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Water, Water Everywhere: New York City’s Plague and Sustainer

They put so many things in the water. And we put the water in ourselves, on ourselves.

I should mention that I’m a bit of a hypochondriac and a mysophobe. When I moved to New York City in 2009, I was introduced to a slew of new fears. People, and their infinite contaminations, appeared everywhere. I don’t smoke, share food or drinks, touch doorknobs or anything on the subway. I try to exercise. I take superfluous vitamins and supplements, and I take them with water.

Naturally I became curious where the water I was now swallowing, rubbing all over my hands, using to wash away the terrors of my very being came from. I did a little research and was able to find a state government website, which revealed the source: “a network of 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes in a 1,972 square-mile watershed that extends 125 miles north and west of New York City.” I looked at some maps of the supply system. A massive reserve in the Catskills connected to an elaborate channel of basins, rivers, canals, and aqueducts. There was another smaller center in Croton. I imagined this water making its way to me through an algorithm I can only barely comprehend, routing, rerouting, down and around to this island of millions, underground through the concrete, through the earth, and then pumped up again into the roofs of the apartment buildings, the offices, the restaurants, bars, schools, courthouses, and department stores, only to trickle down once more into the leaking showerheads and faucets we know so well.

I drink massive amounts of water. A few years ago, I realized I was often completely dehydrated. I was light-headed, kind of weary. My mouth was dry. One day in August this caused me to become violently ill, shaking and vomiting in a wooden cabin in the Berkshires. I mildly hallucinated for an hour. From that experience an obsession with water was born. I started drinking about 100 ounces a day, carrying around a large Nalgene, urinating every hour, avoiding all sodium, caffeine. I called my mom and asked her how much the surgeon general recommended I drink a day. Eight cups, she said.

There seems to be some ancient and powerful healing in the process of ingestion. It’s cathartic, like inhaling the pure center of a crystal or an oyster’s pearl. Something—maybe an article I read, maybe a grandparent’s advice—has me convinced that the excessive inflow of liquids will help maintain my body’s efficiency and effectiveness. Whenever I feel a cold coming on, I gargle compulsively, I pour powdered Airborne Health Formula into my water. I boil water. I boil the utensils and sponge that I share with my roommate because I don’t trust her, her phlegmy throat, her hands, the hands she doesn’t wash enough. She coughs in the bathroom—I hear it. And when everything has gotten to be too much, I clean everything. I do that with water.

* * *

Growing up, the water came from a reservoir about a five-mile drive from my house in central Massachusetts. We used to park beside it, smoke pot and drink beer in the backs of cars we didn’t pay for. The water was black and still. Its depth unfathomable, like a hole in the Earth, a strange, forever growing mass of liquid. I imagined dipping into it and becoming someone else, perhaps a better-looking version of myself, inches taller and with muscle tone I have long since abandoned any hope of achieving. It seemed like someone must have lived in there—someone transcendent, not necessarily good or evil, or maybe that’s exactly what I mean. It was either a monster or fucking God that lived in that dark abyss. Jason or the Messiah. It didn’t matter. But how the water of my childhood somehow made its way from that chasm into a strange indent in the left door of the refrigerator presented its own profound question. I pressed a button, and slowly the water consumed my plastic cup, brimming, bleeding over the edges and onto my hand, wrist, pooling on the floor, dog at my feet lapping it up. You could also get ice from that dispenser if you wanted. Years later I learned that people could fish in the reservoir with an acquired license.

The reservoir in Central Park has never plagued me. I discovered it one day after walking into the Guggenheim and immediately walking out. I was with an old friend from high school and we made our way around the pond, carelessly, somnolent, talking about the past. That water, grimy and exposed, once received the treated product from Croton and distributed it throughout the city. Now it fills the public pools, in which, on the hottest days, even the dead can go unnoticed.

* * *

I worked at a bookstore one summer, the hottest summer New York City’s ever had. I moved into a sublet by the bubbling, trash-filled East River. It seemed like smoke was coming off the water. Sometimes large pieces of furniture would float by as I sat and watched from one of the many benches alongside it. The bookstore was on Broadway near Washington Square Park. I biked over every morning around eight-thirty, heaving against the thick air, standing up on the pedals, breathing in the rotting garbage on the sidewalks of Chinatown. The blacktop had already raised the temperature above 90 degrees.

