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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.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

That last Christmas with father

Dec. 12, 1980

It might be the gray sky laden heavy with the promise of snow that puts old Ben in the Christmas mood.
He has no use, he says, for the silly stuff he sees sprawled across some of the houses along River Drive.
His gaze studies the ducks on the nearby shore, whose swish their wet butts as they stagger from water to the muddy bank, as silly as circus clowns, he says, and they are silly – even if what they do is not.
They plop in and out of the water in pursuit of a fading livelihood we can’t see until they gobble one of the silver slivers.
Most of the trees are close to bar so the sky above seems cracked, shattered into a thousand crazy pieces like shards of ice.
Ben’s memory of Christmas is different from the one we celebrate, less full of “useless stuff” he sees while walking along the road, stuff sticking out the back of cars on their way home from the malls. His Christmas is full of little things. The river, he recalls, had many more trees along it, when as a boy, his father brought the family down to find a small pine tree they could bring home each year – not the oversized ones people kill in order to stick them up in their living room for a few weeks, but a seedling they could put in a corner so they could sit around it on Christmas Eve.
But Ben says he knew times were changing that one year when he went out and could not find one right away. Ben’s younger brother, Jim, was just old enough then to take the long walk around the river, but complained the whole time about the cold.
Ben’s dad, a wiry man, had grown ill over the previous year and Ben’s mother did not want him to make the trip. But the man insisted and went anyway.
Ben says he knew the older man would die soon. So did the man, and would not deviate from the ritual hew knew might well be his last.
Ben remember them leaving a train of footprints in the snow, and how smooth the frozen surface of the river looked, and how the sky looked then just as it looks today, and how hard he prayed for them to find a tree – and they did, the old man letting the boys cut it down and carry it home.
Ben remembers, too, the relieved look on his mother’s face when they three of them got home safe – and how she, Jim, Ben and little sister, Susan and the old man decorated the tree with a few strands of glittering tinsel and a few small white candles, and how for the last time, he shared Christmas with his father, who passed away the following spring.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Two Bridges Road

November 30, 1980

I don’t often job along this part of the river.
To get to Lincoln Park, the river twists so many times from where I usually run in Garfield, it almost seems like a different river, more gentile on the surface, but much more dangerous underneath.
This part of the river lives above all the principle falls, Little Falls, The Great Falls, and the Dundee Falls behind the Service Diner, and is hidden behind trees so dense people forget the river exists except to cross it on the various bridges or when the rains come and it rises above its banks to put them out of their homes.
This part of the river has great mood swings, swelling and then shrinking again, often for reasons few of us can comprehend in an endless string of contradictions.
Today, it is low and muddy, wearing an almost reddish-brown face that defies anybody to call it a body of water.
I barely see any of it as I jog along Two Bridges Road from the first bridge near Willowbrook Mall to the highway bridge in Pinebrook under which old black men fish, a scene so surreal with its droopy willows and summer batches of mosquitoes I might have jogged back through time to a post Civil War Savannah, Georgia.
Like in Rutherford, where I also sometimes job, this place has a park-like quality where trees line the road, but in a less rigid arrangement than Rutherford where concrete defines the boundaries of the river and civilization thrives high above the high water marks as to take a 100 year storm to cause serious flooding.
Here river and residents live side by side almost on an equal plain, struggling with each rain to define their right to exist.
The trees differ, too.  Rutherford is so prim and proper, spaces filled with trimmed hedges and lawns, while here, everything feels wild, like unkempt hair, spread out like an nature preserve the more conservative Rutherford would not tolerate.
Boulders left by the glaziers rise out of the water here like balding heads, weeds clustered around them and out of the cracks, and upon which seagulls roost.
These make this part of the river special to me since such boulders do not exist downstream along the Clifton or Garfield sections, and I often simply gawk at them like a tourist, and imagine the fun Dave and I would have had here during a river adventures as kids.
The air is cleaner here, too, lacking the all night spewing of factories or even the deceitful perfumed scent of the chemical factories which tries to hide the stench of the poisons they dump into the water when they think no one sees.
This place has plenty of traffic along the narrow two lane road that many use as a short cut around the often clogged Route 46 or Route 80. But walls of trees protect the river on the highway side while trees on this side seem to suck up the bad air with their canopy, and muffles the sounds so that this road is far quieter than River Drive in Garfield.
I jog in a dream here, and in some ways, it is distracting. In some ways, this isn’t the river I know and love, but some spruced up imposter who claims to be a distant relation and to me is not.

Friday, October 11, 2013

German potato salad

November 27, 1980

The water rides high between brown banks. Sea gulls cruise the gray sky, a sky pregnant with the promise of oncoming snow. The crisp wind rips at my face and snatches each plume of smoke Ben’s pipe produces as we sit along the riverside waiting for the snow to arrive.
A few ducks float on the oily water as brown as chunks of wood, and strangely silent – except for their cousins across the river who yap as they root through the reeds in search of food, flapping their wings when they find it to discourage others from taking it away.
Holidays make me nostalgic, and surprisingly, Ben, too.
He talks about how he used to visit his family in Pennsylvania this time of year, traveling by train through the Delaware Water Gap and up through the Pocono Mountains to some point near Scranton, and how much food waited for him when he arrive, mounts heaped as high as the mountains he had to pass through to get there, he says.
His family, like my grandmother’s, came from Germany, and more than a few of the dishes he recalls were German, although he says he missed German potato salad most.
“Quick Chek has German potato salad but it’s not the same,” he says.
He also says he misses the mountains as he stares out across the river at the distant cliffs that overhang Clifton, cracked rock laid bare by the coming of the cold and the waiting for snow to pain the brown rock white.
I ask Ben why he never went back, why he spends his days clinging to the side of this river when he misses other places so much.
“This is all I got,” he says, puffing hard on his pipe so that even the wind can’t steal all the smoke that gathers around his face. “All the rest faded away long ago.”
“Not the mountains,” I said.

“No,” he admits in a low voice. “Not the mountains.”

