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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Relieving the drought in me

October 11, 1980

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

Saturday, June 22, 2013

When does the drought end?

I never saw the islands here
Hidden from me in the mists
Though I have wandered here often
Seeking solice at the river side
I can find no where else
I always the roots
Buried deep into the banks
Like desperate fingers clinging
To the last of soil
Before fate or some other force
Swept them away
My own fingers aching
With a similar attempt
At clinging to a life
That has buried me as deep.
It is the drought
That dredges up the hidden things,
Shows the detritus deep water
My mind full of broken bottles
And rusted tin cans
And a small trickle of hope
Between them
I hear the squawk of ducks and geese
As if inside my head
Landlord and debt collectors
Pecking at me
For what I cannot give,
I feel as crowded
As the striped bass
Caught in the shrinking pools
Easy pickings to the perpetual
Pecks of savage beaks,
Me and they
If and when
The drought
Might end.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Slithering things in the slimy green

July 2, 1982

It is a sweltering July day with tall grasses on either side of the river gone pale from lack of rain.
The carp dabble at the roots near the shore while lazy turtles bask in sun light on the backs of rotten logs, exposed by the unusually shallow water.
Frustrated ducks swim from shore to shore in water so muddy it might as well be mud, while overhead gulls scream in their desperate search for food.
And I stand in the middle of the bridge staring down in my own desperate attempted to make sense of it all.
I cross this same bridge even in my dreams, my reality distorted by the reflected water, strange shapes stirring under the surface I can’t quite make out.
Many things I’ve not seen before appear, especially near the foot of the bridge, slimy uncomfortable things without legs that sliver up to the surface of the muck for a moment then vanished again to resurface elsewhere.
Even the carp tend to avoid these places, content to make their livelihood nearer the shore, feeding at the roots of reeds or tr4ees or off the gifts from god tossed off the bridge by speeding motorists.
The gulls won’t even feed off the slivering slimy creatures of the deep, veering away suddenly after they have mistakenly plunged towards them mistaking them for something wholesome.
Perhaps the carp, gulls and geese know about these deep beasts when I do not, having learned hard lessons about the poisons they bear from having fed off them or the poisonous green slime of the chemical plant pipes out of which such creatures have evolved.
Sometimes, staring down, I shiver even in this heat and ache to wake up the way I used to ache as a kid when caught in a nightmare, needing to shed my life of these dark dreams, ridding the river of its questionable fluids and its constantly dripping pipes of green to beautify my life, even when I know down deep it can’t be.
I ache for the water to rise again, to cover over all this so I can stare at a surface unmarred by slithering creatures and unstained by evil green.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Pure water?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

I always seek water when I feel this way, when I lose faith and struggle against the encroachment of evil – those dark shapes that loom at the edge of my way of life and seek perpetually to devour me.
Sometimes, even those who pretend to be good scare me.
I keep thinking of those scenes from Harry Potter where supposedly good angels suck out the souls of bad, sometimes taking the souls of the innocent.
Lately, however, I have learned how few good guys there are, and how often evil feeds on evil, and hurts good people in their schemes to get ahead.
Growing up near one of the most polluted rivers in American, I learned that life goes on even there, and that those forced to live in that world often have to make bad choices to survive, wildlife feeding on polluted wildlife in order to stay alive, polluted inside and out.
There are signs along some of the rivers that say don’t eat the fish or crabs, as if many poor people have a choice, faced between dying of cancer later or starvation now. For some the polluted water is all they have, and must settle for lust of power rath3er than love of life.
The signs, however, are meant for those of us who delude ourselves into believing we are less polluted than those who openly feed here. Those who are as pure as all that are dangerous, wandering into this world without knowing the rules. They are house fish let loose on the presumption that they can some how survive in a world where big fish eat small, when they have never seen a big fish and have always been hand fed.
The real problem comes with people like me, who have power, and dislike it, who believe in justice and fair play and who – despite being flawed – like our lives with one fundamental belief to never, ever let evil win, even if justice can’t win either.
But I also live by another belief that no river is so polluted that it can never become clean again, and I still retain faith that when it does, I can myself off the filth of this world and become pure again – if no less flawed.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A good place to die?

