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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Feeding no one -- 1981

Brown muck runs where water once did, the drought drying up the corners of the river like shriveling bread.
I can almost walk on water that is not water.
But I can’t make fish live or find bread for hungry men too proud to ask for food stamps. I can only give them spare change.
The dry twigs crack under each step I take, making me ach all over, making me believe that if this river dies, so will I.
The geese come, land, linger, then they fly away after exhausting what is left to eat.
I ache to feed them the way the old woman did before she died, but there are too many and no promise that hungry men won’t follow my trail of crackers, devouring all of it before the birds can.
The sparrows alone seem satisfied with the muck of the river, since the mud draws flies, midges and mosquitoes they can feed on even when none others along the river can – save for the bats, who come out, only at night.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Rainy days and Mondays

Monday, April 29, 2013

Today really is one of those rainy day Mondays everybody is always going on about, enough to quench the brief warm spell we had over the last few days – not scalding, but enough to singe the bones a little and make me remember what summer is all about.
I walked around the waterfront in Bayonne this morning, strolling out into the place here where nature defies all to declare itself independent and still powerful, egrets rising from the river top like ancient dinosaurs with me feeling as primitive as a cave man, glimpsing its pale shape against a pale sky in envy at its majesty – chilled to the bone by what it has to offer, knowing it will always be out of reach, a stark shape in the water, and a pale shape above with no common ground.
Sometimes, this is all we get, to watch life lift off from the surface of the water, the rain blurring our vision, and chilling our bones.
Nearer at hand, ducks mate, paddling through the shallow water to feed on the tiny fish the mudflats expose, their beauty disguising a terrible struggle for survival, we safe humans tend to miss, their eloquence and grace part of something more savage we do not see.
This place is too pretty and they colors too grand, making me miss the more honest conflict I used to see in the waters of the Passaic, where animals struggled against man’s interference, and yet somehow thrived.
I miss the walk along the river bank that this part of the river (it is actually the same river at this point but wide at the mouth of the bay) where I could look things in the eye and see their majesty and their pain, they glorious elevation and their sad demise. I once watched a fish rot over several days as nature sent its little army of maggots to devour it, a strange beauty of its own wrapped up in the way things are, although all my friends at the time thought I was nuts because I admired it.
Decay, demise, deterioration all part of a cycle of life that goes unappreciated as old makes way for new, young taking their place in the cycle of life, often at the expense of the old, with me a silent observer studying the outcome, slowly coming to realize that I’m part of the same cycle if only extended out over a number of years.
I met a 100 year old man on Saturday, who told me he had lived his long life free of the usual medical obstacles. He had no reason for it, no secret formula, not great scheme I might steal and use to take advantage of his good fortune. Luck or good genes, or some combination, puts one person on this path and others on another, and I come to places like this, watching nature at its most raw, trying to figure out, how which got onto which path, and I never can.
I must remain always a silent observer, watching the world go by

People must think me crazy

February 7, 1980

The world must think me craze for my early morning runs up River Drive, passed Rosey’s Bar at Passaic Street where Babe Ruth drink in and eat hot dogs, passed the tiny brick estate no one has lived in since the police put up the crime scene tape around it, now full of ghosts and decay, passed the always percolating chemical plant with high gates and signs warning ordinary people to keep out as green liquid oozes out its pipes into the river, passed the Tavern at Monroe Street, the line of neatly kept houses, the insurance agency, Outwater Hardware where Pauly used to work until he got lazy, passed the lot the after empty lot of one-time used car dealers whose inventory has long since been shipped over seats, passed the Cameo catering hall and its rather suspicious mob-like twin which changed its name every few months but never loses the dark cliental that does business there, some of whom still linger there at 5 a.m. when I pass.
Some forever-serving mayor of West Paterson is said to own land long this river side near the Outwater Lane bridge, passed the gas stations and the overgrown property whose use had long vanished with the name on the signs, property that state needs to steal if it is to rebuild the bridge, but can’t get because the mayor won’t settle on a price.
Sometimes I cheat and stop at the newly constructed Dunkin Donuts on Outwater Lane for coffee rather than wait for the next stop a mile more up the river at the silver-sided Service Diner and the Dundee Falls.
On most days, I stop there and walk a block before jogging on with the old dock right across the street. It’s just too big a temptation to resist letting myself down onto its gray planks to sit and sip my coffee.
People job in other places like Rutherford, but I seem to be the only one brave enough to take on Garfield, and so catch the curious glimpses of people as I pass, some like the secretary at the insurance agency flirting with me on my way back, most are either shocked or want to mock me, calling after me in terms my grandfather’s father might have understood, like “get a horse,” my routine as regular as the ducks although unlike the ducks or geese, I do not fly south in the winter except on weekends.
The river is more of a lover to me than many of my lovers had been, the rhythm of my life locked in its embrace, my heart beat and breathing moving fast as my feed pound asphalt and gravel along her banks, the oil-backed winged creatures my siblings and my friend who greet me every morning.
Today, I look like a turtle, bundled in knit hat and gloves, and with a scarf up around my neck so even my mother might not recognize me from any distance. But those who know me and my daily routine, wave: postman, barber, salesman, even some sad young women driving by in their warmth of their cars, faces of the world locked up in boxes of metal and glass, missing out on the intimate embrace the river give me, even on mornings as cold as this.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