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Escaping disaster to find salvation

October 24, 1981

This is one of those mornings of one of those days when the world just doesn’t sit right with you and you need something, but don’t know what, a day, week, maybe a life time vacation.
But I can’t stand Florida and I can’t afford to retire back to California without breaking into somebody else’s safe – and the last time the mob nearly got me, so that kind of thing is out. But I miss palm trees, and I would love to make the trip just to glimpse them again
But I’ve settled in a little too heavily into my place in Passaic, too many possessions to carry on my back, and too many to leave behind.
So I’m stuck.
Of course, I could take time off and make the trip the way ordinary people do, go back to Hollywood to see what has changed there, and if I’ll still cringe over some of the more painful memories I have of wandering those streets, those days when I thought I could deal drugs or that other stuff under the heavy heat of a movie camera for movies that no legitimate theater would ever show.
I’m not ashamed – but maybe embarrassed.
Although all in all the place was an incubator for a new me, someone who had gone there a naïve kid with a bundle of cash and came out broke, but rich in experience.
These days, I come here to find myself – collecting new memories or perhaps recalling earlier memories when this river was my life and my salvation, when I ran here not from mobsters with guns, or even the more serious pursuit of police. I came here to duck the impact of some prank gone wrong, and from the lawmen who wanted to drag me back to my uncles where they knew I would get heavier punishment than any court could administer.
What I got here surprised even me, less hide out than revelation, some sense of world beyond me.
While this place has changed greatly from when I wandered here as a boy, these changes are less severe than the changes to other place, somehow managing to heal itself in ways more civilized places cannot, restoring much of what once was after a fire when nothing is the same up the hill, or more the more intention destruction disguised as redevelopment.
I like this place because time has less impact here, and that the footprints of forefathers might well still be found somewhere in the muddy banks, or merely imitated by my own sneakers as I come to close to the brink.
The gulls that spread their wings as they soar over head are not the same gulls as my grandfather might have known, but they cry with the same hunger and needs, and I feel it in my bones because I cry inside for the same things they do, for comfort and satisfaction.
Sometimes I sit here and pretend I am Wordsworth, or some other natural poet seeking to preserve all that I see each day when I come here as if it is as important as the stuffy stuff that gets recorded in history books, the changing of leaves, the color of water, the dribble of rain or fleck of snow, on me, on the leaves, or the fallen leaves, on the surface that sometimes glittered with light and sometimes is so dark I could feel it suck me into its depths.
I come to water like this for rebirth, to shed not possessions that I fear to carry elsewhere, but the internal possession I have collected and cannot simply dump in the trash, not memories, but a parcel of feelings that have weighed me down more firmly than years living in one place, filled with guilt of mistakes I’ve made or things I have not done or will never do, and that other stuff such as words I should have said, but missed my opportunity, words like love or adoration that have such a short life span that unless you cast them into the wind they evaporate and leave only ashes in your hand and this weight like a stone inside you that you can’t just cast away – except in places like this where the world welcomes you, and draws these things out, and leaves to wander off with much less heaviness so that you can return to your life as if you have just come back from a place full of palm trees and have washed your feet in distant exotic oceans you cannot reach for economic or other reasons.
It is all here, lapping at the shore with lazy brown waves that are stirred up by the rise of a flock of geese or some kid throwing stones into the middle from the top of the bridge – kids like I used to be, escaping disaster to find salvation here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Flush days

May 28, 1980

“It’s nice the see this place in day light,” Ben says as he puffs his pipe.
He means of course bright light rather than the dim place this river had been for months, a dried up, dismal landscape that had seemed more like the surface of the moon than a place of flowing water – drought exposing its ribs so as to look like a starving version of the man William Carlos Williams claimed he could see in the Great Falls downtown.
In spring, when wet, this place comes alive, and upstream – maybe as far west as the mythical Lake Passaic – April had indeed brought showers so we could see May flowers popping up around here.
I remember my first time coming here with my grandfather and how amazed I was by what I saw, not the Great Falls here, but a tiny eight or ten foot variety that made me claim it as my own, with white water tumbling over it down onto the flat surface filled with stones below – and moving fast again towards the arches of the Outwater Lane Bridge down stream, a twisting current that made me think of it as a silver serpent and still does.
My boyhood imagination, along with the nasty tales Leonard Suresky told about the river made me actually believe real monsters lived among the trees or in the deeper water, so that I gripped my grandfather’s hands until my knuckles turned white.
But if there is a beast here, it is in the flow of water and how it beats the shores with both fists when it is in full bloom, as it is now, a lush, flush powerful water that sometimes – if the sun is right – looks green, reflecting the trees that are only just beginning to blossom as well. My favorite trees, the mulberries, just showing off their new green dress, while my second favorite tree, the willows, barely turn green at all, or a variety that seem godlike and golden, even before autumn turns their leaves to bright yellow.
Geese and duck float now over places they waddled only a few months ago, looking cleaner than they did, though the water hides their legs and washes away the mud from their feathers. They dip their beaks into the surface and come up with silver fish they had to dig in mud before to get.
But they are still restless, wondering when exactly the good times will end and force them back into old nasty habits they only reluctantly take on. Survival is a mean mistress that makes us all do things we might be shamed of in better times.
For a short time many years ago, I lived homeless on the streets, begging for coins and feeding off the kindness of a donut maker who gave me the stale end of the day remains. I still hate lemon-filled donuts on that account.
I laugh at Ben, and tell him beauty is a thin veneer, and beneath its surface lurks dangers unseen, claws that will rip a man to pieces if he makes the wrong move. Even the water is not innocent, and I recall two boys who drowned in the puffed up water when it first came, kids, who like me at their age, presumed they could handle nature and assumed the landscape would remain unchanged, and did not account for the deeper water when they waded out into it.
When Dave and I came here, we survived by luck, making the same mistakes those kids made but somehow saved from the worst. We were even more foolish, looking for the big dangers that did not exist, like wild wolves, while failing to see until almost too late, this loose bit of stone or the glass over which our bare feet walked, mistaking sometimes the broken pieces of soda bottles for jewels some imaginary pirate left – or the pearls my grandfather once told me actually could be found here in oysters the size of dinner plates.
We found no treasure – or at least not the kind we could bring to the bank.
But I still come here, searching not for fortune, but for peace, and strangely in the midst of seasons, be they flush or not, I find it, and so does Ben between each puff of his pipe.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

