Outward Bound on the East River

by

07/11/2002

499 e 10th st ny ny

Neighborhood: Multiple, The East River

It was the beginning of summer and my two young sons had taken to counting Jaguars.

“There’s one!” Alex, then eight, would cry, elated, from the backseat of the car. “Oh, there’s another one.”

“Look over there—there’s two more!” five-year-old Ferran would trill.

Anyone unfamiliar with the Hamptons might have assumed we were on a safari, mistaking my sons’ enthusiasm for a love of wild cats. But they were merely responding to the seasonal influx of fancy imports. And judging from a random sampling along the Montauk Highway, this particular breed of Jaguar was under no threat of extinction.

“I count five! I count six—I mean seven!”

“That’s not a Jaguar, silly. That’s a Mercedes.”

We had just moved into our beautiful summer rental in the Springs. But my husband and I were considering separating. And our mothers were both terminally ill with the same kind of cancer. And my sons’ jaguar counting, not to mention the $130.00 parking ticket greeting us after the briefest imaginable trip to the beach, and the snaking lines of cell-phone toting businessmen at the farmer’s market, and the ponderous foresight required to buy a movie ticket at the local theater before they’d all sold out, and even the making of a simple left-hand turn off of Route 27, everything seemed to be conspiring to make me crazy.

“Craz-i-er,” corrected my friend Bob Braine, an artist.

In search of a more down-to-earth get-away, I had called Braine and asked him to take me kayaking on Manhattan’s East River.

“You must have some secret destinations you like to go to,” I said. “Undiscovered spots along the river.”

“I could take you to my favorite swimming hole,” he suggested.

I imagined—rather unrealistically—a deserted beach near Manhattan, and asked if I should bring my bathing suit. But the place Braine had in mind was a toxic waste dump. “You swim in there,” he chuckled, “it’ll burn the bikini right off you. Not to mention your skin.”

So much for escapes.

“Maybe we should bring a harpoon,” he added, thoughtfully. “Try to harpoon something.”

“What, like dead bodies?”

A Williamsburg-based artist, Braine has a knack for discovering wildlife—and beauty—in the marginal pockets of New York City. For a recent work on view at the Gorney, Bravin, Lee Gallery, the artist kayaked out to Hoffman Island, with a 90-pound tank of helium. There, using a remotely triggered camera suspended under helium-filled balloons, he documented, in infrared film, a nest of bird’s eggs. A current project for the Art in the Arch program at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn features aerial infrared photographs of contiguous segments of Bushwick Inlet, resembling topographical maps. In still another installation, for the windows of the restaurant La Luncheonette in Chelsea, infrared photographs show wildlife consuming the abandoned raised railroad trestle, known as The Highliner, along the West Side Highway.

A combination of influences—from Richard Long and Robert Smithson to Outsider Art—Braine ’s work reveals his deep physical connection to his own habitat or environment. Still, qualifications aside, I was going for the company. Braine is one of those people who manufacture their own fun. He builds kayaks; he loves to fish. Listening to him talk is like listening to ghost stories on camping trips. No matter how scared you may feel, you know that somehow everything will turn out all right.

On the train back to the city, I envisioned our little adventure as a kind of post-Industrial nature treasure hunt.

Our meeting was set for 8:30am. When I arrived at Braine’s apartment ten minutes early, his kitchen was chaos: frying pans, blenders, scattered fruit peels. I watched suspiciously as he gulped a banana milkshake and inhaled an egg and cheese sandwich.

Did I mention that I was functioning on five hours of sleep, and a piece of buttered toast? Braine didn’t see that as a problem. What about the pulled muscle in my neck, the fact that I’d taken a Motrin?

“Oh,” said Braine, good-naturedly, pouring milk on a heaping bowl of granola. “Did I tell you to do that? That’s why I’m eating this big breakfast. I always take an Advil before I go out on the kayak. Don’t want to get seasick.” He asked how my muscles were doing.

“My biceps?” I asked, alarmed.

“Well, actually,” he said, “it’s more the abs. But, don’t worry. Something tells me you’ll do fine.”

I began to see our outing as a test of my manhood.

Braine downed a tall glass of orange juice and glanced at the clock. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “At 9:10am, the current changes direction at our launch point. We’ll have to sprint the first half hour to get out in front of it. Otherwise we’ll be paddling pretty much in place.”