January 9, 1981

“Some animals are born to handle the cold better than others,” Ben says as he puffs on his pipe, releasing smoke the way the factories across the river issue steam. “Some won’t survive when it gets this cold.”
He’s peeved because he saw someone dumping pet cats along the other side of the river last night, and though he shouted the people didn’t stop, and the cays were gone when he got there, though he found one frozen to death this morning, and he thinking the others will die soon, too.
“Fools think any beast can live out here like this,” he says, spitting bits of tobacco out before he takes another puff.
It near 7 degrees out and below us the river top has become one large level piece of ice. Some where nearby a car starter grinds in an effort to start. Bundled up workers hurry over the bridge to work, steam billowing with each breath, the vibration of traffic shaking loose dagger icicles from the bridge’s rusted arches, sending them down to stick in the frozen islands in the river’s center. Thick white clouds overhead hint of more snow, absorbing the exhaled breath of people, factories, even the warmth spewed out with the green poison from the chemical plant’s dumping, or the substantial contribution to air pollution Ben’s pipe makes.
At times, Ben seems to blend into the landscape, his thick beard painted the same color as the sky, flowing down onto his chest the way river foam does off the fall – although his thick hair does not keep him from shivering when the temperature falls this low.
“I used to have a dog who could handle this kind of cold,” he says. “I found him out here as a puppy and raised him. Old Pappy followed me everywhere and sometimes wandered off on his own. Most of the local store owners knew he belong to me, but still fed him regularly.”
Ben called the dog “Pappy” because he missed his father, but could never figure out how that came to mind.
“He was as loyal as hell, but sometimes, he would wander off for weeks at a time,” Ben says. “The first few times it happened, I was worried sick, and I came out here to look for him – a real knucklehead roaming through deep drifts, getting myself ill over a dog I was convinced would not come back. The store keepers told me I was crazy, and maybe I was. But after having him at home, I felt pretty lonesome without him. Then just when I gave up, there he came, scratching at my back door to get let in.”
Eventually, he gave up worrying about where the beast went as long as he came back, which he always did – except for that last time.
“I had that animal for 18 years,” Ben says. “When he went away, I didn’t scold him. I was too afraid he wouldn’t come back if I did, and when he didn’t come back, I kept telling myself it was something I did that sent him away. Then I got convinced someone had killed him, other wise he would have come back. I took to searching for him, and when I wasn’t searching, I waited at the back door for him to scratch. Then after a month or two, I gave up and figured he’d died – though I kept an ear open just in case he scratched – still do, I guess, though after all these years, he’s most certainly dead. Nothing lives THAT long.”
He pauses, puffs on his pipe again and stares out over the ice in silence, his smoke flowing out over the river ice, then it rises and vanishes into the puffy gray sky above.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What lurks beneath?

Murky water wrung with reeds,
I sit among these,
Like child with fingers poised to strike a stone
Or curl up toes
The sticky underworld must know
What lurks below.

Angry June waves its heat
Curdles the muddy bottom’s feet
Fickle fish nibble roots
The water moves
Shifting reflected clots of cloud
Rippling with my face above
What lurks beneath?

The flapping of fat gull wings
Fly from shore but never sing
They cry of crimes that they have seen
Of guzzling, screaming pipes of steam
Of black-eyed fish afloat at sea
With ships of trash that bob between
The frowning brows I know as me
What lurks beneath?

The broken bridge beats back the waves
With wavered steel and concrete shades
Fingers arched but not to pray
As reflections float and pass away
And leave an ageing face of gray
What lurks beneath?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Can you feel it?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I come to this place, a pauper, searching the reeds and muddy weeds for something I think I lost. I’d not come here for years, and so the scars of the recent storm stand out in my mind against what I once saw, a corruption of memory that I ache over, but can do nothing to cure, giving my sympathy to the wild creatures that roam these waters, and who have endured the worst of the storm serge. The old adage about bending to the wind seemed apt here, where the fox tails wave in the breeze, even in those places where wooden planks had fallen to ruin, leaving no connection to platforms egrets now occupy, but no human. Far out from the shore, beyond where the gas line runs under a berm of green and brown, the mud flats start, but are covered this morning with a glistening water, while across the highway, the tops of Laurel Hill shows, closer than the haze would indicate, no distant mountain, but a mole hill. Nearer, with curved necks, swans dig small fish out of the muck, and spoil their illusion of beauty by having to do all that is necessary to stay alive in a world where nothing is clean for long, and that the true measure of virtue is staying alive and somehow remaining faithful to some vision only each creature sees. I draw from them power that I do not myself possess, walking along the berm, looking at the branches that are budding with new life, powerful message poking out at me as I search my soul for some sign that I have stayed true to my own vision, while somehow, hopeful in this wet world, we can help each other, draw strength from each other, when we cannot directly help each other. Somewhere deep under foot, under the surface of water and deep in the earth, there is a source of strength we all draw from together, and each time I come to places like this, and see everything that is struggling together, I feel it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dirty river in Spring

April 2, 1981

The peace draws me here.
And the glitter of sun on the river top – though it is not only water that glitters with the morning sun: broken glass does on the dock, giving unnatural shades to a place decked in brown and bits of green.
Wood and plastic floats down street from still melting places nearer to Lake Passaic.
This is a river that coils across the landscape so that I cross it four maybe five times traveling one highway going west.
I have lived through the floods of Pine Brook with me and Frank Quackenbush on the back of an airfreight container lid, poking up way up stream like Huck Finn and Jim, seeking freedom from a life of labor over someone’s back lawn, tall pokes poking holes in the ground so that irate office owners yell for us to stop.
In 1972, it rained for three straight days in a down pour so fierce the Passaic River rose over its banks in places it had never flooded before, filling the curved McBride Avenue in West Paterson and Totowa so that only boats could go where the cars once did.
But this is a dry year and I walk along the stony sides of the river in Garfield in Garfield where the water is low even in Spring, exposing all the flaws, the weed-ridden shopping carts, the abandoned tires, and protruding spikes of glass.
Power cables of some sort run down the deepest point of the river like ribs I do not normally see until the river reaches starvation.
This is a tough time.
The homeless set up a village behind the church on Wall Street in that wooden area bordering the railroad bridge and Monroe Street. The dirty men fish by day and shiver by night, their brown and stained faces illuminated by the fires they build in old oil drums.
They remind me of the hobo camps my grandfather told me used to inhabit these same places during those years when our family too took refuge in houses he built but could not sell, moving out to live with his mother when even that became too much a burden.
The river is so low even fishing is sparse and I see the men cooking baby fish I know won’t satisfy their hunger, many local merchants complaining about the panhandling, blaming the stench of the low river on the dirty men – while the chemical plant on the Garfield side continues to spew its slime into the waterway, feeding poising to the fish that the dirty men eat.
I have walked through this camp during the daylight, seeing some of the weaker, ill men, lying exhausted on brown-stained mattresses they have dragged out of abandoned houses elsewhere in Passaic.
Some mumble about jobs they can’t get, or never had, complaining about the closing of the mills and the companies who have fled to the Carolinas to avoid the unions, jobs they can’t or won’t chase, and live by the river until the city or state cleans their villages out.
I’ve seen some hunting the ducks and geese which flock to this part of the shrunken, green-coated stream, each also seeking salvation from a river near to death itself, while a new president far away in Washington DC ponders doing away with the Environmental Protection agency, claiming there is no need for it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

First Heat

October 14, 1980

To hell with the twenty first of December, winter in Passaic begins when I turn on the heat. It's part of the game we play, delaying the inevitable for a long as we can-- and the steady drain of money heat bills mean. Rocky prides himself on holding out until Nov. 1, but I gave in today. There was frost on the ground outside when I woke and the irascible wind gusting through the alley between buildings. In the dead of winter, the room on that side is impossible to bear. I've closed it off and slept in front of the stove. Even my hamster, Merlyn, has complained in his way, curling up into a ball at the corner of his cage, ready to hibernate.
There are some advantages just the same. The noise level sinks in winter. No more kids screaming through the car port with their games of tag. Nor radios blaring from open windows. Of course, the old lady upstairs will move around from time to time, pacing from one side of the frigid building to the other, her grandchild stomping up the stairs as if there was already snow.
And the gulls cry as the rise up over the buildings from the river, moaning the loss of summer and the fish. Next door the neighbors argue over who will walk the dog, and by the time I get out to run, the sun has risen, melting down the frosted edges of the river, leaving only the colored reflection of changing leaves that will soon turn brown. Bums huddle behind the church, making fire out of paper and discarded furniture, their wind burned faces lost in the steam of their own breath.
Watching them, I'm glad I have the option to turn on or off the heat, sink hole as it is, hoping I don't find myself in their place some sad October.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

And the Sign said...