End of season

Nov. 22, 1980

Five days until Thanksgiving and the loudest sound here comes from the falls, inflated by recent heavy rain so that it seems to sing of spring just as winter threatens us.
All other sound seems muffled, even the persistent and annoying flow of traffic down River Drive.
The wind alone seems unbridled, whispering in my ears with its chill voice as it pushes old cardboard boxes along the roadside, boxes that catch on the trunks of trees or exposed weeds for a moment and then move on.
The wind catches the feather duster willows, rattling their already yellowed leaves, casting many into the slow flow of water at my feet, unaffected n this eddy by the foam flowing down from the falls.
Frost dots the river banks and creeps out across slow water like the edges of some child’s coloring book filled in first at the edges before the serious freeze starts.
Most things here have already surrendered to the inevitable, closing up or burying deep for when the snow and ice seals up this world. The falls are always last to accept fate, and slow on even after all else has succumbed, its gurgling voice smothered with ice before it concedes
I feel at loss this time of year, aching for signs of life among the dead and dying, for some omen that life will reappear later when all the dying is done, knowing down deep this world will seem different, stranger as a result, suspecting that the me that sees that rebirth will be different and stranger, too – and I am as reluctant as the falls to give in.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Beware the badger

 (from Imitation Nature)
July 20, 1980

The badger is a very clever animal, having learned over the course of millions of years, how to set himself up for life – holes in the ground to live out the day, freedom above ground at night, with no natural enemies to give him grief.
He’s always elusive and wary, and very rarely seen – though I’m sure someone must see him from time to time to know he still exists – still alive and healthy.
Sometimes, he shares his hole with a fox or even a rabbit; sometimes he lives alone.
Unlike humans which are the only beast who cares to bother him in a destructive way, the badger likes his solitude.
He isn’t the kind to sit out front of the local tavern and ogle ladies that stroll by.
Bear-like, he is usually very quiet, reacting to danger or excitement with a series of violent snorts. His hair tends to stand end which makes him blow up to twice his normal size.
Like a human, he has five toes – which distinguishes is track from that of a dog’s (which is a four-legged animal that often goes “bow wow” which I’ll explain later when I’m good and drunk.”
The badger has a short tail, short but powerful legs, and when seen may be waddling down a dark path.
If it happens to get attacked by a foolish enemy, he has very sharp teeth with which to strike back, and knows how to defend himself at need.
He should never be manhandled, as humans are wont to do just for the fun of it.
For the most part, he avoids humans and tends to enjoy his own rituals – unlike my best friend, Hank, who had a lot of habits, such as over staying his welcome despite many hints for him to leave. He lives in a hole, too, but there the similarity ends.
The badger has a black and white striped face, and has thick warm fur when healthy.
In other words, the badger can be a tough hombre but lives a peaceful life when left alone, but can turn and fight and destroy as well as any beast of the wild.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Not so pretty (from Imitation Nature)

July 23, 1980

When the water is this low, it stinks of dying fish, as if someone opened hundreds of tuna cans and left them to rot, with the scent of a little drying sea weed.
The duck droppings little the shore where the water used to flow – giving this place as bad a reputation as the Port Authority men’s room on a Saturday night.
As much as I love this river, I have come to understand that it is not always a nice place or a pretty place, or a place most people would find comfort in.
On warm days like this, we also get the stench of burnt flesh as the homeless men cook (god knows what) on their trash can fires on the other side, raising a haze that fills the air as the day closes and the sun sinks, and twilight sneaks upon us.
A crow caws in some complaint, apparently unable to find a place to land, part of the saga of the night’s start, his dark shape almost invisible against the growing dark of sky.
From this side, sunset is still visible just over the mountains that took their name from such times as this, peaks glowing orange as the sun sinks behind them.
Soon the moon and stars take reign over this place, and the sounds seem louder, the cawing of the crows, the coughing of the hobos, the rumble of the falls.
Sometimes, I can see the sparks of something rising out of the smoke stacks of factories that still labor into the night, sparks hidden in daylight and fumes, but made visible now as the dark comes.
Sometimes, I can smell the putrid scent that spills out of the pipes from the chemical plant – poison discarded into a low river so that by morning, carp float belly-up in oozing green pools that lack of rain won’t wash away – fish eyes frosted over with death, while the oily ooze from the car shops floats on top of all like blood.
Even the fishermen are frustrated, abandoning their lines to stand and stair, the glow of their cigarettes illuminating their angry eyes.
Other parts of the river are better even during this drought – but the state puts up signs not to drink the water, or swim in it, or eat anything out of it, as if what we see flowing at our feet could be called water at all.
We get predictions of rain, and with those, a promise of cleansing, and I walk without umbrella, waiting for the first drops to touch my face, as darker clouds, not made by man, slowly move across the face of the moon.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Aug. 26, 1980

The water roars at the falls, a loud sound now that evening’s rush hour with its parade of cars, trucks, buses and people has trickled down with the end of the day.
Ben sits on the lip of a concrete block at the top of the bank staring out at a band of orange on the water – a trick of light through which ducks and geese float on their way to the shore to feed. Killies flee before this fleet creating a ruckus on the surface their tiny silver shapes catching bits of light as they move.
“There’s a man around here who once taught at Harvard,” Ben says suddenly as if completing something he was thinking about for awhile. “He’s a brilliant man, but not right in the head.”
Ben continues to stare out, but I realize he is no longer seeing the river at all, but some vision of his own that clouds his eyes.
“He walks around here like a bum wearing an old green knit cap from his days in the army,” Ben continues. “It’s the kind of cap we used to put under our helmets to absorb the shock of shells bursting over us. His clothes are always dirty and he stinks of sweat, vomit, and wine.”
Again, he pauses, as if each word brings him pain.
“I knew him a long time ago when the war was still ahead of us, and our frivolous youth behind us. Some teachers I knew thought he was the most brilliant man they’d ever met. I wasn’t one of them. He was always quoting some radical like Thoreau, and mumbling about the middle class and where he thought the country was heading. I half mocked him back then.”
A bird I do not see gives a cry from above us in the tree, twisting Ben’s attention in that direction, as a small gull emerges from behind the greenery, continuing its cry high into the air. We both watch it merge with the pale sky.
“He’s name is Leo,” Ben said. “Every bank teller in the county knows him. People say he’s rich and a lot of young people hang around him for that reason.”
Ben pulls out his pipe, stuffs it, lights it, and then puffs slowly. His face has new wrinkles, but these are not from age, but from perhaps rage, altering the landscape of his cheeks and forehead the way a stone cast into still water alters the surface with new ripples.
The wind picks up and we see the gull reappear and we watch it as it dives down into the surface of the water and comes up with a squirming silver fish which it swallows whole.
The river has an ash color now, reflecting a cloud-veiled sun and the moving shape of the gull.

