What is Flotsam?



west side highway ny

Neighborhood: On the Waterfront

There it was, in my Inbox, mocking me. Dragging me down to its oceanic depths.

Instantly, drowning me in thoughts of that horrific day downtown in August of 2000 when I attempted to swim a mile in the Hudson River.

The New York City Swims people e-mailed a friendly reminder to sign up for this summer’s swim, 8/4/02, from the South Cove in Battery Park City to Pier 25 for Gotham’s fluvial freaks. For its aquatic acrobats. For its Spitz-ian marks. For its river rats. For its Hudson heroes.

Of which I was almost one…if just for one day.

The swim began around noon on a typical August day. Hot, but not the core-melting heat that would dissolve the neurons in the average citizen’s brain telling them that jumping into the greasy West Side river was not a respectable way to kill a lazy summer afternoon. My fiancée Kim and I had nobody to blame but those damned Kenyans…or, more precisely, a composite of every fat, sweaty, all-vital-signs-appear-tapped-out jogger in ill-fitting mesh shorts who toils in the dark shadows on the November evening of the New York City Marathon.

It is a scientific fact that 95% of marathon attendees (no matter how many Bud drafts are breast-stroking through their veins, no matter how sculpted out of cheese logs their abs appear to be, no matter how epic the struggle was to get off the sofa and go to a diner for three-eggs-over-easy-side-of-crispy-bacon instead of having them delivered while catching the marathon, be it New York City or My Two Dads, on the tube), will declare at some point “I’d like to run one. I think I could do it.” These thoughts of glory are often announced late in the day when the one-timers in their odd shapes, sizes and skill levels keep pushing on through the pain, blood and vomit to cross the finish line, mainly to be able to drop in conversation forevermore, “I ran the New York City Marathon.”

I, however, will never run the New York City Marathon.

Kim, however, suggested that we should partake in a sporty activity that was “Marathon-like”: challenging, attempted by only a handful and a foolish attempt at stretching the limits of one’s corporeal plane in the physical universe so later we could tell people at rooftop keg parties, “Lots of people run the marathon, we swam the Hudson River.”

The day started ominously: I was the only one not wearing a Speedo. The Speedo (AKA: banana wrap, marble bag, device for quickly discerning who is a Jew or a Gentile) appeared to be mandatory, or at least, strongly recommended by swimmers who knew what they were doing. I, however, went with the less aerodynamic but more sartorially agreeable, tent-sized Old Navy beachcomber shorts. They looked good and did a workmanlike job of covering my love handles (AKA: side-saddles, waist mumps, Homer Simpsons) and accompanying stretch marks (AKA: flesh graffiti, racing stripes, Tony the Tigers).

Unfortunately, the rust-colored, floral-patterned trunks could do little to disguise my underdeveloped pectorals (AKA: man boobs, bitch tits, Meat Loafs), but that was all right, because I wanted them to know that I was a novice, a one-timer, a guy with a need for a story at cocktail hour.

It took about five seconds for the realization to kick in: I was a novice. A one-timer. A guy with a need for a story at cocktail hour.

I was in way over my head, which meant I’d soon be swimming with the fishes in the Mafioso boneyard.

The organizers of the swim began by shouting, “Welcome to the inaugural Park to Park One Miler. The conditions are very severe today! It is choppy and fast. Stay away from the water wall and get into the current. You must wear the neon green swim caps we gave you and not your own so we can easily spot you in case of emergency. Everybody make your way to the jumping off point, watch out for jetsam and flotsam. Have a great swim!”

I puy my fate in the reflective powers of a neon green swim cap.

Laughter ensued as the heroin-chic-meets I-log-five-miles-a-day-at-the Health-&-Racket-pool-crowd all knew one another and seemed to view the one-mile “sprint” as a lark, a burst of spontaneous energy before they got back on their mountain bikes and rode to Philadelphia.

As I apprehensively waddled to the edge like a seven year-old riding the Zipper for the first time, I wondered: How is it all the professional NYC Swims folks have avoided direct contact with sunlight? Are my goggles going to stay on? Does this suit make me look fat? What the hell is jetsam?

