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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Bridge song (1985)

The cold wind rattles bridge like a set of chains, shaking loose the rust down onto the quiet surface of the water, as if both the bridge and the trees needed to discard their leaves, with swallows dancing one last dance before vanishing -- they disliking the ice and snow as much as I do, leaving the ducks and gulls and geese to take up habitation in the rusted eves.
This early in the morning before rush hour traffic comes to make the bridge groan, I hear music played in those rattles, sad songs that seem to mellow me as I walk between jogs, and make my way over to the other side for the long jog home.
Each morning, I want to sing along. But I don't know the words or the tune.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Passaic River Dock, June 2, 1980

June 2, 1980

The rain trickles down through the wide brimmed hats of leaves, rolling off their shimmering leaves in steady drips, drops of water showing on the brown backs of ducks that hovering in this eddy for protection, each posing as if for a water color, leaves bobbing in their wake.
Tiny dots mar the surface of the calm water, giving it scars it would otherwise lack, my reflection and the reflection of those who look down into it changed into distorted versions, each of us looking like prize fighters after too many bouts in the ring.
The landscape is marred, too, by the bending reeds and weeds, that struggle to keep straight in the rain, each moving to conflicted urges, the rain from above, the catfish from below, ready to topple as the catfish dig out the soil beneath in search of food.
The leaves and trees protect the grey dock where I sit, the rain working its way through the cluster of leaves so that most of the planks where I sit remain dry, though the seasons have reached it in the past, sun and storm beating on its blistered face until the wood turned grey.
It is an old face, this dock, one that has seen many seasons here, and many people like me who've come to the river side to stare, old enough and sagging enough to have stood here for when my grandfather used this river to swim. The purple mark of mulberries mars its face, too, giving it a blotched expression that rain cannot wash away, purple working deep down into the cracks, berries dropping down even now, as birds pick at the fruit above.
The dock will not survive long. The state has plans to renovate the Outwater Lane bridge, figuring to knock down the small factory on the other side of the road, and landscape this side -- which means removing this testimony to the past as well. The factory is owned by the mayor of Totowa, a small manufacturing plant that made him his retirement. I do not know who owns this dock, though many people use it, as evidenced by the clear path down to it from River Road.
Hearts and initials have been carved into many of the planks. Names spray painted onto the concrete base that holds this up. I resist the urge to write my name here, too, partly because I know it will not last long, partly because I think no one will notice, and that the only true immortality lies in the flow of the river, the dripping leaves feeding the flow from here into the ocean.
If I could put my name on that, I would. Instead, I sit here, hovering over a wet piece of paper, struggling to write down what I see, knowing that in a hundred years, the dock, the paper and I will be forgotten.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Gray World

May 25, 1980

It is a grey world, touched up by the grey fluff in the sky. Water, once blue and green and gold, now harmonizes with the restricted hues, with only a touch of brown and dark, dismal green for variety, reflected at the shore.
The day suggests rain, but the air denies it, with clouds too thin to sustain such an embrace.
Even the factory smoke stacks looked paler, their brick faces like washed out water colors, bleeding at the edges as they billow white, like dull flames caught in thickening ash, soon to die.
A black bird -- a crackle or a crow -- flaps its way to the water's edge in a clumsy landing, snapping at the vines before being startled by the 8 o'clock whistle, a whistle that moans across the water like some monster from the deep, wounded in some previous scene and coming finally to eke revenge.
Then, both moan and bird vanished, leaving only the sound of the river water gushed over the man made falls, the brown foam forming at the bottle and spreading among the reddish rock, the bubble and pop telling secrets of where the water has been in its long travel from Lake Passaic.
The stench tells more, of entrances and exits in and out of dark factories, the Little Falls Laundry, Marcal, Garden State Paper, and then that, too, fades.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Passaic River: Written in Concrete

