I was free. I’d just fled graduate school in St. Louis to see what might become of me in New York. This was 1987, I was 25, and I had no place to stay. So I did what was done in those archaic times: I hit a news kiosk at midnight on a Wednesday to get the Village Voice fresh off the truck to read the classified ads before everyone else. Of course, everyone else who needed a place was doing the same thing, but apparently nobody else was as interested as I was in the “housemates wanted” listing that caught my eye. It said something like: Cabin on tugboat for summer sublet on the Hudson in Tribeca.
The price was just within my range, maybe 200 bucks a month. I rang the number and had another archaic experience: no answer, not even a machine. I kept trying. I think a couple days passed before I got through to the man who called himself the Captain. “You get seasick?” he said. I didn’t know. “You’ll find out,” he told me and invited me down to the N. Moore Street pier to check the place out.
This was eons before the Hudson waterfront had become a playground, so there were fewer crosswalks on the West Side Highway, and the directions were elaborate: Dash across the northbound highway from N. Moore Street, vault the concrete divider and dash across the southbound lanes, to the foot of the pier through the cut in the chain-link fence, and stop and shout at the gate in the next chain-link fence atop the next concrete divider. Even if that gate was unlocked, I was to wait there, on account of the dogs. I really didn’t need to be told. The second I was at the gate, the dogs—two German or Belgian shepherds—were at the other side, lunging and snarling in a murderous frenzy.
The Captain came up behind them, and the dogs subsided. He conducted me to the boat, a picture-book tug, and showed me the cabin. A circus couple normally lived there, but they’d gone touring. It was just as romantic as you’d expect of a dark, narrow, low-ceilinged, cast-iron chamber, bobbing in the backwash of New York Harbor. A dank, bilgy smell rose from the water. There was a constant hollow splashing against the hull. I peered over the gunwale into the oil-sheened river, and the captain said, “We sometimes get a floater.” I said, “Oh, yeah?” He saw I had no idea what he was talking about. “A body,” he said. “You just got to catch ’em with a grappling hook and call the cops.”
When we climbed back to the empty pier, I said I’d take it, and it was mine. I’m not going to pretend I liked living there. The life-threatening routine with the highway got old fast, and even when the dogs got to know me, they liked to pretend otherwise until the last second. But I loved the idea of living there. I loved that it was possible. And, never mind the boat, I loved the pier, loved having that vast slab of paved terrace that thrust far out into the Hudson all to myself, loved sitting out there on summer nights, alone or with company, grilling bluefish on the hibachi and drinking something cold and strong, as the color faded from the sky over Jersey City, and the fire boats in the river shot plumes of spray, and the city lit up against the darkness in the east, and nobody knew that you were there—nobody even knew you could be.
Philip Gourevitch is a New Yorker staff writer. His latest book is The Ballad of Abu Ghraib.