“It’s not to late to turn back,” Kim half-joked.

“It’ll all be over soon. Good luck.”

We jumped into the Hudson.

I made my way to the back of the pack. And promptly gulped down a pint of Atlantic run-off. I cleared my throat and began bobbing. Up and down. Up and down. Hey this isn’t so hard…

“On your mark, get set, go!”

And I was off. Or moving forward. At the very least, I was swimming. In the Hudson. I was doing it.

For awhile.

I passed the .5-mile mark, where millionaires prove their masculinity by purchasing cavernous yachts and parking them in full-view of all. I heard a few claps and some faint shouts of encouragement from the mainland. Peaceful, positive reinforcement, immediately shattered by the little man in the red kayak.

“Get out from the wall!”

“Get in the current!”

“Are you OK?”

Along the swim route, kayaks provided a barrier, and aided swimmers if they got in trouble. They also encouraged swimmers to get away from the wall, to get into the current, to ensure they were OK, and then to direct boats to come pick up swimmers who completed the .5-mile Cove to Cove route.

I panicked.

I tried rolling over for a calming backstroke.

No go.

I rolled over to maybe dog paddle a bit and get my bearings. My sea legs. My untapped source of physicality that would push me on through flotsam – does flotsam literally mean brown, shit-like or actual shit remnants, because if so, I had failed the instruction to avoid the flotsam — swim, you idiot. Swim, damnit. Swim like you got a pair. Swim like…OK I’m done.

I stagnated to a crawl and crawled to a stagnate. I couldn’t locate the current. I was too close to the wall. I heard yelling in my neon-green capped ears. I interpreted them to be voices of extreme distress.

Was I drowning? Was I going under? Did I really want to die covered in flotsam or jetsam or raw sewage or whatever waste product war paint dotted my body?

“Could I rest on your kayak for just a second…?”

You slow down, the boat is summoned.

The kayaker now reassuringly said, “You’re OK. Boat’ll be here in just a minute.”

Determination ran through my head.

You were the one who kept yelling was I OK, I was fine. Let me get back at it. I’m even with the end of the wall. Pier 25 is in my sights. There’s nobody left out here except for a really old guy on his back and a pregnant waif and if they can make it, I can make it. I just need to find the current. I am OK, goddamnit. I’m three-quarters of the way home. I just have to push on like those Kenyans, no like those fat guys, like this fat guy. I’m a fat guy. I can do this thing. I can swim a mile in the Hudson River. I can swim…

“You need help getting on the boat?”

“You bet’cha.”

I rode back to shore with an adolescent girl who will probably conquer the 28.5-mile marathon swim around the entirety of Manhattan, and a portly, balding Englishman who chuckled his arse off and explained how he’d lost a bet. I assumed it started the night before with something along the lines of “Slag off, ya’ feckers. I put a night’s worth of Boddingtons I can swim a feckin’ mile in the Hudson. How many ‘ours we got? Five, fine pour me another feckin’ ale.”

Me, I cursed the river and wallowed in fulfilling embarrassment of a job poorly done. It didn’t get any better at Pier 25 when I exited the boat and the volunteer said, “Hey you deserve a gift basket. At least you tried.” I might have well been in the Special Olympics with bright orange floaties on my elbows, “Hey, everyone’s a winner, give me a hug.”

But that isn’t fair to the Special Olympics.

Those swimmers would’ve finished.

A few hours and a few beers later, I snapped out of my funk. Kim and I compared waterlogged details. She, of course, finished (and got a snazzy frosted glass trophy for finishing third in the women’s 25-29 age group), but claims she only made it because she thought I was ahead of her. This may or may not be true, but the important thing is that she finished.

And I didn’t.

And I am never going to run the New York City marathon.

I opened the e-mail and toyed with the idea of getting back in the pool to train for the Park to Park One Miler. Conquer the salty beast that taunts me whenever I stroll through Battery Park City. Lick both jetsam and flotsam literally and figuratively. Maybe even pack myself into a Speedo. I know what I should do…start slow and swim the .5-mile Cove to Cove route.

Nah, I already crossed that finish line.

Ask me about it sometime.

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