Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

You Have the River by Michelle Wildgen

OBJECT: Contaminated Fish


Years ago I had a plan. I lived over a hill from the Hudson River, past Sacred Heart Church, past a crumbling downtown and menacing, empty train station. The river in my town was brown and slick, banked with old cranes and unused piers, the bones of heavy industry. A few miles south, men fished in the water, casting lines off docks across 12th Avenue from Fairway, dropping disc-shaped fish into plastic buckets at their feet. They often stood several yards away from one another, not speaking, not looking over their shoulders at the people with shopping carts and their cars’ negotiations of the narrow parking lot. I was always curious whether the fishermen ate the fish they caught or simply poured the bucket back into the river when they’d gotten bored. The fish were small and yellowish, a discolored silver, something metallic and toxic, and I would not have eaten them.

My plan was this: I would tape a knife around my leg. The calf. Let’s say the calf, though the thigh might have been easier to reach. But also more likely to cut me before I was ready, so I planned to secure the knife on the outside of my calf. I would not overdo the tape. I didn’t want to be out there in the river, trying to work the adhesive off my skin, tearing hairs out by the roots, and floundering as I worked. Perhaps if the knife was sharp enough I could simply twist the blade right through the tape. This seemed the proper approach. I decided to have the knife sharpened professionally.

There are many places to enter the river. Docks, train tracks, scabby green banks. When I was making this plan, it was summer, so I knew I wouldn’t slip on ice. I could walk right down to the water, wherever I chose.

A quiet spot would be best. No cars. No shopping carts and fishermen.

I am a good swimmer. It’s been years since I tested myself, but I once swam across a lake, flanked by friends in two canoes trailing life buoys in the water in case I panicked or tired. My wife was in one of the canoes, watching me the whole time. She said very little, though the rest of our friends were laughing, making dinner plans. She watched me and she kept one hand near the rope with the life buoy. It’s true I switched from the crawl to a backstroke and back again. I did tire. But I never reached for the life buoy. I swam to the opposite bank, waited until my feet sank into the sludge of the lake floor, and stood. I rested and then I swam back.

And so I knew that I could swim out into the Hudson. I believed that I could make it to the center, where I would tread water in the trough between the currents, and then I would untape the knife. The plan was very thorough. If blood loss didn’t work, drowning would; if drowning didn’t work, infection would. There is a reason I would never eat those yellowed fish: the river is a filthy place to swim, and one should avoid all contact with a wound of any sort.

But the knife itself became the problem. My wife and I had received some good knives for a wedding present, a fine heavy paring knife among them, and I thought this would be small enough but effective too. She did not use the paring knife as much as I did; she liked the ten-inch chef’s knife. There are tasks a four-inch blade is ideally suited to, however, and I kept imagining my wife coring an apple with a chef’s knife the length of her forearm, or trying to slip its great blade beneath the skin of an avocado. I saw her getting in the car to buy a new knife, standing at a counter to choose from a selection, testing edges with a fingertip. In my fantasies she bought a top-of-the-line filet knife instead, a long light blade that would be more versatile in the end. I was being very maudlin around this time.

Gradually it became obvious that my plan was not a good one. Like so many of my ideas around this time—I was drinking then; I couldn’t stop—it was grandiose and over-complicated. There were too many places to lose control, too many opportunities for mere injury. You have the river, who needs a knife? Weeks passed, July and then August ended, and still I never went down the hill to stare into the Hudson, waiting for someone to ask me why I was there so much. I let the knife go dull. The plan began to waver and then to disperse. For some time that plan had been heavy and substantial, a thing I tended to. I often imagined it rounded as a heart and netted with blood vessels—an eyeless, pulsing creature I had cupped my hands around for months at a time—but now it thinned and flattened to a membrane, until I could pass my hand right through it.

Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not For Long and You’re Not You and editor of the anthology Food & Booze. She is a senior editor at Tin House Magazine.