Summer in New York City is hot. As unpleasant as it is today, in the mid 60’s and before most apartments didn’t have air conditioning. Even if our families could afford the inefficient units, the wiring in the pre WWII buildings was not capable of supporting the electrical load. The only air conditioning I remember was in movie theaters and big stores.
Instead we had to find other ways to cool off. On hot summer nights we’d either sleep on the fire escapes or just hang out with friends on the stoop until we were exhausted and eventually felt sleep coming on.
We were too far from the beaches like Rockaway or City Island unless we were with an adult and didn’t have the cash to go to the only pool in the neighborhood, the Miramar. The option left was the river. We actually had 2 rivers and a connecting canal to choose from.
Some choice. You couldn’t pay me to swim in those waters and I didn’t. Beside the strong currents of the Hudson and East Rivers, not to mention area called Spuyten Duvel which is where the Hudson met the waters of the East River. There was also a relative calm area which was a canal built around the turn of the century. Overlooking this canal was a gigantic rock that had an equally impressive “C” painted on this rock by students of Columbia University who had their stadium, Bakers Field nearby.
The reason I wouldn’t swim in the river though had nothing to do with currents, currents that claimed Inwood youths for as long as I remember. The bodies were usually found 2 or 3 days later down near the George Washington Bridge. No , the reason I wouldn’t swim in the water was because of the SHITLINE.
Until about 20 years ago there was no sewage treatment plants for the Hudson or East Rivers.
At regular intervals during the day all the sewage was dumped into the rivers. When the sewage was released it would float in a long line in whatever direction the current was going. In this line was everything that people flushed down toilets. Mainly toilet paper, used condoms and shit. Hence the name shitline.
I was a pretty decent swimmer but the thought of swimming in that water made me sick. Luckily there was still a way for someone to hang out with the guys that swam and provide a service. You could be the lookout. The lookout kept an eye out for the shitline and when you saw it, you’d stand up and yell, SHITLINE! SHITLINE! And everyone would get out of the water. Unless you were too close to the shitline or your lookout didn’t see it soon enough. When this happened you had only one choice. Dive to the bottom of the river and stay there as long as you could. If you were lucky you would find yourself in clean water when you swam to the top. If not you broke the water into the middle of the shitline and become covered in all kinds of disgusting stuff.
Slowly but surely , once they built the sewage treatment plants the water got cleaner and cleaner. But before it was totally effective they started swimming races around the Island of Manhattan. People from all over the world came to race around the island.