September 2009

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

Going with the Flow

Jessica DuLong is one of the world’s only female fireboat engineers -- certainly a nice hook for her excellent memoir-cum-social history, My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson, but hardly the most interesting thing about it. The book is really a love story, the product of a passion that arrived with sudden fierceness, prompting a major lifestyle change and shift in priorities, and triggering DuLong’s devotion not only to a new craft, but to a sprawling tradition that she believes forms the neglected heartbeat of American culture. 

DuLong was a dot-com workaholic when she started a casual flirtation with the John J. Harvey, a fireboat -- built in 1931 -- docked in the Hudson on a Manhattan pier. Retired from active duty and in need of constant repairs, the boat’s crew was running it as something of a floating museum. It was also an ongoing restoration project, supported by a bare bones non-profit that depended on donations, and volunteers wooed by the romance of a rusting boat. After impulsively volunteering to cut through old heating pipes one afternoon, DuLong was besotted. Soon she was spending most of her time on the boat, soaking up wisdom from the boat’s small crew. And she was increasingly captivated by the histories of anything that even glanced the edges of her new preoccupation: maritime trade and industry, apprenticeship, the emergence of “planned obsolescence,” the New York City waterfront, and the overlooked story of the Hudson River itself.

Much of the joy of reading My River Chronicles comes from witnessing DuLong’s enthusiasm unfold, watching as she begins to understand what she’s getting herself into, and then recognizes that when she set foot in the Harvey’s engine room, she crossed a point of no return. She’s thirsty for knowledge, determined to absorb facts and approaches and expertise, even when the subject and specifics seem impenetrable, foreign. Partly, the book is about the ecstatic possibilities of learning, the urgency that comes with feeling like you have endless catching up to do, and the delicious frustration of devoting yourself to honing new skills. As DuLong becomes more and more absorbed in her vocation, she mulls over clues that pointed to this path early on: her longstanding love of power tools (if not always her proficiency with them), a seventh grade “classroom discussion about internal combustion that made a tingle skip around under my skin,” her visceral attraction to the “wasting metal” of decaying industry and “the glitter of a power plant twinkling in the night.” As both a writer and an engineer, she’s relentlessly, gratifyingly curious, and her fine, richly detailed prose holds an appeal regardless of your level of interest in heritage histories and engine mechanics.

It’s truly exciting to see her pull together the pieces, tracing where this passion for old boats comes from, and figuring out where it’s going. “I have to take into account the wind and current, using the immutable, natural forces to my advantage instead of barreling through them like I might if I steered a more modern vessel, with bow thrusters and joystick controls,” she writes. “Every fragmentary decision counts in shaping the form and the flow. It’s like writing poetry.” History, handiwork, the importance of preserving and teaching the past -- her concerns are welded together in the form of the ailing Harvey and the river she’s made her own.

Not long after she began volunteering regularly on the Harvey, DuLong was with its crew as the boat docked in lower Manhattan right after the towers collapsed on 9/11. Hers is one of the more vivid, searing accounts I’ve read of being downtown in the aftermath of the attacks, when fireboats like the Harvey were the only water sources at the World Trade Center site (“When firefighters on land bent over their hoses to rinse the ash from their faces, they spit and sputtered in surprise, tasting the salt of the Hudson,” she writes). And yet, the whole book is so layered and compelling that the intensity of 9/11 doesn’t overpower the slower, more meditative sections.

When DuLong encounters incredulity about the fact that she’s a female engineer, “I find a neutral place to set my impassive gaze until people have appeased their curiosity so I can get on with doing my job,” she explains. “My blank expression opens no doors, offers no invitations, and that impenetrability allows me to get back to work faster. It’s a way of letting the awkwardness roll off.” This works fine -- for most of the book, her gender is not much of an issue -- until the male instructor of a two-week class she’s taking to prepare for her engineering licensing exam decides to make an example of her, the only woman in the room. He fixates on her to the exclusion of everyone else, relentlessly pelting her with questions and explaining, “I just need to make sure you’re getting it, since you don’t have as much experience as the rest of these guys” (in fact, she has more sea time and higher ambitions than half the class). The raw sexism of this encounter -- which also gets personal, with the instructor telling DuLong he wants to know her name “so well it’s the name I call out to my wife” -- dredges up insecurities along with rage. DuLong tackles the experience with a characteristic mix of thoughtfulness and practicality -- and she passes the exam, becoming a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed Merchant Marine Officer, an impressive, well-earned title to burnish what started as an obsession, and became a way of life.

DuLong’s passion for her craft is contagious, making My River Chronicles one of the most moving, unusual books I’ve read in a long time. “Sometimes in the midst of my work I catch myself wondering: Why are you here? Why do you like this job? Why do you put your life on hold, earning so little money restoring this hunk of wasted steel?” she writes. “But every time I try to reason through the questions, my heart blows me off with a snort, my head rallying to try to cover for my heart’s insolence.” That’s true love for you.