It’s in the Upper Bay, on the western shore of the Hudson, two straight parallel piers sticking out of Bayonne, just north of the tip of Staten Island.
It’s nothing particularly charming, actually, it’s a drab flat concrete expanse littered with low warehouses, junk and rows after rows of shipping containers, the least glamorous face of New York you could possibly imagine. And yet what a vantage point! Right across the water you see Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Sunset Park, if you look right you skim Staten Island all the way to where the Hudson meets the open sea, and then you turn left and there you have it all: the Statue of Liberty partially hiding Ellis Island on one side, Governors Island on the other and right in the middle Manhattan’s Battery Park.
I mean, seriously, what more could you want.
Well, just so that you can squirm in envy, that was the very view of my childhood, shared with my two accomplices-girlfriends.
(pause for dramatic effect)
Wait a minute, I should also mention that it was only in my dreams, actually, a series of dreams organised in episodes, a bit like a TV serial.
Except that in those days I had no knowledge of New York and hadn’t seen a TV yet, or, to be more accurate, I had been allowed to see the TV that the only wealthy family in the block had acquired. They used to let neighbours stand next to it to be photographed, perhaps even touch it. While the TV was off of course, seeing it on was a privilege for a few chosen ones.
I actually have a picture of myself next to it, see? What was I, five or six?
Anyway, to go back to my story. The series of dreams were set in a place that for me in those days was as far and exotic as the Amazon forest or the Moon’s seas. In fact the only image I had seen of New York was probably a postcard of the Empire State Building.
I had not yet seen any movie set in New York either, or anything else that could supply me with the material for those dreams.
And this is the point, one that still puzzles me decades later. Where did it all come from? Especially for, years later, I verified that it was all accurate.
I had these dreams for a few years when I was between seven and ten. Growing up I preserved some vague memories of them, which would occasionally resurface in fragments. Then one day, in 1988, on a road in Primrose Hill, London, on the edge of Regents Park, I saw a car.
Not just any car, the very one I used to drive in those dreams. Same model, same colour, an odd lobster-bronze.
It was a 1964 Lincoln Continental with white top and the distinctive front steel grille with the headlights encased in it. Almost exactly like this one.
At least for the choice of car there was an explanation, once I saw it in the street and recognised it I also remembered that I used to have a Dinky Toys model of it.
Now then, seeing the car sort of took the lid off the memory box and the dreams came back, with some remarkable clarity; in a matter of days I started remembering all the details, and I know you are dying to hear about the dreams, but let me tell you first something that will no doubt put these in a different light. At least it did for me.
As I said, at the time of the dreams I had no knowledge of New York and the way it looked. From provincial Italy in the 60s and before the television era one had a very limited view of the world. It was actually easier to have an idea of ancient Greece or Rome, thanks to the illustrations in school books, than any contemporary parts of the world.
The rare films one would see at the cinema included: Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy’s comedies, Hollywood renditions of ancient Rome such as Ben Hur, neo-realist post-war Italian movies like Bicycle Thieves, Totò comedies, cowboy movies of the John Wayne kind, Mary Poppins, and that was about it, we are talking early ’60s. This is just to stress how unlikely it was that I could have the vaguest idea of New York, and least of all of some obscure, anonymous corner of a commercial pier on the New Jersey coast opposite.
Well, enough perambulations. The day I went to New York for the first time I had a shock. I was with my son on a boat sailing down the Hudson, we went past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and there it was, the two piers, the strip of land where I had spent so much time and had so many adventures in my childhood’s dreams. How could it be, it was all clear and familiar, completely recognisable, even though the cars and trucks, the cranes and warehouses were new and different, the place was unmistakably it.
From Bayonne you’d turn into Pulasky St. and before it merges with Port Jersey Boulevard you turn into the expanse of containers. That was home.
Shipping containers changed the world and are a fundamental building block of globalisation, but in those days I didn’t know, I had barely seen a few carried by lorries on the outskirts of the industrial city where I lived as a child. And yet, the red-orange container that was home in these dreams was important, cosy and a safe harbour.
So lets get closer to the story.
We have now established the setting, you can see it here in this satellite images as it is now, and just to be precise I have marked the area where our (yes, I wasn’t alone, I told you) container was. In those days (in those dreams) it was much more crowded and messier than it is now. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture from the time of the dreams, which was more or less 1963 to 1966.
The container was a forgotten one, rather rusty on the outside, of a faded reddish, and ivy was climbing all over it. Next to the container were high piles of discarded wooden pallets and several large metal oil drums on one side while on the other there was a jumble of twisted metal pipes and beams with a little gnarled tree growing within it, in front of the door there was a very large, round black metal basin. At the back of the container the broken legs of an old crane were standing like a giant crab, a frayed tarpaulin draped over it, and that was the garage for our Lincoln Continental.
I think now it’s time to introduce my partners and accomplices in the dreams. They were two girls, my age, one was an American Indian, a real squaw, wearing a dress made by herself with scraps of leather and decorated with anything coloured she could find, from bottle caps to glass fragments and plastic toys. She had dark skin and very long black hair parted in two thick braids and framing a round face, dark eyes and a full mouth. The other had Scandinavian features, very pale and with long blonde hair, a pointed nose and freckles, blue slanted eyes and a fine wide mouth, and she too patched up clothes with whatever we could find and steal.
