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Monday, November 18, 2013

Cold day by the river

January 16, 1987

It isn’t too cold today. But I’m so out of shape that I can’t jog far when I try, huffing and puffing even before I get to the Monroe Street Bridge, a merely four city blocks from where I started.
I’m tempted to cross back, over the rail bridge and come back home through the park.
But I’m a little put off by the homeless people camping there, even though it is the shortest way back.
I huff and puff for another four blocks, walk three, run two, and reach the Dunkin Donuts at Outwater Lane where I buy coffee (but no donut) and walk the whole way back to Monroe Street sipping the coffee.
Worn out by the exertion, I cross over the rail bridge anyway, figuring I might be able to escape the homeless and their constant begging, and get home.
I almost make it, too, when I see him – a familiar face among the walking dead, although older than when I knew him in high school, looking older than he had a right to look considering we are the same age.
Worse, he sees me and remembers, and refuses look me in the eye.
I go up to him.
He tells me to go away.
I tell him no, and join him on the other side of tin can fire the homeless use here to keep warm. But they don’t keep it ablaze, adding only enough wood to keep the coals going at the bottom.
“You have a cigarette?” he asks me, his hands shaking as he forms the v between forefinger and middle finger in anticipation of a smoke.
“No,” I say. “I don’t smoke. Do you want me to find more wood for the fire?”
“No,” he says, glancing around. “I don’t want it too high. I nod off sometimes, and the fire spreads. Then the cops come. We’re not supposed to be here.”
“But if you don’t have anyplace else to go…” I say and then stop.
“Oh, they have a place for us. They usually take me to the police station first, and if they can’t find me a bed in a shelter, I stay there. It’s warm. But it’s not comfortable. It’s worse when they do. Then I get grilled by a social worker who always wants to know why I prefer being out here and not in a shelter.”
“It’s a natural question,” I say.
He gives me a dirty look, and then mumbles about telling them how he hates rules, and how they always tell him every place has rules.
“Not this place,” he says to me, warming his hands over the top of the can where there is very little heat. “Well, not many rules anyway. God, I hate the cold. I just hate being contained more. I had a job once, but the boss treated me so bad I told him I’d starve before I kept feeding his damned time clock.”
He blows on his hands. The nails are nearly black from either dirt or injury, I can’t tell which.
“People are always looking down on me,” he goes on. “Some people think I kind of deserve it. One time some bastard kids even tried to set me on fire while I was asleep. I don’t sleep much now because of that. I don’t have anything to steal. They just did it out of meanness.”
He looks over the top of the can at me, his dark eyes filled not with pain but rage.
“people are always asking me how I got here and why I didn’t want to get back to where I was. But to tell you the truth, I’ve spend most of my time trying to forget all that. Now I’m not exactly sure what I did, only that I didn’t want to be there any more.”
He glances over at a pile of rags, and a collection of odd things that someone had obviously thrown away.
“When I do sleep, I sleep there,” he says and points at his makeshift bed. “It’s tough enough getting myself up each day, especially on cold days like this. It’s tough finding enough to eat and staying warm until I can lay down again. I can’t be bothered trying to remember anything else. But on some mornings, when I see the ice dripping from the limbs of trees like today, I remember something, even if I don’t quite remember what.”

I don’t ask him any more questions. For a long time, we just stand there warming ourselves over a fire that isn’t a fire anymore and doesn’t produce heat enough to keep my fingers or toes warm. Then, I dig in my pocket and come out with the change I have left over from buying my coffee, and I dump it all – unasked for – into the palms of his dirty hands. Then, I head back home to a cold water flat that isn’t warm either, but it’s home, and I’m grateful for it, even if I do feed the boss’ time clock to keep a roof over my head.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Winter bliss

December 31, 1980

The decade ends with the river so low it might never refill, ice cracking from high tide leaving a landscaped filled with what looks like broken windows.
The coffee cup keeps my fingers warm as I stand on the dock and watch the last fast moving stream at the river’s center; its low gush filling the empty spaces between the rumble of trucks and cars on the bridge.
I feel as empty as the river and as naked as the trees, wishing I could cloth myself with evergreen for these dismal days.
The gulls’ cries makes this feeling worse, as if they and I are the last living things stranded in this winter tundra – even though I know a few other stragglers remain – ducks and geese left behind from the flight south their brethren have taken. A few ducks float in the low polls. A few swallows swirl out from the bridge’s stained arches. I even see a robin pecking at the frozen mud, which shows the recent footprint of a river mole or badger. These last at least are savvy enough not to be seen above ground during the day.
I even see a turtle half hidden under a log, and rats scurrying from shadow to shadow in some dark thievery over which all the birds squawk.
I ought to go home, giving up my daily jog half way through to try and warm my bones in a cold water flat I can’t afford to keep fully heated. I ought to dump my rapidly cooling coffee and buy a fresh cup if only to keep my fingers from freezing.
But I can’t move, caught up in some internal traffic jam the way the morning drivers are, unable to make sense of where I am or where I am going, needing all the more this sad and polluted river to flow again so as to carry me – like a fallen leaf – to the next stage of my life: me, the rats, the turtles, the moles, the robins and the sea gulls locked in this deteriorating winter bliss already desperate for spring thaw still too many months away to even contemplate.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Change of decade

Dec. 30, 1980

Pauly tells me a new decade doesn’t really start until the first year after the number change. So tomorrow officially ends the 1970s, leaving me to wonder what to expect.
We are officially almost two weeks into winder. But the river here still clings to some aspects of autumn – a handful of leaves fluttering on branches even as snow decorates the cracks of land at each trees’ feet.
Sunlight shimmers over the disturbed surface of the water, creating a landscape of flame, blinding me each time I look in that direction.
The chill draws the warmth of my run from me so that I clutch my cup of coffee to keep my fingers warm as I pay my respects to the newly fallen trees and tribute to other hearty souls who like myself brave this weather, bundled people flowing across the Outwater Lane bridge from the Garfield side to the jobs at the mills on the Passaic side of the river.
The bright sun casts web-like shadows across the river bank; the silhouettes of bare branches that seem to split open the earth and sky, a jig saw puzzle it will take the return of spring to solve.
Most people see winter as a dark season. But today, this is not true. Everything is too bright, too stark, painting in colors that seem unnatural to me.
Even the tan brick of the paper mills – which on other days seem as haunted as a vampire’s castle – seem unbearably cheery today, standing out against the vivid blue sky.
The wildlife, too, defies the season, a few ducks floating in ice-free pools near the shore, while wrens and swallows flit from branch to bridge and back again in their endless routine to keep warm.
I don’t quite ache for spring yet, but I wonder when it will come – each year bringing a different kind of spring at a slightly different time, a melting, dripping spring in some years, a dawning, dramatic spring in others.
I sip coffee, seeking to stay warm, greeting this new decade with more than a little trepidation, wondering if like spring what new features it will bring, a dripping muddy one or something that will explode on me with the unexpected.