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Monday, May 1, 2000
By Paul Ford
Middling writing about a nice day.
Sunday, my friend X came to visit me in his ragged Volkswagen rabbit. X is 35. He's a carpenter, among many other talents. He has a short hair and strong Italian features. He's rugged and healthy, and he climbs things. He loves to climb, jump, throw.
We didn't know where to go; we like most places, skyscrapers, parks, or dirt patches. We decided to drive to Staten Island, and find a certain park. We couldn't remember the name of the park, but we knew it was big and close to the water.
We crossed the Verrazano Narrows bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island, paying the $7 toll. "Get this, and I'll get dinner," I said, so X paid. "Look at it. It's epic," I said. It was a huge day, all sun and sky. The steel arch of the bridge framed two white clouds as we drove. I said, "They had to accommodate for the curvature of the earth when they built this bridge."
"The engineers." My friend told me this. "It also dips 12 feet lower in the summer, because of heat." I learned this on my own.
The night before I had shaved off all my hair with an electric razor and finished the job with a Gillette and soap; my head felt like a timpani, resonating at new temperatures and frequencies. I've never shaved it with a straight razor before, but I did Saturday night, slicing pink lines in my head where my hand slipped. When I put a hat on, the hat wouldn't move.
We had lunch at a pink restaurant which was wrapped by a concrete octopus, and I paid. We drove a little more, and found the park easily, accidentally. It's a national reserve called Great Falls or Falls Kills or something similar. We drove in, past a marina filled with shrink-wrapped boats, to the end of the road. X parked the brown rabbit in a lot with other cars, and we walked onto the beach.
Most things in the world were washed on the dirty brown sand. Shoes, plastic jugs, dried husks of seaweed, beef jerky packages, packaging materials, mixed with thousands of empty shellfish. We came across a 40 foot beam - a telephone pole with huge iron nails jutting out of it.
I tried to move it, and it was amazingly heavy. I thought I could tilt or roll it, but it weighed more than anything I had ever tried to move.
X came over and looked it with over. "I want to get one end up," I said. "About 5 feet. How?"
He found a former fencepost and we dug into the sand around the pole, about 20 feet from the end of the pole. In a few minutes, using various configurations of wood at different angles, we lifted the pole three inches. The fencepost was our lever. I pushed down hard, then put my knees on the lever, pressed to the ground with the beam pulling back, lifting me up. The end of the beam would then lift into the air.
X propped some driftwood underneath the end, and when I pulled the lever away the end of the beam rested on the driftwood, sloping three inches over 40 feet. We jammed more wood under the lever, pressed the lever, and repeated. When we had it to a foot, the huge pole fell, and we pulled back as it cracked to the sand, yanking the lever out of our hands.
We started again, going faster, using more wood. After two hours, as I hung in the air on the lever, X balanced a single 5-foot beam, another piece of driftwood, under the thing. I took the pressure off my lever, slowly, and the beam jittered, then settled, a solid triangle with two massive vertices of driftwood and the third of beach sand. I backed away. Through careful engineering, we had lifted many hundreds of pounds of wood 5 feet.
Thin, light X climbed onto the beam and raced to the tip, the whole thing momentarily aquiver below his feet. I took a picture with his disposable camera, his arms out, nagging him to be careful.
"We have to knock it down," I said, "It will impale a 6-year-old."
"I'll jump off," he said. "And push away at it. It'll fall."
"Are you sure? This is how necks get broken."
So he did, but X just fell; the triangle didn't collapse when he kicked out at it. Finally, he pushed it with another beam to knock it over, stepping back as it smacked into the sand. He knew how it was going to fall, and moved quickly away from it; he has a builder's respect for the weight of things.
"That's it," I said. "It's done."
"It would make a good see-saw," he answered. So we went to it again, efficiently, using the lever to lift the beam 2 feet at the middle. The feeling of the sand on my head was amplified by the nude, red, skin, the salt, the ocean pressing down. Groups of people walked by. Their leashed dogs barked at us. No one said anything or asked any questions, even though we smiled to them.
When we accumulated enough vertical lift, we stacked two foot-thick planks below the long beam, hoping that we'd estimated the halfway point well enough. We had; it tottered on one side but was balanced enough to play on. Each of us took a side; I took the side in the air because I was heavier. The pole carried a great deal of energy at its edge. When I went up, the vertical jolt lifted my body 2 inches in the air, off the edge of the pole, a moment of skyward travel where my body didn't touch anything, sky between my crotch and my perch. I came down again with another jolt, watching X rise off his seat as I did, his legs kicking, our bodies rendered small by the connecting distance.
We sawed for a few minutes, and then we were done; we pushed at the the beam for a while to make sure it would not fall on a random child, modeling catastrophes in our heads, then left it, knowing that the massive, nail-stuck length would soon lift in the tide.
We walked towards the car, then changed our minds and snuck into the marina to look at the boats. Some were 20 feet tall, with names like "True Passion" and "My Other Wife," the hiding place of the well-off, huge fiberglass hulls and giant blue sailing fins, drydocked and elevated through the winter. We walked out on the pier, the wood shifting and creaking at our feet. Seagulls flapped away. We looked over the marina at the lights of Staten Island, and at the few small boats out in the water, mostly smaller ones boarded by passionate Sunday sailors.
"Would you ever want a boat?" I asked.
"God, yes," he said, running his hand over a hull.
"Me too. If they didn't cost so much I'd really want one."
"They're so expensive," he said. "A total luxury. But so wonderful."
We walked off the pier and he drove me home, back over the bridge, back to Brooklyn. As we drove, I said something like, "New York always sees the water as an imposition. Or they're supposed to. It seems to be more in my head, the water. I hear the Staten Island ferry at night, bellowing at its sister ship returning, and I live on a polluted canal. The canal is 120 steps away from my door. Above it is the 9th St. drawbridge, which clangs when the bridge levitates over the dirty green water, stopping cars as gravel-filled barges through drift. Above the canal tower, 90 feet in the air, are the elevated tracks for the Ftrain, which take it deeper into Brooklyn or back towards Manhattan, which is my stop."