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Friday, May 31, 2013

Tide rise on the Kill Van Kull

Seaweed at the Kill Van Kull binds the sharp stones its firm grip as the tide oozes down the green sides into a bubbling mass near the foot of the dock, sticks and stone tortured by the rise and fall of the salty flow as gulls screech overhead in agony or job, dipping beats into the shrinking broth to snatch the silver slivers before all slips away, the up and down making the old wood moan, rusted chains holding each plank in place so they must endure each painful lash, groaning under the seductive kiss of wind and the savage slap of sun, tides rising, then falling, only to rise again, never satisfied, always aching for one more lick until their victims splinter and float away like ancient sea men setting sail into dark places from which they may never return.

Thursday, May 30, 2013



The Cormorants
Spread their bodies
Across the blue water
Dusting the tips of wave
The white lips of Newark Bay
Caressing each breast
As it passes over
A morning ritual
Drenching them and me
In salt spray and sunlight
Casting away the dark shadows
And dire dreams of night
From deep inside me,
Thrusting something blunt
Inside of us to inspire flight
The night ache dripping out
As we dip out beaks
Into the salty spray,
Seeking sustenance
We all need

To survive

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Get rich quick scheme

May 31, 1980

The mulberries have arrived, green and hard yet, but mounting beneath the leaves of trees up and down both sides of the Passaic River.
They are my Christmas gift in May – a birthday present three weeks late – from a fanatic get-rich-quick schemes of a 19th Century America, when some believed they could make a future in the silk worm trade. Silk worms eat these leaves, spin silk, and the foolish masses hoped to sell this silk to the mills in Paterson.
People are always looking for easy way to make it, and like all schemes this one fell out when the old city’s silk trade died, and thus, so did the city.
Yet the river goes on, and so do the crops of mulberries each year, dropping from their branches full and rip to stain the dock with purple marks. Some years, I can’t even find a place to sit the crop is so thick, though for the month or so when they ripen, I feast.
This is still too early for feasting, however, since the berries are still goo green and small and hard, knocked off their branches not by their own weight, but by truck vibrations on the bridge, passing of gulls or simply by a stiff wind.
Curious ducks sniff at those berries that bob in the water below, but do not devour them the way they tend to do everything else.
Those on the dock look like small green marbles, scattered in some abandoned game, waiting for the thumbs to return to push them.
In a week or two, I’ll plunder the newly ripened ones, a mid-jog snack to last me until I get back home for breakfast. I have mapped my route out with such trees, the biggest of which rises above the falls near the Service Diner. But I eat most here near this riverside dock and simply absorb the aroma elsewhere.
I do not know if fermented berries get the dunks drunk since junks being ducks tend to act drunk in and out of mulberry season. But I like to think so, seeing their breed as nature’s monks who have strayed from the path of righteousness the way I have into something far more human.
In a landscape marred with pollution and lined with paper mills and other factories, the mulberries hint at what might be left after all the human ambition has expired, berries still dropping here long after the dock and bridge, the roadway and the mills have gone – when gulls and random winds shake them loose for the drunken ducks below to devour.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The old log

May 29, 1980

The Crusted log sits higher on the river bank this year than last, raised and left by some high tide last winter.
Each seasons pushes it around, leaving it scared with bold and moss, green this time of year, brown under the frost in winter.
Less sturdy than the brick foundation of the mills or even the cracked concrete, the log slowly rots. Its limbs went first, cracking off during the first few seasons to the weight of frost, losing grip on the matted newsprint and drifting soda bottles until its limbs became nubs, and it could no longer contain them.
This year only the torso is left, cracked open at the middle where insects scurrying eating at its heart so that next year it might fall totally open or even vanish.
It reminds me of the old man I see hobbling along the sidewalk of Main Street, clutching his cane as he surveys the gutters for coins or lost valuables, Main Street and the river favoring younger things over old thing as part of the cycle of life.
At 29 years old, I only now feel connected to this log, lost among the vines and detritus, waiting for death to come. At my age, we envision dying as something quick, the flickering out of a candle’s flame. But it often isn’t, sometimes it is a slow process of rotting away, lost limbs, gutted insides, of searching for subsidence around the detritus.

Sometimes, we just ride out those days, waiting for the tides to push us here and there, grateful for another season, even if it costs us a limb or pieces of our heart.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Agitated geese

May 30 1980

The geese gather in wide water today, near the island where the river divides, sluggish brown factory waste to one side, the assorted littered tossed off the bridge on the other.
Sheets of yellow newsprint cling to some of the reeds like ship sails, fluttering with each gust of wind. Old soda cans weave and bob on the surface, catching bits of sunlight. An old baby carriage leans off two rocks, its wheels and fabric long rotted, now gathering streams of weed that brush passed in the current.
The geese, who usually have something to complain about, seem unusually agitated today, roused from their usual feed upstream by cats or rats or human beings, forced to seek their fair in fish rather than bits of bread the old lady spreads across her lawn.
 I don’t always see her outside when I get to that point of my job. But I see her home and yard, a quiet yet deteriorating place, living in the shadows of the Route 46 Bridge, an eyesore of unpainted walls and the wrecks of old cars the city would condemn but for some guardian angel keeping her safe.
Perhaps the pigeons have moved to the old lady’s place, doing as they did in Nash Park, devouring everything in sight so as to leave little for the geese to feed on.
The air today is filled with a scene of rotting, and the more odious perfume smell the chemical companies use to disguise the poisons oozing out of pipes along the riverside. Yet for all of that, the air still smells fresher here than along River Drive where waiting cars spill their fumes.
Unseen things stir in the reeds, and I can follow their movements as each foxtail bends. Are these muskrats or snakes or just some fluke of wind, I cannot tell.
Some fool in a pickup truck pauses on the bridge to toss out some half empty cans of beer, each plopping into the water among the geese, giving them one more grievance and a reason to take flight. Along with them is a mating pair of ducks, rising in a flutter of wings, rising high into the bright sky to become silhouettes before vanishing over the bridge beyond the reach of beer cans or me, as I get ready to climb back up to the street and the next leg of my jog.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Good water gone bad

