently about a family living aboard a boat in the Pacific Ocean, in waters so unpredictable that they literally tied themselves to the boat in case it capsized. Though experienced sailors, eventually a health emergency forced them to send out an SOS signal. When the rescuers came, the mother explained that the hardest part wasn’t the decision to get help, it was leaving their boat: “having to say goodbye to our home.”

***

Moving to New York City from a suburban nest of quiet creature comforts is a lot like leaving that boat behind. We find refuge for our lost selves on this dry island.

During my childhood across the Hudson, I often wondered what it was, exactly, about New York that necessitated so many bridges and tunnels. From the backseat of my family’s Ford station wagon, the lanes of traffic reminded me of tiny metal specks being sucked toward the giant magnet across the river. If we opted for a bridge, I’d lean my head against the backseat window to marvel at the height. I wondered who had the audacity to build something so tall from so deep. I imagined a scuba diver boldly laying cement at the bottom of the river, flippers counterbalancing slabs of sheet rock.  On the long car ride home, we’d go under the river, my parents braving the Holland Tunnel. If I dared to doze off, the fluorescent lights would wake me up with a flickering shock. Once I learned to read, the New York/ New Jersey sign was the pivotal moment where we left behind the echo and abuse of the city, toward the quiet, frosted lawns of my suburb. I was grateful to be home.

Years later, I moved to New York for college. After my first semester, things were different. I felt adrift.

I made plans with some friends to head back into the city for a New Year’s Eve party.  In my parents’ New Jersey bathroom earlier that night, a friend tried to convince me that glasses don’t go with formal wear. The air was full of that post-Christmas pre-New Year’s sense that we must enjoy this freedom from academic obligation.  Our bellies were full of family traditions, lazy winter days of sleeping late and nights of watching films—not movies—while smoking joints in the basements of our childhood homes. We donned the costumes of our adult life, readying ourselves for one of those alcohol-addled, aimless nights in New York.

At the train station, my friend Mitchell was uncharacteristically dressed up—tie, button down, blazer, the whole works. A semester away at college and he’d shed a layer of awkwardness and was feeling brazen enough to show it.  He’d already picked up train tickets the way men find things to do with their idle hands while waiting for the women folk to prepare.

I knew I had too much make-up on when I saw his face. 

Mitchell looked around nervously bending his paper ticket in his hand so it made a u, then a lower case n. u, n, u, n.

We sputtered on and so did the Raritan Valley Line, traversing the swamplands and entering the tunnel under the river. My ears popped at the exact moment that the car went dark, as the water pressure closed in on all sides of the train. I always pictured the tunnel springing a leak, water rushing in like an open fire hydrant on a hot city street. Somehow, imagined catastrophes kept me centered, soothed me. It was the only kind of optimism that felt natural: assuring myself things could be worse.

My friend’s West Village apartment had a tiny, porthole-like window in the exposed brick of the living room. As the party raged on, I stared out at the sparkling river while I slowly sipped a rum and Coke. Known and unknown partygoers promenaded around me, one stopping to marvel the view. He said a condo would be erected before long, co-opting the waterfront bragging rights.

At some point I lost track of Mitchell.

If he felt anything for me, I didn’t know it. I was foreign to myself, unrecognizable like my own voice on a tape recording. One night between high school and college, we held hands like children and walked around my quiet, artificial neighborhood. Earlier that summer, we’d hiked through the reservation near his house to a clearing where we could see the city skyline across the river, hazy in the day, covered in smog and lazy afternoon sun. On the walk home I complained of blisters. He bandaged my foot and glanced up at me with a question in his eyes.

Mitchell confidently circled through the party that night while draining his beer. His college metamorphosis was obvious. And I wasn’t the only one seeing this version of him.  I knew what was coming, and it was wholly preventable if I could only work up the nerve.

I passively stared at him, then the patio, silently willing him out there, with my big city magnet eyes. Maybe he’d put his coat around my shoulders. We’d stare up into the night sky, and do the damn thing already.

In the moments before the ball drop, we all squeezed into the bedroom. Our party and Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve were happening simultaneously, thirty blocks apart. If I closed my eyes, the TV screen provided no boundary between the revelry of Times Square and this tiny bedroom in the West Village.

I watched an unrecognizable version of Mitchell as he slung his hand around the neck of a high-pitched, negligee-clad girl, with a lop-sided Happy New Year tiara.

I pet the cat in the corner, watching.

And then, of course, it came. Three, two, one, and all of that. Mitchell leaned in head first. He kissed her like he meant it.  Like he liked her, or her body, or thought this was the way to find someone.

Amid the confetti and noisemakers, I saw red. I left without my coat and walked the half-block to the West Side Highway, a location I’d loved since moving to Manhattan. I spent a lot of lazy afternoons weaving my way through the maddening confusion of the village, comforted when I finally saw Christopher Street spill out onto the highway, then the piers. From here I could look across the river at my hometown, making sure it saw how far I’d come.

