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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Who counts the reeds in Winter?

(I have several versions of this written later – this is from a scrap of paper so I presume it is the first)

March 10, 1979

Who counts the reeds in winter, the dancing magicians tumbling head over heals with the frost, waving them straight and stiff in a sea of tan hair turned white upon the distant shore?
They are like soldiers dedicated to some foreign war, their drilled to the wave of a wand or the crack of the wind whipping them back into line.
Theirs is an ice-sleeved uniformed magic stirred to the beat of the traffic that passes over the arches of the old bridge, keeping guard to the thunder and rumble of wheels as alien to their world as Ezekiel’s wheel.
To keep they company, plastic cups float freely in the few melted spaces or rub shoulders with the roots of oak trees at the short, or even the praying metal spokes children’s boys that poke up out of the brown water growing brown themselves with the rust, all – reeds, bottles and toys – reaching desperately towards the sky that is beyond their grasp.
Who counts the reeds when the last wand passes and the ice-enslaved leaves break free, and bleed into the thawing water, or the trunks of trees crack, or the frozen branches snap – like bones suffering of age and surrender to the reality of passing years, rarely with but a whimper of cry, either to unfold and grow, or die?
The bloated gulls that hang above them do not count anything, but the few slivers of silver fish they snatch from the glistening surface, nor do the constantly complaining geese who themselves float in the free water like royalty, nor their smaller cousins, the ducks who mumble under their breath about the change, uncertain if it brings good or ill omens. The waving wand of wind gives them all other tasks to do at this time of year, casting their lot in with the rising of spring and the yet to be seen green that shows but hints at the tips of limbs, and the whisper of new reeds rising side by side with the frozen reeds, to rise up and take their place when the warmth finally comes.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Staring down Mother Nature

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The fog this morning isn’t as thick as it has been over the last few days, and though it usually causes havoc with my lungs, I’ll miss it.
When I can’t see the New York Skyline from the window of my Hoboken office, you know the fog is thick.
I spent part of Friday strolling along the shore of the Hudson River, thinking that Avalon would appear out from the remote waters – a King Arthur Legend I am particularly fond of.
I could see the water but not New York, and could see the ferries as they popped out from the white walls as if my magic, ferries that should have been fairies carrying passengers instead of mystical swords.
Some of the ruins of piers on the Hoboken side gave this an even more amazing feel, and I strolled along trying to glimpse thing in the over grown and twisted piers that the passing, uninterested masses would certainly miss.
Having a river within eye sight of where I sit each day renews me, in the same way the old Passaic did when I had to cross it twice or more a day, or could jog along it.
This intimacy, this tenderness of contact, is what I miss most about being close to water.
John Lennon used to boast about being the son of a sailor. I am, too, and the grandson of a boat builder on the other side of my family.
And though I tend towards seasickness in turbulence, I still tend to go to water to heal or to find inspiration, or to find myself in the mists of life’s fog – a condition that seems more prevalent as the years go on.
In the fog the sound of lapping water against the shore seems louder and competes with the daily grind that has brought civilization to the very brink, where industry and now real estate stares eye to eye with Mother Nature, and in this stand off, it is impossible to tell which one will prevail.
Our civilized ways have altered the environment in something sometimes called global warming, proof – despite the wishes of some deaf, dumb and blind religious leaders – that mankind has the wherewithal to undermine the creative wishes of God, and to turn this Garden of Eden god or accident has creative for us, into a wasteland.
We constantly thrust ourselves from Eden by taking too big a bite from the apple, this propelling ourselves forward with the illusion of progress. So these days, Mother Nature turns her fury towards us and lashes back, raising her waters over these streets.
Even the Native Americans knew better than to settle too close to water, but we don’t. We live with the arrogance of power we really lack. So our latest plan is to build walls to keep the rising water out so that the wealthy who must have views of water can live at the edge of doom – while wiser and poorer people elsewhere foot the bill with taxes rising nearly as high as the water.

So it is on foggy days like this I wonder as I walk if these foolhardy souls that cling to these shores still appreciate the view, the way I do, as the fairies come and go to the sound of water, and I wonder, who will win this staring contest – although in truth, I already know.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Tuesday, January 07, 2014

It is not the deep chill that affects me most – though the tip of my nose feels as if bitten off by the frost – but the constant change of mood, the up and down, the sideways that won’t even let my old river rest in peace under its sheet of ice.
One year when my car crapped out in Passaic, Pauly – who was always begging rides to Quick Chek – made me walk with him instead, and crossing the Wall Street Bridge I noticed that the ice had stacked up on the surface of the river like ice cubes, all frozen together.
Years later, the Hudson River did the same when I could see look out my office window and still see a wider expanse of it.