May 22, 2013

My grandfather use to swim this place, this stretch of river in a town whose name got change because some man hated black people living in town with a similar name nearby.
My grandfather, a kid then, even ate the fish he caught, and didn’t get sick if he happened to sip the water when he swam.
Nobody had turned good water bad yet to warn them when they got wet, good water being good, everybody understood. Bad water was sad, but not so bad that they had to watch their backs or throw back the fat fish they happened to catch.
The factories spewed little green slime then, but it was not if, but rather when, the green slime spread to every glen.
“This is not right,” my uncle said, and could not get it into his practical head how anyone would want to make this river dead. How to make this wrong into right, puzzled him mightily every night, not water to wine was his mind set, but bad to good if he only could as he watched the green slime ooze out to the sea.
Grandpa would not have said it like way, back in the day when he had his say, never mistaking bad water for wrong or good water for right, simply looking for a way he might just get along, knowing how easy it was to turn good water bad, and hard as hell to turn it back, but unlike my uncle who would mutter and cry, my grandfather would forever give it a try, good water is good water when you get down into the deep, and it might take a life time if that’s what you seek.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hope beyond hope

November 29, 1988

A dry, cold wind, full of hushed hisses, blows with the angry breath of a frustrated wolf at long dead and brown leaves.
A haunting rustle filled with the ghosts of ages passed and faces I can barely recall as I huddle against the chill rain, a wet that pastes down those leaves that do not fly away, some even frozen to dock or the walkway above from an over night dip in temperature, the crystal edges of frost still clinging to them despite an effort by daylight to warm the air.
Death stretches is long fingers over the earth and everything around me dies, or stirs up in preparation for that long sleep they (we) are never sure they will wake from, the illusion of immortality taunting them, and me, as I sipped coffee and look out from equally lingering dreams.
Rain, slanted and sly, hits my cheeks in pretense of tears, biting my flesh with the threat of snow, and I know as I walk that the snow will come, a shroud over this brown body and this gray city, and this sad river, with no words of mourning or hope, just that vague promise that somewhere beyond the darkening days and the long terrible and bitter nights, a new spring will come, and we strangers walking along search for stars in the clouded sky that might bring us to some manger, some sense of salvation in the midst of the darkness of nights, hope beyond hope.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Painful rain in Passaic

October 3, 1986

You can’t trust the rain in Passaic these days
To keep the neighbors quiet and the street in peace
Oh, there used to be a time when a little haze
Sent people back into cover afraid the least

Bit of water would melt them like Oz’s witch
But over time they learned the trick to staying
Dry – which brings me to my particular bitch
That rain and pain and old dogs baying

Are not the sounds I near in this town
When Passaic is deluged and skies pour
And once when the rain came gushing down
I could lay back for a few hours or more

To the quiet fingers of nature’s ways
Beating at my noise-racked brain –

No more

Friday, May 17, 2013

This amazing morning in May

May 27, 1980

An aqua sky glows with the rising light this morning, tainted only by trails of long thin clouds. The stark tan towers of Passaic mills stand tall on the far shore, remembrances of my uncles’ war time stories when they used to wet old newspapers so they might weigh more and bring home more money so the family could eat.
Thirty five years after the fact that towers glow in the sunlight as if new, painting by the cool air and the morning, and some need in me I can’t yet explain. Even the waste the factories dump into the river seems clean and wholesome today, though neither is true. It is an illusion created by mood and moving water, and my imagination.
I ache for renewal as cool air swirls around me after my jog up from Passaic Street and I pause to sip coffee as the new day begins.
Hints of winter still linger at moments like these, even though Spring has fully embraced the landscape with green and the fragrant scene of pine and cherry blossom.
The leaf-heavy trees lean across the water here, bought of light green tears nearly touching the surface in places – water racing over stones and through gaps with a loud, persistent gurgle that makes traffic up the bank from me seem tame.

The rush even cracks twigs, carrying bit of the fallen down stream.
The whole surface is smeared with colors of this excited movement, a smeared impressionism no painter can fully copy, yellow, green, tan and crimson rippling everywhere especially at the most excited river’s center where the reflected towers shift shape and add a more somber element to this amazing picture.
I can’t get close enough to see my own reflection and what odd part I play in this collage, but I feel part of it, and know I have been invited to separate myself from the moan and groan of abused shock absorbers over the bridge, and to resist becoming one of the mass of humanity leaning on car horns to keep from being late for work.
Yet these terrible things also leave their mark on the water, each rattle over the bridge sending small shock waves across the surface from the foot of the bridge, repainting the picture still again into something other than what it might have been, repainting me because I know in the end I have to leave this world for the more imitating one above, less frustrated for being here perhaps, but no less trapped.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Waiting for winter

November 19, 1980

The river rose over night from snow or rain upstream – mysterious Lake Passaic so distant from Dundee Island here in Passaic, I don’t always know about events until they spring upon me.
The exposed cables and much of the river bottom are covered again, clotted by the brown water I know so well – shimmering with reflections of a very blue sky and the dark buildings that line both sides. Most brown is the high water tower that stands out against the sky, rusty tears dripping down all sides. It is a perpetual observer of the human fallow that goes on down here, its long years having seen much, but mum about it all.
Someone painted the old apartment house on the Dundee side, the rear porches exposed to view from where I stand on the Garfield side of the bridge. One porch is bright yellow and green, a stark contract to the browning world around it, although for a short time in spring and fall, it somehow blends in with the changing tree.
But now, its reflection danced on the surface of the water with the false hope of spring, when it’s winter that we wait for.
The factories and mills with their sooted sides are more suited for this dismal time of year, vast mills of dark brink with smoke stacks billowing black fumes into the air, huffing and puffing dragons who still manage to make their way in a world now devoid of fairytales.\
Their reflections in the water seem ominous to me and more appropriate to the mood and season that approaches, the snow up stream, the forecast of a deep chill will shortly suffer.
Even the church and youth center with pealing paint and exposed brick offers no relief, part of some old and vanquished hope whose reflection floats side by side with the favorites in the once more bloated river at my feet.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The weeds or us?

