Once upon a time, I rowed.
Every Sunday I left my apartment before the sun rose. In the blue-grey light I walked crosstown to the West Fourth Street Station on Eighth Street and, rather like Alice and the rabbit hole, ducked down the steps to the platform to take the uptown train.
It took over an hour for the train to chug and pause its way north. In some neighborhoods I shared the subway car with addicts, prostitutes, and the homeless. In others, I traveled with passengers who were better dressed: either from partying the night before or for going to prayer at the first service in the morning. I usually dozed or read a paperback adventure novel.
I got off at 207th Street, not exactly Wonderland. Inwood was just waking up: bodegas opening their doors, rolling out carts filled with fresh produce from Latin America, and serving black coffee sickly sweet if I didn’t remember to order it sin azúcar. I walked east to 201st and the Harlem River, where an abandoned Con Ed plant stood by a silted-up inlet called Sherman Creek. The gate was easy to open even if one didn’t know how. The barbed wire topping the 10-foot chain link fence was not much more than a fashion statement.
The plant was the size of a small city block, and built of red brick in an industrial Art Deco style. The boats were kept inside. Part of the roof had collapsed at some point, beams half in place, half touching the ground. The morning light streamed in through the ragged oculus in the roof, shimmering across the asbestos insulation which was draped over the fallen rafters like Spanish moss. The light edged the polished wood of the eights and the quads neatly stacked upside down on their racks. Those boats belonged to Fordham University’s varsity crew.
Farther back, all but in the shadows, were the single and double sculls, as often made of fiberglass as wood, the metal oarlocks just catching odd glints of light. Those boats belonged to the Spuyten Duyvil Rowing Club and what I called the Wannabe, Has-Been, and Never-Were Rag-Tag Pick-Up Crew. Never officially organized (let alone incorporated), we were about two dozen strong. We were no longer in college, or even graduate school, but we refused to hang up our jock straps.
At one time, this part of Manhattan was dotted with the boat houses of New York’s rowing clubs. The clubs had all but disappeared by the 1960s and most of the buildings themselves had been torched by the 70s. I understood that only the Spuyten Duyvil Club survived, even if it was just on paper. Although I always identified myself as part of the Rag-Tag Pick-Up Crew, I may also have been among the final members of the Spuyten Duyvil. Well, I did get one of the last T-shirts: light blue with the coat of arms placed properly over the left pectoral, symbolically where the heart is.
The club had been named after Spuyten Duyvil, a tidal straight with treacherous waters that marks the border between the northernmost part of Manhattan Island and the only part of New York City that’s on the mainland. According to Washington Irving, the Spuyten Duyvil itself was so named by the Dutch because of the boaters who ran the dangerous straight between the rivers “to spite the Devil”.
I rowed with an 80-year old man named Seth. He was bald, small, and a little pudgy, blinking often behind thick round spectacles, trying to see the sounds he couldn’t always hear. I provided the muscle to get the boat out and into the water; he provided the coaching. We’d go out in a double scull – a boat with sliding seats in which each rower has two oars – sometimes through the Spuyten Duyvil itself and onto the Hudson River; more often just down the Harlem and back again.
Some days, Seth and I were the only rowers out at that early hour. More often, we shared the river with rowers from Fordham and Columbia universities. Occasionally, the Circle Line would lumber by on its first cruise tour of the day, and we’d hear the guide on the P.A. system announce to the passengers that we were Columbia’s varsity crew, which amused the Fordham team. Rowing crews are identified by the colors painted on the blades of their oars. It was obvious – at least to rowers – that the blades were painted Fordham’s racing green and not Columbia’s light blue.
In late spring and early fall, the rowers all but took over the rivers. The skiffs and sculls of the backward-looking rowers were joined by canoes and kayaks of the forward-looking paddlers. We filled the waters around upper Manhattan with a flotilla of human-powered craft. The one- and two-person boats were eclipsed by the rowing eights – sweep oar, one per rower, alternating sides – that practiced on the Harlem for local, national, and international meets.
The men’s crew was followed by a coach in a motor launch that had too good a microphone. The women’s crew’s coach trailed in a single scull, a megaphone braced to his shoulders, rather like a harmonica for a one-man band, keeping his hands free for the oars. At top speed, a single scull is almost as fast as an eight.
Our unity and tranquility were broken from time to time by roaring motor boats from New Jersey. These “Jersey drivers” moored at a marina on the other side of the Hudson on the mainland. According to the traditional rules of the river, human-powered craft has right of way over motor craft. However, the motor boats would barrel through, leaving a choppy wake that forced rowers to break their stroke and quickly paddle parallel to the wake so as not to capsize. For me, that was an important maneuver since I can’t swim. While there is a tradition of non-swimming rowers, it is, in all fairness, what puts the word “dumb” into the term “dumb jock”.
Motor boats were not the only hazards. We never rowed in February because of the ice flows coming down the Hudson; still remaining solid enough to do damage by the time the flows reached Manhattan. No one wanted to re-enact the Titanic with a scull.
More annoying was the garbage – water bottles, crates, the detritus of civilization summarily dumped into the river to be carried off to sea. Some of us liked to joke that the water was so polluted an atheist could walk across it. We all knew – and dreaded – when our oars thudded against such refuse. We’d turn and look over our shoulders to see what it was this time. A doll? A piece of furniture?