“Those people use him because he doesn’t have any other friends,” Ben mumbles, then stares back into the water where the ducks and geese feed with a bit more dignity, and the water roars behind them over the small falls, ash color turning to gold as the sun finally manages to make its way out of the clouds. But the light does not shine on clean water. Instead, it only reveals the filth the river normally hides, the bottles and the debris that never wash clean, no matter how hard it rains.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bad water

November 14, 1980

Most people who pass here notice few changes in the river, except for the change of color in the trees – growing green in spring, red or yellow in fall, and brown in the heart of winter.
But every moment of every day, this is a different river, and one distinctly different from the one George Washington knew when he crossed it in humiliation and retreat, and a different one I see each day during my jog long its banks.
A thin sliver of silver water runs down the center, wearing through the gold and brown of dying reeds and river grasses. The heart y middle of other years had shrunken on the starvation diet the drought provided over the long dry summer.
A few down pours keep this world’s citizens alive. Armor-sided carps are still able to scavenge a living among the pipes and wires at the river bottom, making a questionable feast off the tiny life trapped in the less broad flow.
But at a cost, consuming green water along with brown so that the carp are forever poisoned and no one can feed off them in the natural cycle of things without also becoming poisoned, too, and though the city or state has yet to mark the sides of this water way with signs that say, “do not eat the fish,” we all know that truth that to ingest these means we become poisoned, too.
Some people elsewhere in the county have never seen brown water flowing from their taps. But we see it all too often and can’t always wash the taste of fish away with coffee or booze, or fear that even a sip of what comes out of the faucet might prove as deadly as devouring the fish – spoiled water cannot be made clean no matter how much we boil it, there is always something suspect in its flavor.
The city, of course, tells us that our water does not come out of the river at all, despite the foul taste we get each time the river gets this low and exposed.
A flock of pigeons coo near the water’s edge, heads ever bobbing in their constant pecking. While overhead, blue edged barn swallows weave in search of insects the season has long made extinct.
The cold has settled in even though winter is technically more than a month away, and the change of season gives little hope for better because one bad season seems to follow another, taking something more than wishful thinking to alter the depressing pattern.
The birds sense this, and those who can fly away have already gone, leaving this place populated with those who have no better place to go, or who themselves are too ruined to even hope for escape, struggling to made do with what they have, fighting over few resources left behind and bad water that can never be made clean, even if the rains come as they always must.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

River of memories

April 14, 1981

I’ve been in awe of this place since I was a young boy, of Garfield and its sad history echoing out of the mouths of my family, who constantly complained about it not being the same as it was.
Even the Clifton side of the river is different, and sometimes my uncles would stare across the water when stopped for a traffic light, looking through the mists of rain at a landscape that I could not see, some vision of this place they possessed in memory, but no longer took shape once the mists vanished.
It was always a mystery to me, and so all these years later, I still come here, and stare across at the other stony shore, still searching for some inkling of what they saw, or remembered, but see only stones and wood, water and weeds, not what they saw or felt.
Oh, I recall the stories they told, how they used to ride this water before the polluters made poison of it, and how magnificent is seemed to them at sunrise when the light played over the water’s surface turning it all to jewels.
Sometimes, I see a bit of that, when the sun comes so bright as to blind me to the fact that it is not water off which the sun glints but bits of broken glass or other trash people have dumped here mistaking this sacred place for some kind of cesspool.
On other days, I see the disabled hot water heaters rusting through their white enamel, and the shopping carts dripping with wet weed, or the hundreds of tread-less tires pockmarking the water and shores like a scarlet fever victim’s face.
I keep thinking of the fantasy book and how the heroes always crossed water so pure they could stick their toes in it without fear and that the real battle in these sacred texts was how to keep it pure, not cure it as we must do now, of ills people have already inflicted upon it.
The river became dangerous before I was born, and my over cautious uncle would scold me each time he found I had wandered down to its shores, or ventured into its water, asking me what I was trying to do, kill myself?
My grandfather, when he was still alive, spoke up for me, scolding my uncle for scolding me, telling him that he had wandered to these same shores when he was my age, and how could he expect me to do anything different?
Back and forth the two men went, disputing then and now, and how the river was safer when my uncle wandered there, and not a trash bin filled with floating dead fish, and that my uncle owed it to my sick mother to make sure I didn’t end up floating in that water belly up as well.
But since I lived with more than one uncle, and each had their own belief in how I should live my life, arguments went on like this all the time, sometimes concerning the river, mostly about other places I went to and other things I did, although I took the most comfort coming here, and sitting on these shores, searching for that place my uncles remembered but I never saw.
When the arguments got most heated, my family members forgot that they were even arguing over me, and so my grandmother – always my best friend – would grab my arm, propel me towards the back door, and whisper in my ear, “why don’t you go outside and play,” she knowing perfectly well where I would go and did, and how that would later provoke more fights.
But not all the past is gone from this place, and some of that past even my uncles missed. They loved splashing in the water and making a fuss, I loved to feed off the mulberry trees and to watch the ducks, geese, fish and other things move through this dangerous world, and I always admired how they managed to survive or even thrive, when all thought it was a place of death.
While both sides had mulberry trees, for some reason those on the Clifton side seemed stunted, and their fruit always just a bit sour even when fully ripe. This may be because these trees grew along the highway, where traffic and its fumes fed them more poison than the less frequent traffic along River Drive.
One of the Russian fishermen on the Clifton side would laugh each time he saw me eating the berries and ask in his rough accent, “You like gooseberries, yes?”
He called mulberries gooseberries and to this day I do not know if they are actually the same thing.
The big trees grew on the Garfield side with two very large trees I would stop to feed off of regularly, one near the bridge and the other near the Service Diner, this last near where the dirt marked a wider path down to the surface of the water, where as my uncles once told me they used to swim and fish, although with the water so shallow at the foot of the falls and the stones so plentiful, thigh deep was as much as they could manage here, and mostly they splashed each other.
The real beaches were upstream along the Fairlawn portion of the river, mostly underwater now, for reasons I still don’t understand, but a place to which older people flock even now, setting up lawn chairs to look out at the water and remember what I can’t remember and to see what I cannot see, their lives full of memories of things I’ll never know.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Stuck in the eddy