June 26, 1980

The leaves blow, rustling and clicking like voices of a crowd, thousands pushing and shoving, thousands speaking trying to be heard.
The sun is so bright it seems to blister the grass, painting it dry and yellow, like hay spread across the landscape waiting for horses or cattle from some past incarnation to devour it.
At the same time, it is quiet here, a quiet not from lack of sound, but lack of noise.
All this seems in harmony, even the cars that moan along River Drive, bringing on their own assortment of clicks and rattles, each with its own distinct sound.
I hear voices, too, human voices rising form out of the nearby warehouse, white noise since I can’t hear what they say, only the drone of their speech – boasting maybe, such men engage in amongst themselves, telling tall tales that mean nothing to the trees or the river, a variation on the tales I used to hear the fishermen tell in my grandfather’s boat store, about the fish they caught or let go or that got away, and the story of the struggle, most of which had little to do with truth, yet felt right, even in the telling.
The trees care nothing about such tales or the concept of honesty – they simply live or die, with very little need to bolster the journey with boasts.
The wind does not search for honesty the way I do, it blows, varying its gusts, stirring up leaves or weeds, blowing hot sometimes, and other times cold.
It has no concept of success or failure, the way people like I do, feels no need to be more than it is, when I always feel that need.
If I listen hard, I can hear the highway and its hustle and bustle, that ever polluting part of the planet this place seems to deny, so rushed the people engaged there have no time to glance around and step aside, or to look here or stop here or feel this lazy, unhurried space, whose pace moves at need not out of artificial necessity.
Nothing here is more important than anything else.
I impose it on them being here, looking at the flow of the water and picking out those details that strike me, the ducks, the catfish, the empty bottles floating down stream and over the falls.
Even the brick face of the old mills and the cracked concrete wall along the road seem to fit into this jigsaw puzzle, as I rest here, and wait, the then move on, getting this jog in before I head off to my job, and the bosses who do think they are more important than everything else, especially those of us who actually do the hard work their positions allow them to avoid.
There is something dream-like in all of this, carrying a kind of haze that somehow protects the fragile things of the world, the blades of grass that struggle to survive, the white butterflies that float against the gusts of wind, the blooms of strange purple flowers that rise up in clumps near my feet, purple flowers that look a lot like faces staring up at me as if I’m the odd one in this place, hoping that my clumsy feet do not crush them in my passage, we humans thinking less of them because they are wild or free or even merely weeds. They are honest and real when in many ways I’m less so if at all, we humans reeking havoc on the world, despoiling the ground we walk on, drinking away the virtues of places like this, leaving our waste behind, never stopping to think which is more important the weeds or us.

A quiet day on the river

 July 26, 1980

“It’s quiet here today,” Old Ben said, making me jump from his suddenly speaking behind me.
He had waited for me to finish the chapter and close the book, as I routinely do when I come here other times than when I jog. Sometimes I just stare out at the falls, thinking of how good I have it even when I don’t have much in the way of material goods.
Ben had come up behind me like an Indian, his steady step avoiding twigs or loose stone, not meaning to sneak up.
I looked at him and grinned as he sat down beside me on the red stone that stuck out at the edge of the falls like a pointing finger.
“Sometimes we get mornings like these,” he said, pulling out his pipe from his pocket in a ritual so familiar I could predict every gesture with my eyes closed, his patting of his pocket for the pouch that held the tobacco, his slow opening of this, his pinching out the appropriate amount, then stuffing this into the bowl. Then, he would repeat patting his pockets until he found matches with which he lit the piped, and puffed.
After a few powerful tokes, his face was surrounded by smoke, this peeled away today by a strong breeze from off the river.
“It’s on mornings like this that the cats come up to feed,” Ben said, meaning catfish, not feline cats, fish that usually linger in the mud at the bottom.
Ben pointed a bony finger towards the shallow water.
“Can you see them?” he asked. “It’s those fish with the chicken wire for backs.”
All I saw were humped black shadowy shapes moving just under the surface of the water, wraiths that caused ripples, but little more.
“There’s carp, too,” he said, his finger moving towards the top of the falls where fish flipped to keep from falling over the lip, large silver shapes catching the sunlight as they plopped back into the brown water and swam back up stream.
We both laughed, the way we might watching clowns at a circus.
Ben knew this river just about as well as anyone did; he knew its quiet moments and its music, it loud voice and the whispering, seductive voice that lured younger people like me to this place. He knew the old raven that lived in the metal web of support beams under the Parkway Bridge, and the host of strange duck-like birds that devoured the offerings of cracked corn, cornmeal bread and popcorn offered up by the river lady up stream.
“She’s a strange one,” Ben said “But I guess that can be said about anyone of one of us, eh?”
He gave me an odd look, his white brow rising over the eye nearest me.
But today, he didn’t seem so mischievous as he sometimes did, merely thoughtful, as he looked out at one of a new visitor to this part of the river, a white swan stark against the brown water and reeds near the far side, a swam that floated majestically down the smooth surface of the river like an ice skater with no ice, its twin reflected in the brown water.
“But the river lady is stranger than most of us,” he mumbled. “She loves this river and hates to see it change, and so she and her husband hire a bunch of lawyers to keep the state from doing anything. She’s even sued the state for not doing anything about the polluters, like that could do anything to move those corrupt people.”
He spat out a bit of tobacco, but it was the bad taste he was trying to get rid of.
“The river lady ain’t rich,” Ben said.  “Maybe they win some of those lawsuits, I don’t know. Maybe that’s how they can afford to keep feeding all the birds, and other things, all year long.”
Then, Ben fell silent, as if hearing his own voice wearied him, and he squinted to make out a shape on the far shore, a shape of something living, but I could not tell if it was a bird or one of the other riverside inhabitants that wandered in and out of the reeds, making their living off the fish that came too close to the surface. But I knew Ben was really lost in some memory, one of those tales he wouldn’t tell, left out from all those he often told, too tender or painful to reveal to even someone as sympathetic as me, part of some truth about himself or his life that time had finally revealed to him, but shame or embarrassment would not allow him to speak of openly.
So he saw there with his pipe bowl cupped in the palm of his hand as he puffed, his gaze shifting from spot to spot, on the swan, then on the parkway bridge, and then on the carp leaping or the catfish in the water near our feet.
When he closed his eyes, he seemed to listen to the whisper of the falls, that siren’s call he could not yet respond to, birds screeching over the white tumult, birds seeking the silver fish to help fill the raging hunger in their bellies.
“We need to listen to this place better,” Ben suddenly said.
And then he fell silent again, and so I stayed silent, too.
The river did the talking. The river said all that needed to be said.
Upstream, the geese honked and flapped their wings for takeoff.
Upstream, others fed off another one of River Lady’s free meals, grateful for her charity for as long as it lasted.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Two realities

