Book Excerpt: from Edward Abbey, Manhattan Twilight, Hoboken Night

Eward Abbey could be called a naturalist, but I don't think that's a rough enough sounding description for him. I don't think he ever pressed a flower into his journal. I doubt he ever collected rocks. He was content to explore the earth and leave it as he found it. And if he found it paved he was content to throw a beer can out his car window because, as he'd say, it's already ruined.  

 He fantasized about blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam, the massive piece of industrial violence that caused the flooding of the Colorado river, forming what is now known as Lake Powell - a misnomer if there ever was one because Mr. Powell loved that river and would surely have been as appalled by the dam as Mr. Abbey.  Abbey was one of the last people to raft the now flooded section of river, tread its sandbars and wooded side canyons before they were drowned, entombed in the gathering silt. He wrote about it in Desert Solitaire and he vented his ecoterrorist impulses in the hilarious novel The Monkey Wrench Gang.

He lived most of his life in Moab, Utah and became identified with desert southwest, but like many western Americans he had eastern roots and lived for a while in New York City. He was as keen an observer of urbanity as he was of nature and though he ultimately reviled the city's toxic vitality, he also found beauty in it. In the rust and oil. In the crumbling bricks. In the sprigs of dirty spring growth pushing up through the pavement. The story this excerpt is taken from is a rare glimpse of his time in the city and it is so keen and lyrical, so Kerouacian in its lithe and rhythmic execution that it makes one wish Mr Abbey had turned his lens more often on the world of men.

For two years I lived in Hoboken, far from my natural habitat. The bitter bread of exile. Two years in the gray light of the sulfur dioxide and the smell of burning coffee beans from the Maxwell House plant at the end of Hudson Street. In a dark, dank, decaying apartment house where the cockroaches - shell-backed, glossy, insolent Blatella germanica - festered and spawned under the linoleum on the sagging floors, behind the rippled wallpaper on the sweating walls, among the teacups in the cupboard. Everywhere. While the rats raced in ferocious packs, like wolves, inside the walls and up and down the cobblestone alleyways that always glistened, night and day, in any kind of weather, with a thin chill greasy patina of poisonous dew. The fly ash everywhere, falling softly and perpetually from the pregnant sky. We watched the seasons come and go in a small rectangle of walled-in space we called our yard: in spring and summer the black grass; in fall and winter the black snow. Overhead and in our hearts a black sun.

Down in the cellar and up in the attic of that fantastic house - four stories high, brownstone, a stoop, wide, polished banisters, brass fittings on the street entrance, a half-sunken apartment for the superintendent, high ceilings, high windows and a grand stairway on the main floor, all quite decently middle class and in the better part of town, near the parks, near the Stevens Institute of Technology - hung draperies of dust and cobweb that had not been seen in the light of day or touched by the hand of man since the time of the assassination of President William McKinley.

In the sunless attic the spiders had long since given up, for all their prey had turned to dust; but the rats roamed freely. Down in the basement, built like a dungeon with ceiling too low to permit a man of normal stature to stand erect, there were more rats, of course - they loved the heat of the furnace in winter - and dampish stains on the wall and floor where the great waterbugs, like cockroaches out of Kafka, crawled sluggishly from darkness into darkness. One might notice here, at times, the odor of sewer gas.

The infinite richness. The ecology, the natural history of it all. An excellent workshop for the philosopher, for who would venture out into that gray miasma of perpetual smoke and fog that filled the streets if he might remain walled up with books, sipping black coffee, smoking black Russian cigarettes, thinking long, black, inky thoughts? To be sure. but there were the streets. The call of the streets.

We lived one block from the waterfront. The same waterfront where Marlon Brando once played Marlon Brando, where the rust-covered tramp steamers, black freighters, derelict Dutchmen, death ships came to call under Liberian flags to unload their bananas, baled hemp, teakwood, sacks of coffee beans, cowhides, Argentine beef, to take on kegs of nails, jeep trucks, Cadillacs and crated machine guns. Abandoned by the Holland-American Line in '65, at least for passenger service, the Hoboken docks - like Hoboken bars and Hoboken tenements - were sinking into an ever deepening state of decay. The longshoremen were lucky to get two days' work a week. Some of the Great warehouses had been empty for years; the kids played Mafia in them.

The moment I stepped out the front door I was faced again with Manhattan. There it was, oh splendid ship of concrete and steel, aluminum, glass and electricity, forging forever up the dark river. (The Hudson - like a river of oil, filthy and rich, gleaming with silver lights.) Manhattan at twilight: floating gardens of tender neon, the lavender towers where each window glittered at sundown with reflected incandescence, where each crosstown street became at evening a gash of golden fire, and the endless flow of the endless traffic on the West Side Highway resembled a luminous necklace strung round the island's shoulders.

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