Tuesday, September 2, 2008

September 2nd. Labor Day just passed. Back to school.

A wedding portrait in Central Park. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
I don’t remember an August where the weather was so beautiful in New York -- bright and sunny days, warm but very little humidity and just enough rain to wash the streets and the air, and provide a good drink for the flora and fauna. The coup de grace from Mother Nature came yesterday, taking a flourishing final bow of the season.

Mid-morning I took the dogs for their walks down along the Promenade. The drill is usually a three or four block journey but yesterday morning I decided to sit on one of the benches that looks out over the river, Roosevelt Island and Queens.
A bench on the Promenade overlooking the River.
Many of these benches have donor plaques, purchased as memorials or tributes to loved ones or friends, and benefiting the maintenance of the wonderful Carl Schurz Park that runs along the Promenade from 84th and East End up to 90th Street. The bench I chose (because it was empty) happened to be a memorial to Peter Boyle, the actor who passed away two years ago this coming December.

The words on the plaque were: “In Memory of Peter Boyle Who Loved Looking at This Estuary.”
The bench dedicated to Peter Boyle's memory.
The penthouse of the late Peter Boyle overlooking the view from his bench on the Promenade.
I too love looking at the waters known as the East River, which are, in fact not a river, but a “tidal strait” and which flow north or south daily, depending on the tides. There is something very restful and reassuring about watching the waters. Many boats move through, many lives, many stories -- enormous and towering oil tankers, enormous barges pulled or pushed by tugs carrying mountains of sand, mountains of garbage; mountains of crushed and flattened cars piled fifteen and twenty high; not to mention those loaded with dozens of shipping containers, those carrying huge construction cranes.

Then there are the tourist boats, like Circle Line, and the New York Waterway taxis, and the double decker party boats, and of course the pleasure craft -- from jets skis and motor boats, to sloops and yawls, to huge private motor yachts.
The view from the bench looking out at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island and Astoria Queens beyond.
Sometimes the water is as smooth as glass; other times it turns rough and treacherous- looking with the waves and whitecaps of Hell Gate, first named by a Dutch explorer in the 17th century. When the tide is moving, it moves at speeds up to 4 knots. You can see its power before your eyes and understand why its currents rarely spare any life of anyone who might accidentally fall in.

By the late 19th century, hundreds of ships were lost in these parts of the waters where Long Island Sound, the Harlem River and the Upper Bay of New York Harbor converge – all within the purview of Mr. Boyle’s bench. In 1876, the US Army Corps of Engineers did some serious blasting work that eliminated the rockier, more dangerous parts. Because of that, today even experienced kayakers can navigate safely through Hell Gate.
Looking north toward Hell Gate, the Triborough Bridge, and the Amtrak bridge (red) that leads into Queens and underground into Manhattan and Pennsylvania Station.
I sat there on Peter Boyle’s bench yesterday morning looking across to Roosevelt Island and Astoria fresh and sleepy on the river’s edge bordering the Triborough and Randall’s Island. I was thinking how at the center of this frenetic and bustling metropolis that so many of us call home, we have these pockets of paradise, calm and placid as it was made to seem then by the sunshine and fair weather.

I was thinking how a glorious moment like that can suddenly make our day. I wondered if Peter Boyle ever sat there as I did, loving the spot, pondering life, his life, our lives, and saw so clearly how Mother Nature rules -- bountifully, yet awesomely -- always reminding that we are only her guests, mere mortals on her ship of life. I bet he did.

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