June 11, 1980

The sign said: Poluted water. No fishing, swimming or drinking.
It surprised me as to why they bothered. The stream down into the river had been poluted for years, brown crud thick on the concrete wall with a stench equally disgusting.
Who would be crazy enough to swim in it? But then, this is New Jersey, and people will do just about anything here, stupid or not, and I'd seen little black kids swimming in the canal on hot days and it was as poluted as this. The fact is a recent report said the Passaic River was victim to tons of trash from the local factories, all of it legally permitted as to not disrupt profits or jobs. Who knows what diseases were therein contained, or how badly those black kids suffered after their relief from the heat, or how much the corporate executives cared.
"We all gotta go some time," they might tell me. As for drinking the stuff, we all did that. It came out of our fausets daily with the stink and the stain, filtered, yes, but who knew how well or what we'd all suffer in years to come. And here, sitting beside it all on a slimy green stone, I sip my coffee wondering where the diner got its water.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The quiet within

May 5, 1980

Passaic River water rises and falls at my feet. The soggy soil so saturated it doesn’t even qualify as mud, each wave washing a little bit more of it from under the rocks where I sit.
Kids giggle from somewhere beyond my vision like wilderness nymphs – each voice filled with joy and mischief.
The whole world is a circus parade of noise, tree trunks instead of elephant trunks, geese honking instead of clowns.
Each sound attempts to invade the silence within me.
It seems inhuman to be quiet as I am here.
Mankind is heavy with hot air we need to expel in the form of words.
People look at me as they pass, puzzled by why I am sitting here and how I can tolerate staying still for so long.
I have hypnotized myself with the ebb and flow, watching the trash roll in and then out, leaving a strange bowl of mixed fruit below me, rocks for apples, trash filling in with other uneatable items.
This is hardly the still-life paintings I study at school.
Life can’t be frozen into a single frame without ceasing to be life.
The rats know this and begin moving the moment I stop moving, easing out of their holes to salvage the wreckage left by the waves, the comic relief before the high wire act that sends squirrels and birds down, each rat struggling to keep his balance on the slice logs and branches trapped in the muck, each fighting with others over precious bits of refuse each sees as having value.
All heads jerk up at the sudden roar of a jet coming or going to and from Newark Airport.
They have the same look at the gray-suited Wall Street-bound commuters have at the hoot of horn from approaching trains, each wonder if they have already missed their connection to some important meeting, each looking relieved when the sound bears them now ill on board or in the case of the rats, select their choice bit of trash.
When the kids appear, they rush through the dry grass near the school yard across the river – kids and grass each fed by the same polluted water, full of withering potential.
The church bells chime announcing early mass as gray-haired, grim-faced, back-bent Polish pilgrims staged up the church steps to find seats before the prayers start.
To my right, something plucks the water surface, sending out rings. I barely see the fishing line, and cannot see the fisherman hidden in the trees.
Theirs is a thankless chore, suffering Prometheus’s fate, casting out, reeling in, unhooking, to throw back what they caught since any fish caught here would be lethal to eat.
A man in a suit pauses half way across the bridge to stare at me or perhaps at the fisherman. I’ve seen the man before from the used car dealership down River Drive. But I’ve never see him walking before, except across the dealership lot after climbing out of some car he intended to sell.
I remember him having the shiniest shoes I’ve seen since boot camp.
For some reason, he seems sad today.
He shakes his head at me, the rats, the fisherman, the fish, before he moves on, each step ringing with the keys to cars he had yet to sell.
And for some reason, I can’t explain, I feel sorry for him.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Geese that won't fly south

An October rain sprays over the backs of geese as they rise from the river top, their heavy wings grabbing at the wet air as if climbing a ladder or swimming a pond, each stroke slow, each gull calling out cadance like rowers, leaving drips of additional moisture on the river's surface, helping to further smear the colors of the changing leaves.
Over head, the geese swirl, turning east, west, north, but not yet south, each seeming reluctant to take that step.
You can hear the echo of their honking off the brick face of the river side factories, and the stone hidden in the banks of reeds. Some of the honking isn't echo, but other geese struggling out from the dense growth, woken late for lift off, complaining at the others for not calling them sooner.
If anyone sees or hears any of this but me, they do not show their faces. Few come to the river side in the cold mists. Few jog river road when the temperature drops below 40 degrees. On warmer days, old men dot the stony sides where former factory basement walls still form the bank, standing on the lower levels, holding fishing poles and nets, tossing their hooks into the unspoiled china surface with hopes of pulling something free.
Now, only the rain disturbs that surface, and the fish beneath, the stirring of a colored broth that will soon fade into winter.
Still the geese do not yet turn south, instead twisting again in the air, as indecisive as I am, both of us knowing where we should be going, but resisting it, holding out for something we may never get.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tears of a bridge

Rust marks pour out of the concrete arches near where the old men stand with poles stuck out, the old bridge seeming to cry red tears under their fishing lines.
I stand in that undedicated ten foot by ten foot park somewhat up stream from them, watching the rippled dance of the water beneath the bridge, how the shapes of the tears and the arches changes in the water's mirror, how the faces of the men seemed plotted out there, mere maniquins posted in this impressionist painting as reference points.
In the reflection, the whole world moves, from sky and trees to cars and buses, always beyond their intended destination, traveling a little down stream before lost to those tears.
I can see the glint off the hats of the fishermen where special trophy flies are stuck in anticipation of a special catch, each dedicated to some legend of the deep for which only the fishermen have names. How many times did this one get away, or that? How many lines did that one break in his escape? I've heard their talk of line test and reel power, and have no translation, though in such lazy days as these, no one really seems to mind which fish gets away when the world is constantly oozing under the bridge's tears along with time.

