Wednesday, August 15, 2012


In the summer when I turned thirteen I swam across Long Island Sound to the lighthouse on Execution Rocks.

At thirteen there are nights when you cannot sleep. Not because of actual reasons for terror in the house, nor because of worries or pressures. And really not even because the hot, humid Gulf Stream air swamping New York is too still and sweat coats your skin. But because there are so many things to hope for, so many wishes, that your brain cannot file them all away fast enough to let the silence come. This was the morning after one of those nights, and perhaps, not just for me.

Ten of us, maybe eleven - it is hard to count or even know all the faces now - mostly boys but not all, mostly members of the YMCA's Swim Team but not all, stood in the long gazebo at Hudson Park which overlooked the beach and the Sound. Late July, and the early morning light mixed with the incoming salt of the rising tide, and the seaweed and fish and the plants of the marshes. The flag in the park hung limp, only showing flutters of life around its edges.

It began with a dare, because that is the way stories of thirteen-year-old boys usually begin. Someone suggested we swim across Echo Bay, the small enclosure of the Sound which held the city's municipal marina and rowing club, and which, 280 years before, had seen Huguenot refugees of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre arrive to form a new home in a new land. But Echo Bay seemed both too easy - maybe somewhere between a quarter and a half mile - and too dangerous - the other side housed the rich, we'd be arriving on some rich person's lawn - and too familiar - we swam every day at the Hudson Park beaches here.

"We should swim out to Execution Rocks," I then might have said. The kind of crazy statement I could make at times like this. Execution Rocks, which had held a lighthouse since the early days of the American Republic, was the farthest outcropping of the City of New Rochelle, lying more than two miles across the Sound, much closer to the Long Island shore than to any point on this side, and marking the shipping channel through our rock-infested choke point where the Sound became the East River.

Decades later, I would stand in a gourmet food store before a shelf of various sea salts and wonder if I could season my foods with memories. Could I use the salt from this particular branch of the Atlantic Ocean? Or from the surf off Coney Island? From Lough Foyle or the Forty-Foot in Ireland? From Cape Disappointment where the Columbia finds the Pacific? What dreams might those meals awaken?

A thousand yards out, that's 40 lengths of the 25 yard pool we swam in under the Y gym, where the low ceiling held the chlorine captive so you could not smell the difference between air and water, my arms felt fine but my legs were beginning to drag behind me, and I let myself pause, coming upright in the pond-flat green water, my legs in a slow bicycle pump that stretched the muscles in different ways. I was still in coastal waters, tiny Huckleberry Island, legend told us of an old "Shore Club" and a great fire but who really knew?, still lay over a thousand feet away. But here, I breathed as deeply as I could now and saw the world from that exact point we call "sea level," was a wondrously safe spot. I could still see and hear my friends on shore, they were waving, and I waved back - slowly to indicate that I was fine, not frantically as in a call for help - and thought of not returning. And then I turned and began swimming toward the little island's rocky point.

They had said the swim to the lighthouse was "fucking insane," and "really stupid," and when I had argued that neither of those things were true they had dared me to try it. So we'd gotten on our bikes and ridden down the hill out of Hudson Park, turned left onto Hudson Park Road, then left again to climb the little hill at the start of Davenport Avenue - we could have ridden the flat route along Pelham Road and Church Street but it was not going to be that sort of day - and curved around the long reach of Davenport Neck until we tore down the vast grassy hill of Davenport Park and came to the giant tumbled rocks at the water. I'd swim it, but I wasn't going to start an extra half-mile away. We all knew this was not just the closest spot, but that it also had an island sort of halfway, a safety factor of importance.

Here, further out in the Sound, a slight breeze cooled us, but couldn't ripple the water. And the tide was reaching its top now, creating the calmest waters. I pushed my Keds off, pulled my socks off, and dropped my jeans, leaving just the purple Y Speedos most of us wore under our pants that summer. My shirt had been off and tied around the bike's seat post since I'd gotten on it that morning. "Scream if you're drowning," Billy said. "Yeah," I said, and walked to the one spot on the rocks we knew was safe for diving at this moment, and jumped in. "You're buying me pizza when I get back," I yelled after coming up to the surface. "Don't race," Peter said, kind of softly, "just go slow." I turned and headed south.