August 4, 1980

The fishermen point out the place where my uncle took the plunge. So bent on self destruction even the guard rail could not hold him back, pushing his pale green carpenter’s van into the body of the river like a splinter.
When the police and emts rushed into the water from behind Service Diner to save him, he fought them off.
He did not want to be saved.
My uncle knows the shores of this river better than I ever will, having grown up on its bangs, an early river rat, a tough teen who had to fight his way through the Garfield gangs from Lodi to get his share.
He knows the weak places along this river, the places were a determined man can find death in a rush, and thought he’d found his niche in a weak piece of rail, gunning his engine across the parking lot the way he once did ho rods along River Drive as a kid. Then, he struck wood and metal and through, his van becoming airborne despite the accumulation of saws and drills and lumber he had collected inside. And for a moment, when the stony bank fell out from under the undercarriage and wheels, he flew – crash landing with a splat on the flat surface a dozen yards upriver from the falls.
I do not know if he intended for the current to carry him over the brink. He won’t say although he still mumbles about how his truck betrayed him by getting stuck in the mud.
He is no fisherman like his father and brothers are – too agitated even as a boy to watch fishing floats bob on the surface of the water until some invisible species decides to bit. But he loved the water, coming to these shores ache day the way I do, if not to pray then to find something he could not find in other places, amid the piles of old docks and crumbling old paper mills, reeds rubbing shoulders with him like old friends.
Never welcome even in the old neighborhood where each day required him to fight for every inch of progress, he came here, stumbling over rocks and roots, up one bank to cross the bridge to do the same on the other bank, swimming in summer in the polluted waters of the Dundee Canal, slaking on its surface when a deep freeze sealed it while the rest of the river continued to rumble nearby.
Why he decided to die here, he won’t say – nor can any of the fishermen who watched it unfold, most of them knowing him as a local carpenter, many aware of how much he loved wood, the feel of it against his blistered fingers, the small of it when he cut it open with a saw. He learned the craft from his father, who built many of the houses along the Bergen County side of the river.
I don’t love wood as much as he does, but I love this river, the barn swallows swirling around my head, the carp and the catfish stirring the water at my feet. I ache from climbing up and down these banks, grabbing branches and trucks to keep my balance. This is life to me, not death. So I struggle to make sense of why he needed to die here, why when the police reached him he beat them off with the same two fists he needed as a boy to even get here – tow truck pulling out his work van long after the police dragged him to shore, he dripping this water as if blood.
The fishermen tell me this tale over and over again, as if my uncle was the big fish they saw caught, the exaggeration growing with each retelling, some of the tale-tellers knowing who I am, most not, all in love with the tall tale more than they ever loved the man with me loving man and river, and hating the idea of choosing between them, life over death, seeing this place as a place of living, and now, as a place of dying, too.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Visions of 8th Street

Nov. 14, 1988

The old street bleeds rivulets of red from beds of brown leaves piled at my feet. The chill ache of coming winter is not yet cool enough to create ice, except in me -- the pain of changing seasons I can’t control, no heat switch to turn off or on, the whim of weather, the altered leaves losing their color so all seems brown or red, that excess summer, that passionate heat, only a memory, lost with the dying season, a deception Indian summer paints on this canvas to deceive the unwary, those foolish enough to believe cold is hot and heat can be rekindled from the ashes after so much has passed since first blush, and even the memory is a lie, that what once was is worth what will be, that what was ever was what it seemed, green leaves fluttering under a furious sky, a lie only the most foolish believe, this time of year when winter’s cold breathes its deceptive breath heavily upon me, this street filled with bleeding leaves, withering trees, the gray sky with its huff and pull the only truth I see, until spring once again proves me wrong.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Walk near the bay

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The trees sway, the golden limbs moaning in the wind as they rub, most residue lingering from early dew slithering down each crack and drip off each leaf to leave traces as they caress my face, leaving the scent of late night and the humid breath I breathe in as I move between the trunks, my limbs mingled with their limbs, bit of leaves crumbled in my brown, and their taste still rich on my lips.
I want to take it all in until I burst with the gush and drip with the dew. I am the morning bleeding into the day with my arms and legs spread wide, embracing and being embraced, pulled in, drawn out, losing myself as I am consumed.
I finger the knobs on the tree as I wait, knows chest level just above where the limbs part, the scent of the sea rolling over me as I breathe, though it is the glitter of the bay I see exposed and vibrant, ripples from the wind’s rough touch stirring up a froth. Egrets with their long, slender, white necks strut stiffly along the short, rude and erect against the shimmering black mud at their feet, the slat brine bubbling as it surges and expires.

