Greek-American Stories: Just Water Under the Bridge

May 26, 2019
Phyllis “Kiki” Sembos

My Papou’s car carried quite a few people. I remember him cranking the car in the front, getting red in the face until the engine started up. My yiayia, Aunt Rose, my brother, Nicky and my parents all piled up inside as we traveled over bumpy roads that led under the George Washington Bridge where we parked, haphazardly.

Then, yiayia set up our picnic that lasted until almost sundown. Yiayia prepared a pot with water, started a fire on a bed of rocks and spread out a blanket where spanakopita, feta, olives, salad, and a heap of koulourakia awaited. My father set out to catch fish. I don’t recall what kind he caught. Papou tossed out a wire basket that caught crabs. My father scaled the fish he caught and set them on the grill while sea gulls swooped and screeched overhead in hungry curiosity.

It’s hard to believe it now but the water in the Hudson River was quite clear. Tiny crabs and small fish nibbled around the rocks Nicky and I stood on. It’s all gone! Worries about fish containing industrial pollution, dioxins, and mercury were unimaginable then. Today, we wonder if there’s any benefit in eating fish at all.

Small crafts sailed up and down the serene river, gracefully, in the gentle winds. Today, huge oil barges, military ships, ferries and ocean liners crowd the narrow, heavily polluted river whose murky depths cannot be seen.

The clean sandy beaches in Brooklyn were as good as being in Aruba. I recall pulling sea weeds off my toes after a swim in Brighten Beach, being tickled by tiny fish. Who’d ever believe we’d have to make a call to inquire which beaches are not bacteria infested? I wonder if the greedy oil and gas corporations will demand wells in the Aegean around Greece’s pristine shores to satisfy their insatiable need for profits while creating the very false illusion that it will bring economic prosperity.

Today, there is serious concern for water from our taps. A few schools had shut here in New Jersey due to high levels of mercury and leaden pipes this year. Some neighborhoods in New York were warned to boil the water before drinking it. Clean, safe water should be our right, especially, since we pay for it. But, since it isn’t, companies, foreign and domestic, are now attempting to privatize our water for profit. There is no creature, human, animal, plant, or vegetable that doesn’t need water. Water means life!

Somalia and regions in Africa and South America are suffering from severe drought. Whole towns have evacuated in search for water. Other areas suffer from floods while parts of the earth are drying up, garbage is tossed into the seas with the false notions that the salt in the sea will, gradually, disintegrate all the plastic and debris thrown into it. It won’t, ever! A dead whale recently washed up on the shores of Italy with nearly 50 pounds of plastic in her stomach.

What a wonderful day it would be if I could take my grandkids in my crankless car, park under the George Washington Bridge and toss wire baskets into the Hudson. Then, retrieve them full of squiggly crabs again. How grand it would be to look down into sparkling waters and spot live fish wriggling in and out of those huge, gray rocks where seaweed waved their green fronds up from the sea garden, watch sailboats and yachts, peacefully, floating past, under unblemished skies; once again gaze across the Palisades whose majestic heights had no buildings or structures.

Hackensack River Keeper, Capt. Bill Sheehan, recruits volunteers to clean up the rivers and lakes of junk and debris. His newsletter shows mountains of garbage, tires and plastic bottles retrieved. Volunteers are, usually, school kids and young adults. One young Greek can be seen on your computer, valedictorian, Peter Prastakos, who received the 2017 Vellekamp Award by Capt. Bill for extracurricular volunteering. Born in Greece, now headed for Yale, he participated in a Science Honors Program at Columbia University. In Greece, at eight years old, he was affected by a series of arson-caused fires. In the U.S. by ten he learned about pollution and recycling. In middle school, he secured $3000 in grants to design and install water-refilling stations in schools, drastically reducing plastic bottle use. What a noble mind! But, if the corporations don’t stop dumping, if used tires continue to be tossed into our lakes and rivers, if plastic use isn’t curtailed, all volunteering will be just water under the bridge. They can build rockets that will reach other planets and create living spaces on those weird surfaces. But, any planet they choose to land on will have to be artificially furnished. Clearly, this planet is the most beautiful in the universe.


It’s a hot July day in Greece, 2024, another heat wave rivaling the one in 2023 that could have melted steel.

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