I should say right now that I’m not a camper. I had kayaked once the summer before along the mirror-flat inlet of our rental house in Shelter Island. But my penchant for suffering in the out-of-doors had come to a decisive halt—thanks to my fanatical, camping-obsessed father—when I was ten, in the Adirondacks, during a two-week canoe trip in a hurricane.

Any hope that I was now putting my life in more sympathetic hands was dashed when I took a look at Braines’ 1982 Toyota. The mechanics on the doors were all exposed, and the vinyl seats had long since been replaced with slipcovers aged to a dull grayish sheen, full of holes and dangling threads. Amidst miscellaneous paint cans, and tools—including, of course, jumper cables—Braine loaded a duffle bag, a backpack, and two sets of paddles. On the drive around the block—after expressing pleasure that the car had started—Braine described how, recently, he’d almost abandoned his car in the tow yard on account of unpaid tickets.

By the time Braine parked—without explanation—at a building on South 2nd Street spray-painted with spiders, the purpose of our trip was all but lost to me. Braine proceeded to unlock a trap door, turn on a flashlight, and disappear into a cellar. Eventually a wooden triangular-shaped point emerged from the cellar door. Then, as if on cue, an employee from a refrigerator repair shop across the street came over to help. I got out of the car just as the two men were hoisting the kayak onto the roof of Braine’s car, a roof bearing the telltale pocks and dents of a history of—shall we say?—use.

Behind an abandoned warehouse at North 7th Street and the East River, Braine opened a zip lock bag, and, following his lead, I dropped in my cell phone, a rite that reminded me of pre-adolescent boys rubbing their spit together. There had been some mention of a picnic, sandwiches. Instead, Braine produced—with admitted finesse—two liter-bottles of Poland Springs. “This one’s for you,” he said, generously, passing me one of the waters.

Braine carried one end of the kayak while I carried the other, backwards, a couple of hundred yards down a stony path to the waterfront, a no-man’s land of sharp gray rocks, dirt, and scattered garbage. There he launched the boat, with me in it, and passed me a paddle. Our cargo consisted of a couple of spray skirts stuffed into the cavity at the kayak’s center, with a fishing rod sticking out. Bungee-type cords ran like veins along the top of the kayak. For his own protection Braine had stuck a dust mask under one of them. “When you’re pulling the rear,” he remarked, rather jovially. “You tend to swallow quite a bit of water.”

The day couldn’t have been more beautiful. The air was clear, the view of the Empire State Building looked all the more miraculous from the low, childlike angle of the water. As we paddled against the current, Braine explained how the Hudson River is an estatuary and, therefore, naturally calm. The East River, on the other hand, was a tidal gut, and could be treacherous. On one end, you have the Long Island Sound emptying through a narrow gullet called Hell’s Gate. On the other, you have the Atlantic Ocean.

The current was against us. It was hard work. I tried to use my feet against the footholds for leverage, and to move as one solid unit and use my abs, as Braine instructed. But my shoulders and elbows were torquing and, within a half-hour, I was sore. The following day loomed large, the image of my two young sons frolicking with my husband on boogie boards at the beach, while I was in traction.

We were furiously paddling, crossing the river. Water kept splashing onto my lips, and I kept wiping it on my shirt collar. “Don’t worry too much about that,” called Braine from behind me. “A little spray here and there won’t kill you.” I looked to see if he was wearing his dust mask. (He wasn’t.)

By staying close to shore, we discovered we could use the drag off the land to avoid the pull of the current. Paddling was still difficult, but we made progress. We passed Uthant Island, a small dot of land with something that looked like scaffolding over a monument of some sort. When we passed the mouth of New Town Creek, Braine said, “There’s your swimming hole. The most toxic part of the whole river.”

At Roosevelt Island, where chairs were set up for the Fourth of July fireworks, a flock of cormorants circled over the vine-covered remains of a small pox sanatorium. Within a few feet of the shoreline were a series of warning signs. In front of one that read: Warning: Underwater Power Cables: Do not Dock or Anchor, Braine got out his fishing rod.

I was on Braine’s turf; I decided to trust him.

I paddled; he set the line. A few minutes later he pulled in an undersized striped bass. We watched it flop around, then he respectfully threw back. It was the first time Braine had ever caught a fish on the East River.

“You’re the one who should be fishing,” he said, passing me the rod.

The break was welcome.