March 31, 1981

I live with two realities, never certain which one is real, my day life preoccupied with the rage of every day living: rent, utilities, band drivers and the prospect of war.
And then, I come here each morning and think: “This can’t be real.”
No whisper of the falls behind the Service Diner.
No stooping trees with arm-like branches reaching out into the river.
No bird song, bird flight or fish stirring up the mud.
The bridge is real and the traffic rumbling over it, reflected not in the thin sliver of wet the drought has left, but in what must be glass, an illusion to fool fools like me into believing that nature can thrive or even survive with all else that goes on around it, dumps into it, or drags out of it.
Maybe all this is a Wordsworth or Coleridge exercise, a mysterious transient thin I call up out of my imagination each time I come here.
I need to see the sea gulls feeding, so they feel, wings outstretched as they dive towards the reflected surface and come up with a slithering silver shape.
I need the trees, the reeds and the rocks, so they exist – though I fear they will vanish if I blink.
I have always needed this river to exist, to cross when I was a boy scout, to sail on with a home make raft, to come back out to after a long underground trip through the sewer we called Emerald’s Cave, the mouth of which still steers Curry Park Brook water from the center of Clifton passed School #11 to this place.
My uncles, grandfather, his brothers and uncles and their father, all needed this place to exist, too, from the land speculation of my great, great grandfather who tried to sell chunks of its shores to my grand parents who swam its water off a Fair Lawn beach, or fished from the bridges crossing it to feed our family during the Great Depression, before we all learned it was too polluted to safely swim in or eat out of.
These days I share this dock with shards of glass, the shattered aftermath of teenage drinking, boys and girls coming to this place, to this river for reasons of their own, leaving behind testimony to the shattered age in which we live.
So are the charred remains of the small island half way across the river between here and Clifton, the old trees and reeds someone set to blaze during the worst moment of the drought, a brief glow in the middle of the night kept from spreading by the vastness of mud.
None of that is real either, not the night glow or the remains, not even the time when Dave and I set foot there, claiming it as our own the way Columbus must have done when reaching America.
Or perhaps it is, and the rest – all that preoccupies the rest of my day – is not real.
If only it was so.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Eyes wide and bright

February, 1999

They couldn’t keep their eyes off of it, city kids staring out at wide open spaces that they’d been told for years was nothing more than some kind of garbage dump, where even to breathe the air meant almost certain death.
City kids from Union City, Weehawken, Guttenberg, West New York, Hoboken, North Bergen and – yes, even Secaucus, all nearly stricken blind the disparity of what they thought they would see when they agreed to come out onto the water on this sunny but brisk day in February, and what they actually were seeing close up – a winter wonderland with bits of ice, but life, too, exotic to their way of thinking and gently swaying fox tail and cat tails and other stalks of brown grass taller than the tallest of the kids in the boat, and strange streams whose secrets were being slowly revealed as the boat edged each.
And these fourth graders were the gifted and talented kids from nine schools throughout the county, not the dullards that played hooky and got detention, so learned little even from books.
These kids were smart kids, book-learned kids, and yet this two day seminar in the Hackensack Meadowlands opened whole new chapters none of their school books provided, chapters read off to them by the education staff of the Meadowlands Environmental Center in Lyndhurst, for whom this was only one of many moving image books they could provide, from one of a variety of programs for children and yes – even teachers – in the region, teaching them lessons on this wondrous mysterious world within ear shot of their front doors – a wilderness many kids had glimpsed from their back end of the Palisades in places like North Bergen, Union City and Jersey City, but never for one instant realized what was really here.
“This really is a journey of discovery for most of these kids,” said Gabrielle Bennett-Meany, education specialist for the Environment Center. “They are amazed that this place is home to so many creatures and they really love getting into the marsh, dipping their nets in the water, and pulling up fish and shrimp. It’s different and it’s exciting for them.”
And the fact that this is right in their own backyard makes it even more thrilling, Meany said.
“This wetlands and estuary system is not a remote, far-off place. It’s right here and it’s accessible. The kids are amazed to find they are sharing the region with egrets, hawks, turtles, snakes and other animals they have only read about in books,” said Meany, looking at their faces, and mine, although seeing on my face a slightly different expression, of a different kind of city kid who had spent as much time on a river as in the streets of Paterson where I grew up, and yet, even I – who thought he had seen it all, had dipped my toes in the most polluted river in America – was amazed.”
This seemingly odd juxtaposition of expansive natural preserve with densely developed areas was not lost on the children, said Rosalyn Nussman, director of the Hudson County Gifted and Talented Consortium of educators, who coordinated the workshop with the staff of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission – the body charged in 1969 with the orderly development of this area and preservation, although at times these two concepts collided, and left them in the awful position of having to choose which to emphasize. On this trip, they were focused on preservation, and boasting about how much life had returned to the Hackensack, which had come close to competing with the Passaic River I grew up on for pollution.
Manufacturers on both rivers had seen the waterways as a kind of toilet into which they could flush what they wanted, a cheap and easy disposal for a variety of nasty things that later proved deadly, not merely to those things that lived in the water, but the walking, talking, and breathing people who lived along side of it.
As the boat chugged on, some of the eight and nine year olds gasped – at some large white bird I later learned was an egret and at the top half of a familiar building poking over the tops of the reeds and beyond the cliff-like Palisades upon which many of them lived, a building nearly everyone saw every day across the other side of the Hudson River, The Empire State Building, but here, lost among the reeds as if someone had picked it up and dropped off here, the way developers once did pieces of the old Penn Station Railroad Terminal.
“That makes an absolutely wonderful picture for them,” said Nussman. “And they will remember it.”
After a day-long trek through the marshes during which the kids kept journals of what they saw and how they felt, collected samples, and made tree rubbings the students returned the next day for an artists’ workshop where they could describe their new-found knowledge using the performing or visual arts. The students chose from workshops on pottery, mask making, drama, printmaking, dance, puppetry, water colors and experimental orchestra.
Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission staff helped he students express themselves in new, artistic, ways.
Swaying tall reeds were captured through fluid dance movements; the sounds of gurgling water and ruffling grasses were expressed through music.
The dance instructor, Michael Schiocyl, from the Calabro School in Hoboken had them create the environment of the salt marsh through dance and had the children moving like fish. These kids learned a whole new meaning of applying dance to communication.
“They learned it doesn’t have to be ballet in order to be effective, it just has to represent something,” Nussman said, noting also that the most valuable aspect of the two-day workshop was the total integration of art and science. “Kids tend to isolate things, but this experience showed them that there are correlations between the two subjects.  It was interdisciplinary -- a total learning experience -- far above the normal.”
Nussman expects many of the students will return with their parents to walk the trails and river banks of the Meadowlands District.
“They have been introduced to a resource most did not know existed. I am sure they will be back,” she said.
I knew I would be.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Four days to Christmas