Friday, April 19, 2013

After Months of Drought

June 5, 1980

The water gurgles as if in an bathtub not quite sealed, rising, then sinking into a weary whirlpool as the river pushes ease from the falls and presses its stringed pattern upon the reflected trees and stones to either side, gulls hanging above everything in a gray Spring sky.
The water sloshed onto the island, telling its tale of two days worth of rain, dripping green leaves rich with the nitrogen seeping up from the roots. Lightning and thunder vanquished under the pink sunlight bleeding over the edges of Passaic.
These falls divide Garfield from Clifton, the poor from the rich, with Route 21 stalled in route north where bridges should have risen, the factories spewing gray poison into the air, paper mills still pumping out toilet paper for the masses.
The river runs at the feet of the factories like a human servant no longer used, the 1972 federal Clean Water Act closing up the pipes that used to pour forth with additional vapors. Now, only a trickle seeps out, drip by drip, leaving floating fish in small pools, washed away by the infrequent rain.
Each leaf drips on me, on this gray dock near the bridge where I pause to write, purple stains of mulberries now water colors at my feet, washed, but not so thoroughly as to erase them, purple in the cracks as if blood in wounds.
And down below, the mud thickens again, and grows watery, and takes on life as the catfish crawl, stirring up the roots of the reeds, but two days hardly appeases this thirst after months of drought, and I can hear the sucking sound as the earth itself drinks, and sighs, and drinks again, this river, all rivers, only one sip in an endless quenching over time.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Silk worms, maggots and me

In some ways, they are not fruit at all, tight green or plump purple, hanging in clumps from the branches of the trees, free food provided me by mother nature for my stops between bouts of jogging.
Ever since I was a kid, I wondered about how the river side came to have so many mulberry trees, both the purple kind and the white kind, lining both the Clifton and the Garfield sides, all the way from Passaic to the Paterson Falls.
Recently I learned that silk worms feed on the leaves of these trees, and the world made sudden sense to me. A silk city like Paterson must by default also become a mulberry capital, even a century after the silk industry died.
Now these trees feed me as I run from one cropping of trees to another, me, spinning my own thread out around the river: the tree near the grey wooden dock, the tree near the diner, the trees along the highway where the turtles sun on their logs.
For about two weeks this summer, I jogged passed the body of dead muskrat that had been struck by a car on the highway but had managed in its death throes to drag itself up onto the side where I jog. For those two weeks, I grit my teeth to pass the beast as it rotted, maggots crawling over it after the first day, stripping it to the bone, they feeding on its carcass the way I fed off the trees: silk worms and maggots and me.

The Hunt

They watch the water for signs of life, bows and arrows in their hands, like 19th century Native American Warriors in hip boats and Green goose down vests, posted on the bridge between here and Garfield. They humped backs to the skyline of old red brick paper mills. When they release, shafts shoot straight into the water, answered by a wail of fear.
"Missed the mother, damn!" the slim boy shouts, his voice breaking with puberty, his small hands gripping the rail too tightly out of frustration, waving it at the swallows and the gulls that distracted his friend's aim from the fish.
Far below, stirring up the muddy water, the catfish and the carp swirl around the ripples where the arrow wounded the water, fish alarmed only by the vibrations.
"I know I missed!" the other boy yells, his face partially hidden in the shadow of the tree that line both banks of the river. He takes in the thin line attached to the rear of his arrow, pulling it up hand over hand, the dripping arrow flapping guiltily at the end instead of a fish.
This boy turns, his face suddenly revealed by a shaft of light through the leaves, painted rose from the sprinkle of red lights and the first blush of dawn, as well as a good helping of sunburn from whole days of hunting catfish.
"I know I missed," he said again, in a lower voice, a scolding voice, a voice aimed at some inner part of himself, his gaze searching the spotty bottom where the stones free the water from the mud, glaring at the web-backed catfish as if they betrayed his aim, glancing at the birds that flutter to either side, warning them not to try and upset him again -- he at war with all of nature at once, seeming to hate the fish, birds, trees and water with an equal intensity, but unable to kill them all with his thin shafts.
"So what are you going to do?" the other boy shouted, he gazing at the water, too, at the lively mist above the ten foot water fall near the diner, where the fish sometimes flip back to avoid falling. Bloated, wounded bodies of previous victims bob at the edge, their deaths preventing them from falling or flipping, left in a continual state of suspension.
"You can't leave those fish floating like that," the thin boy says.
The boy gripping the bow turns, looking as if he wants to shoot his friend, too, his tattered hat floating on the back of his curly hair like yet one more dead fish. In the advancing light, red scars show on his face, from endless scratching. The light also reveals more than bodies bobbing in the water, but dead shafts, too, never tied up, never recovered, a criss-cross of sticks and fish as if modeled after some ancient battle.
"Leave them!" he shouts to the thin boy.
"But momma said..."
"To hell with Momma," the first boy says, and scratches and turns his back on the slaughter and slowly walks up the road from the river.
"Damn you," the first boy shouts and rushes after him to catch up.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Wrens dabble at crushed chestnut and shallow water pebbles, each bird wet to its belly like perverted ducks.
I hardly noticed them at first for the glitter of the river as sunlight played over its ripples. But near the foot of the dock, the beaks bobbed like Singer sewing needles working over the fabric of the land, stitching or unstiching, I could not tell.
Theirs is a terrible chore, holding together the tread-bare world, shaping its reality with their ritual. This close to winter they should have flown south, if wrens go south, I rarely see them in the cold.
They seem oddly delicate against the crude habits of the sea gulls who hang out here year round picking the bones of the trash piles people leave at the river side during the night. The gulls will come to anyone's dinner and hover over the wrens now, curious at the activity, wondering if the food is worth all the effort. These gulls like all gulls are better thieves than laborers, better beggars, too, showing up when the old women come to feed popcorn to the ducks and geese, staying long after their welcome has worn out.
Me and the gulls observers today of wrens picking at chestnuts, each small wren eyeing me and the gulls, as if telling us both to go away.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


This, of course, is the wrong riverside, the view of green and brown mountains against the sharp blue sky, a distortion of the truth I am used to seeing.
My shoulder was always facing the hills, my gaze shifting from side to side, studying the reeds between me and the water, like a Tom Sawyer dream I never really realized when I was young.
Oh, we did managed to build a raft here, from the lid of an old airport shipping container we found dumped on the embankment where a careless truck driver had dumped it after ripping out the contents for re-sale in Passaic, our vehicle literally falling off the back of the truck the way the secretative sales person would say later about the merchandice the container contained.
Me and Dave even bravely mounted that piece of trash, procuring poles from the fallen branches from the nearby wreckage of trees, shoving ourselves out into the slow flow near the highway bridge, our destination Passaic and beyond, neither of us remembering the six step Garfield Falls inbetween -- though we never even made it that far.
One corner of the crate caught on a stone from which we could not budge it, snapping our poles in the effort before agreeing to abandon ship, the two of us, swimming from the ruins in fear of rats and snakes, seeking the warm bed we had left at home, thinking how we would explain our dripping brown water on the carpet in the hall, climbing those dusty hills to where we lived, both of us, oddly happy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Big River

