Land of Ghosts

21 Nov

Darkness comes early now and as cold winds beat against our thin windows the temperature drops, time seems to fall away, and my son and I watch trains cross the sky.    Less than 100 years ago our densely packed neighborhood was mostly farmland, and by traveling west down the hill upon which we live one came to Hellgate Field, a stretch of land where for thousands of years the Matinecock came to fish for giant sturgeon; where deep water, treacherous tides, and large obstructions with names such as Frying Pan Rock and Bald-Headed Billy claimed more than 1,000 ships; and where Heath now runs with his friends, plays on the swings, and comes to a complete stop whenever a train passes overhead.  During World War I the city spanned this most treacherous section of the East River with the Hellgate Bridge, building as well the massive arches that lead up to it, bisecting our streets and cutting a shallow diagonal across the sky. 

As evening approaches the trains glow warmly from within, and on icy nights their pantographs throw sparks from the overhead wire, thrilling my son.   For Heath loves trains.  In fact, he spends a fair part of his days being a train, barreling down Ditmars Boulevard, hugging the storefronts and hooting at anyone who dares to get in his way.  At four years old his imagination is strong and free and when he inhabits it he is joyous.  Hallie, on the other hand, has yet to find her passion, unless it be the joys of the raspberry.  From dawn to dusk, while Heath creates and enacts entire railroad empires before her, Hallie makes rude farting sounds and drools onto her chin.  She does this in her usual deadpan manner and is, seemingly, unimpressed with her brother’s efforts. 

I love to run on foggy mornings.  Early, just after the sun has risen, I’ll head west down Ditmars.  Coming to Astoria Park, I’ll follow the path beneath Hellgate Bridge and down to the river itself where the fog is often so thick I cannot discern water from sky.  Running along the river toward Hallet’s Cove, I almost always think of the General Slocum, a steamship that burned off these shores in June of 1904 killing more than 1,000 people.  I imagine the victims slowly climbing the retaining wall, hair wet, dresses dripping, waistcoats smoldering, trying, still trying, to escape the river.  And then they are gone, having failed yet again, and in the stillness I continue on, feeling slightly chilled.    Time is permeable here and the past seems very close.  A playground for my son, this park, for me, is a land of ghosts.  

We’ll both miss the park this winter, it’s frigid micro-climate making visits rare.  But it’s not going anywhere and we’ll all be back in the spring when Hallie, interacting with the world more every day, will begin to create her own relationship with this little piece of the world.  Until then there are cookies to be made, tracks to be built and stories to be told.  And of course there’s the trains, throwing sparks and illuminating the darkness as they travel across the river and into the night.



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