October 12, 1980

It grows late.
The gray clouds are dusted with pink cheeks.
The water moves slowly and sloshed against the shore with a very laid back beat.
The leaves seem to reflect the sky, rubbing together in the soft breeze before they fly away, or float down onto the surface of the water for their long pilgrimage to the sea. Some cling to the fallen tree trunks that gather in these wandering sheep like herders, creating a strange quilt that will soon be shrouded by winter.
I’m here, alone, afraid to go back to my own apartment, afraid of the ghosts that haunt that place, the little pieces of woman I love scattered in every corner, and yet the walls seem unable to contain the reality of her, and so the place seems empty and overly full at the same time, echoing with my voice, by breathing, my every move – even the patter of my racing heart.
I feel the beat in my throat and croak with it like a frog, feeling no shame or pride.
Thoughts come into my head I do not want to think, some how connected to the pain in my belly – the gnawing of some beast I’ve swallowed at some point in the past that has picked this particular time to want out.
So I come out here with everything seems alive, and where I am far enough away from a phone I know will not ring but I want to, and I fight the temptation of calling her.
She would be kind, I know, and courteous, at least this time, and will listen to my talk, but won’t do more than say a few simple words, none of which are the ones I would want to hear, how much she still cares, and how much she wants me to care for her.
Even here, I feel her loss, the sun sinking and me thinking she had taken it away with her.
This is not to say she’s wrong. I deserve what I got. It always does.
Suddenly, I hear the splash of water as a silver fish flips, rippling the still part of the river surface, disturbing it forever.
There is no escaping the impact as the water licks the land and disturbs yet more leaves and bits of dust so that somehow more leaves fall from the trees above, not apples, but proving well enough Newton’s Third Law.
I am baptized with leaves as I sit in this holy place, and pray that my sins are forgiven.
But Newton’s law isn’t the only one of action-and-reaction, and I feel my karma swirl up over me, and I ache to escape, telling myself I didn’t try hard enough, I didn’t say enough or do enough or listen enough, and now I draw comfort from the water which somehow manages to flow out from under its fate, taking things to places I cannot see, and for a time, just the briefest moment, I wonder if this river will also take me. But fate is not kind, and I know I will like some of the leaves, will settle into another eddy, and swirl around in it, like I have in the one I am already in, and I will once more become haunted by ghosts, even here in the wide open where everything seems almost perfect – everything, except for me.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

True friends?

July 6, 1980

The river runs wide here, glistening with the golden kiss of the rising sun.
The reeds, geese and gulls play in the wind like children.
The storm has ended.
The sky is crisp blue against which each limb and leaf casts a sharp image, all too much in focus.
But the deluge has left the river bloated and it trudges along, heavy with the additional burden it much deliver south to Newark Bay.
Only the small falls upstream where the driver drops seems to echo the turmoil the night brought us, a soft roar where the bulk of the river plunges before moving on – the stony bottom where fishermen and kids sometimes stand knee-deep in wet too high to step onto and still stay dry or free from fear of falling in.
The river seems less significant, too, because I come straight from a weekend dancing with the sea, and still hear the rumble of the surf in my head. Even the gulls here seem tame by comparison.
I have always loved the sea, settling for my daily ritual with the river whenever the sea was too far to reach.
Yes, I know this place better than I know the ocean, the flip flop of sultry water against the shore near by feet, the webbed back of the cat fish feeding at the bottom – even the lazy ducks who pickup tidbits from between the reeds.
And grand as the ocean and its bay are, they feel remove in more than distance, cold and indifferent as kings and queens, while the river is a crowded street filled with common folks just like me – old friends in an old neighborhoods, who know me nearly as well as I know them.
We spend each morning renewing our acquaintance, each time I pause in my jog for coffee. Their habits are my habits as if I created them each day in my head.
I know the toad that croaks at me each time I kick up dust sliding down the embankment from the street to the dock – his complaint coming between heavy gulps. If too disturbed, he hops off his stone into the water. But often he is back the next, morning to greed me and if not him then one of his numerous relations.
I know the geese, too, whose pale shapes float across the dark river pursued by their own reflections, and – this time of year – their young, spinning and bobbing as they cry for help, each assembled in the order of their birth.
I know the brown geese less well because they come and go with the seasons, shyer perhaps, intimidated by human presence in a world nature claims at its own.
But the mallards are no strangers, even though I see them infrequently, panhandlers who refused to believe I have no buttered roll to share with them, grumbling as they hobble back to the water to pursue less appealing killifish that flitter just beneath the surface like insects.
The gulls, of course, come and go, insincere friends who pretend a relationship with me they have no time to establish, arriving here on the wind or on rumor of food, then returning to the bay, harbor or ocean when life here proves too slow or less rich than they need.
In high summer, we get less frequent guest, yet true friends. Those I know best I find here, too, in winter, when over my steaming coffee, I see their breath against the gray sky and frosted surface of the frozen river.