“River so wide and so deep
Wake the sandman from his sleep
River remind him
He has a promise to keep,” -- Roy Orbison

Saturday, April 13, 2013

From this high up – looking down from the bluffs – I don’t see the Hudson as a river at all, at least, not what I think of as a river, a place where trees and reeds grow.
Close up, down blow, those things exist, but by accident, cropping out of the cracks in concrete from neglected pieces of the city that surrounds it.
This is too big a river for me to take in, even from this high up, and sanding here at the foot of an historic canon facing south, I ache for the green I see over my shoulder to the north, near where the bridge marks a famous general’s retreat, near where city and its cracked concrete comes to an end and country starts.
I love small rivers like the Passaic, even polluted, stark with the stench of reality, and the concept of a cure.
When a big river goes bad, I feel helpless to stop it, like some world catastrophe, like large nations rushing to war, massive tides carrying all to the sea with no one vote or hope to cope with it.

On a small river, tides change speed, not always in a rush to get anywhere at all, with eddies to linger or get stuck in, smaller challenges one person might be able to overcome.
I understand the lure of large river and the rush the rapid water brings. Those who survive the high tides here find greatness no small river can give. But in the hurry, in the rush to fame, we miss too much, leaving the small things to go unnoticed, leaving bits of our lives lost in the bigger picture.
And seated her on this cool bench in spring, looking down at the water and the walkways, I see only the tiny does of people, not the people whose faces I can still recall from sitting on the side of the Passaic, and though this river has its fishermen and its hobos, its sailors and its luscious skies, it is not the same – too much in the big picture for me to grab hold of.

Rain, masks and reality

Sept 15, 1980

The radio weatherman reported rain today, static rising over his glum voice and news station jingle as if to confirm the arrival of some late season thunder storm. Outside, along the river, the clouds hang heavy and sad over the chunks of broken concrete that line either bank. White-bellied gulls overhead, flitting from tree top to tree top with the same hungry complaint, eyeing me and my thin jogging wear as if I'm crazy.
Don't you know it's going to rain, boy?
They ask with their hard round eyes, turning their heads to see me better among the tumble of weeds and reeds and fast food wrappers.
The summer was so dry that I ache for rain, needing to see and hear it pound the earth the way it did when I was a kid, leaving flowing torrents down the gutters from the street. The worst rain came in July and it passed without fury, splattering the arid payment without wetting it, leaving that rusty metal scent behind. That smell is in the air now, hot earth and cool rain meeting in a clash of wills. A flash rips across the sky, blue or white among the gray body of clouds. The whole sky seems to shiver from it, ripped by the sound of distant thunder: a rolling kind of sound that has no beginning or end or direction. I cock my head and lean against the swaying trunk of a sumac, feeling the wind pressed against its other side, feeling and hearing the rustle of its dying, brown leaves. Only September and the leaves have turned straight from green to brown without haunting middle colors that had attracted me as a kid.
Rain comes in whisks of wind, striking the concrete face of the Outwater Lane bridge, ripping across its top like a thousand drumming fingers. They pass and another curtain of wet follows. Then another. Like an invasion from the Clifton side of the river where the red front of the old mill is already deep in mist, as if that side had made a deal to receive this wet gift first, yellowed reed heads pressed down to the earth, flattened by the attack-- that vanishes as quickly as it comes.
Suddenly, the sky grows lighter, and the rain turns to a drizzle that moistens but does not cool my upturned face. In Europe, people complain of floods and news reports waver between the fate of their rising rivers and the American hostages in Iran.
A man yells down from the top of the bridge, his face blurred in the still-misty air. I cannot make out what he is saying or who he is talking to. Maybe he talks to himself the way Leo does at the library. The smell of the muddy river bottom is the same, stinking of sewers and chemicals dumped into the flow from upstream. The thin green central line suggests more pollutants than water, shimmering with the reflection of trucks that rumble across the bridge. Even the drivers seemed disgusted, rolling up their windows against the smell despite the heat, sad-faced men with wrinkled brows that look all the same, the way the business men on the New York City buses look the same, as if life has created singular molds for certain kinds of people: truck drivers, businessmen, store keepers and others.
I seem to be caught between molds, unable to make up my mind which face I should wear for the rest of my life, living with a student's face for the moment with other faces like layers of paint beneath this current mask, a hippie face, a factory worker face, a wandering deadbeat dad face and a child's face beneath them all. It makes me wonder just how many layers I must strip away before I find raw wood.
The gulls laugh at me as they circle in the air between me and the bridge, my small wooden dock rotting even as I sit, stained black and red from months of fermenting mulberries. They have long since given up their sweet stink to that of the river's. Gulls, mulberries and a river stripped down to its muddy roots. All those things utterly real with me, a cartoon figure among them.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Red-leaved maples stretch over the water here, this sluggish alternate route dug out of this side of the land as a race way for the mills, now overgrown, lost in weeds and reeds and fallen trees, a civil engineer's nightmare where fishermen and kids dangle their feet from the low wall.
Unlike the main river where the brown water charges down from the Garfield Falls, this compost, this syryp oozes along concrete banks rising and falling with the level of rain, sometimes inching over its restraints to creep out onto the road leading to the bridge, leaving a small lake before the high doors of the ancient paper mill, leaving store keepers from the shops up the street on islands of parking meters and traffic lights.
Even in dry times when the main river thins to a creek, revealing its ribs of countless communication cables strung along its bottom, this passage remains plump, bolstered by two hundred years of leaves and residue, that primorial slime out of which the next generation of human kind might some day emerge, touched now by the sudden shift of seasons, as ice begins to crystalize its edges.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Praying to the river gods

I pray to black-clouded gods today, watching them belch, their bulging bellies heavy over the river as I jog. A green oily slick reflects back at me from the water's surface through the trunks of trees and leaves and branches.
On the far side of the water, the mills start, and so does the litter, the bottles and cans, the styrofoam cups, collected on the other side as if the bank was designed for that purpose.
Hungry gray men huddle around trash can fires, even though the temperature has not yet dropped enough to justify the practice. They look like trolls, wrapped up in jackets and blankets and other people's discarded rags.
Traffic ignors them -- that constant parade of cars, buses and trucks along thin River Road. The drivers hardly see the river at all, except as an inconvenience, something they must steer around with too few bridges to accomodate their rush to work in the morning and their rush back home at night.
Few if any see the purple heads of fire weed bursting up from the reed cover in the spring, or the turtles that sun themselves on old long over the summer. Even the ducks and geese get little attention, except by the golf course people who complain about their droppings.
If an unexamined life is not worth living, then these lives here have no future, though I struggle each day to give them a little of my attention, hoping my limited effort will be enough.
I pray to the cloud gods and the mill gods and the gods that built the road upon which I run, seeking their favor in preserving at least a little of what I see, praying that the warm water that boils out of the power plant pipes do not kill all the fish, and that poison spilled from the chemical plants at night won't kill me.
I jog on, passed the used car lots, the Dunkin Donuts, the police station and diner, jog passed the last outposts of civilization on this side, to where the old lady leaves out food for the geese, where the foot of the old bridge takes my step and delivers me to the highway side so I might jog home again.
I pray to the bridge god, too, thanking him for the favor, and for the sight of the outstretched river beneath, where river reeds lift up their heads in praise, leaving me chilled, but not from cold.

