We were afraid of its impenetrable darkness. Afraid of its industrial smell. We were afraid of the things that lived beneath its surface and the things that had died there. We were afraid of spotting a hand or a head bobbing in the rafts of garbage that floated by. We were afraid of submerged intake valves that sucked water into the factories along the banks. We were afraid of the river’s filth. It wasn’t the kind of filth that came from playing football with your friends. It was grownup filth. The kind that scared the blue out of water and coated the riverbank with oily black goo. It was the kind of filth you could taste; the kind that could make you sick, maybe even kill you. We were afraid of getting splashed with river water or of touching river rocks. We were afraid of falling in or—God forbid—going under. We were afraid of the river’s anger at being so befouled, and afraid, most of all, of the revenge we felt certain the river would exact. The Passaic claimed the white helmet. It could claim us too.
It was 1960 in North Arlington, New Jersey, my hometown, a small borough on the Passaic’s eastern shore just five miles upriver from Newark. This industrial lower stretch was our Passaic. My mother told us not to play by the river, but she didn’t have to.
Many years later, in September 2005, I took my first cruise on the Passaic River with the NY/NJ Baykeeper Association, the New Jersey- based nonprofit that has taken up the river’s cause. Our boat was a 16-foot Aqua Patio. It looked like a floating hot tub, all white with a high freeboard and banquette seating, ideal for the civilian river trips that the Baykeeper regularly runs up the Passaic. The two-hour tour took us about three miles upriver, from the mouth in south Newark to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center at the north end of downtown. It was the first time I had ever actually been out on the Passaic.
I took a seat in the bow with a pair of environmental engineers from Pennsylvania and three attorneys from the Rutgers Environmental Law Center. Janice and Martin, a retired couple from New York, were squeezed into the stern alongside two researchers from the New York Academy of Sciences, who were studying the ecology of New York Harbor.
Skipper Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, had the helm amidships. He was sturdy and gruff with a shark tooth necklace and a bushy red moustache. He leaned against the gunwale, just in front of Janice, one hand on the wheel. He had the look of a cop, or a bartender, or the ship’s captain that he was — the look of someone who is comfortable being in charge.
Our host, Andy Willner, was a sunnier presence. It was the first time I had met Andy in person. He had a full gray beard and a thick shag of salt and pepper hair. A 35mm camera swung from his neck. He used his free hand — the one that wasn’t gesticulating — to brace the camera against his middle-aged paunch. Andy had made this trip upriver on many, many occasions, but he snapped pictures with the eagerness of a first-timer, pointing out his favorite bridge and marveling aloud at the play of sunlight on the glass facades of the new office towers along the shore. Wonder lived next to outrage in his heart.
We set out from the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners’ (PVSC) massive sewage treatment plant on the shores of Newark Bay. Neat and surprisingly odorless, the 172-acre complex of circular tanks, pipes, pumps and stacks processes waste for 1.3 million residents in New Jersey’s Passaic, Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties.
Once we cleared the dock, Andy unfurled a nautical chart and located our position in the labyrinth of bays, tidal inlets, islands and marsh. Raritan Bay was below us, linked to Newark Bay by the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait that separates New Jersey from Staten Island. Across Newark Bay to the east lay the so-called Meadowlands, the salt marsh that is home to the Hackensack River. Above us, and well within view, were the mouths of the Hackensack and the Passaic. The two rivers flow down from the north and squeeze the last bite of land between them into a chubby, muddy “V” called Kearny Point before they disappear into Newark Bay.
Andy straightened up, and with a sweep of his right arm, lassoed up the view. “All these bays were much larger,” he said. “They were all extraordinary wetlands. The Passaic was one of the most bountiful rivers in the whole system, this estuarine stream with tributaries coming into it and a marsh system all around it.”