December 21, 1980

The wind is up this morning, spreading its chill across the river top with ice forming in those places where the water stagnates.
No flies greet me here as they usually do in summer, but bits of leaves play tag in the wind, sometimes clinging to the ice-encrusted branches from which they fell last fall.
Christmas is four days away and I sit here on the river side celebrating the first day of winter with my river friends, none of them human.
A few pedestrians brave the cold, but they don’t know me. Most people street their cars up River Drive to one of the highways for the long but apparently necessary trip to Willowbrook Mall with no mall open on this die of the river on Sundays.
Cracks grin at me in the ice, each surrounded by tiny brown wrens that stand knee-deep in the stony cold water, strafing for scraps, previous prizes that the bottom still holds and each bird needs to survive.
Wrens occupy the tips of stones that stick up from the ice in deeper water, too, while barn swallows slice through the air above them, snatching the few remaining insects from the sky.
Above these, gulls cry in their hunt for larger prey, cat fish or crap that take to deeper mud at first chill, immune to this aerial bombardment until hunger brings to the surface and the villains pounce.
Several ducks float in the open water between the cracks, a white mating pair and a lone one of black and white with a red beak, who stays so still he seems a monument, unmoved by cold wind or current, making no effort to scavenge, the way all others around him do.
A strange calm pervades this place, even with the shrill voices of the gulls and the steady flap of water seeking to escape the ice. Even the huff and puff of cars above does not disturb this peace.
The sun winks down through the bare tree limbs but provides no warmth. It merely emphasizes the flaws, giving shadows to the old tires and car bumpers, and glitter to the shards of glass.
I shiver and ought to hate the child that nips at every inch of skin I expose. But there is something special about the river at times like this, the cold erasing the stench, stripping this place to its most necessary elements – the bones of its most barren existence revealed.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Better this time (From a story in The Secaucus Reporter)

Jan. 7, 1999

They say when it rains it pours, but this time of year, you would think that we would get snow, not almost four inches of rain over night, filling up the river like a shallow tea cup
Town officials kept telling themselves how lucky they were, how when a winter storm like this strikes during a full moon, you get hit hard when you live this close to a river like the Hackensack, and we did get hit, water flowing over the banks and through the reeds, and yes even into the streets, where people drive and children ride their bicycles and unlucky dogs wander looking for refuge.
What if the town had not made so many improvements over the years, especially in the soup bowl center of the town on streets with names like Humboldt, Golden, and Chestnut all might have been the name of ponds, not streets, and people needed boats not cars to get too and from their front doors.
New curbs, new drains, new sidewalks are the ammunition towns use to fight back against Mother Nature these days, as if life along any river anywhere in this part of the world could ever see victory in such a dispute.
But town officials keep calling it progress or an improvement, even though all know it is a battle that will be waged through generations, not merely years, and that in the end, storms will grow worse and more powerful, the full moon they fear will continue to wink through the thickening clouds as if laughing at these futile efforts, saying that all the flood control efforts will not keep back the tides, and all the sand bags and berms and the drains will only enrage nature more and in the end, water will still flow through the streets and people’s lives will be altered.
Secaucus is a maze of ditches and retention basins, opening and closing tide gates, and prayers of residents who hope this storm will like the angel of death pass over them this time, leaving them dry for a change.
“If not for the high tide, I think we would have controlled it nearly completely," Councilman Michael Grecco said, one of those brave souls who struggled to contain disaster in a town surrounded by water. Seven years ago, when I first started working here, reporting on the day to day battle here, storms roared through this world leaving people homeless in its wake, and during those years, DPW employees took to boats and backhoes and installed berms on those roads where water had ruined lives, roads with old names like Farm Road, or Acorn Road or Mill Ridge Road, all snug this time when the water came – not all, some still got wet, but not as bad, roads over which the lapping river still made its intrusion and still raised complaints, residents calling in a panic over the rising tides, seeing the brown water of the Hackensack creep slowly through their yards, if not the same burglar that stole their possession in the past, then near enough to scare them into thinking it might happen again, all praying that the dykes would hold back the worst and the pumps would put a brake to the slow, inch by inch advance.
For the most part, they did, so that when the rain stopped and people came out of their houses, they were grateful to God and to the more localized Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, who had given the town the money to buy the pumps and build the dykes, but also had done so much to pave over this part of the world that the river had no place else to go but into the streets and yes, into people’s homes, and that maybe the town was spared this time, but what about the next time, when more gets paved over, and the water has even less place to go?
Town officials said frozen ground made absorbing a problem, but so did asphalt and concrete over places that were once meadows, where ditches cut through narrow gaps, but can’t handle everything running into them.
"Given the amount of rain that fell in such a short period of
time onto frozen ground, I expected a much worse situation," said Michael Gonnelli, head of the DPW here, taking note that some parts of town were not so lucky, especially those places were the drains into which the rain was supposed drain were below the level of the river, and that water came up out of them not into them, one more trick Mother Nature pulled, and will likely pull again: full moon, high tides, and over development.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