Yet then or now, no place but here feels quite like home, certainly not the ever elusive sea.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Watching Toms River

May 10, 1980

The world changes with daylight.
A warm breeze blows across the splinted brown surface of the dock. Sunlight glistens on the water like bright new stars, distorted in the ripples that lick the posts holding up my world.
Sail boats glide buy competing with the power hungry maniacs who claim ownership of the river with their polluting machines.
They foul the air and the water, covering the sounds of nature with their rude boast, mean people who violate the world in pretense that they own it.
A military jet rumbles across the sky on its way to McGuire Air Force Base, a reminder of just how savage the world really is, its shadow bringing fear over everything it touches like a black shroud.
I haven’t read a newspaper in two days, seeking to get out from under the doom and gloom of Wall Street, weather reports and threats from the Soviet Union.
I’m running away, stepping out from reality for a while.
I watch the sale boats and the decks filled with people wearing read and blue. They stand out against the line of green on the far side of the mouth of this river.
I ached to be on their side, standing on deck, staring back at me.
Watching them, I’m curious to see what I look like, a wide-eyed observer too innocent to deal with this troubled world (or pretending I’m innocent anyway).
More boats sail by, the sun sparkles on their ornamentation, stinging my eyes.
The seagulls cry, aching for the sea beyond the river, beyond the bay.
A pigeon hobbles across the planks of the dock near me, pecking at bits of cracked corn tourists toss here, the win teasing them by easing each kernel out of reach as they peck.
I feel my world teasing me in the same way.
I stare up at the sky, looking for clues to start I saw here light night, but now I only see blue.
The sun dances on the tips of the waves near by feet.
And I remain – ever watching for something, but haven’t as clue as to what.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Half way across

March 9, 1981

The old man stops midway across the Outwater Lane Bridge, coming from the Clifton side towards Garfield.
And there, he leans on the still-ice-covered rail. The winter wind gusts across him stirring up his gray hair. His breath huffs and puffs like tiny clouds out of some children’s book.
A morning mist still lingers in the air, waiting for sunlight to disperse it.
I don’t know why he has stopped. The weather is wrong and the place he stands gets the worst of the wind. Perhaps he is ill or has pushed himself farther than he is capable, having though he could make it across when it turns out, he can’t.
He is not a hobo. His clothing is clearly whole and his stance – though staggered – is filled with the price accomplishment life brings. He has been places and seen things, and done much, but has halted there where he can overlook the still mostly frozen landscape of reeds and now-cracking ice.
Commuters and truck traffic rumble behind him, rocking the bridge beneath him as he stares north. I cannot see from my post tucked among the bare trees what he sees, but I imagine I can. This is a narrow point in the river, the place where the shores close in and the water easing from the lazy wide shores between the Parkway and Route 46 bridges grows faster, picking up speed before tumbling off the short falls near Service Diner, fast water by the time it reaches here.
On warmer days, I have stood where he stands now, watching not the frigid landscape he sees, but one adorned with green and gold, fireweed bursting red out of the golden green arms of reed. I am not brave enough to stand as he does now, exposed, though I can watch him from the safety of my alcove and wonder at his wonder, and ache to see the world as he sees it, perhaps his head filled with similar visions from times he’s stood there before.
I imagine him saying good bye to all those things he has seen here, even if he can’t see them now, to the carp and catfish that swam here in warmer water, to the ravens cawing from their roosts on the mill walls, to the curve-winged shallows swooping down at and around his head to vanish beneath the eves of the bridge.
Maybe, he came this time, walked so far, to catch a glimpse of the bits of budding green I can see here, both of us believing in our hearts that life started up again after winter has brought the world to death.

Then with a significant expelling of breath, he straightens and moves on, slowly, step by painful step, to the other side.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Post’s ford

April 9, 1981

History surrounds this place – although some might not feel pride in dealing with a place associated with war and retreat, death and slim victories, and sometimes, surrender.
A lone, mostly abandoned marker stands among the weeds where a thin path leads down to the shallows of the river.
And I stumble down it, my head filled with images no history book will convey, trying to make sense of how this place fit into a war no one living still remembers – full of muskets and red coats, of positions held and vacated with the British advance.
Post’s Ford – once a busy crossing of soldiers’ parading feet – is now filled with quiet, except for the muffled rumble of traffic along River Drive no red coat or rebel would have recognized, although might have mistaken for the sound of some distant battle as each man flees.
I almost hear their songs in the whisper of the water, each side claiming right to patriotism, the dead bodies long buried by the mud to serve the multitude of worms and birds and fish, reeds filling drainage ditches like soldiers with shouldered guns, as March marshes into April for the outburst of spring.
Bits of pale green and yellow flicker on the tips of tree limbs, a miracle as stunning as the victories of those who retreated here made, and one can witness each year this change of season as life rises out of the otherwise dead earth, finding victory in the throes of defeat.
I search for it with each visit, celebrating each new discovery like a baby’s birth, though later, when the heat comes, the buds pop at such a rate, no mere human can keep up with them all – too many living things thrust at me at one time, overwhelming me, making me just a little sad over the loss of pleasure these earlier discoveries give.
Perhaps this is why I linger here longer this time of year, even though my morning coffee grows cold quickly and my earlobes grow numb from the still sharp air.
I feel the way a sports fan feels, who must keep faith with even a losing team, knowing that at some point the team will win, though also knowing that when it does, I will be lost in the crowd or perhaps I am like one of Washington’s soldiers crossing here in retreat, knowing some day we will rise again victorious.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Not quite yet

Nov. 10, 1980

The dry reeds slump after last night’s heavy rain, looking a little like characters in a Hopper painting, brows dripping sweat from their heavy labor.
Cool sunlight streams over the tip of the factory near Outwater Lane, a deceptive brightness to suggest the storms did not happen when everything else still drips.
Water flows down each bank in well-cut gullies, stirring up the mud near the shore and filling the river basin so that it rises slightly – bring it up along the bridge’s legs to cover one or two inches of the brown the drought exposed over the long, dry summer.
We need many more storms to get back to where it belongs, and think of it as some kind of church fundraiser with a minister filling in a flow chart to suggest how far along we’ve come.
The sun penetrates the mostly bare branches to cast odd shadows over the still bare ground, interrupted only where the occasional pine tree stands. A Newark-bound jet moans across the sky, low enough to use the river as a guide. Truck traffic thunders over the Wall Street Bridge, sending vibrations down the crumbling concrete to the river where the water vibrates as well, stirring out the bar swallows that swirl in the air like tiny jet airplanes, bound for nowhere, needing no river to navigate their path.
These birds rise out of the eves of this bridge only to vanish upstream into the eves of the Monroe Street Bridge, or the rail road spur that is its twin.
The river almost looks like a river again here, unlike down stream where Passaic’s industry loomed over it with dirty brick walls, breaking only where the still-to-be-completed Route 21 runs up from a similar industrial area in Newark.
We have what we call a park here, a stretch of open space behind the church and school where kids play and people walk their dogs, bordered by a stand of trees some call woods, in which the homeless sometimes camp.
An oil slick from the river marks high water when the river is flush, creeping even higher with the almost yearly floods so as to stain the asphalt and grass above. In low water like this, we can see where the water has eroded the soil, stones and dirt and roots exposed until the edge of asphalt, as if waiting for some cataclysm to break it away.
A chill air swirls around me, making me think of winter which technically is only a month away, and Christmas, and the possibility of snow we have not yet seen, and the dark days when I will ache again for the taste of Summer’s salvation.