Three weeks or so later there was a meet at Saxon Woods, a huge county pool up near White Plains, with 50 meter lengths and teams from Ys and recreation programs from all over and the heavy smell of Coppertone and girls, lots of girls, even girls we knew. That day too was way too hot, and between heats the sun would weigh on our skin, pushing against us, driving us into the narrow strip of shade along the bathhouse. The girls, we understood, were there to see us, not to see us swim. They stared at our groins the way we stared at their rapidly growing tits, with not quite fully defined fascination. We then became completely aware of our own bodies, in ways that those of us who choose to hide in the water could not yet deal with. In September of that year, sitting in Cindy's bedroom on a Saturday afternoon, she put her hand on my thigh and asked, "What does it take to get you, you know, umm, excited?"

As she found out, I remembered her looking at me that day at Saxon Woods. How had she gotten there? What, exactly, had she been looking for?

When I pushed off the Huckleberry Island rocks I felt good, if vaguely thirsty. From here, a bit more than a mile maybe, maybe more, I guessed it would depend how far the current pulled me off course - a hundred little corrections adds up in distance, and the target now was a tiny spot in the water, still, at this moment in time, occupied by a lighthouse keeper, and home to deep-voiced steam foghorn which sang me to sleep on the stormy nights of autumn. And here, beyond that coastal zone, the water rose and fell, forcing a change in stroke to make breathing a conscious decision every time, and the smells of land vanished, and the water temperature dropped, and the world narrowed to just me and this sea, both my closest friend and my mortal enemy.

I pulled myself up onto the rocks in full, but not panicked, exhaustion, and lay gasping for air and feeling like my shoulders could not rotate one more time. I closed my eyes and felt the sun, and the warm stone, and listened to the waves splash against those rocks. Those rocks, that was our Halloween story. It was called "Execution Rocks" our story went, because the British had chained prisoners to these rocks during the Revolution and then waited for the tide to rise. When I looked again, I was staring up at both the lighthouse and a man in a blue uniform, who held a large green thermos out to me. "Did you just fuckin' swim here?" there was no wait for an answer, "drink this you crazy moron."

He gave me a salami sandwich on dark brown bread and lots of water as we sat on folding chairs in the shade of the island's house. He asked about my swimming, where I went to school, what I knew about the currents here. He never asked my name, or where I lived, or why I had just swum two miles to his spot on the map. I refused the boat ride back, though there was no doubt that he would shadow me in his launch back toward Huckleberry. For reasons I could not name this seemed to be alright with me.

I climbed back out of the water at Davenport Park three or three and a half hours after leaving. Maybe it was four hours or more. Time is not a specific thing here. I pulled myself up the rocks to a lot of whoops and stuff from now impressed friends. And they wrapped their towels around me, and I looked out, and saw the lighthouse keeper in his boat, just beyond Huckleberry. He waved. I hope I waved back, and then I stumbled to the grass. And then I think I slept.

(c) 2012 by Ira David Socol

Friday, January 27, 2012


The last of the sun lit the valley in ways that made all the best myths of my childhood seem possible, golden rays falling on green so deep and on a cloudbank the greatest painters of the world could not capture and, yes, on her skin and on her hair, and splashing off the blue of her eyes. We lay next to each other on the warm bonnet of the borrowed Rover, our fingers intertwined, and I said, "thanks for coming with me today," and she said, "I wouldn't have missed it for the world." I wanted to say so much more, but sometimes when I need them most, words elude me.