I parked my bike in a building next to the shop and moved into a bathroom. That bathroom became one of my closest allies. I pushed my head in the sink and let the Catskills wash over me. A café connected to the bookstore was giving away free coffee every day for a month that lonely summer. I would drink two and stand trembling at a counter for nine hours before biking home, expecting temperatures to have risen at least ten degrees since my morning commute. The river was always there to greet me, but there were no boats in it, no people sitting on the benches I frequented. The Manhattan Bridge and its agonizing screeches hung overhead. I dipped into the icy cold shower and watched the basin drain the day, the summer, away.

* * *

The two summers before the one by the river, as well as the one after, I worked on a farm in my hometown. The other employees, like me, had returned to their parents’ houses, with no jobs or money available anywhere else, to drink cheap beer and go to bed early. It felt good to work until our bodies hurt and our hands bled, arms covered in poison ivy. The early mornings were either cold and wet or sweltering and wet, so you could be pretty sure you were going to get drenched. Rain dominated the early season, and I guess it had to. The roof of the store leaked, sank in, and I made black trash bags into ponchos, later driving home to see that cops had blocked off the street I’d grown up on, the yards entirely underwater. It seemed the rain would never end. But it always did. And when it did, it was hard to get it back.

A small pond had developed, or maybe was constructed, at the lowest elevation of the farm, which had been owned by the same family for 300 years. Here the water gathered, after running down the hills and channels, streaming and flooding the muddy repository. We used the pond, now grown massive, to irrigate the fields. We moved the immense metal pipes, hot and rusting in the sun, from one place to another for hours, pumped the dingy rainwater through them like cannons. In July and August every year, the town grew arid. Homes were limited to four five-minute showers a day. No sprinklers could run between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Prized front lawns, the floodplains of early summer, turned yellow. At the farm, too, our grueling work gave way to undying thirst. We drank more water than we could swallow, we poured it into our hats, filled up sinks and dunked our heads in them. One day we sweated so much, we couldn’t anymore. You need sodium to perspire, so we put two tablespoons of salt in our water bottles to ward off heatstroke. I was on a run to get the crew water when a superior pulled me aside to do his bidding. When I returned, after more than an hour, they were all just lying there in the sun.

* * *

I’d started to notice signs going up on drinking fountains around New York City. They said something like, “Test for safety by holding up a flame to the stream.” I felt a sinking dread each time I bowed to take my turn at the trough. What did this mean? Perhaps we were all being slowly poisoned to death by the only essential sustainer of life.

Soon hydrofracking became a buzzword. People were using water to mine for natural gases and petroleum deep below the surface of the earth, contaminating the groundwater. Videos of people setting fire to the contents of their home taps went viral. At the time, the highly anticipated novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen had just seen its release. Here was a portrait of mountaintop removal mining, a practice that not surprisingly involves blowing up the peaks of said landforms. It also leads to serious water pollution. All of these processes are controlled by corporations and their lobbyists. You would think a population’s vitality has a role in capitalism, since corporations need healthy, living people to buy the oil, use the natural gas.

They do so many things to the water. They’re saying now that if fluoride levels are too high, the outsides of our teeth may appear healthy and strong while the insides become brittle and diseased, deprived by the exterior strengthening process. I don’t know if it’s true. How can we know if anything’s true?

They put so many things in the water. And we put the water in ourselves, on ourselves. It runs down our drains and through our pipes and disappears. I was always told it goes to Jersey, but truly it ends up in a wastewater treatment system: 7,400 miles of sewer pipes; 135,000 sewer catch basins; 495 outfalls for combined sewer overflows (CSOs); 95 pumping stations; 14 treatment plants. Water is a part of everything; it’s omnipresent, and in the future it will be the same. It will be composed of molecules of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms connected by covalent bonds. It will stream forth and cover us. Sometimes we’ll fall asleep in it, and we’ll wake up thirsty.

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