Cold Spring Diary: Riverside Rails

by David St.-Lascaux


The “Danbury Hatter” passenger car, Metro North Hudson Line, Cold Spring Station.

17 May 2014

THE HUDSON LINE of Metro North Railroad hugs the river to Poughkeepsie. Having a commitment in New York City, I boarded the train in Cold Spring on this beautiful Saturday morning. The trees on Crow’s Nest are now entirely leafy, and continue to fill out, as chartreuse shifts to lime and emerald. Earlier this week, the birch trees’ catkins drooped like willow leaves; the oaks transformed from shiny red to shiny green.

Raymond Carver invoked the Hudson Line in his immortal “Cathedral,” a short story in which the narrator insults a blind man by asking him on which side of the train he sat, since one has a spectacular view of the river from the west windows. (Robert, the blind man, takes this in stride, later turning the tables on his tormentor.) “Cathedral,” the closing story in Carver’s collection, Cathedral (1983), is arguably one of the best short stories ever written, given its humbling lesson, dramatic build-up, and transcendental climax. It takes about thirty minutes to read, about the same amount of time as Jorge Luis Borges’s “El libro de arena” (“The Book of Sand”) from Ficciones (Fictions; 1944), another masterpiece – both in less total time than a train ride from Cold Spring to Manhattan.

Having sat by a west window on my last trip to New York, I sat on the east side this morning. While this deprived me of the aforementioned water-level panoramas, it provided many subtle intimacies, and even grand vistas, first of Constitution Marsh below Boscobel, and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival tent; numerous waterfall cascades adjacent to the tracks; and, for example, in Garrison, wisteria and dogwood blooming trackside.

As one proceeds southward, the view predictably urbanizes. At Ossining, the razor wire (advertised online as “perfect for home security or those preparing for Armageddon”) of Sing-Sing prison is visible if one looks sharply up; prisoners with westfacing windows (if there are any such things) would have fine views of the northernmost Palisade rock formations on the Hudson’s west bank. In addition to scenic beauty, historical sites and persisting farms, the Hudson valley is home to numerous prisons: Sing-Sing, Bedford Hills and Taconic in Bedford Hills, Downstate and Fishkill in Fishkill, Green Haven in Beekman (where New York’s electric chair, “Old Sparky,” was moved from Ossining; according to a facility directive, Green Haven also “operates a demonstration Hot Kosher Food Program”), and Hudson. There’s even a twenty-something program (but no sitcom) called “shock incarceration,” described in U.S. Department of Justice literature as a “boot camp” providing “shorter incarceration than the youthful offenders would normally receive, but the regimen involves strict, military-style discipline, unquestioning obedience to orders, and highly structured days filled with drill and hard work.” A study suggests that SI marginally reduces recidivism.

With the exception of the Garrison-Cold Spring-Beacon section, Hudson Line passengers witness an endless string of industrial brownfields on both sides of the tracks (more later). How the psyches of commuters passing such blighted landscapes are affected gives one pause; one suspects that many are unaware of the scale and scope of Hudson riverfront devastation and abandonment, which has always been business as usual hereabouts. On the brighter side are beleaguered riverfront microparks (as the FDR Drive is a barrier to human access to the East River in Manhattan, so the Metro North tracks are to the Hudson) (e.g., Manitou Point Preserve in Garrison, RiverWalk in Tarrytown, the Scenic Hudson Park at Irvington and Habirshaw Park in Yonkers) and a few larger ones (e.g., Croton Point Park and Denning’s Point in Beacon), and a smattering of marinas and riverfront restaurants.

Tarrytown, with its great bridge, now being replaced, follows Ossining. Below Tarrytown, the Palisades begin in earnest, as does accumulating trash and graffiti, which increasingly dominate the eastside right-of-way for the remainder of the journey. The transformation of our living space into a plastic-strewn midden has literary and cultural antecedents in metaphorical pigsties and mediæval cities. Ongoing clean-up would certainly provide full employment for years to come. On the other hand, Lewis Carroll’s Carpenter’s putative prognosis on sand abatement is a more likely outcome:

“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

Detritus abounding, the train passes the suburban enclaves of Irvington, Ardsley-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Hastings-on Hudson, Greystone, Glenwood, Yonkers, Riverdale (under the ethereal Wave Hill mansion and gardens), Spuyten Duyvil, and Yankee Stadium (East 153rd Street) and arrives in Manhattan at Harlem/125th Street, then Grand Central ten minutes later.

One advantage of the Hudson Line is its position in Grand Central Station at Tracks 33 and 35, concourse level at the west end of the station. Entering in from the west side gets one on board quickly. Exiting westbound, the pedestrian soon arrives at shady Bryant Park. On the terrace behind the New York Public Library’s main building, a statue of the park’s namesake, William Cullen Bryant, glares disdainfully down at passersby and a smiling bodhisattva-like statue of Gertrude Stein (she of Tender Buttons [1914], another chaplet gem), who, assuming the lotus position, placidly deflects Bryant’s silent contumely, raising the questions of what statues are and what they convey, and inspiring contemplation of the institutionalization – and ephemerality! – of culture, and attempted immortality in a throwaway society. I daresay the sparrows and pigeons know Bryant better than park patrons.

IN A MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE to future readers, the Cold Spring Diary documents the experience of travel along a bygone route. Readers in 2114 will note that inaction in the face of rising sea levels resulted in the submergence of this trackbed and the Hudson Line’s abandonment. The author’s “Imprint (Palliative)” is apropos:

Walking through the bombed-out slum
requires imagination;
otherwise, it’s too disheartening.
The imprints of oak leaves
on a gray day’s concrete canvas bring pretend relief,
a fossil footprint sassafras,
a dream museum’s caselode of crinoids,
three hundred million memory-years.
Their silhouetted traces join
the family of the pochoir hand,
of Pompeii’s dog, of Turin’s shroud,
of faded love
– as of the long-gone ghosts pedestrian who took this path
like you. Like yours,
their miracles dissolved the clouds,
dissolve in rain.

* * *

June 12: Twice-Burned Books; A Burned Barn.

Text copyright © 2014.

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