Friday, April 12, 2013

No Trespassing -- 1984

They mark the river side with "no trespassing" signs and barbed wire fenses to keep people like me from wandering to the river's edge, crawling, brawling brats with bottles and bats fresh from the Saturday barroom baseball, their eyes made dreamy by the six packs devoured after their victory on the base paths, each soul searching for something among the river stones, bent like river rats, touching the leaves of trees and the slimy stones, weaving through the pieces of concrete dumped here by the highway department when the nearby section expansion of Route 21 was complete.
Along the shore, up from the water, River Drive runs like a boundary line for wild-life, a death penalty for those foolish enough to make the crossing during the wrong time of day, though God only knows what a raccoon or Opossum might want on the civilized side, where paper mills and chemical plants spew poison into the air, each with its greedy pipes poking into the water via routes beneath the street, sucking in living water, blowing it out again dead.
Hidden by boughs of evergreen and thick vine cords, the pump house dynamo moans, something rising in pitch as the demand grows upon it, sometimes only a whisper after dark as mandated by some local ordinance with the glad sunnies swimming in their vibrating water, oblivious to the danger, carp seeking frog's eggs among the roots of reeds, as slow leaves float down from the trees in a multi colored rain.
Most days, I bend back the wire and duck under the sign, making my way down the path from the road to the water, following the trail of discarded beer bottles and abandoned dreams, searching as the drunks had searched, yet not quite knowing for what.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mulberry: Progress report: 1987

The bulldozers plowed down the mulberry trees where I used to stop to watch the river during my early morning run, burping, bumbling, bubbling machines widening the lane for the new bridge. Although Post's Ford remains untouched, the grey dock has vanished, with a pile of splintered wood slid into the back of a dump truck.
The pile drivers pound down the huge steel frame that will foot the new bridge and keep it from rocking the way the old one did, accomodating two lanes of traffic each way where as the old one barely had one, though what traffic does after it gets over the damned thing, is anyone's guess, one lane leading up to the bridge on one side, one lane leading away on the other.
After hours, when the union workers punch out for the night, I take a walk to the blighted bank, staring down to where the water runs, no tangle of trees or leaves or stone, but a flatten hump over which grass seed will get strewn and signs posted to keep people like me from sitting there, or fishermen from casting their lines.
I used to grab handfuls of the mulberries as I jogged by, my small reward for making it so far along the route with coffee at Service Diner my next stop, then the water fountain at Nash Park after that, with breakfast at home on my final stop.
How could anyone be so careless as to plow down something so precious to so many, poor people crossing the old bridge from the ruined river-side houses on the Passaic side, spending all day collecting the fruit, their fingers as purple as if they had beaten the concrete sides of the new bridge for that long with their fists, their clothing covered with the smell of berry.
Even now, with the sun sinking, and the branches gone, I catch a whiff of that fading fragrance, gone to progress.

The order of things (date unknown)

The July heat scorches the leaves and grass along the shore. The carp near shore rub their backs on stones like cats looking to stay cool. They nibble on the roots of things, while foolish turtles hang out in the sun, baking themselves on rotting old logs as if preparing themselves for soup.
Jealous me, for the first time in my life, wishing for a shell, needing an umbrella to keep the bridge dust off my head as tractor trailers thunder over.
The smell of the mills hangs over the river top with a layer of smoke, making the misery of the heat seem worse, with mill workers on break standing along the bridge rail wondering what I'm up to down here, scratching their heads over why anyone would want to hang out along this soiled river.
They can't see the ducks or don't want to, but that's why I came, catching sight of the ducks and their ducklings all in a row. They were on the old dock when I first caught a glimpse, then plopped one after another into the water as I came for a closer look.
I'm told duckingling follow their mother in the order they were born in, if so, this explain why they all did not jump in at once, but lingered at the edge, waiting their turn.
I'm jealous of them, too, of the strict family life they enjoy in their youth, an orderly existance I've never been able to acquire.
Over head, the gulls howl with their own hungry complaint, annoyed by the mill workers on the bridge, seemingly afraid to make their usual dive towards the water top with those people watching. They seemed to hate the heat as much as I do, and their call seems to catch the month stretching it out, making it echo off the concrete face of the bridge: "July, July, I hate July."
Then, the mill workers leave, laughing as they make their way back to the huge doors on the other side, and the gulls hover in the air, as unorganized in their preparations as I am in mine, making their dives without apparent order, ripping open the belly of the river and drawing from it the shivering silvery slippery fish they'd craved for, then fleeing as other gulls chased them, trying to take their treasure away.
Not much different from human kind, I think, then make my way back up the bank to continue my morning jog.

