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A Dip of Baptismal Proportion

Our Town downtown

July 2, 2007

We swam, we bled, we fretted about infection

I have been anticipating my first plunge into the East River for so long now that ever so gradually, it has taken on the significance of a religious rite.
I had a vision of how it would be.
There was a little beach I had noticed in the East River around 20th Street, tucked away in the cove of Stuyvesant Cove Park. It was the perfect spot.
An expert would lead the way, someone I could paddle after like a brainless duckling. I emailed The Swimmer, a guy I had interviewed for this column a few weeks back who swims off of Manhattan almost daily.
He was busy Thursday, he replied, and he had just been swimming the night before.
And just like that I was thrust out into the wilderness on my own. That was a shame, but his response did put to rest, somewhat, the first of my concerns: the potential hazard of swimming in sewage.
It had rained heavily on Wednesday night. Highways were closed due to flooding, baseball games were cancelled. When it rains like that, our sewage system (which is undergoing a major overhaul) still overflows into the rivers. The Swimmer had been swimming for years, and if he was cool with swimming in the rain, that meant immersion in a sewage-tainted river didn’t have any immediately harmful effects on one’s constitution: a good sign.
My second concern was the prospect of being swept away by the current. Growing up, I spent my summers in a lake, and when it comes to staying afloat in the water, I’m perfectly competent. But I was caught, once, in the undertow in Martha’s Vineyard, and a lifeguard had to do a Baywatch-style rescue and drag me out. Recalling that powerless feeling of being tossed like clothes in a dryer, unable to tell up from down, still makes me gasp for air.
In terms of the sewage issue, it would be preferable to swim at high tide, when the cleaner tidal water would be flowing through the river. On the other hand, drowning is less of a possibility at low tide. The issue turned out to be moot, since there was a limited time window on Thursday during which our photographer and I were both free. We would meet at 3:45, just after low tide, when the river would be at its calmest but nastiest.
“I’m not going in after you,” Andrew, the photographer, laughed nervously when we met at the designated point.
We climbed over the railing separating the park’s esplanade from the beach, and dropped down three feet onto the sand. It wasn’t all that hard to get down there, and we didn’t see any No Trespassing signs, but the beach’s inaccessibility made clear that swimming was not encouraged.
Once down at water level, we could see that the concrete bulkhead had been tagged with colorful graffiti. The little beach was littered with plastic bottles and dead branches, but the sand was fine and soft between my toes. I wiggled out of my clothes and waded in.
The sky didn’t open up or anything, but it was no anticlimax, either. The water was deliciously cold. Cold water gives the illusion of crisp, clean water, so it seemed I was frolicking in a pristine mountain river.
When I got in about knee-deep, however, it struck me that the water was sliding past my legs a little more reluctantly than water should. Indeed, it was a bit viscous, like it might coat me if I stayed still too long – but not to the point of being alarming. Had I not been taking mental notes I might not have noticed it at all.
I pursed my lips, closed my eyes tight and dove in. All was silent – the tinny silence of a hundred faraway motors muted by a vast body of water. The drops that inevitably made their way into my mouth when I emerged tasted not unpleasantly brackish.
I swam out maybe thirty yards to the mouth of the cove – my fear of being swept down to the Statue of Liberty kept me from venturing further – and floated on my back over the wake of a tanker. Then I returned to shore, where a handful of people had gathered to observe my baptism, and clambered over a rocky promontory to the remnants of an old pier sticking out of the water. I was gingerly stepping between the rotting wooden supports when a Water Taxi zoomed by, kicking up a wake that made me stumble into the splintery top of one of the posts.
The scratch was superficial. The blood that trickled down my leg did not concern me – until I considered the contents of the water lapping it away. The bacteria from all that fecal matter were right now mingling with my blood cells. It was time to get out.
As we were leaving, a college-aged couple was climbing onto the beach.
“You swimming?” I asked, feeling like I’d encountered brethren.
“That’s the East River,” said the guy. “I’ll get cancer if I go in there.”
When I got on my bike to head home for a shower, I felt like a kid peddling home from the neighborhood swimming hole. The hair on my head and arms already felt stiff with salt, immune to the laws of gravity or respectability. My skin smelled like summer. The city seemed to have lost its immensity and shrunk into my own back yard.
That night, there was some redness around the scratch on my knee. A callous on my foot was itching so terribly that I was reduced to chafing my foot against the exposed brick wall of my apartment – for an hour. Right now, as I type, I can’t keep from rubbing my eyes, which feel irritated.
Coincidence? Perhaps. Hypochondria? May well be.
I’ll keep you posted.