Braine instructed me to let out the line, then to hold it over the side, parallel to the water. As we moved along, trolling, he explained how salt water was heavier than fresh water, and that the Hudson River had both. The lower level fish were adapted for salt water. Freshwater fish skimmed the surface. The East River, on the other hand, was all salt. We paddled to a spot where cormorants were diving for the smaller fish that the bigger stripers preyed on.

The only time I’d ever fished, with my husband, I’d caught a baby fish, but then I hadn’t known what to do with it, how to get it off the hook. “It looked so sad,” I said, “With its little eyes staring up at me. I felt awful.”

Suddenly I felt a tug. “You’ve got one,” cried Braine. He started shouting instructions at me, none of which I recall, so caught up was I in the process of reeling the fish in. This one, it turned out, was a keeper. We began daydreaming about lunch, discussing various side-dish options.

“I’ve got a six-pack of beer waiting in the fridge,” he said, as if it was all staged, which of course it wasn’t.

After we crossed under the 59th Street Bridge, Braine pointed out the two red buildings that were the sculptor Mark Di Suvero’s studio. We were headed toward the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, where Braine’s work was then exhibited. He didn’t know if we could make it—the current was holding us off—but at that point I was too sore—and too happy—even to care. I began to tell Braine about my experience camping in the hurricane, my father’s refusal to call for help. I mentioned my father’s use of a term “bush,” as in the lack of necessary courage or zeal to push through the rough spots. I wondered if Braine had ever heard it. He hadn’t. “Calling for help was ‘bush,’” I said. I told him how that time in the hurricane was as cold as I’d ever been. How by the time my father finally agreed to call for help, my teeth had been chattering so long that the rest of my body was beginning to spasm. How afterward, sitting inside by a fire, wrapped in a wool blanket, I watched the clock, wondering how many hours it would take before my body stopped shaking and I started to feel warm.

“Sounds like you’re lucky you didn’t get hypothermia,” observed Braine. He said camping shouldn’t be like that. That sometimes you needed help, that was part of it.

Eventually we pulled up on a tiny curve of dark sand known as Rat Beach. Braine said he’d watch the boat, and pointed me in the direction of Socrates Sculpture Park. On the billboard at the park’s entrance stood one of Braine’s photos, a farm-raised striped bass whose stripes, because of some genetic mix-up, didn’t line up, but were jagged. The bass was laid on a piece of black velvet on grass. The distorted ruler alongside it referred to the myth of the big fish. Further inside the park was Braine’s installation, an improvised—but fully functioning—campsite, complete with a workbench and—naturally—a kayak. It was composed from detritus recovered around the city—a cast-off restaurant awning, an orange pollution boom—and ailanthus and maple saplings cut from North Brother Island. Above the camp, a blue plastic sheet blown in from an industrial waste site was strung up as a tarp.

Sixteen years ago, when I got married, and my husband and I first moved to New York, it used to upset me that I couldn’t go outside without spending money. For the first couple of months I sat in our apartment amid boxes packed with wedding china and crystal, in a kind of passive protest. Since then, I’d adapted, joining the ranks of city-dwellers, obsessed with work, family, and the accumulation of things. What happens to these things during the course of a marriage? Are the plates and goblets destined to crack and shatter, or at the very least gather dust in an obscure closet? Is it our best-case fate that the management our lives—the organization of our time here—at some point takes the place of actually living?

It’s been a year since Braine took me kayaking on the East River. Last September, two days before the Twin Towers were obliterated, my husband moved into his own apartment. On September 12th, his mother died. My mother died a few weeks ago. There’s no escaping these losses. Still, I find myself drawn to that day and the solace of an afternoon that preceded so much sadness. I remember the excitement of disappearing from my life, if only for a few hours, and then afterward, how I couldn’t wait to get back to the Springs, to tell my sons I’d caught a striped bass while kayaking on the East River. If I really concentrate, I can still see Braine bending over to snap a couple of shots of an over-turned grocery cart on Rat Beach, before climbing back into the boat. I remember how he suddenly became reflective. “You should give camping another try,” he said. “I think you’d like it.” He stowed his camera, then added, “Could you give me a push? Actually, you may not be able to.”

It’s probably the residue of my father: I respond to a challenge.

I gave Braine a push that sent the kayak out twenty feet. “Hey,” he called to me, laughing, delighted. “Aren’t you coming?”

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