A Friend of the Family: Chapter One
It's three o'clock when I park, and muggy. I take a spot on a peeling bench, roll up my sleeves. The new-money types eat sandwiches on their decks, and the immigrant fishermen fill up buckets with poisoned blues. I watch them, and the minutes turn into an hour and a half. I've become so good, these days, at just sitting. The city hums across the water, Harlem, Washington Heights. Light filters underneath the George Washington Bridge. I study the pools of oil on the surface of the Hudson and smell the dying fish.
I've always liked being near water, although I've never been especially handy around it; I don't boat, I don't fish, and when I used to frequent the JCC, I'd find myself on the basketball courts twelve times as often as in the pool. But still: a decade and a half ago, we took regular vacations to the beach, we and the Sterns, down to Delaware because the area seemed a little more wholesome than the Jersey shore, or maybe just farther away. Every morning the kids would pick the perfect sandy spot twenty feet from the Atlantic, and we'd spend two weeks freckling ourselves under the August glare, then eating dinner at crab barns out on Route 1, platters of steamed Maryland blues. The Stern children (first two, then three, then four of them, redheads like Iris, her fecundity a marvel) sucking on crab legs with joy, my own persnickety son daintily peeling a shrimp because he didn't like food with claws. Neal Stern, seven months younger than Alec, shoving a crab carapace in his face. Iris Stern wiping Old Bay seasoning off each long finger.
It was a summer ritual for years until Laura Stern, their oldest, started high school and had no more patience for family vacations and five-hour late-summer drives. The same house every time: a ramshackle clapboard on Brooklyn Avenue, a washing machine but no dryer, a dishwasher that was constantly humming, three blocks from the main drag, a block from the beach. Nautical gewgaws in the bathrooms, sand and salt everywhere. The kids ran around half-naked all day while Elaine stayed demure in her black terry cloth cover-up and Iris gallivanted in a white bikini that Joe teased her about when he thought nobody was listening. "Would that thing turn see-through if I got you wet?" I did my best not to listen.
I liked to spend time by myself at the water's edge even then, watch the old-timers scoop up clams an hour before evening's low tide. Kids would skate around their grandfathers' knees, duck down with their plastic sieves to shovel up empty handfuls of sand, while the old men would carefully tread over the same patches of clamming ground. I'd daydream about getting a clam and crab license, giving up my practice, moving the family down to a rickety house by the Delaware shore, where it was always warm and sunset and Iris Stern was always making coffee in the kitchen in her white bikini and my son would laugh and run around for days at a time. Then the tide would sink and I'd go back to the house, take a shower, remember who I was and where I came from. An internist in New Jersey, educated on scholar-ships, raised in Yonkers, married more than a decade. Husband, father, basketball enthusiast.
I was never as grateful as I should have been for everything I had.
Here on my bench beneath the Palisades, the mosquitoes start to come in, and the fishermen start to pack up. I watch a red and white cigarette boat circle the park slowly, wag itself back and forth, causing waves to ripple up against the log pilings that defend the park from the grime of the Hudson. There's a young man behind the wheel all by himself, and it strikes me as unusual to see just one guy in a sport boat on a Saturday. He steers with a single hand and drinks a beer. He needs a crew of semiclad blonds around him, I decide. He needs a blasting stereo.