That night I needed the piercing cold in my face, the lapping water angry at the air and resisting freezing. As I breathed in the putrid smell of the city river I felt my toes begin to numb in their silly high heels. A couple to my right leaned against the railing, clawing at each other.

I began to shiver, my shoulders hunched against my ears. I turned away from the water, back toward the city, felt the chill of dashed expectations mixed with the New Year’s first cold breezes coming off of the Hudson. Across the many-laned highway, I saw the shadow of my friend Meg. She was carrying my jacket, slung across her arms like Jesus in the Pieta.

I collapsed into a hug and, as she rubbed my back, I thought I’d try to harder to be a grown-up that year.


Erin Baer is a writer and social worker. She is involved with the organization Girls Write Now and has participated in the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband.

 

 

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. 

 

Wages of Water by Steve Mentz


 

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)

Blue Crabs in the Hudson by John Proctor

Object: Blue Crabs

Body of Water: Hudson River


proctor.jpg

The first time I met a live blue crab was on the Hudson River, in the summer of 2005. I’d taken a group of immigrant students from the Borough of Manhattan Community College to the Hudson River Museum of Art in Yonkers. We were having lunch on the pier overlooking the river when we noticed a middle-aged couple in flip-flops lounging on lawnchairs, looking out at five or six different ropes that extended into the water. Every now and then, one of them would get up, pull each rope up individually, and check a wire-mesh box at the end of it. And every now and then, they would shake a crab out of one of the boxes into a white bucket.

A group of my students surrounded the couple and began taking pictures. Both the man and the woman took the whole thing in stride, standing and posing. After serving as cameraman for most of the shoot, I asked the couple if they were planning on eating the crabs in their bucket.

“Oh yeah,” the man said, poking the crabs in the bucket with a tong, “but those are just a snack. Can’t eat a full meal of ‘em up here.”

“Why not?” I asked, their outstretched cerulean claws tapping the inside of the bucket.

“DEC,” he said.

I didn’t ask for details.

When I decided to try my hand at crabbing, I was still unsure what specifically the man was sneering at. The thrill in the idea of crabbing to me was not just pulling the spider-like creatures from their watery homes, but eating them.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) publishes a pamphlet on blue crabs in the Hudson. Strangely tucked between instructions on how to shell a crab and a recipe for crabcakes, I discovered the reason for the man’s ire:

The NYS Department of Health (DOH) recommends that women of child bearing age and children eat no crabs and that others eat no more than 6 crabs per week.

In the DOH’s advisory on eating sportfish in the Hudson, they add, “Do not eat the green stuff in crabs.” This “green stuff,” also known as the hepatopancreas, is the innards. Encased in the cavity underneath the carapace, it’s also known to seasoned eaters as the “mustard.” Part of the culinary charm of the blue crab is that it is cooked and eaten in its entirety except for the shell (and sometimes, in the case of recently molted softshells, including the shell). An unfortunate, ironic consequence of this is that its organs—particularly the hepatopancreas, which filters and contains all the toxins the crab picks up from the sludgy bottom of the river—are cooked right along with the rest of the crab. I can’t imagine anyone eating it, but the DOH’s advisory, has nothing to do with palate. The hepatopancreas is the closest thing a crab has to a liver or a spleen, so any toxins it ingests are concentrated there. And anyone who knows anything about the Hudson knows that there are plenty of toxins to pick up.

The blue crabs in the Hudson are still recovering from the industrial optimism of the Fifties. In 1995 the trade journal of the American Chemical Society, after a massive dredging cleanup in the area around Foundry Cove roughly 60 miles up the Hudson from New York City, revealed, “A nickel-cadmium battery factory released about 53 tons of mostly cadmium and nickel hydroxide suspended solid waste between 1953 and 1979 into Foundry Cove, which is tidally connected to the Hudson River estuary.”

The plant, owned by Marathon Battery, did nothing unusual. The list of organic and inorganic pollutants released into the Hudson River estuary over this period reads like a short list from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and each affects different elements and species of the Hudson in different ways.

Probably the earliest pollutant to the waters of the Hudson is Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO), a generic term for all the raw sewage that gets into the Hudson through various means. The number of sewage treatment facilities in the five boroughs, now at fourteen, has always been barely sufficient. This is never more obvious than after a hard rain or snow melt, when a person can walk to the edge of the city and see it bleeding sewage into the Hudson estuary through every crack and orifice. The main by-product of CSO is high concentrations of coliform bacteria, which were a primary reason for the downfall of New York City’s once-renowned oyster and clam fishery and still account for a large portion of the organic pollution in the Hudson estuary.

