Friday, September 16, 2016

Labor Day Hike: Mostly Bronx

On Labor Day, I went on a roughly 20-mile hike that started in East Harlem and ended in the Bronx by the Whitestone Bridge. The hike almost didn't happen, because Hurricane Hermine menaced the city from afar for a while, but the weather turned out beautiful - sunny all day, no violent winds or flooding.

The hike was organized by Shorewalkers, a group I've walked with before, in and around NYC.

So here's the starting point, near the 6-train stop at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue.


We headed east and crossed the Triborough Bridge to Randall's Island, where part of our walk took us under the Hell Gate Bridge and Railroad Viaduct.


We were near some athletic fields, and the air off the water smelled clean and fresh, even though there's a waste treatment plant nearby (the winds were blowing favorably).

Randall's Island is located between Manhattan and Queens, with the Bronx to the north. Rikers Island, with its massive prison complex, is also in view, along with the smaller North and South Brother Islands.

North Brother Island was where officials twice confined Mary Mallon, nicknamed "Typhoid Mary." It's also where the steamboat, General Slocum, ultimately came to rest after catching fire, in a hideous maritime disaster that killed over 1,000 people.

As for that rail viaduct we walked under earlier, with the beautiful concrete arches? The original plan had been to use exposed steel for the bridge's piers (or supports), but there were concerns that mental asylum inmates on Randall's and Wards Islands would easily climb on those to escape. Reinforced concrete was the solution.

All of these darker bits of history we absorbed on a calm, sunny day with beautiful views of the East River.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Week in Seven Words #306

A Mustang parked outside a condemned brick home. Its front left tire is poised on the edge of a scum puddle.

His conversation - mostly heavy sighs and talk of how everything is ending.

They stand on the edge of an empty fountain and embrace.

She stages her skilled, frenetic dance in the narrow aisle between two bookshelves.

Their need for a scapegoat outweighs anything good she does.

People's image of themselves can act as their greatest obstacle. They didn't work alone in constructing that self-image. If they ever want to tear parts of it down, they'll need help, perseverance, and tolerance for pain.

Scooping gobs of warm, wet clothes from the washing machine.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Week in Seven Words #305

The dog, tied up outside, whines low and long over all the things she can smell but not jump on and lick.

I'm reminded of what it's like to play tag in a house. Ducking behind a door and waiting for the pursuer to run past into a different room. At the end, getting caught with a fierce hug.

Cold, clean air, a muddy lawn, leaves, a swing set at dusk.

He tells me about the relationship between manatees and elephants, and hippos and whales - just some of the topics we migrate through, using books, toy animals, and YouTube videos as supplements.

They show me a video of what at first looks like a skittering punctuation mark: a pygmy shrew, among soil and rocks and exploratory human fingers.

We cram ourselves onto a gondola swing. It creaks in protest, lurching under our weight.

This time, she finds a wound in me that she can tear open wider. My responding anger is so strong. It collects in my throat and chest, and I'm close to letting it fly. Like a snake that's reared back and spread its hood.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Five Short Stories Set in Haiti

Title: The Blue Hill
Author: Rodney Saint-√Čloi
Translator: Nicole Ball
Where I Read It: Haiti Noir

With the government's permission, toxic garbage gets dumped near a village. It renders the dirt an unnatural blue and covers people in blue pustules. The story is basically the ravings of a local detective. Sick from the toxins, he lies in bed gripped by visions. And what he shares is compelling: apocalyptic and poetic, with historic flavors and images of dragons and demons. It's a cry in the dark, at once futile and necessary. ("We will at least have the elegance to bear witness.") A story written as a prolonged fit may have dragged or come across as belabored. But it's powerful, and it pulls the reader along through hellish landscapes and images of a battle that the broken people, like the detective, don't have the health or power to engage in physically. It's their souls sending up a cry that no other person hears.

Title: Claire of the Sea Light
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Where I Read It: Haiti Noir

Claire is a young girl whose mother died giving birth to her. After she spends a few years with her mother's relatives, her father takes her back. She wants to stay with him, but he's more ambivalent. He cares for her but feels he can't properly raise her. As a fisherman, he knows he might die at sea or have to move elsewhere at a moment's notice for work. What will happen to her then?

The story is told from his point of view, but still shows some of what Claire experiences, not knowing where she belongs and whether or not her dad wants her. He's holding her at arm's length, because he doesn't know what to do. Along with the fear of being lost to her, I also got the sense that he fears becoming too attached to her, after having lost her mother. (The mother is very much present in her absence.) To Claire, her father's ambivalence may come across as rejection, especially when a wealthy fabric vendor who lost her own daughter expresses interest in taking her in.

There's a beautiful scene in the story, set before Claire's birth, where her mother is swimming among glowing fish in the ocean as Claire's father looks on with concern and wonder. Claire's strongest ties may be to her mother, who in being dead can be safely loved with the assurance that, in a way, she isn't going anywhere.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Week in Seven Words #304

From behind the rocks on the beach, a woman's voice rises and falls in octave scales. I imagine she's a siren, warming up to lure sailors.

The evening is as smooth and comforting as a chocolate bar. (But I'm not good at accepting comfort. I enjoy the moment, while wondering how long the peace will last.)

One of the moms talks to the kids in a patient sing-song voice. She talks to the adults the same way. There's no off-switch for that voice.

She talks about her life as if she's read about it in a three-paragraph magazine profile.

The baby tries to arch out of the stroller, her mouth opening for a cry that she hasn't yet worked up the breath to release.

The shriek that fills the room comes from a bird at the window. It flutters off before we can get a good look at it.

We're trying to map out motives as if they follow a straight course from A to B, when what really happens is that they go through hidden tunnels and rebound off secret mirrors and raise echoes in sunken caves before emerging into the light.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Week in Seven Words #303

I don't think her sense of humor gets appreciated enough. She isn't the designated "fun one," so in the typical all-or-nothing fashion, her loved ones dismiss her as no fun at all.

The ceiling comes apart in flakes like dandruff across the bathtub and sink.

By the end of dinner, I'm not sure what color his eyes are, as they were focused mostly on his phone. I should have sent him a text asking.

The tennis ball dimples the net. As the kids practice, their sneakers scritch against the leaves littering the court.

The bottle of soda bubbles and glugs as he tips it into his mouth. It looks like he's pouring gasoline into himself, to refuel mid-hike.

Confronted by the large rock with the plaque embedded in it, we try to recreate a historic moment in our imagination.

The hike takes us up a steep, leafy incline, on paths baked gold by the late afternoon light. Cloud shadows drift over the cliffs across the river.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Week in Seven Words #302

It's possible to keep finding out fun things about people you've known all your life. Like how fiendishly good someone is at Connect Four.

Her dress makes me think of key lime pie and margaritas.

A "how to be happy" advice piece makes its rounds among people I know. It offers unelaborated suggestions like, "Don't be stressed!" and "Surround yourself with happy people!" Well, if we're all reading about how to be happy, we'll be surrounded for sure. We've definitely got a shot at this.

He scrolls through online comments sections for an emotional charge: outrage, anger, confirmation of superiority.

Another rigged conversation, weighted in favor of the answers she wants.

I think the train is going to blow by the station. But it stops, with the sensation of a rubber band about to snap.

His thoughts travel like a paper airplane that drifts off-course and gets lodged in a ceiling fan.