First blush of winter

Nov. 15, 1980

It is a cold and sluggish world here today, unrushed by the insane urgency of cars on River Driver and the Outwater Lane Bridge into Clifton.
The river water laps lazily on the shore, stirring up bits of moist leaves. The catfish gravel in the mud for their last meals before seeking deep water, although this year that water is sparse, and the ever-hungry gulls swoop down often and rarely rise empty-beaked.
Even those who survive this hunt may not survive the deep freeze with the water so low so as to leave fewer rise to rise up with the coming of spring.
Yet, despite the cold the freeze here has barely started, easing in at the edges in an early season frost we all know won’t last, painting wrinkles on the face of the old river other seasons hide.
A car horn blares from the middle of the bridge, its echo resounding up and down stream like an alarm, soon duplicated by the insane need for drivers to catch the River Drive light before it turns.
The bridge walls drip rust, brown tears from exposed bolts that keeps civilization hinged, the low river exposing its underbelly other years could not, the brown rot at the bottom of those stanchions cracking from years of temperature changes, algae and pollution, giving evidence as to why the state needs to replace the bridge and widen it, to let more horns honk to get through the same light.
This is the most dreary time for me and the river, the brown time, the moment when the flush of fall fades before the chill of winter comes with too few reminders of the glory days behind, a handful of red berries, a smattering of yellow leaves, highlight perhaps by gray clouds over head.
It is at times like these that I feel brown inside and out, and chilled deeper even when the deep water comes, needing some deep water to settle in until the worst of winter passes.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

New bridge; old memories

Nov. 17, 1980

Trolls don’t live under the new Wall Street Bridge, but it appears some of the homeless do – now that the county has finally put on the road deck and drought has made room by lowering the river.
Technically open, the bridge is hardly finished six months after the county said it would be.
It looks the way new houses look when a family is forced to move in before all the small details are complete, the ribs beneath the deck, long exposed on top and gone rusty for lack of cover have been pained green, through spots of rush still show through, and bring on a time when the county will have to replace the bridge again.
Everything else has a temporary feel, such as the lamp posts – which replaced the line of old posts – clamped onto the bridge on top of four by four pieces of wood, no double installed because the metal posts got backordered – so shaky a construction even the wrens won’t perch on them long, flying away each time a stiff wind blows and causes the whole thing to rattle. The gulls don’t perch on them at all.
The river hasn’t changed much except to grow even lower with the drought than before, exposing the cables at the bottom that look as slippery and deadly as eels – as if someone has sliced open a body’s muscles to expose the tendons – the slow trickle of remaining water like blood stained green by the endless deposit of poison from the chemical plant just up stream near the Monroe Street Bridge.
Strangely, I miss seeing the workmen who in the dead of winter huddled around oil can fire the way the homeless do now, bitching about the snow as they sipped coffee and smoked cigarettes and stamp their feet to keep their toes from freezing.
I stand at the new rail and feel their loss, as if some member of my family has just died – and this puzzles me. I even miss their mocking me as I jogged across the open walkway each morning – they gone on to build other bridges elsewhere while I remain married to this bridge and this river, perhaps forever.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Tony’s Old Mill

 (From The Secaucus Reporter, Apirl, 2000)

For more years than most people can remember, people used to come to Tony’s Old Mill to eat, drink and talk. Tony’s Old Mill Inn and Restaurant was a haunt of fisherman, boaters and old-timers, all of whom could still recall a far wilder life on the Hackensack River, when generations of children wandered the wetlands to fish, hunt and trap.
Long after the hunting ceased and the fish turned poisonous due to pollution, many still told tales of old exploits over meals and drinks, pointing to the nearby meadows and the waters of Mill Creek and the Hackensack River as if to pinpoint the exact location.
Surrounded on three sides by water and reeds, with a single long road leading to it from the area of Schmidt’s Woods,
Old Mill has always been a place of local secrets, where longtime residents used to celebrate holidays or just go for dinner.
While the building still stands among the ruins of boats, old tires, a boat launch and cat tails, no one has dined here since the management closed its doors nearly two years ago. Yet long before the doors closed and its kitchen stove grew cold, people like Captain Bill Sheehan and Emily Cattuna of the town’s Environmental Committee eyed the site as a possible historic landmark.
Cattuna was particularly anxious in 1996 to have the town purchase the property in order to preserve one of the few monuments left in Secaucus’ history,
“Too often, in our community, irreplaceable history is lost and/or buried, along with our most valuable wetlands, under mountains of trash or cement in the name of progress,” Cattuna said at the time.
Last week, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission moved to make at least part of Cattuna’s dream a reality by joining Secaucus officials in an effort to restore the site and transform it to a viable recreation facility.
Last May – under the urging of then Mayor Anthony Just – the town passed a $5 million bond ordinance that put aside $850,000 for the purchase and possible preservation of open space.
“That was a figure negotiated by the previous administration,” said Town Administrator Anthony Iacono.
Last month, the Secaucus Town Council voted to appropriate $85,000 as a down payment on the Old Mill property. The  sale is contingent upon the property’s passing two levels of environmental contamination tests.
Although the town amended its open space ordinance earlier this year to include the purchase of property in the north end near Huber Street School for parking, making it seem as though the town was shifting its focus, the Old Mill deal was still on the horizon.
“When we amended the ordinance, we did not shift our focus from what we set out to do as far as open space is concerned,” said Mayor Dennis Elwell. “We are still committed to that idea, and the Old Mill is one of the places we had in mind.”