The mistakes we've made

Nov. 3, 1980

A gull splashes in the water, hoarding some precious edible discovery as other gull crowd in, the surface of the river rippling with wide, wandering waves, each searching for the banks.
A duck honks from the far shore, complaining about the poor accommodations, leafless trees marking his out of season trip south.
The moving water echoes at an elevated pitch as it comes to and gurgles over the lip of this man-made dam, sharp stones stretched out the whole width of the river at the bottom. Only the willows remain, crying over the edges of the water with their golden tears, each leaf floating on the surface like a tiny ship, clogging up the gaps between the stones.
Old man Ben grins, smoke billowing from his pipe as if he was captain to each ship, smoke catching on the wind, thinning out, mingling with the great clouds of white steam escaping the paper mills high above us.
"We used to talk politics here," Ben tells me, his gaze caught on the endless variety of activities going on at once, from a sparrow squawking on a fallen branch to the race of swallows, each imitating a World War Two dogfight in the sky over our heads. "We'd sit here and argue about who was best for what, everybody taking a different side, saying how they themselves could do a darn-side better job than the folks we'd elected downtown. Even I thought so at the time, caught up in the arguing as if what we said mattered more than a thimble full in the long run, me, trying to make things interesting by egging the others on, sometimes pushing them to make them come out and say they didn't know squash from beans."
Ben pauses, takes a deep puff on his pipe as he listens to the ringing of the nine o'clock bells from across the river, Sacred Heart church's steeple one of many brick towers sticking out of that side, stark statues among the waving leafless limbs of trees. Ben's face turns towards the morning sun, giving his gray hair and brows and beard a yellowish tint, his nearly colorless eyes squinting, registering some piece of knowledge I'm too young to understand, something he knows or knew but sees now passing away.
"Now, I mostly sit here by myself," he says, "wondering what's going to happen to us. I mean we keep electing these people and they keep letting us down."
He shivers and glanced upstream as a flock of geese takes flight from the flat surface of deeper water there, wings flapping with great fury to lift them into the air, waves of their effort slapping on the stones at our feet. Ben lifts his pipe as if to wish them well, smoke rising from his mouth and the mouth of his pipe. I can smell the smoke and the river.
"Even people who think they know so much today don't know as much as they think they do tomorrow, or even when they pull the lever in the voting booth," Ben says. "The whole world might just crash down on all our heads."
A gull cries, and we both stare out at the water as the white wings rush down and the black beak slashes at the surface to come away with a silver, squiggling prize. The tumbling hushed whisper of the falls continues, the foam at the top drips down bit by bit from some factory waste upstream. Ben stares for a long time at the surface of the water, at the foam and the ripples, and then, he laughs.
"We used to argue here about all the mistakes those politicians were making," he says. "Maybe we were wrong. Maybe we're the ones who make the mistakes by never getting ourselves elected instead."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Feeding Frenzy: 1981

The catfish move, digging through the bottom mud, breathe bubbling at the surface as they fumble for food, reeds shifting as the push through the reeds.
"You can watch where they go by watching the reeds," one of the fishermen tells me.
It has a haunting qaulity, as if some invisible Christ were walking across the surface of the water, pushing reeds out of His way.
"Last night those fish was really hopping," the fisherman said, one of the many poor blacks who feeds his family by catching fish, despite the state's claim the Passaic River is polluted. "Those cats is lazy suckers for the most part, and it takes something to make them move, getting hungry or cold, and last night we had a real chill on us, and they sat so long they got hungry from waiting."
A burst of water at the falls makes that fisherman turn, and he points to the grey striped fish struggling to keep itself from rolling over the edge with the gushing water.
"Damned fool don't got no sense," he says, then sits down on a large grey flat-topped boulder to watch. The kids have left their mark on the stone, scratched out names I cannot read: initials tof a gang, blood oaths and death curses. On the slanted side, some local teenage artist has painted the relevant segments of the female anatomy complete with indications of what he plans to do if he ever finds a girl.
The sun has warmed the stone, making it easy to sit on, making me and the fisherman seem as lazy as the fish, though the black man talks about how good life is here by the water, how the water has helped and provided for him, and how much he thanked God it was put here. I'm not totally comfortable with this talk of God, thinking maybe the Mormon preachers got here to talk with him first, and I mumble something that makes him frown.
"You don't believe in God?" he asks.
"Not exactly," I say.
"What do you believe in, then?"
I look down at the water, just as I had when I was a kid when I came down here after cutting school, or church, and the water answers for me with its wide expanse of light, silver and blue and brown all at the same time, flush with fresh fish even this close to winter, wind swaying through the reeds making each look like a drunken sailor.
I watch the black man take out his pipe and stuff it with Buglar cigarettee tobacco, the warnings of the Surgon General no more of an account than the warnings about the fish. He puffs and sends smoke out over the water, a free man taking his pleasure.
He laughs, and takes stock as a flock of geese struggles to rise from the water's surface, a honging, flapping maylay that reminds me of young children splashing in a bath tub, too much madness for what needs to be done. They do not fly long, but float back to the surface of the water, upstream, near the bridge, where the popcorn lady is issuing their morning meal, popcorn the primary course, though she gives them other things she can talk the supermarkets out of: stale bread, beans from broken bags, rice and other things. She is the Salvation Army of the river, but doesn't demand her clients pray before they eat.
No one would take her surmons seriously if she did.
And fisherman beside me laughs, as if reading my mind, shaking his head and he takes another toke:
"It's all God," he tells me. "Every damned bit ot it."

Monday, April 8, 2013

Fishing the Ice: 1980-81

I don't see the faces at first, only the steam from their expelled breath, huffing and puffing between the trees on the far side of the river. An hour earlier, before dawn, I could not have seen them at all, those sad, old fishermen too skitish to chance the ice. The change of season putting them out of their usual easy habits. They don't cut holes in the ice the way the eskomos do, but find the few open spaces where the water still laps the shore, dipping their lines in with the hope the fish will be as desperate eat as the fishermen are.
These people aren't supposed to eat the fish they catch here, but it's free food for their families after the food stamps have expired a week before the next batch are issued. I once asked one why he does it, and if he knew that polluted fish could kill him over time.
"What's the point of worrying about cancer next year if we starve tomorrow," he said.
A stillness pervades their act today, the land and city locked in an embrace of cold just as the river is. Few things move, like me, but these men don't, performing their duty, slender silver lines taunt against the sky as the men huff and puff and wait for the fish to bite -- despite the ice.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Hipboot stomp: 1981

It is hard to tell where the hip boots end and the man begins, the river water licking at the very lip of rubber as the man wades out into the deeper eddies where only the ducks go.
I have not seen many dressed like him before. Most fishermen here are content to stay on shore or drop their lines from the top of the bridge. But this one seems to want to fight his fish hand to hand, getting as close to his enemy as possible, challenging the cats and carp to drag him down to their level -- and they do, tugging at his line, making him stand back on his heals to get his weight behind his pull, they struggling to escape him, he drawing them in, inch by precious inch, life and death on either end.
From my vantage point on the upper shore, I see the dangers, the bottom littered with communication cables and empty abandoned bottles from beer, each step a potential stumble. On a clear day like this, the glass at the bottom glitters, jewel-like, a distraction from the real prize at the end of the fisherman's line.
I never see the conclusion, just the dance, one partner dressed to the hips in rubber, the other in scales.