We were runaways, never mentioned were we came from, we just found ourselves on our own and joined forces, made our little tribe-family and looked out for each other, hiding away from the world and avoiding any contact with grown-ups.
We were doing everything together, we would build anything we needed out of materials we would scavenge from the port; whenever a cargo ship moored we knew that in a few days we would have a trove of useful obscure objects, discarded and abandoned, ready to be reinvented. So a bit at the time we furnished our container, we made a stove to warm up and to cook on with a metal locker and parts from a car engine, shelves and storage with wooden crates, a big bed with pallets and a large crate, which we filled with animal furs we stole from a shipment, the floor was covered with a sheet of rubber grabbed from the back of a lorry, with some broken glass and metal sheets we made large mirrors, with car’s rear view mirrors and some pipes we made a periscope to keep watch from inside without being seen, cutting plastic pipes we made a system to collect the rain water that would fill the drums and we would use to wash. We had made a sort of cart with found wheels and a metal frame, which was precious to carry the finds back home, with time we added a rotating arm with a chain and hook on a pulley, to lift things that were too heavy for us.
No one would ever venture to that end of the pier, only occasionally a truck would arrive to dump the discarded containers or other decommissioned materials, which were as many treasure troves for us. What for the rest of the world was a forgotten cemetery of discarded good for us was a haven of wild isolation, our private kingdom right next to one of the busiest hubs of the world.
Hiding out of sight we’d enjoy watching the sailors from far while they were cleaning and maintaining their moored ship, the long arms of the cranes swinging the crates wrapped in nets off the ship’s deck down to the waiting lorries.
Every week we would get in the car, which we had modified with big wooden blocks attached to clutch, accelerator and brakes so that we could reach them, to go on a mission. Sharing the driving tasks the three of us, sitting cluttered on the wide front seat, would set off before dawn and go “to town” in time to catch the trucks and vans delivering goods to the shops and market. We had mastered the art of being invisible and silent, we would park out of sight in a back alley and then sneak like indians, unseen and unheard, and steal food from the shops and vans. Once filled the car with all we needed we would drive back to our pier, hide the car under the tarpaulin and store our booty away.
Sometimes the blonde girl (we didn’t use names) who was the most innocent looking of the trio, would distract the shop keepers or delivery men, pretending to be mute and talking to them in signs, and the indian girl and myself would take advantage of the distraction to carry out our appropriation mission.
It was always a totally cooperative work, we acted as one, no need for words, we felt completely self contained and looked at the world and people as we didn’t belong there at all, we were happy, we laughed a lot.
On our return home after these raids we would strip naked, lay in the furs and spread food on one’s belly and the other two would eat from it, like animals, licking the skin clean at the end.
We knew every nook and cranny, every secret passage between the containers and junk piles and could find our way blindfolded. Our only fear was a gang of criminals who would sometimes come to our pier with their car, a very large convertible of a shiny dark purple. Their boss was a young black boy that looked enormous and terrifying to us, with hair sculpted like hieroglyphics, while the others looked like many minnows fussing about him. They knew we were there somewhere but never managed to find our hiding. On some occasions we just about missed being caught, but we always managed to escape at the last minute, and occasionally also succeeded in playing dirty tricks on the gang, sabotaging their car or causing them to crash.
Otherwise we had a very peaceful time, always doing everything together, even in the winter we would bathe naked in the large basin outside, breaking the ice and jumping in daring each other to resist as long as we could, to then run inside shivering and dry one another in front of the fire and then lay on the furs massaging the frozen limbs, combing the hair, hugging and cuddling. When a thunderstorm would break we’d run out and dance in the rain, our faces lit by lightning, laughing and whirling. We would spend ages cleaning each other, like little monkeys picking lice from one another’s fur.
Chores were equally shared too, from cooking to cleaning, from building new things to scavenging for anything useful. It was a joy when one of us would find something that could be a present for one of the others, little object of no value to anyone but us.
Some evenings we would sit on the furthermost point of the pier, our legs dangling over the water, hugged together to keep warm and marvelling at the view, with the distant lights sparkling within the outline of Manhattan, the seagulls diving, the cargoes passing by, the ever surprising flotsam and jetsam drifting on the waves.
In all we did there was a warm sense of innocent, wild sensuality and life.
It felt at once peaceful and exciting, it felt cosy and independent. We loved each other with no distinction or reserve, and slept together curled and tangled like kittens, falling asleep telling each other stories we would invent of the spot.
And then the dreams at some point stopped, just as they had arrived from nowhere.
I tried for a while to cause them to come back, but it doesn’t work that way.
Decades later, when they came back to me, thanks to the accidental sighting of the car, I was tempted to try to dream them again, but the cheating clearly doesn’t pay. I was glad to have found them again though, it felt like rediscovering something precious long forgotten in the loft.
I still wonder where all those images came from, it could be tempting to think of a previous life.