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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Not so pretty (from Imitation Nature)

July 23, 1980

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

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Aug. 26, 1980

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

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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bad water

November 14, 1980

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

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

River of memories

April 14, 1981

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

Stuck in the eddy

October 12, 1980

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

Thursday, August 15, 2013

True friends?

July 6, 1980

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

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

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Watching Toms River

May 10, 1980

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

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Half way across

March 9, 1981

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

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

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Post’s ford

April 9, 1981

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

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Not quite yet

Nov. 10, 1980

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

But not yet – not quite yet.