One time, Evelyn, a fellow rower a few years older than I, hit a dead body. Evelyn then had to calm her rowing partner, a well-brought up young lady from Connecticut; row the boat without help to the body; attach a tow line to the floater; and then row the boat, the floater, and her rowing partner back to the dock. After securing the boat and the body, Evelyn called the police. We never did find out who the body was or how it wound up floating down the river. Nor did we find out what happened to the young lady, who fled back to Connecticut, never to be seen in New York again.
My experiences rowing with Seth were less extreme. He sat in back – that is, the front of the boat – in his baggy sweatshirt and shapeless jeans. I sat in front – that is, the back of the boat – in my T-shirt and an old pair of grey cotton twill gym shorts, his worn cloth cap in contrast to my ragged Panama hat. We’d row in quiet companionship, with rarely a word spoken, except when Seth would call out in a reedy voice to remind me to properly feather the blade of my oars or to adjust the timing of the recovery. His frequent admonition “slow the slide” became a secret password for those he taught to row to know one another.
We rowed in an easy tranquil rhythm in which Seth, the boat, the river, and the rowing all seemed to be integrated into a seamless whole, existence all in the moment, a form of moving Zen. We let the rowing be the rowing. It was also as close as I’d ever come to communing with nature, though the unkind might note that the banks of the Hudson are not exactly without signs of the built environment, the critical mass of concrete I need to survive. As the old joke about New Yorkers goes, I’m at two with nature.
It is only from the rivers that one can appreciate Manhattan as an island, if not as part of an archipelago as well. There the edges of the island look like river banks, covered with uncut, sun-burnt, and wind-swept grasses, sparse clusters of trees, unplanned and unwanted, and grey mottled weather-ravaged shacks and shanties, forlorn, if not forgotten, built for purposes now unknown. In short, nothing like the crystalline fortress of steel and concrete watch towers that distinguishes lower Manhattan. In the north, there were chubby men standing on rocky outcroppings, fishing for the night’s dinner, as well as boys and girls laughing, playing, and diving into the water. With an oar in each hand, I could never wave back to those on the banks who waved to us.
Some days if Seth had no one scheduled to row after me, we would go to the Burger King near the subway stop for French fries and hot chocolate. He’d bring me up to date about how his work translating Garcia Lorca (whose brother he knew) was coming along. I’d show him my latest find of some odd, old volume of rowing lore I had picked up in one or another of the used-book shops that still existed in Manhattan back then.
One time, Seth asked me to bring some of my rowing books to a presentation he was giving at Fordham, where he was an assistant coach (as he was at Columbia as well). I agreed, though I doubted many of the students there would be interested because I doubted students had changed that much in the decade or so since I had been in college. As it turned out, one student was. James came up after the presentation and spent an hour or so perusing the stack. After graduation, James went on to build a collection of rowing books, ephemera, and memorabilia of his own.
I don’t know what drew most of the others in the Pick-Up Crew to the water. What little I know of Seth I learned by accident. The truth of the rower is in the rowing. He claimed to have been inspired by a performance of Strange Interlude. By the 1950s, he had developed the claw clutch to teach blind students to row. When the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind abandoned the program, he continued with the sighted, who also found the claw clutch useful. The first lesson was often to sit on the dock to learn the clutch with a couple of empty soda cans brought along for that purpose.
Sometimes his former blind students would turn up for a row on the river and one or another of the Pick-Up Crew would take them out in a double scull. When it was first my turn I panicked, not quite ready to be able-bodied yet.
Evelyn wasn’t exactly one of us. She was many things, but wannabe, has-been, and never-were weren’t among them. She was training for the Senior Olympics it was said. And from rowing races, Evelyn may have gone on to teach others what Seth had taught her.
As for me, it would have been nice to enter a regatta, if not try for something like the Senior Olympics myself. But back then I was rangy than ripped, and spider-limbed, lacking the heavy muscles and strong frame necessary to compensate for being only six foot one – just a bit short to be a “contender” in rowing. More important I didn’t trust my body not to fail me as it had a few times when I was younger, even though I could achieve and sometimes maintain a racing speed.
For me, it was just a chance to do something I wanted to do as a child, but couldn’t, due to illness. I envied the graceful freedom of the oarsmen I saw sculling on the Charles River whenever I was in Boston. Rowing became my favorite among all the sports I’ve pursued to make up for the childhood I feel I didn’t have. After all, if Mole and Water Rat could be happy just messing about in a skiff (or skiffing about in a mess), why couldn’t I?
I rowed for a few years, with Seth and others. Time passed. Con Ed decided to reclaim its plant, tear it down, and sell the land. Fordham built its own boathouse on the other side of the Harlem in the Bronx. It’s not really ugly, just rather utilitarian and easy-to-clean. James and some of the younger rowers decided to organize themselves and form a real rowing association. And I went on to practice more traditional forms of moving Zen.
A few years ago, Seth’s wife sent me word that he had died. He was 98 and had rowed until he was 92 or 93. In reality I suspect Seth had a proper Christian burial, but I would rather fancy that someone put his body gently into a scull, set it ablaze, and cast it off onto the river.