RETIRED AND ROWING ON THE HUDSON
Published in Healthy Aging Magazine Winter 2022
The best retirement advice I ever got was from Hassan, my 80 year old barber who has been cutting my hair for decades in downtown Brooklyn, when he said “don’t stay home, eat, watch TV, make fat.”
Hassan nailed it. In retirement, fewer people are expecting less of me and my calendar has lots of blank space. There are more than a few moments when staying home, eating and watching TV is not an unpleasant option. There are, of course, a few pesky downsides, like being bored, miserable and the inevitable “make fat” .
Two to three times a week I think about Hassan’s warning, during my 6 AM, 25 mile drive from Manhattan to Piermont. where I join three buddies from the area, to row in a “quad” (four person shell) on what we affectionately refer to as “the mighty Hudson”.
In 1971, I quit the Boston University crew team after a few months. The four hour daily workouts were more than my 19 -year- old knuckleheaded self was in the mood for. It’s been five decades but the memory of the Charles River glistening in the sunset, inches below the gunnels of a fast moving eight person shell, with 16 oars catching the water in sync, has not faded.
Six years ago I finally got around to scratching a long time itch to get back on the water. For a few weeks I snuck out of my law office on Court Street, Brooklyn for an intensive “learn-to-row” class run by the Harlem River Community Rowing Club, in the Bronx, a few miles north of Yankee Stadium.
The Harlem River is an eight-mile tidal strait connecting the East River to the Hudson, running between Manhattan and the Bronx. It’s where the Columbia University crew teams practice while keeping a nervous eye on wakes from swarms of jet skis and the Circle Line ferrying tourists around Manhattan island.
The day we rowed in an eight person shell under the Cross Bronx Expressway in rush hour, gliding at a right angle under the bumper to bumper traffic over our heads, was one of those “as good as it gets” moments.
I later moved on to the Piermont Rowing Club, in that charming river town about a half mile south of the Cuomo Bridge, the new three-mile span with an even newer name problem.
Now, when the sun glistens on the Hudson River inches below our quad, it’s alongside the majestic Palisades rising from the shore.
Three times a week, weather permitting, four of us line up alongside a quad sitting on a rack at the edge of a parking lot at the water’s edge. The 40 foot, 125 lb. boat gets lifted off the rack and onto shoulders for a short walk down a ramp into the mucky Hudson. When the water is about knee high the boat gets gently flipped onto the surface.
In a quad, four rowers, each holding two nine-foot oars, sit facing backwards on little sliding seats with feet strapped in at a 45-degree angle. The person in the seat closest to the bow gives the commands to keep us on course without crashing into anything.
At the command of “ready at the finish”, torsos tilt back, oar handles are pressed into chest bones with blades resting flat on the water, for stability. At “ready to row” then “row” a rhythmic, meditative ballet begins. Arms extend away, upper bodies swing forward in unison as if hinging at the waist, followed by butts sliding towards the stern of the boat as knees compress. When oar handles are extended out over the gunnels, with chins up and eyes on the horizon, there is a split second when you’re Kate Winslet on the Titanic, that is if Kate was being held by Leonardo out over the stern. That moment is followed by eight vertical blades dropping into the water together for the “catch” when four sets of legs drive the oars, and the boat, through the water. The silent mantra is “arms, body, legs . . . legs, body, arms”.
The Hudson flows 315 miles from the Adirondacks into New York Harbor. Below Troy it’s a tidal estuary that flushes itself into the Atlantic with two high tides and two low tides each day, matching the ebb and flow of the ocean. When saltwater from the south meets the freshwater from the north, a salt line is formed that moves from the Mario Cuomo Bridge between Nyack and Tarrytown to just north of the Hamilton Fish Bridge between Beacon and Newburgh. That daily flushing is greatly appreciated whenever heavy rains overflow antiquated local sewage treatment facilities and we have to stay off the water for a few days.
We are not the only species that likes to hang out on the Hudson. Standing knee-deep in the water, as we lock in oars and adjust foot stretchers, there is often a nearby flock of Canadian geese keeping us company. As we row out of the harbor it’s not uncommon for a blue heron perched on a pier piling to be checking us out. Sometimes out on the river a good size fish jumps near the boat. I rely on my veteran rowing buddies to make an informed guess about what it was depending on the size of the splash. According to the annual fish count the Hudson hosts 70 different types of fish
After World War II pesticides like DDT almost wiped out the bald eagle. In 2007 they came off the endangered species list. Now it’s a thrill to stop near known nests on shore to see if we can spot one. At the end of last season an eagle, with its enormous wingspan, swooped low over our heads in what we took to be a territorial message; “Don’t mess with my breakfast”.
Joining a group in my retirement years initially aroused some new kid on the block anxiety that I did not expect to still experience by the time I had a Medicare Card in my wallet. It all went smoothly because rowing attracts people who play well with others. It’s a sport that requires the ability to move in sync with the people around you silently. A coach once described it as a lot like ballroom dancing.
No one ever accused me of being an athlete but with a few learn-to-row classes and lots of supportive coaching from long time club members, I accomplished my goal of avoiding public humiliation, more or less.
My 70th birthday is four months away. True to Hassan’s warning, staying home, eating, watching TV and “making fat” beckon like a mythological Greek siren trying to lure this sailor onto the rocks. Unlike Odysseus, who plugged his ears with beeswax, I’m thinking maybe a little binge watching and a few good snacks, but only on the days when I’m not rowing.
Bob Salzman Is a retired lawyer and past winner of the Funniest Lawyer in New York contest. His “Sorting out the Mess: An Uncle to His Niece on the Democratic Primaries” was published last year in “2020 The Year That Changed America Edited by Kevin Powell”.(kepo Inc.) The forthcoming anthology “2020- Hell We Should Never Forget” will include Bob’s contest winning essay.