copyright 2006-2012 by Ira David Socol

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fourth Avenue

The rain was whipping up Fourth Avenue, and the air was brittle with salt and impending cold. But here on this third floor it was crazy hot as the radiators sizzled. Everybody was awake, the kind of wound up anticipation to be expected. I was too, certainly, but I was working on staying in character, so I was pretending to sleep, lying face down on one of the beds, wearing nothing but Irish flag colored bikini underwear, my arms stretched out above my head, as I breathed the smell of my own sweat.
When I had found my way here an hour ago after the run through the chill wet streets from the Smith-Ninth Street Station, unexpected routes on both trains and streets, slipping through the narrow alley alongside the Bodega around the corner, climbing the fence and then through the stair window of this place, I'd been soaked to the skin. As I took in the team that would cover me tonight, and make all the collars, I peeled my jeans, my jacket, my shirts, my socks off, spreading them out on the old porcelain topped kitchen table stuck next to one of the overheated radiators. There was nothing I was wearing, nothing I was carrying, which would, I sure hoped, suggest to anyone that I might be a cop. The others were dressed for other purposes.

I'd stripped, to try to get warm and dry, spent about fifteen minutes talking in whispers to my Lieutenant and the Sergeant who was leading the sniper team while those here who did not know me wondered who the fuck this weird deep cover guy was. "I don't get these kids," one older cop said, "I mean, what's with the Italian flag panties? Is he a fag or what?" "Irish flag you color blind moron," I heard Jimmy say behind me, "and he might be a fag or he might not but don't think he's gonna fuck someone who looks like you." Jimmy was good people. You have to know, when you have a job like this, who the few people are you can trust absolutely. Jimmy was one of those. Frankie was another. Sergeant Keneally, especially when he had me covered with his rifle, was a third. The rest of the room really didn't matter to me. And I wasn't going to put wet shit back on to make them feel better about me. So I decided that I needed to slip away, and faked my pass out on the bed, separating my brain from the room.

Twenty minutes passed, occasional bits of talk bouncing through my attempts to shutter my head. "Look at that mook," I heard an unfamiliar voice say, "sound fucking asleep, dreaming of getting fucked in his little bikini ass." "Probably what he's dreaming," Frankie answered, "but he ain't asleep. You asleep Mook?"

"Shut the fuck up," I mumbled to the guy I knew always shadowed me, the guy who kept me alive day in, day out, and went back to convincing myself that I was actually sleeping. I tried to tell myself that I was dreaming of an icy day in a pub atop the Dublin Mountains, Johnnie Foxx's, with snow squalls spinning past the windows. The picture of solitude, of silence, was what I was trying to hold on to, but I couldn't. I shifted, it was hot enough in here. I saw myself lying on a beach, maybe Rockaway, sweat and salt and baby oil mixing in the air, the sky above such pure blue. Maybe...

I wasn't scheduled to head out, to start the game, for another six hours. I needed to be here, of course, but I needed to be anyplace but here as well. It was one of those things. It was a sense of nowhere to hide that had taken over, eyes closed fantasy being the one escape, but it remained an incredibly dangerous escape.

The rain was hitting the roof, mixing in a chaotic sound wall with the conversations, the television, the feet on the floor, the opened cigarette packs, the cheap lighters flaring, the citywide radio channel burbling with Emergency Services calls. As it rolled in, in my head, the beach on the Atlantic morphed into the crowded soundscape of a summer night along a salt water marsh. Just a step further in from the sea, as Jamaica Bay breathed peacefully. I took that and let it hold me.

The salt marsh was a safer place than the mountain snow, at least if the sounds swirling would not go away.  There were a few moments, maybe ten minutes, not sure, when the surrounding noise, whatever I was turning it into, was mixing with the voices and faces of this case. There were lots of faces, I'd been in this character for two months now, and, yeah, I knew these "targets" - targets were what they were and had always been - I knew these "targets," I might have even trusted these "targets" better than most of the people surrounding me now, but that's the way the brain works.

And then, then I did fall asleep.

The dreams left the fears behind for right now. They left the lies behind. And the guilt. They left that clock ticking in the ears, eyes, and hearts of all the others in this odd hide out, and probably with the rest of the cast of characters, all those out on the streets between here and the canal who were prepping for that false play I had given them. All around the clocks ticked toward 10:30.

But I lay outside those gears of time for as long as I could.

copyright 2012 by Ira David Socol