Historic location

The Old Mill is perhaps one of the few remaining historic sites left in Secaucus. Sawmills and gristmills operated in Secaucus since the 1760s, and one of the gristmills built in 1840 stood on the left bank of Mill Creek. By 1860, the mill was in ruins, and Cattuna said she could not determined whether the mill had ground wheat or was used then as a flywheel for the saw mills. Maybe both. The mill, however, was marked on a map from 1900, showing that the restaurant now occupies the original site.
Howard Elwell and Tony Calderone built the existing building in 1947. At the time, the area was largely desolate, flouting hopes that some of the original building remained as part of the existing structure.
When Arthur Treacy purchased the property in 1965, now-mayor Dennis Elwell worked there. Elwell said Treacy did some interior work, changed the front door and repainted the building. A large section of the millstone, which had been quarried as a single piece and shipped to Secaucus from Virginia, was found in a ditch near the mill in 1970 and was placed in the restaurant’s lobby. It was 44 inches in diameter. A few scattered pieces were found at the Stonewall Lane.

A satellite HMDC

Under the proposed agreement, the town is asking the HMDC for $530,000 from the HMDC’s Environmental Initiative Bond fund to pay for architectural design and construction management services on the project.
The new proposal for the 1.8-acre site would convert the Old Mill into a satellite HMDC Environment Center that will expand upon the HMDC’s school activities and complement wetland restoration work currently ongoing just up Mill Creek near Secaucus High School.
The project, if it becomes a reality, would fulfill – in part – some of the wishes expressed by the Secaucus Environmental Committee four years ago. They had stressed the need for greater access to the river, envisioning a walkway, park area and benches along the riverfront.
The committee has also recommended applying to the state and national registry for historic preservation and applying for grants to restore and rehabilitate the “Old Mill” building. This would be in conjunction with dedicating the Old Mill as a historic site, with a commemorative plague proclaiming it.
“What (the HMDC) is proposing, we proposed four years ago,” Sheehan said. “It is nice to see that the HMDC has finally come around to our way of thinking.”
Mike Gonnelli, who wears two hats, one as the superintendent of Secaucus Public Works and the other as a commissioner on the HMDC, was instrumental in forging the agreement. He said the location of the property makes it ideal spot for water front recreation.
“The Old Mill is the gateway to the Mill Creek area and future plans we have for the area around the high school,” he said. “While the proposed facility will be an asset for Secaucus students, it will also be available to other students throughout the district.”
Gonnelli said the town of Secaucus took the first step when it set aside the money to buy the property, and the HMDC will help in developing the site.
“The town is purchasing the property, and once that is done, then we’ll use the money from the HMDC to proceed in the direction of waterfront recreational use,” Iacono said.
Under the HMDC’s plan, the original Old Mill building would be renovated, and in that way, would maintain this small piece of Secaucus history as Sheehan and Cattuna once envisione

The place where the Old Mill once stood.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

I miss the old place, that rat trap everybody went to on New Year’s Eve called “Tony’s Mill,” a place now more than a decade demolished though when I last stood here – before anybody made it over into a park – the remnants of the Old Mill remained – a single chimney connected to a fire place which had done little to warm anybody when it was contained in a building, but let out in the open looked more than a little ridiculous – as if preserving that actually preserved the spirit of the place when that era had long passed, and the place once icon to old Secaucus ceased to have real meaning.
People went to the mall for food instead, if not for atmosphere.
Everything has changed, even the water, which when the place served as a kind of hunter’s lodge was fresh, filled with cattails and fresh water fish, to a brackish back water victim of tides that have brought in new fish and new plants to feed on, and after decades of pollution, killed off any sense of wilderness.
Kids still skim stones over the water, but as one of the few signs of real progress, all these kids are girls – not Tom Boys to be mocked, but Tom Sawyers in their own right, laughing at the watch the pieces of flint skip over the brown surface of the Hackensack and plop into the center.
A young woman in a beach chair sunbathes where the pistol range once stood, head down, eyes closed as Mother Nature floats above in the guise of seagulls and cormorants.
While boat ramp still slants down into the mouth of Mill Creek, the old boat yard is gone, along with its parade of parts and its out of water boats, waiting to make their launch, and like the hunters who no longer warm their hands around the fire, the old boat men are gone, too, their craggy voices silenced and their tall tales of nearly caught fish part of other tales of duck filled skies and muskrats.
The giggle of children playing in the plastic playground seem a pathetic replacement, as does the rattle of bicycle chains as kids make their way up from the sport fields and across the half mile footbridge spanning the wide and still wild meadows between this place and where the high school stands.
The gulls and other birds still perch on the posts to the old wooden docks, who planks have long drifted away. I stand on the cracked concrete where other men, hunters and fishermen once stood, staring out at the moving water, a different river, coming back to life, but for what purpose – if there is no real life on the shore to take part in it.
Maybe it is better off being a park, better fitting the change in society where people are more passive, coming here to look at, but not take part in nature, as if their lives and the natural world have no connection, and it all is just one big computer image, without the computer or the screen, where we sit and look out at something, but never touch it, and it never touches us, the sadness growing on me as I recall the men who spent their lives here, the generations who celebrated the dark nights here, all waiting for the spring to come to they could dive back into what they saw as a valuable part of their lives.
The kids giggle. Lear Jets bound for Teterboro roar over head. I turn back to my car for the drive back into the heart of the city, leaving a bit of myself to float away from this place along with the tidbits of the Old Mill that once stood here in place of the park.