But even though it is as cold now as it was then, the rough tumble and hefty lift of this changing environment won’t let the river alone, making it cool down or warm up in a way that must drive the fish as crazy as the weather drives me, neither of us knowing how to address this constant change, neither of us left alone long enough to adapt. Let it be cold, if it must be, or let the thaw come even if unnatural this time of year – although back when I lived in Passaic, part of the luxury of spring was basking in the new warmth when the thaw finally came.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Red river running red

June 21, 1980

The river is low and red today.
Low from lack of rain and red from the clay stirred up by struggling wildlife.
Except for the never ending hum of traffic along River Drive, the river seems silent – thirsty birds refusing to sing, starving ducks too hungry to even squawk. Even the usually boisterous ten-foot high waterfall just down stream whispers instead of roars, adding its red grime to the already bloody surface.
One guy – a factory worker – blames the chemical company for the constant ticket of waste we see dripping out pipes along the Garfield side.
A fisherman with pole pointed out towards the center of the river like an accusing finger blames the politicians.
“We elect them to do something and they do nothing,” he said. “So we elect somebody else and they don’t do anything either.”
The cop – sitting in his running car with windows open and a half devoured hamburger in his hand – blames the “hippies and the peaceniks” and their talk of saving the planet. He’s not the routine cop that used to beat up hippies for kicks, but a one time hippie who says he got sold a bill of goods, given hope that we could all save the planet. So he gave up and calls our kind “Commies” just as his father once did to him. Then, he speeds off in a gush of smoke and tires spitting gravel, all of which settles eventually on the river making it run that much redder.
I finish my coffee and continue my jog, going back along the river, passed the abandoned car lots and the crumbling buildings, passed the high towers of the brick mills with smoke spewing out of their stacks. But I look mostly at the river bottom where car bumpers, gar tires and hold shopping cars show, all the detritus we never notice until the river gets this low.
Someone ought to clean it up, I think, but know it won’t be me.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Cold day by the river

January 16, 1987

It isn’t too cold today. But I’m so out of shape that I can’t jog far when I try, huffing and puffing even before I get to the Monroe Street Bridge, a merely four city blocks from where I started.
I’m tempted to cross back, over the rail bridge and come back home through the park.
But I’m a little put off by the homeless people camping there, even though it is the shortest way back.
I huff and puff for another four blocks, walk three, run two, and reach the Dunkin Donuts at Outwater Lane where I buy coffee (but no donut) and walk the whole way back to Monroe Street sipping the coffee.
Worn out by the exertion, I cross over the rail bridge anyway, figuring I might be able to escape the homeless and their constant begging, and get home.
I almost make it, too, when I see him – a familiar face among the walking dead, although older than when I knew him in high school, looking older than he had a right to look considering we are the same age.
Worse, he sees me and remembers, and refuses look me in the eye.
I go up to him.
He tells me to go away.
I tell him no, and join him on the other side of tin can fire the homeless use here to keep warm. But they don’t keep it ablaze, adding only enough wood to keep the coals going at the bottom.
“You have a cigarette?” he asks me, his hands shaking as he forms the v between forefinger and middle finger in anticipation of a smoke.
“No,” I say. “I don’t smoke. Do you want me to find more wood for the fire?”
“No,” he says, glancing around. “I don’t want it too high. I nod off sometimes, and the fire spreads. Then the cops come. We’re not supposed to be here.”
“But if you don’t have anyplace else to go…” I say and then stop.
“Oh, they have a place for us. They usually take me to the police station first, and if they can’t find me a bed in a shelter, I stay there. It’s warm. But it’s not comfortable. It’s worse when they do. Then I get grilled by a social worker who always wants to know why I prefer being out here and not in a shelter.”
“It’s a natural question,” I say.
He gives me a dirty look, and then mumbles about telling them how he hates rules, and how they always tell him every place has rules.
“Not this place,” he says to me, warming his hands over the top of the can where there is very little heat. “Well, not many rules anyway. God, I hate the cold. I just hate being contained more. I had a job once, but the boss treated me so bad I told him I’d starve before I kept feeding his damned time clock.”
He blows on his hands. The nails are nearly black from either dirt or injury, I can’t tell which.
“People are always looking down on me,” he goes on. “Some people think I kind of deserve it. One time some bastard kids even tried to set me on fire while I was asleep. I don’t sleep much now because of that. I don’t have anything to steal. They just did it out of meanness.”
He looks over the top of the can at me, his dark eyes filled not with pain but rage.
“people are always asking me how I got here and why I didn’t want to get back to where I was. But to tell you the truth, I’ve spend most of my time trying to forget all that. Now I’m not exactly sure what I did, only that I didn’t want to be there any more.”
He glances over at a pile of rags, and a collection of odd things that someone had obviously thrown away.
“When I do sleep, I sleep there,” he says and points at his makeshift bed. “It’s tough enough getting myself up each day, especially on cold days like this. It’s tough finding enough to eat and staying warm until I can lay down again. I can’t be bothered trying to remember anything else. But on some mornings, when I see the ice dripping from the limbs of trees like today, I remember something, even if I don’t quite remember what.”

