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A River I Could Skate Away On
The river is my favorite place. It is refuge, it is permanence in a time of so much change. When I say the river, by the way, I'm talking about the Schuylkill. Philadelphia sits between two, like cupped hands that hold the city gently. The Delaware is on the east. Beyond it, New Jersey. And opposite, on the other side of the Schuylkill, is where I live, West Philly. This also lends the river a cool kind of moat vibe. A gateway.
I come here when I don't know what to do. Or when I'm feeling lost, which is 99% of the time these days. I mean, who are we kidding. Usually at the end of the day, around sunset. I never get sick of it, of the sky at this time of day, how it fades, this gradient. I take the same photo again and again. Like a reflex.
The water is bordered by a concrete barrier called a bulkhead that's dotted with lamps, a grassy bank beyond that, then the trail. The Schuylkill River Trail is a single path that is somehow supposed to accommodate walkers, joggers, bikers, and skaters. It's counterintuitive that I would like it here, as usually I hate crowds. People in general, being around them. But I love the river so much that I love to see other people enjoying it too. The water whispers, maybe there's some good in you after all, in the voice of Pacha from The Emperor's New Groove.
I sit on the grassy part below the trail, somewhere between South and Chestnut. Three boys and a dad are fishing. One of the kids walks backwards until he is standing right next to me, arm raised, holding a line that is almost invisible. Behind me someone in a black beret flies a drone. Two people in fitness wear are filming what looks like a TikTok video. A couple walks by in shirts of the exact same shade of green. When I'm here I have the feeling that nobody ever looks close enough, including me.
I went to the river right after I was broken up with, the worst day I can remember. I'd left the house to go for a walk when Jeff texted to ask if I wanted to go to Bartram's Garden. He met me at the entrance, I told him about it then, but didn't tell our other friends who waited by the water, not yet. The telling already exhausting. How it pushes the knife in, makes it real over and over again.
They stood with their dogs, set against the sunset, a soft one. Pale peach at the bottom. Industrial masses rising on the other side. In my journal that day I taped part of a poem by Ariana Reines:
The sun was setting Over a great confusion And a great gray grief Which seem to be The acid ocean itself Pocked with bullet holes And sobbing in secret At the source
The source of the Schuylkill is the tiny coal town of Tuscarora, Pennsylvania. It flows for 137 miles until it reaches Philly and right after it passes the city it ends, joining with the Delaware. No one can ever remember how to spell it, although everybody almost can. The "y" and the "l" are elusive, and we are lazy. The name is not Lenape, the people who lived here first, who called it "manaiyunk" (rushing and roaring waters). Instead, the word "schuylkill" is Dutch, from the men who purchased land that should not be bought. It means "hidden river," or "skulking river," my personal favorite translation.
Five months after the breakup it was the pandemic. The river was more important than ever, a place you could meet someone and sit far away from each other. A place you could escape to. Joni Mitchell sings, I wish I had a river so long, I would teach my feet to fly. I wish I had a river I could skate away on. I biked here at night when things were falling apart with my roommates. I called my friend who lives in Portland, I asked her what to do. I wanted to be vindicated, but they were having a hard time too, I later realize. We all were.
I read at the river, often books for the online poetry club that I joined during COVID. I sent a photo on our WhatsApp thread of the David Berman poem “Classic Water” with the water behind it. I watch, I write. I take lots of idiotic selfies of the sky and the top of my head.
Sometimes there are rats that run along the concrete after dark. This bothers most people, but Chris didn't mind. We sat on a large rock drinking Yuengling, the night cut with lights of unbearable brightness from highway construction on the other side. We hadn't seen each other in three or four years. In that time we'd both met someone we thought we would be with for the rest of our lives and then they broke up with us instead. I was surprised by the parallels, and how comfortable I felt. How easily I laughed.
That year I often watched The Lord of the Rings. Probably because the only friend whose house I went to loves it, he lives in Center City. Once we stayed up all night watching The Return of the King. When I biked home, over the river, it was sunrise. A new gradient, one I'd never seen. Blue-black beneath the water that lightened to dandelion horizon and then back up to blue again. And the air, a calmness in it, the birds and all that. Beautiful.
In August I went to a screening of The Princess Bride, part of the Schuylkill Banks movie nights. It was held at a spot right below Bartram's Garden that they (somewhat euphemistically) called Grays Ferry Crescent. I watched the giant screen inflate before me, huge folds of plastic expanding like a cartoon.
Before the movie they showed "The Register Reacts," a series of videos made by Philly's Register of Wills, who was also in attendance and gave a short speech. Presumably I'd voted for her but had never once thought about this position. In each video she and the Solicitor comment on a clip from a popular TV show about something related to wills; this one featured a scene from Parks & Recreation. It was sweet, and well made. Delightful, frankly.
Besides the thousands of mosquitos, it's so nice to watch a movie outside. And one from distant memory. Where true love is a real idea, simple and dependable. The flowing black and red of fabric as Westley and Buttercup run across the hill. The river right there the whole time, behind the screen, even when night falls and we can no longer see it. There's not a lot of money in revenge, Inigo says.
In September, the day after Hurricane Ida, those of us who went to sleep woke up to find that the river had flooded. We'd never seen anything like it. Of course I know a river moves, but I never expected it to change like this. In places shielded from the worst effects of climate change we don't see it coming, we the fortunate. Although no one will be spared, and nothing will be fixed until the richest are affected, which will be too late, but that's a topic for another essay.
Everywhere I'd ever sat along the riverbank was underneath a thick wet layer of brown, now. There were videos online of someone floating in a tube, someone diving off the 22nd street bridge. I watched the diving video on Twitter over and over again – a back dive, incredible form, clearly not an amateur. Disgusting but also kind of beautiful, and that's Philly for you, I texted in the thread. No one responded because frankly no one else cares, which is very Philly too, I guess.
The next day I went to see for myself but the water was already gone. The highway, still blocked off, was covered in a strange sort of brown dust. There is something sort of nice about the idea that the river covered everything, even though it looked disgusting. A warning, a blessing. Something ubiquitous.