Life and Death Under the Hudson
I didn’t know a wall could move that fast. One moment I’m riding along on my bicycle. The next moment my nine-year-old body is hitting the pavement; curled up in the fetal position as a car whizzes by, brushing the back of my t-shirt with its rear white-wall tire. Scariest moment of my life.
That happened in Keansburg, New Jersey, 1963. Keansburg is a beachside borough located fifty miles from New York City. With two miles of beach, offering views of the Manhattan skyline, Keansburg was an amusement park resort for the working-class. Still is, I’m guessing. I haven’t set foot there since 1970. But I do have mixed memories.
It all started with us piling into the family car on Third Avenue in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. Bound for New Jersey. Two weeks of fun and sun. Dad in the driver’s seat, me at the window seat behind Dad - my two younger brothers Kenny and Vinny in the middle, and Theresa, our older sister, riding shotgun behind Mom.
The car ride was only an hour long. But, due to anticipation, it may as well have been a stage-coach ride across the prairie; lumbering our way past sagebrush and cactus, behind a wagon-train of weary travelers making their way to the Atlantic.
My favorite amusement while riding in the backseat was playing with the door handle ashtray. It had a spring action lid that I liked to open and snap shut in rapid succession. I know what someone’s getting for Christmas! is what my father would shout from the driver’s seat; a non-filtered Chesterfield dangling from his lips. I always looked forward to that moment. It was our little thing. And though I never discussed it with Dad, he always knew what to say.
Another favorite thing of mine was holding my breath as we made the mile and a half journey through the Lincoln tunnel — the gateway to New Jersey. The exhaust fumes in that tunnel, as well as the smoke from Mom and Dad‘s cigarettes, could have floored a herd of cattle.
That tunnel always made me anxious. I was acutely aware we were traveling under a body of water. I remember thinking, If an earthquake ever hits, we’re doomed! My ability to hold my breath, as a gazillion gallons of Hudson river water cascaded down upon our four-door station wagon, would be useless against the mighty forces of Mother Nature and her efforts to keep me from enjoying countless hours of sweaty futility tossing baseballs at weighted milk bottles. I’d stand a better chance swimming up Niagara Falls.
Also on my mind were the floating vessels overhead. Tug boats, freighters, sail boats, cabin cruisers, even the goddamn Queen Mary was known to wander about the Hudson river. Imagine having them all come tumbling down like Alice down the rabbit hole. Tunnels? What were people thinking. Bridges are the only way to go. I can breathe on a bridge. That is, until a whirlwind happens by and shakes all the cables loose, leaving us no where to go but down to the darkened depths of a river strewn with the skeletal remains of summertime travelers in their flip-flops and sun hats.
A child’s anxiety - and imagination - knows no bounds.
Down in that tunnel I never breathed a sigh of relief until I saw some daylight cutting through Mom and Dad’s cigarette smoke. When I saw that light, it was bye, bye, grimy gotham, hello sandy shores. Beaches that were oft times scattered with an array of dead horseshoe crabs and, as I would one day find out, one not-as-dead-as-I-thought jelly fish. Warning: Never nudge a creepy-looking creature with your bare foot to see if it’s alive. Poke it with a stick first. Always.
The joy my brother Kenny and I felt as we hit the boardwalk for the first time each summer cannot be overstated. Two side-kicks, free to roam as we pleased. Clad in t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers - and with plenty of coins in our pockets - this place was ours. We owned it. And for two weeks we were going to shake that beach and boardwalk upside down.
The boardwalk was crammed with food vendors, games of chance, and amusement rides. At the northern end of which sat a bar called the Pavilion. That was our parent’s amusement park. Nothing like good teamwork to keep a family happy. We always knew where we could find each other.
The bike incident that opened this bit of writing was a ploy to conjure up some memories. It worked. So I’m leaving it in. I lived to ride another day. That’s all one has to know. For now.