I feel the ach in the wood I touch, wishing I could be so bold as the egrets, walking so expose in such a public space, to float in the bubbles of brine, and to feel the soft kiss of the wind stirring me up, inspiring me to greater glory 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Change of season

June 1987

The water is murky today, a brown milk curdling in a late June heat, reflecting the puffy pillow-like clouds in the sky, soft but as untouchable as the swab of cotton inside a medicine bottle, always just out of reach, evading any attempt to take hold of.
This is always a tough time of year, this change of season when spring bleeds into summer, and the bright sun I ached for all winter turns hostile and mean, and I get lost in the middle of the changes, never knowing where I am. Sometimes I feel like one of those old moving images people used to create from a series of cards, each one slightly different from the last so that the still figure seems to be moving when he really isn’t – each moment frozen as if in ice despite the heat. Images of spring change with each card so that unless I flip all the cards quickly, I don’t actually see the change until it’s already happened.
And still, I continue my quests to this place, my feet dragging me to the river’s edge seeking something to salvage out of the wreckage of the old life, the mills that no longer operate as they once did, the pollution swirling in the eddies in unnatural colors, deciding wildlife until fish float to the surface and ducks crawl up onto shore to die.
Above me, swiftly moving in arches against the bright light or hidden in the folds of leaves, the birds twitter, loud conversations to which I am not privy, so I do not know if they laugh or cry, complain to celebrate the change of season that so disturbs me.
The branches hang over me, flush green with leaves, like thousands of hands with translucent palms held out for me to read the veins to some fortune that is mine not theirs, a pattern of life I have no way to translate since I come here to this place wounded again, as I have always come at these times, seeking for them to cure me because I cannot cure myself.
Normally, fisherman dot the banks with their dark shapes, their determination painted on their stern faces, dressed in hip boots and tangled lines, struggling to escape the webs of fallen branches under which the best fish hide, but they like me come here not for fish, but for solace, seeking to catch some dream that has eluded us, some imaginary big fish that always gets away.
The water is filled with such illusions, of things moving under the surface I can never quite make out, creeping shapes at the bottom that I can’t define, ghost-like, their motion often reveal with the movement of reeds, and sometimes, I feared that something evil would leap out at me if I leaned in too close to look, startled by nothing or something or maybe something buried deep in me.
Sometimes, the fishermen laughed at my foolishness, asking what I was afraid of, telling me the river is only a river and we bring to it our own fears, and that if we let it be it will let us be, the dark things feeding on their own, leaving those on this side of the light unscathed. And yet, deep in their eyes I saw the same fear I felt, and the same need, their quest was my quest seeking something here that the ordinary world could not provide, if not an answer, then some truth that escapes us because we do not take the time to look long enough or deep enough inside the river our ourselves, or to fully understand what it is that lurks beneath the surface and what makes the reeds shiver without wind or current, and where we fit into all of this.
And for a long moment, these men stare out at the moving reeds and I stare out, and we share some moment of mutual fear and need that we could not share in any other place or at any other time, and then, I move on, enduring this change of season, waiting for when the heat fades and the leaves fall, and the strange comfort of winter arrives with its layer of ice, which will hide all of this from me until the next change of season come with the thaw next spring into summer.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