The most ubiquitous chemical pollutants in the Hudson are Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs. In liquid form they served as insulators and coolants in large industrial equipment until 1979, when they were banned by the United States Congress, three years after the DEC banned commercial striped bass fishing in the lower Hudson. Once introduced, they persist in an environment for an unknown period of time (concentrations are not much less now than they were in 1979) and they compound and accumulate up the food chain, from zooplankton to blue crabs and on up to major sportfish. Though they are considered to be on the less-dangerous end of chemical water pollutants, which might at least begin to explain why a General Electric power plant dumped between 500,000 and 1,500,000 pounds of them into the Hudson between 1947 and 1977, PCBs are a known carcinogen, as well as being known to cause skin and liver conditions. And finally, if there is an industrial fire, PCBs convert to a dioxin compound that is exponentially more dangerous.

Unlike most chemical industrial waste, dioxins have no known use, and are in fact not a catalyst but rather an unfortunate by-product of many industrial processes. Though never created intentionally, dioxins did find at least one use by the U.S. government: they were an active ingredient in Agent Orange. Like PCBs, they accumulate at the top of the food chain, and once there they compound in the fatty tissue of the organism. Particularly high concentrations may be found in breast milk, causing it to become toxic to offspring. This has caused the near-extinction of at least one species of eagle and numerous species of seals whose diets are composed mostly of large fish, and has produced the most concentrated effects among fishing communities, including the now-extinct Hudson River commercial fisheries.

The most prevalent, though by no means the only, toxic metals in the Hudson are cadmium, lead, zinc, copper, nickel, chromium, and mercury. At least one metal on the list, zinc, is beneficial in limited amounts to the human body, but all are poisonous in larger quantities. All have been listed as overabundant in the Hudson since the early Seventies; besides lead, none of their levels have been reduced appreciably since.

The collective term Poly-Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAHs, refers to most organic petroleum-related pollutant compounds, which may include mercury, lead, copper, arsenic, benzene, and toluene. You may notice an overlap here with toxic metals; this is because the term PAH classifies toxins not based on what they are, but what they do. All the toxins in this category compound more easily in oil than in water, so they won’t be found in any great amounts in water that’s not had exposure to some sort of petroleum emissions. That is to say, any water that’s had petroleum-fuel craft travel on it, or hosted industrial sites that create or use petroleum. Which is to say, any major body of water in the developed world. As with most toxins, PAH’s all affect the liver adversely, and like dioxins they are particularly dangerous to children and pregnant women—remember that advisory?—being directly linked not only to such physical effects as cancer, reduced birth weight of newborns, and heart malformation, but also, according to a 2012 Columbia University study, to child depression and behavioral issues.

Though only trace amounts of DDT remain in the Hudson it is worth mentioning, if only as a ray of hope. The seed for Silent Spring was an article Carson wrote for the The New Yorker in 1961 criticizing the blanket use of DDT as a pesticide in the areas immediately adjoining New York City. Its effects are similar to many of the toxins listed here: it accumulates up the food chain, is stored primarily in fatty tissue, and is carcinogenic. DDT almost caused the extinction of the American bald eagle, whose primary diet is large fish. In 1972, in response to Carson’s clarion call, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned agricultural use of DDT. Today, many bald eagle sightings abound in and around New York City, including one that sits atop the cross above the chapel at Manhattanville College, where I teach—a resurgence scientists and environmentalists have directly attributed to the DDT ban.

Nickel hydroxide and its battery partner cadmium are to the crab population what DDT was to the bald eagle—if any the organism ingests enough, it becomes part of its essential makeup. The major difference is that the crab is not the top of the food chain; in many cases, we are. Since the toxic effects of exposure to cadmium were discovered in the Fifties, industrial precautions were put in place that heavily restricted worker exposure. Unfortunately, U.S. industrial regulations took another two decades to begin restricting outflow of cadmium waste to surrounding waters, including the Hudson. But since the crab is primarily a scavenger, living and eating in the muck at the bottom of the harbor, every other pollutant listed above also contaminates it.

In his rendering of an old Greek-Calabrian folktale, Italo Calvino writes of a crab, much like our familiar goose, that lays golden eggs. Unlike the proverbial goose, though, the crab also renders supernatural benefits upon being eaten:

Whoever eats crab and shell will one day be king. Whoever eats crab and claws will find a purse of money every morning under his pillow.

The crab with the golden eggs takes two sons of a tailor, and makes a rich man and a king of them. The crab’s primary diet is the worst part of the environment—half-dead organisms, decaying flesh on the ocean floor, even the ocean floor itself. Rowan Jacobsen notes, in his recent essay on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, seeing a ghost crab dining on the tar balls, “carrying clawfuls back home.” Somehow, crabs convert the most hopeless detritus the world gives them into, if not bags of money and lordship over small fiefdoms, at least a delicious meal that we have the pleasure of pulling from the sea with our own hands.

The question then becomes: what is the worst we can give them before the returns dwindle?


John Proctor lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters. His work has been published in Superstition Review, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, Trouser Press, New York Cool, and the Gotham Gazette. An avid crabber, he also teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College.