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The Passaic Wharf

Al Mankoff

They move through my mind like ghosts from the past as I d rift into sleep at the end of the day. Gray ghosts, angular planes, grimed windows, curved metal, crouching like great cats in the murky sheds of the Wharf. There they wait out time, like pyramids in the desert. Like the pyramids, they are symbols of a past age, when people were different and the world was different.

When they were brought here to the Wharf, one by one, over the course of many days, they were entered like prisoners, their numbers taken and noted, and placed in long lines, close enough to touch one another. And then, day after day, month after month, the time passed. The only movement in the heat of the symmer days or in the freezing winters was the brushing wings of pigeons; the only sounds the cooing of the big, awkward birds. Now and then an airplane passed overhead, or the distant rumble of a train, borne over the winds, intruded on the silence. Rarely, footsteps would sound, and a human being would appear, passing through or stopping to perform a chore of work or of personal need-- -but the humans were so rare that few footprints marred the soft earth. The humans took no notice.

Like busy people who retire suddenly and who quickly become lost for things to do, the cars rested as if dreaming of the swarms of people, the city lights, the uncounted urban adventures weaving the tapestry of experience that each had known--the sights, the scenes, the sounds of an America, lately robustly adolescent, sprouting in a few years, the years of these cars, from a child among nations to a great superpower.

The cars had seen it all, been a part of it all, and in a large way, helped to make it happen, through tow world wars and a major depression. There was nothing that anyone could tell them about human frailty, or pain, or of love or joy, for in their time, like the elderly, they had seen it all. So there was no use in saying, "Hey--I gotta tell ya what I saw out on Main Street last night!"

Yet for all the dark sense of ending, there seemed to be in the waiting cars a promise of an unmet potential, as if their brooding portended an uprising, a revolt of some kind, in which they might spring suddenly to life and like the cats they resembled, shake off the dust and the dirt and the grime and once again move out into the world, from one dream to another dream.

I can remember the cars at the Passaic Wharf in the early '40's. Stepping aboard, I remember the gentle sway, like the bowing of a great elephant, as the car body, balanced delicately on its trucks, moved toward me and I gave a little leap upward and on to the platform floor. Resting momentarily, I felt the car body return to its balance, the creaking of wood and steel subsiding. Diamonds of dust glinted in the shafts of sunlight that somehow found entry into the gloomy sheds, through cracks and rents in the corrugated steel skin of the barn. The seats looked mutely at me, dull brown leather, inviting me to overlook the dust, to sit and to enjoy the view of fields and farms and rustic chores. Litter told of events to come, picnics and sales and changes of routes now long gone and surely forever forgotten.

The Passaic Wharf, more than a structure or a facility, was a mood. In that mood was all that a person needed to know of life and of death.

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Content: © 1997 Al Mankoff
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