But not yet – not quite yet.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hopeless victims to fate

Oct. 18, 1980

I don’t know why I’m out here, crouched along the riverside under trees I know can’t protect me from the oncoming storm.
I’ve become one of those fanatic joggers I used to mock for being out in every element, trudging through rain and snow with more determination than the mailman (or woman).
Across the way, huddled under a corner of the bridge, some young kids sit, drawn to the river to see the impact of what local forecasters are calling “the storm of the century,” to see if it lives up to the tales their parents and grandparents told of storms past.
The wind gusts stirs up old leaves from the wet earth and shakes new leaves from the tips of the trees. The slow water near my feet bears the burden of these bodies, multi-colored vagrants slowly sinking as the ducks and geese – unwise to have stayed north – float among them, seeking shelter among the roots of the stronger trees. The weak trees shake and fall especially the least rooted near the islands at the river’s center.
Many geese hide under the bridge’s dual arches, despite the gusts that rush through each. I see only hints of them in the dark, a white head here or a green back there, waiting with wonder of their own since  even they could not have seen such fury as this.
The small falls are fluffed up with froth as the water tumbles over the lip, the heavy flow dragging over objects too heavy previously, such as the shopping card and old tired that had stood like icons at the top for the whole summer.
But we have not seen the worst of the storm yet, getting mostly wind as the rain follows, rain filling up basins upstream so as to send this furious flow to us now. I am wet, but not soaked, and should take cover, but won’t, needing to feel this just as the kids across the river do, to have some story of my own to tell my grandkids when they face their own “storm of the century,” years from now – and wondering if my storm will live up to the storms I’ve heard of and if others after mine will compare to this.
A gull cries overhead, and I feel for him. He is tossed around in the wind as I am by time, both of us hopeless victims to our fate.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Drizzle in Ratkowski Park

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The water runs clear here this morning despite the heavy drizzle. I stand beneath the twisted limps of an aged pine tree, which keeps neither rain nor wind off me, but provides some other protection I struggle to define
Geese squawk where the rocks hug the water and the green slime paints the legs of the wooden platform the fishermen use.
These men (most always men) have lines strung out into the bad regardless of the weather.

We are all invulnerable here, taking refuge in the cool embrace of this place. We are the regulars who refuse to fade, clinging to these shores even at risk of frost bite or sunstroke, often devoured by vampire mosquitoes, our blood soaked through with West Nile or lime disease though each seems less threatening than the nihilistic life we lead elsewhere in the far colder yet overheated city where we have no significant, or comfort, or even elderly pine trees to protect us.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A three-sided square must fall down

January 9, 1989

Every time I see the geese, they are never flying south: their patterned winged formation soaring over my head with general precision, their direction always in the mind, the compass points sharply engraved.
They always seem to know which way to go, where to stand or land or feed, who to trust, and again, whom not to, the inner alarm of danger sounding off again, when I see nothing.
They know. And they rise in a fury of feathers, seeking space, seeking that which will allow them to trust again.
Who knows how they know?
But who can blame them when they leap to false alarm, the curious child rushing to them in the erroneous effort to hug.
Even a child’s strength can crush them.
And who can say that such a thing isn’t in the child’s heart from the start.
And me, I stagger along this waterway looking at the old buildings leaning in towards the river, one large gray box with one side gone, ready to fall, waiting for a good gust of wind to knock it down – one more thing that will set the geese to flight.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What I once was

October 3, 1980

A cold wind ripples the surface of the brown water, smearing the reflections of otherwise crisp colors.
The air, chilled with the first hint of frost, makes everything vivid above, a sharp blue sky, distinct pine needles on nearby trees, and stiff-edged changing leaves still flapping on the end of branches.
October isn’t always cold, but it is this year as roadside vendors pile bright orange pumpkins in preparation for Halloween – the day for which marks the real change of season from fall to winter, even if the calendar says differently.
People on both sides of the river stock pile firewood, dragged up from the banks where dying trees have fallen, but reluctant to set any blaze until the deepest chill sets in.
It is the scent of burning woods that makes me ache most, filling me with some odd mood, not the Christmas spirit exactly, but almost.
I used to cross the river here at the Outwater Lane bridge to trick-or-treat when too many cheapskates on the Clifton side refused to give candy to kids dressed up as witches and ghosts claiming the whole ritual was against their religions when we all knew they just didn’t want to give any candy to anyone at all.
I always stopped mid-bridge to peer over, hoping to see my reflection in the water below, but never did, needing to know what I looked like in my latest disguise.
I never really liked being a monster, but always something real, from tolp-hatted rich guys to floppy-hatted hoboes, sometimes even a sailor or a spy.
A few kids cross the bridge now, deserters from Paterson or Passaic, whose parents have arranged for them to attend the better schools on the Garfield side, they, too, halted mid-bridge to stare over the side, as if unable to believe who they’ve become and perhaps to wonder if they were revert back to what they were when they re-cross the bridge just as I did way back then.
Gulls hand over their heads, crying into the vivid sky, a few bar wallows weave up from under the bridge’s arches. Somewhere on the far side of the river, church bells toll, rippling the air the way the wind does the water, making me feel small again, making me wonder if I might become what I once was if I cross back over the bridge to the other side.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Night on the island