Sunlight flickers off the crests of waves creating tiny crowns as the water gurgles through the rocks from the falls, white heads among the gray stones and concrete blocks and protruding pipes contractors dumped here over night, one more unexpected change to the landscape I had not expected.
On these days, I have become a quality control inspector, studying the details of the river to make sure no one has misappropiately used nature, and here, one more abuse appears in this so-called age of environmental enlightenment, shards of concrete laid down on the river bottom like too many chocolate chips stuffed into this moving brown cookie.
From here on the dock or from above the falls, I have contantly admired the texture of the land below the falls, where the stony bottom forces the surging water to spread out and seek avenues unimagined before, where trees root right in the middle of the water anchored by the stones. I have always found a symitry in that jumble, shaping patterns of behavior for the water and the wildlife that have settled around it, red-wing black birds, wrens, even occassional egrets setting up shop at convenient locations, dipping their beaks in the water as the fish swim by.
These newly deposited retangular objects have no place in that world, already drawing pieces jetsum that would have passed through at other times, fallen branches suddenly tangled in the narrow passages, causing more things to clutter behind them, and then eventually the water to back up. While the water will never get so deep as to swallow the falls, the pattern has altered and the foot holds birds used have vanished, leaving many winging over the top, settling on the too-high perches to work out the details of these new horrors.
Stealthly, the river rats work their way out, finding this more condusive to their way of life, giving them new angles behind which to hide. Even the muscrats make their move, stirring from under their reed protection to peer out, as perplexed as the birds.
Over time, life will work around the intrusion, the birds will find some new way to use these as they had used the stones. Even the water will eventually make smooth the hard edges, sculpting the odd shapes into smoother, more acceptable images. Yet, something fundamental has altered. The tree-filled, stone-cluttered world of yesterday has vanished, and even time, chiseling at the concrete, can never bring that place back.

Dream Bridge: Passaic River

It took them two years to rebuild the bridge between here and Garfield, the roadway ripped up to its ribs, rusting steel with nothing but brown surging water beneath, our side bequeathed the rates and roaches and junk cars, with factories sprewing green liquid down into the water from concrete pipes, while dead fish float at the bridge's feet, low water showing its roots like rotting teeth-- a few web-backed carp struggling at the foot of reeds, scavaging the remains of their breathern, bones of both rising with the morning froth as barefooted children wade across in their rush to school.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Passaic River Drought -- 1980-81

Even the gulls cry for water, though none can read the newspaper headlines declaring this the worse draught in twenty years. I lived in Paterson when the last spell hit, and remembered hovering over the Passaic River then where the West Broadway bridge crossed up into the Haledon hills, the shrunken banks of the country's first industrial city smeared below with soil so black it looked like tar. That spell lasted from Kennedy's election as president to Nixon's loss for Governor of California two years later.
Now, hot dry September follows a hot dry August, the brutal sun beating the river bottom hard, leaving cracks in the soil the way a car crash might rip open highway ashpalt. The old fishermen line up along the stony sides lines drooped into the remaining puddles.
"It's not as bad as the dust bowl thirties," one old man tells me, who was old enough and well-traveled enough to know and remember. "But it's bad enough."
The river looks like an open wound in the flesh of the earth, leaving the green on either side to wither and die, while gulls, wrens, robins and sparrows peck at seed in the muddy corners.
I watch the old men swaying, back and forth, trying to coax a bite on bait as dead as the fish likely are, cringing under the steady soot of illegal factory smoke, avoiding those places where the drip, drip, drip of chemicals falls from equally illegal drainage pipes, the earth there a toxic zone that even the wild dogs avoid.
And me, I sit near the spot where my old raft once sunk, seeing its rotted edges for the first time since I was a child.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Passaic River Diary: April 4, 1981

April 4, 1981

The buds start again – round bulbs of green illuminating the banks and the long branches with their soft array.
The birds chatter over the gentle roar of the falls near the foot of Service Diner, wind causing last year’s brown least to clatter along the ground like scurrying crabs.
The new season grows around us bit by bit, filling in the blank spaces, cyhasing away winter’s dismal brown – though I can still feel the chill of the water and the resistance of winter to vacate.
But this is not yet May when these banks will fill in with an almost impenetrable green that even the rumble of traffic from River Road and the Outwater Lane Bridge cannot dent, green that will hide the soot-stained brick walls of the old paper mills, green that casts deep shadows over the abandoned car lots and even moderates the stench of the still-operating gas station that pumps life into cars and fumes into the atmosphere.
I ache for the warm innocence of the water, the safe heat of sunlight that brings the carp back to the surface where I might see their webbed backs.
Spring has teased me a few times this winter, not with splotches of green, but with fair days too early to make sense, comfortable days that confused the wildlife into believing the seasons might be changing when they were not: sea gulls crying forlornly over the river top after fish they can’t find, ducks and geese seeking mates who have not yet arrived from the south – only for winter to plunge us back into cold, casting a net of thin ice over the shallow eddies nearer the shores.
We did not get the deep freeze we have seen in the past, none of the blocks of ice piling one on top of another to resemble a collection of children’s toys.
Somewhere – perhaps down by the new Wall Street Bridge – church bells chime, as if to celebrate the coming of the new season. But I know it probably the conclusion of some funeral, and serves more to mourn the passing of an old friend. I mourn, too, even if for an old friend as mean-spirited as winter.
Yet for all that, I know how quickly time passes along these shores and how spring will bleed into summer and summer into fall, and too soon winter will rise with its deathly look, and that the green that I love now, will die a spectacular death in red and gold, and then turn brown again.