October 1, 1980

Ben puffs hard on his pipe this morning as if he needs to keep his hands warm, mumbling about the chill and how fast the summer went.
He keeps dwelling on the two boys we saw last June who nearly drove a boat off the falls here, and how this wasn’t the only times kids got hurt here.
He calls them fools.
He mumbles about one kid in particular he used to see here, someone he said made him think of himself at that age.
“Didn’t have no folks as I can tell,” Ben says, “of if he did they were too poor to put proper clothes on him or didn’t care to put them on him if they had money.”
Ben doesn’t say anything good about hippies who dress up poor and less about rich kids who wear jeans with holes.
“This boy wasn’t pretending to be poor, he was just poor,” Ben says.
Sometimes, bend – who admits he doesn’t part with a penny easily – even bought the boy meals as did some of the fishermen who all took a liking to the boy.
“He never begged; he never asked for anything except to sit with us from time to time,” Ben says. “I guess he got pretty lonesome, no real home, no friends to speak of, just us.”
Ben puffed on the pipe again and stared out at the trees whose leaves have turned early, not with bright colors, but straight to brown with a few pale yellow here and there.
“When I saw him on the falls I knew it was trouble,” he says in a voice so low, the soft sound of the fall water swallowed them up. “I shouted at him like I did those boys last spring. I remember him turning to look at me over his shoulder before he felt.”
Ben uses the word “fell” but I know the boy didn’t fall, and Ben won’t say what happened after that which tells me what happened if not in detail.
Bend just stops talking and puffs even harder on his pipe.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Twilight morning

June 01, 1980

Coolness still soothes this place as morning light’s stiff fingers probe, easing through the gaps in the mulberry and maple leaves, creating a green glow as the tiny green buds of mulberries wait to bloat – a pale variety that will grow purplish white when they are ripe, dripping a little too richly as they quickly ferment, unlike the darker red/purple mulberries that grow in other place. The maples hang heavy with green leaves, not the pulsating wine-colored variety that looms over the abandoned estate passed which I jog each morning from Passaic.
These leaves here whisper with a quiet seduction, creating twilight that has long slipped away in other places, rustling only when the wind’s insistent fingers press through. Old trunks of trees defiantly stiff lean at angles over the slow-moving water trapped in scum-covered pockets of water, dead or dying trees still dripping with the remnants of last night’s drizzle.
Even the leaves drip and I open my mouth to let these drops drip in, painting my lips moist as many miss and paint my cheeks, my eyes, my whole face with their glistening. The path down from the street to the dock flows with the excess, my feet slipping on long patches before I arrive.
I rarely come here lately.
But I know the sun will press its advantage, churning up this still water until it steams, a savage attack against which the leaves cannot protect it, beams of light stabbing through every gap until the whole place sweats, not from the trickle of night time drizzle dreams, but from the agitation that makes the water come to a near boil and stirs up this broth until it oozes up the bank.
Then the bottom feeders will rise, bloated bodies exposed just under the surface as they dip in and out of the deep places and draw out the secret treasures only the deepest places contain, taking their pleasure during the most intensely heated moments before the day expires and the steam cools.
But for now, I linger in the quiet, hearing but not seeing the gulls above, their shrill cries speaking of aching that only dipping their beaks will satisfy, their shadows passing across the pale face of the Route 46 Bridge I can just see the feet of through the tender veil of lowered leaves.
I sip my coffee, licking the lid and then my lips, feeling the sharp edge of its flavor working down inside of me, an early heat that stirs me up the way the sun does the water, my feet dangling now over the edge of the dock, toes swinging inches from the surface of water.
Between here and the bridge, the small falls hiss and hum, its water already frothing in anticipation of the greater heat that will soon overcome the whole the river. Behind the silver hull over the Service Diner, the rude crows feed, poking at anything that moves in their persistent unruly hunger, satisfied with the excesses of the trash bins other more dignified wildlife avoids.
Even this early, in the peace of this place, the water stirs, its sultry skin growing more and more turbulent the nearer the center, twisting ropes of moving water that seem to grow more and more binding, creating suds from the pollution that eases towards the shore in small white clumps, reaching me, weaving around the pointed tips of each protruding stone near shore or the desperate fingers of fallen branches that clutch them and hold them until they become a snow-colored scum that fills up the dark spaces here.
Down stream, just visible to me in the other direction, the smoke stacks of the mills and factories poke at the sky, each showing the shimmer of the harsh light against one side, make to throb with the threat of potential humidity and the torture of the impending day, their brick faces cracked so that the shadows look like long, purple veins rising from the clump walls all the way to the tip of their spires where dark fumes spew and color the sky, glistening most with moisture near their rips that ripple with the reflected red of the rising sun.
I sip the last of my coffee and rise, hobbling up the slippery slope to the road, feeling the steam rise inside me as well as out, as the twilight morning gives way to a steamier day.