The impatience of Spring: 1981

A strange harmony of tweets, chrips, caws and yips greets me as I arrive at the river side this morning, the airwaves full of rush hour reports I cannot translate.
Down street, the falls add static with their constant hiss, white water tumbling down its six narrow steps to the stone-strewn bottom where ducks and geese add their complaint about the lack of fish.
Even the frisky swallow complain, stirred up into their spirling reaction by the repeated rumble of trucks in and out of the the mills, each heavy-wheeled vehicle bumbling across the potholed bidge iiiin a series of whacks, cracks and thunderings. Perhaps the birds complain about the constant rain of dust, coating the surface of the water with the remains of rust.
The truck drivers made few friends among the feathered population when they lean on their hors to make slow-moving drivers hurry through the light on the Garfield side of the bridge, or scream obsenities out the window so shrilly that even the sea gulls shudder.
Yet in some ways, I understand their frustration and the moody overtones of the birds and trees. We all fee infuriated by how slow the ice takes to go, tree struggling to push out their buds, birds impatient for the fruit those buds will bear.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Jog 5/26/80

Up at `em!
The hardest part of morning is getting from the bedroom to the toilet. Once that's done, a five-mile run up River Drive is nothing. After a year or more of morning jogs, the muscles don't complain. It's the brain and the bladder, those parts least involved, which would rather keep to the warm pile of blankets currently littering the bed.
But the call of the geese from the river top has already gotten into the blood. It's spring, damn it. Not winter. The cycles of life in Passaic play havoc with the soul. One barely survives the cold wind thundering at the walls, hands preying back the poorly painted planks. Even in the shower with hot water on full you can feel its touch.
Yet now, the mullberries and the willows have already stretched their arms out across the water and bridge, have already extended their welcome to their winter children, young swallows, baby rats, ducklings floating in the shallows just down stream, and me, pounding out the pre-breakfast ritual as if I am really part of this scene.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

One June day by the Garfield Falls: 1983

I don't know who made the falls, or why, though time has warped them beyond the original intent, spreading them green with vegetation the designers would have been appalled to see, making their six steps slippery from the top of the eight foot drop to the bottom, red brick and concrete worn out from the passage of water over them, each crack catching some of the refuse dumped in the river upstream in Paterson or Elmwood Park.
On ordinary days, the brink is not a threat. Even young children take the challenge to walk its breath, from this side behind Service Diner to the far other side where the canal separates from the river proper designed once to aid the processing inside the paper mills, children like tightrope walkers, their arms stretch out to either side, their shoes tied around their necks by the laces, laughing or complaining each time their times come into contact with something slimy.
Some stoop to yank up the greenery, holding it up the way fisherman hold up fish, as a conquest, waving at those less brave souls stuck on shore, dropping the item down into the white froth of the stony bottom where the slow water from the top suddenly picks up speed, thousands of small rivulets working through the scattered masonry and cropping of rocks.
Rats roam freely here, under the open mouths of drainage sewers, feeding off the dead things that accumulate in the shallows, climbing the low limbs of the trees that overhang the far side, or the mounds of trash left by cheap-scake home improvement gurus, too lazy and greedy to take the stuff to the city dump where they have to pay by the pound.
But even the fisherman don't care, dumping beer cans into the water for every fish they fail to catch, silver bodies floating beside their boats as they grow weary, each boat edging closer to the edge of the falls before they notice, and turn their engines on to creep back, beer cans left in the wake like duckling children.
Over all, the gulls scream from their loft vantage point, immune to the curses of the fisherman from whom their steal fish, immune to the rock tossing children, and the rush of waters into the rat den below, dirty gray eagles of this sad water, competing only with the sound of trucks along River Road and the whistle of the factories, and the sad music of the pickup bars, immune, too, to the sad tales the newspapers tell, of scandal in the White House and Wars in the East, floating, floating, as if without concern.

Dry Spell: 1980

The trickle of water from the Garfield Falls looks as thin as straw-colored hair, each strand exposed as it tumbled to the sprawl of stones beneath. I never saw the low side so naked, with branches and rocks shaping a bleak landscape over which I could almost walk without getting wet. On either short, the dry season devours the trees, digs the earth from benath their foots so that both banks seem like webs waiting for the unwary traveler.
The sport fishermen stand beside the shrinking puddles, staring down at the helpless hump-backed cat fish, men needing only two good hands to have them in their nets -- these puddles so muddy and murky each might contain soup. Carp carwl in the deeper eddies, hugging the bottom, feeding off the roots of reeds.
Only the toads and turtles and crickets seem unphased, croaking as the temperature rises or sunning themselves on flast stones, while at the splintered dock, my thin legs stick out over the side, two more pink roots reaching for rain.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

With an oar on my shoulder:

May 26, 1980

The curtains flutter in the wind as a rise, testifying – along with the cracked shade – to the poor condition of this cold water flat I live in. The shade knocks against the still cool glass, brisk outside even this late in season. The sun strobes into the room as I dress for jogging.
Outside, Passaic comes alive with the whine of starting cars and the bump of trucks up 8th Street as traffic barges towards the Monroe Street Bridge to cross into the Garfield side of the river because repairs on the Wall Street Bridge are not yet done.
The angry voices rise and fall in a ritual so familiar I no longer fear a shoot out or the wail of sirens.
I love when a spring day starts out cool, letting me start my jog without breaking a sweat, seeing the long stretch of the River Road running along the straightest part of the Passaic River – both strolling side by side for miles like lovers from the great turn north of Paterson near Hawthorne until the great blending far south near Newark, Jersey City and Bayonne where combining with the Hackensack, it ceases to be a river at all.
My pounding sneakers take me back through time, passed the icons of my own life and the life of my family, my mother, uncles, grandfather, and his father and grandfather, all having resided on these shores, swimming in these waters, making their livelihood on the banks. They even used to eat the fish out of the river during The Great Depression, when they lived near or in, Grandma Jenny’s Hardware Store on Passaic Street.
This river runs through my blood line the way the air rushes in and out of my lungs, its tide the tide of our lives. There must be some reason why my grandfather became a boat builder after a heart attack forced him to cease building houses?
I know that I run through a landscape that still echoes their lives, closed car lots, foundations of old buildings rotting out in search of new development. The gravel under my feet the same gravel my family walked when these institutions still functioned, some taverns – including the dives on Monroe Street – filled with men and maybe women who even know my family, the old timers clutching bottles of beer as their peer out smoke-stained glass at the last of the factories and mills, brick faces forming strange palisades along the Passaic and Clifton shores.
Each part of this river has its own personality, this narrow slice between Wall Street and Service Diner above Outwater Lane the calmest, and oddest, since it is unlike the river I knew as a kid – the wetlands near the Route 46 bridge, the place me and Dave Fetterman spent our days pretending we lived in a Mark Twain novel, arguing over which of us was Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn.
These days, I feel more like Odysseus, a wandering sailor with oar over my shoulder, seeking some way to escape the waves, condemned to come back here each day to witness what once was.