I don’t ask him any more questions. For a long time, we just stand there warming ourselves over a fire that isn’t a fire anymore and doesn’t produce heat enough to keep my fingers or toes warm. Then, I dig in my pocket and come out with the change I have left over from buying my coffee, and I dump it all – unasked for – into the palms of his dirty hands. Then, I head back home to a cold water flat that isn’t warm either, but it’s home, and I’m grateful for it, even if I do feed the boss’ time clock to keep a roof over my head.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Winter bliss

December 31, 1980

The decade ends with the river so low it might never refill, ice cracking from high tide leaving a landscaped filled with what looks like broken windows.
The coffee cup keeps my fingers warm as I stand on the dock and watch the last fast moving stream at the river’s center; its low gush filling the empty spaces between the rumble of trucks and cars on the bridge.
I feel as empty as the river and as naked as the trees, wishing I could cloth myself with evergreen for these dismal days.
The gulls’ cries makes this feeling worse, as if they and I are the last living things stranded in this winter tundra – even though I know a few other stragglers remain – ducks and geese left behind from the flight south their brethren have taken. A few ducks float in the low polls. A few swallows swirl out from the bridge’s stained arches. I even see a robin pecking at the frozen mud, which shows the recent footprint of a river mole or badger. These last at least are savvy enough not to be seen above ground during the day.
I even see a turtle half hidden under a log, and rats scurrying from shadow to shadow in some dark thievery over which all the birds squawk.
I ought to go home, giving up my daily jog half way through to try and warm my bones in a cold water flat I can’t afford to keep fully heated. I ought to dump my rapidly cooling coffee and buy a fresh cup if only to keep my fingers from freezing.
But I can’t move, caught up in some internal traffic jam the way the morning drivers are, unable to make sense of where I am or where I am going, needing all the more this sad and polluted river to flow again so as to carry me – like a fallen leaf – to the next stage of my life: me, the rats, the turtles, the moles, the robins and the sea gulls locked in this deteriorating winter bliss already desperate for spring thaw still too many months away to even contemplate.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Change of decade

Dec. 30, 1980

Pauly tells me a new decade doesn’t really start until the first year after the number change. So tomorrow officially ends the 1970s, leaving me to wonder what to expect.
We are officially almost two weeks into winder. But the river here still clings to some aspects of autumn – a handful of leaves fluttering on branches even as snow decorates the cracks of land at each trees’ feet.
Sunlight shimmers over the disturbed surface of the water, creating a landscape of flame, blinding me each time I look in that direction.
The chill draws the warmth of my run from me so that I clutch my cup of coffee to keep my fingers warm as I pay my respects to the newly fallen trees and tribute to other hearty souls who like myself brave this weather, bundled people flowing across the Outwater Lane bridge from the Garfield side to the jobs at the mills on the Passaic side of the river.
The bright sun casts web-like shadows across the river bank; the silhouettes of bare branches that seem to split open the earth and sky, a jig saw puzzle it will take the return of spring to solve.
Most people see winter as a dark season. But today, this is not true. Everything is too bright, too stark, painting in colors that seem unnatural to me.
Even the tan brick of the paper mills – which on other days seem as haunted as a vampire’s castle – seem unbearably cheery today, standing out against the vivid blue sky.
The wildlife, too, defies the season, a few ducks floating in ice-free pools near the shore, while wrens and swallows flit from branch to bridge and back again in their endless routine to keep warm.
I don’t quite ache for spring yet, but I wonder when it will come – each year bringing a different kind of spring at a slightly different time, a melting, dripping spring in some years, a dawning, dramatic spring in others.
I sip coffee, seeking to stay warm, greeting this new decade with more than a little trepidation, wondering if like spring what new features it will bring, a dripping muddy one or something that will explode on me with the unexpected.