Eric Stiller gets to talking about God. And the mess this world is in. My neck is arched backward as I stare at the backside of a statue in New York Harbor that needs no introduction. From this perspective, the folds in her gargantuan patina'd robe seem as pronounced as the lifelike muscles on Michelangelo's David. This is a view of The Lady most people never see -- and I'm savoring every second of it.
I don't know much about Eric, except that he's the guy who tried to circumnavigate the entire continent of Australia by kayak, then lived to write a book about it. He's good-looking in a wiry, rugged way and he's a real kayaking maverick. Stiller was unassuming when we met for the first time at Borders in Stamford, CT several months earlier. We were skimming the same copy of Paddler Magazine -- he because his woman-friend was mentioned in it and I because my writing has appeared in an issue or two. He sized me up as a kayaking powerhouse. "You should come paddling with us this weekend. We launch from Pier 63 on the Hudson to the Statue of Liberty," he offered. "But it's supposed to snow. It's January," I protested. Eric shrugged his shoulders. "So?" A real maverick, I thought to myself.
I finally take Eric up on his offer in July, when my fear of New York Harbor boat traffic is not compounded by dread of icebergs and hypothermia. I meet him in his office adjoining Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. Eric owns and operates Manhattan Kayak Company. He has formed with his patrons and staff a little offbeat community on the banks of New York City.
I climb a rickety set of stairs, enter a room put together with plywood and cast-off furniture and reintroduce myself. Eric must feel right at home with me because he starts in on his treatise about the world coming to a dead stop in eight years unless we humans refrain from all the bad stuff we're doing to the environment. He tells me he's writing another book about this very thing and he hopes to have it done before the planet falls to pieces.
This puts me in a good mood to paddle tandem with him for 10 miles -- 3.5 hours -- to Lady Liberty and back.
Eric flings soggy kayak-wear my way and orders me down to the pier along with several other customers going out today. I scrutinize the New York Waterway ferries kicking back some big wakes as they race commuters from an adjacent wharf to New Jersey. Waves build to ocean swells as they reach the decrepit Huck Finn-rigged platform that passes for the Kayak Company dock causing it to pitch and roll vigorously. Eric removes several plastic shells from their storage racks in the tush of the rusted Lackawanna barge that serves as Pier 63, throws them in the water and calls the other paddlers down.
Our group consists of a woman going through a bad divorce, another one just starting law school, the President of the School for Visual Arts and a dancer who works for Eric as payment for kayaking time. They all seem to know what they're doing as they shimmy into their crafts unassisted and ride like Minotaurs on the rollers. I stand holding paddle upright, life preserver and spray skirt dampening my body, like some Gladiator extra, waiting for Eric's instruction. "Get in," he commands. And that's it.
I sit in front where I can maintain maximum visual exposure. Eric reclines behind me at the rudder, taking pictures for the Washington Post. Last week their reporter came out with him and neglected to get a few shots. This setup is wonderful for my viewing the New York and New Jersey skylines, but terrible for communication. Eric can murmur quietly, his words traveling on wisps of wind that reach my ears easily. But I have to turn around to talk to Eric or else my voice vanishes into the Hudson River breeze. With my spray skirt and paddle locking me in place, this is a very difficult and contortionist maneuver that I quickly decide is not worth doing. A two-way dialogue is practically impossible.
Conversation at this point is not at the top of my list, anyway. I'm all too aware of the fact that we are floating like resting gulls on what has to be one of the most recognized bodies of water on the planet -- where a few years ago we would have been drifting in the shadow of two 110-story towers that are no longer there. I feel them now, like phantom limbs, and crane my neck to find several other skyscrapers -- massive by any other city's measure -- left behind.
Practically swimming, I gaze at specs that are New York Waterway Ferry riders. They're hanging over fourth-floor railings looking down, way down, at the half dozen slivers of red and yellow bobbing in the water. Some may be wishing they could be down here with us. Others think we're nuts. Most think we're nuts.
We must avoid a number of ferries and sightseeing boats, barges and pleasure craft. Commercial boats are easy to spot, so we paddle madly and cross their paths long before they're hard up against us. Private motorboats are another matter. Captains seem to want to pick us off, like so many ducks in a penny arcade. "What's he doing?" Eric asks the wind. A 40-footer keeps readjusting his heading, zigzagging towards us as we frantically try to avoid him, displacing water like baby geese catching up to mom.
Eric is used to the idiosyncrasies of Hudson River navigators and could give a whit. A true maverick. The Harbor is his waterpark, the boats his wave machines.
Eric shows little sentimentality towards the Statue of Liberty, while I sentiment all over the place. I'm mindful of her reticent insistence that our freedoms will not be compromised -- even on the day ashes of citizens blanketed her heaven-stretched torch. As we round the bulkhead of Liberty Island, Eric continues his diatribe of Earthling madness. In New York, especially, end of the world scenarios are easy to imagine, but I look up at the benevolent face of the Lady and find myself within a protective force-field.
We're each entitled to our opinions, I think, as Eric pontificates, bringing in God and New Yorkers and other topics considered taboo in polite conversation. But I'm loving it, anyway -- listening to a guy rant about whatever is on his mind, taking for granted the liberty to do so, beneath our very symbol of Freedom.
The Statue of Liberty is after all only a symbol. But out here we are its manifestation -- in our little boats, bucking massive ones with just deltoids, biceps and encouraging exclamations, declaring the world and its governments ineffective, expressing our discontent without fear of reprisal. For a few hours, at least, we're all mavericks, riding the waves off of Manhattan like we own the place.
As we head back to Pier 63, Eric cools on his doomsday predictions. His amiable side takes over, I'm happy to find, as I swivel my torso to remark, "I was going to go home and start putting my affairs in order. Now you're saying there's hope for the world?"
"If we change our behavior now, there's still hope," says my kayaking buddy. "But you'll have to buy my new book to find out how." Turns out Eric Stiller is a marketing maverick, too.