I am from Bayonne, a town that grew up in the shadow of New York City and was populated most significantly by immigrants during the “Great Wave”. Fleeing there their homeland for reasons of oppression or hunger they were greeted by the Statue of Liberty, processed on Ellis Island and found their way to new homes via the rail cars of the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Many did not travel far into the country, as they had little money and the industrial revolution was offering jobs all around the harbor. I was second generation Irish, and could easily recognize the various ethnicities that created neighborhoods whose boarders were defined by streets, avenues, churches and taverns.
Built on the peninsula, which separates the Newark Bay from the Upper New York Bay, almost all of its shoreline was off limits to the kids of my generation. The property had long ago been set to work, the work of the industrial revolution. Adolescents, the adventuresome or perhaps the more delinquent, searched for their ecological identity between the railroad tracks or on abandoned docks.
Swimming across the bay from Jersey City to New York City was to us, a right of passage. It meant we were full-fledged “club” members, strong enough to make it, smart enough to know the difference between an incoming and outgoing tide and dumb enough to be a teenager. On another level, the swim across the harbor was part of something much more significant. We were defining who we were, exploring as Silverstien says, “where the sidewalk ends” searching for the green or blue within the concrete jungle. Making it across the bay resulted in a soggy ride home on the subway or “tubes” as we called them. Not making it meant that you were stranded on Governors Island, or worse, watching the iron workers construct the Varezono Narrows bridge above you as the current carried you towards the ocean. Fortunately most of us only talked about the swim, few tried it, and I never knew anyone who did not make it.