October 12, 1980

Autumn has hit the river with both barrels, a shot gun blast of multi-colored paint, changing what was once green into a smattering of red, yellow and orange.
I’m slightly farther upstream from where I usually stop, and the change gives me a different view of the river, allowing me to see places where Dave and I used to wander as kids – the wider water where the shores are filled with reed and fire weed, wide enough for substantial islands to rise up out of the flat water.
These are deceptive, a fact we learned that night when we tried to camp out on one of them.
We thought we were clever enough when we thought to drop our great down onto the island from the bridge, so it did weigh us down as we scurried there from shore. We even put up a pup tent with a sealed bottom against the wet.
Perhaps the lack of firm soil to pound the pegs into should have told us something. But by that time, we were too tired to think of anything but sleep.
The rain came in the middle of the night, pounding on the tent top with both fists and woke us up.
Dave looked out and reported in a panic, “The island is sinking,” which wasn’t exactly accurate but I got the point.
While we had spent many rainy days near the river in the past, we never took notice how the river rose to cover these islands.
But that night, we took notice, scrambling out to have the soil beneath our feet turn to muck, sucking at each foot fall as we collected the wet tent and moist gear to make the terrible trek through the gushing rush of river water to more solid ground near shore.
Now, more than 20 years later, I still feel wet just thinking about it, and still feel the ach to go back – though Dave never would, my life caught up in mid-stream, changing colors with some strange change of season inside me I can’t explain.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The beach at Liberty State Park

July 5, 2013

My heart beats to the beast of the waves on the short, jet skis stirring up the f4rotn near the mouth to the boat basin, sending ripples to this stony shore – the life blood surging in and outside of me, filling me up, then draining me again, so now I feel hollow.
I feel the tension in the water ease only after one of the large ships pass, the tiny faces of its passengers grinning out at the other shore where Manhattan’s skyline grins back.
Those few who cling to this side wait for the icons of the harbor, the place where my ancestors landed in their arrival from the east, or the French statue standing utterly erect, green and stiff with its pale torch uplifted to illuminate this harbor long after these ships have passed.
I stumble among the stones on this short shore, searching for treasures I can never find, the detritus of some past disaster washed up here for strangers to claim. These shores are so historic that I might claim some famous general’s wooden teeth (does he need him with so famous a bridge named after him?) or the bullet what laid waste a founding father on the bluffs just up stream from here.
I find nothing except the empty shells the gulls have picked clean, a treasure for the ancient Indians maybe who polished them into money. But here these are part of the endless waste cast up between bits of brick from some demolished foundation, and the chips of wood from ships sunk in the nearby sea – ships whose masts crisscross the muddy bottom like religious icons.

Walking here, I find company in the loneliness because it is all around me, and inside, stirred up and then calmed by the coming and going of tides over which I have no control.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

After the storm

October 19, 1980

The sun glistens across the river from the falls to the foot of the bridge – so bright it stings my eyes and makes me look elsewhere, bright but not warm enough to remove the chill of the wind last night’s storm left or restore the leaves left homeless under the relentless rain.
Gulls cruise the blue sky eyeing the rain elevated shores, the grass near the top still glistening from the west even as the water recedes, testifying to the onslaught the river suffered.
It always recovers and its beleaguered citizens always return, geese floating near my side, ducks in the shallows on the Clifton side. Some even linger near the lip of the falls, floating near the glistening edge as they hunt for food.
None of my human friends share the river with me today – no fishing lines spread web-like from the sides of the bridge, no old men gathered behind the Service Diner to smoke and gossip.
Colored leaves continue to flutter from the tree limbs with each gust – red and yellow snow destined to turn brown after a time in the bright, bleaching light. The most solid green is fixed on the far side where a stand of pines pokes up from some hill well beyond the river, a boasting from a breed less subject to the fickle whims of the seasons.
For some reason, I ache for winter this year, like I have rarely done before, perhaps because I hope real snow will wash away the summer dust lack of rain left inside of me.
I am always amazes how affected I am by this place, feeling the pain of this river and the changes it undergoes, feeling it flow through me as if my blood, my feet still moist from the first time I set food here at three or four or five, not this part, but that curved part that circles the City of Paterson like a crown, me asking my mother at the time why the water was brown and not blue, and she telling me simply: “That’s the way it is,” while I still ask the same question all these years later.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Relieving the drought in me

October 11, 1980

            It rains with rage, uproarious anger slapping at the sun-baked ground so nothing absorbs at first, bubbling water rushing down the river back to cut deep wounds in its side.
            The rain drops batter the leaves above me, leaves that offer me only temporary refuge before I know I will become soaked.
            On the dock and nearby slabs of concrete, the rain hits so hard it sizzles as if hot, flushing out the six foot balls so that they look like falls again after a long summer’s trickle.
            Below it, the gush strikes the river stones with fury, as the sky above cracks with flashes of lightning and rumbles with the roaring thunder, the sky coughing up the dry phlegm the drought left as rain stirs dust into mud at my feet.
            Each leaf-clogged gully fills with clear water, which pushing down tiny dams left by twigs and litter, and these finally flow into the ravished slow water eddied below, stirring them up like stew.
            I see no catfish now or carp. Yet I can feel their stirring out from under the deeper mud to which they had taken refuge during the worst part of the drought.
            The whole thing is as intoxicating as wine, wet air felling my lungs to replace the dry air I have spent the summer breathing, flushing out the dust from me the way the gushing gullies do from the river bank.
            Even the arches of the bridge look more dignified now that water has risen to cover the brown stains at their shins.
            Old men huddle under the overhang of Service Diner’s roof to stare out at the riving river upstream, the puff of their expelled cigarette smoke foreshadowing the frosted breath each will breathe when this season finally changes into the next and the river at our feet turns to ice.
            Suddenly, in celebration of this renewed world, silver fish leap out of the brown surface of deeper water, entertaining the dusk and geese who have already fed on cracked corn near the bridge, too sated to worry about eating – yet.
            Something dark stirs in the brittle reeds on the far side of the reed, too remote in the still dim light for me to make out.
            I sip my coffee and wait for the worst of the downpour to pass, a mere formality since I cannot get much wetter than I already am, glad for the rain that some relieves the drought in me as well.