My mistress Aratusa

My mistress Aratusa

I used to see the boat docked at the foot of the highway bridge each time I took the bus back from New York City, curious at first by glimpses of it over the side, and then later, I deliberately sat on that side to make certain I could see it, as if having it there was like having an old friend I could see but never touch, but always counted on being there.
The Aratusa was original constructed for the Maine Central Railroad in 1913, part of the Rangely class of ships, I learned much later. She did coastal passenger trade out of Portland, Maine, and took the elite and famous to their summer places off the coast of Maine.
Perhaps because my grandfather had become a boat builder late in life and I was always his little helper tightening screws in those tight places his massive build could not reach I came to love boats and those silly statistics boat owners always toss around.
So when exploring later the details of my invisible friend on the river, I found that the 185-foot long craft had a 1,200 horsepower, single crew engine.
But more importantly, like many of those who I loved even at a distance, the ship seemed prone to disaster. During her initial test trials, she struck and uncharted ledge, and while the craft sustained only minor damage, it seemed a premonition of what she could expect.
Hank, my best friend with whom I frequently traveled to the city in hunt of girls, never understood my love for lost causes, and always complained when I hogged the bus window seat on our way back and certainly didn’t share my love of the old ship or even the vast meadowlands that stretched out around it, a place I would later come to embrace more fully when I became a reporter there.
The boat always brought back tender feelings for my grandfather, who by 1977 was already dead more than ten years, as if I could not look at her and fail to think of him.
As a reporter, I learned more about my mythical friend though by that time, it was too late for me to walk her decks or glimpse inside, things I ached most to do when viewing her from the bus.
I learned later that in 1925, the railroad sold the ship to the Hudson River Day Line, at which time it was renamed Chauncey M. Depew after the U.S. Senator from New York, for its run to Indian Point as the fleet’s luxury yacht.
In 1940, with the war looming over the Atlantic coast, the ship was drafted for service by the U.S. Navy for World War II as a transport for men and supplies between New York City and Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
After the war, the ship was sold to Benjamin B. Willis of Washington, D.C. and used as an excursion and transfer boat in Bermuda, serving as a port ferry and cruise ship.
She returned to the United States in 1970 and was sold to private interests. On her way up the coast to what was supposed to be her retirement in 1971, she was nearly lost on the breakwater in the Chesapeake Bay as a storm came up suddenly. For three years, she lay on her side, half-submerged in mud.
She was rescued as salvage by a man named David Cory. Under U.S. law, anyone can lay claim to an abandoned ship. Cory had a vision of transforming the ship into an elegant restaurant, and he leased land in Secaucus on the banks of the Hackensack River. The ship was renamed the Aratusa supper club, and it operated from 1977 to 1987.
Although we both drove by that time, Hank and I still took the bus in and out of the city and so glimpsed the boat huddled under the highway arches. At night, when doing my deliveries for cosmetic company until I got myself fired in mid 1978, I used to see her aglow, the lights from her windows sparkling on the water at night. During those years, I made frequent trips to the Jersey shore where my family had moved, always making a point to cross the bridge and glimpse the ship before taking the Turnpike south. For some reason, I even remember looking down with satisfaction the day the first shuttle exploded in the skies above Florida 1,500 miles to the south, as if I needed the comfort of this friend on the river to keep me moored.
 In 1987, she was struck by another vessel, and it broke my heart.
Witnesses on the scene at the time claim diners eating in the Aratusa hardly noticed the hit, and had to be escorted off the vessel when it became clear she had begun to sink. The hull had cracked, making the ship uninhabitable, and she would no longer rise and fall with the tide.
For the latter part of the 1980s, people driving over the Hackensack River Bridge could see the odd site along the banks just off Meadowlands Parkway, among whom I was one, always more and more heart broken each time I passed and saw her decline, knowing that I would never get to walk her decks or sit behind the wheel. Over the next few years, the boat began to decline – sinking slowly into the mud, until it became a concern of local officials.
At one point in late 1988, a group from Maine, the Rangely Foundation, expressed interest in purchasing the boat, raising it, and moving to Maine where it was slated to become part of the Rangely Museum. The group, however, needed to get the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare the boat a national monument so they could seek funding for the project.
The owner, David Cory, did not have the funds to raise the ship or repair it, but managed to fence in the property – at the town’s request.
While the ship was not considered a navigational hazard, officials feared it might become one if it began to break up. The 75-year old ship was eventually demolished.
Since then, the land that once served as parking lot has remained vacant, the object of some speculation over the years, but also the victim of a sagging economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and more than once I walked through that lot, stepping over piles of debris and over the clumps of dog shit left by local residents who largely walked their dogs there. I stepped over bits of grass and often settled near the piers where the boat had stood, thinking of her, and thinking of my grandfather, missing both.

(A modified version of what appeared in The Secaucus Reporter in January, 2001)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Stripped Fruit

June 8, 1980

Someone ripped the leaves off the mulberry tree branches that over hangs this forgotten dock – a dock just up stream from the Outwater Lane Bridge near Dunkin Donuts.
I always thought of this place as secret because no one could see if from the road, branches blocking the narrow path down the back. But I knew in my heart someone else came here, and now I have evidence that it’s true.
I feel as bad seeing this destruction as when a burglar broke into my apartment on Passaic Street, violating the place, leaving it to feel less safe.
This was no random act – each branch has been cleared so that none overhang the dock.
Perhaps they did it because the tree routinely dumped its purple berries onto the surface, staining the wood so that anybody coming here would find it difficult to sit or stand without getting stained, too.
Now, no berries are left, although they still have several weeks of fruit bearing left.
I know of other trees I can go to along the river and still feed my face full, but I feel cheated by this.
I always wondered why the river had so many of these trees, and an old fisherman named Ben told me.
They were planted deliberately as a 19th century get rich quick scheme after Paterson became the capital of silk mills and area residents thought they could help supply the silk by feeding silk worms that feed on mulberry leaves.
“Silk worms feed on mulberry leaves,” Ben said.
The Passaic River has routinely suffered such schemes.
Local tribes of Native Americans used to feed on fresh water oysters, some of which grew so large in these waters that their shells were the sizes of dinner plates.
I thought Ben was pulling my leg when he told me this since me and Dave had wandered these waters since just after we could walk and never saw one oyster in them or any size.
Ben said greedy white settlers harvested the oysters to extinction, not because they wanted them for food, or even to use the shells for jewelry or money the way Native Americans did. Most of the time, they dug up the oysters, opened them, and then left them to rot in much the same way their families would later do with the Buffalo out west.
Some fool claimed to have found a pearl in one which started a frenzy that did not end until all of the oysters were gone.
Some people come to the riverside for mushrooms, harvesting them all. Some it seems have come to strip the trees of mulberries, too, maybe the homeless men, down on Dundee Island, I think, most likely spoiled Garfield kids, seeking simply to cause destruction.
I hope it was the homeless.
I clean the leaves from the dock for a place to sit and then I sit, sending the leaves down into the fast moving water below, a kind of sailor’s funeral, with me as the only mourner.