City Water: A Special Report
by Michelle “Hunter S.” Hogmire
“In Washington on Wednesday, Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, who was attending the Conference of Mayors, said such lead contamination would never have been permitted had Flint been a rich suburb.”
–“As Water Problems Grew, Officials Belittled Complaints From Flint,” NY Times, by Julie Bosman, Monica Davey, & Mitch Smith
In the wake of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address and the release of his administration’s emails—revealing that Flint’s water has been lead-contaminated since a cost-reducing water supply change in April 2014—yet another shocking public health crisis has emerged in an unlikely place: the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Residents in the West 70s are claiming that their water has been discolored for years.
“Oh, well, yeah,” Jack Moreland told me, turning on the faucet in his apartment at 75th and West End, “this shit’s been brown ever since I moved in thirty years ago. Masie loves it.” To illustrate, he filled a bowl for Masie the Norfolk Terrier, who lapped it clean. Other residents provided similar stories, with some exchanging tiny lively dogs for thirst-crazed toddlers in strollers.
Jill Vree (73rd and Amsterdam, above Pinky Nail Salon) offered a startling revelation: “I don’t have a dog or a kid, but I’ll tell you one thing. That water burns my eyes in the shower sometimes. You really have to watch yourself.”
At this point, I decided it would be best to have the stuff tested.
The neighborhood gathered for the results at a press conference. Tension mounted as the EPA representative, glass of local water in hand, forced his way to the front of the crowd. He downed almost a pint of the tan concoction, gritted his teeth, and then said, “I don’t know how to tell all of you this, but what’s coming out of your faucets isn’t water.” An aide poured another drink and he quickly drained it. “It’s straight whiskey. Or is it whisky? Maybe bourbon? Scotch? Rye? I can never tell the damn difference.” He burped and held out the empty glass to his aide.
Someone from the crowd threw a shoe and yelled, “If you can’t tell the difference between scotch and bourbon, you don’t deserve to be in this neighborhood!”
“Yer drunk,” the EPA representative slurred, promptly downing his third water. “Actually, we all are. We tested some of you and all of yer blood alcohol levels are off–hiccup–‘scuse me–off the charts. Honestly, I dunno how yer not dead.”
Terribly upset by this news, I ran to the nearest park water fountain and took a few enormous swigs. It was clear: now was the time to get a comment from the big man himself–Mayor Bill de Blasio.
It wasn’t difficult to find Billy, as he always seems to be hanging out in the West 70s, guzzling the tap water. I caught him walking on 79th and Broadway, staggering a bit, and carrying a bag of chocolate rugelach from Zabar’s.
I reached my hand way up and grabbed the 6′ 5″ politician by his shirt collar. “Tell me about the water! Or, I guess the, uh, alcohol.”
He batted my hand away, rolled his eyes dramatically, and leaned down. I smelled the West 70s water on his breath as he whispered in my ear: “No shit, Sherlock. Everyone knows it. Try Beacon Wines & Spirits. Also, get your dwarf-hands out of my rugelach.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said, smiling apologetically with my mouth full. He rolled his eyes again and I quickly nabbed two more before turning and running off to the Beacon.
I’ve only set foot in Beacon Wines & Spirits once. Too expensive for my pockets, but it’s amazing how much free wine they’ll let you sample if you pretend to be rich (and, by rich, I mean intoxicated). Apparently, they’d been informed of my arrival, because I was quickly taken into a back room. It was one of those stone-walled numbers—cold, with a single dangling bare light bulb, and a rusted stool. Standing next to the stool, offering me a seat, was…no…Robert Durst?
“Are you…? Aren’t you…?”
“Kid, I get that all the time. I’ll never tell, but I do own most of this city. Now let me explain what’s going on.” A pitcher of you-know-what appeared and he offered me a glass. “Frankly,” he went on, “people who live in the West 70s are fucking annoying. It’s either some shit-cleaning dog lover or some shit-cleaning kid lover or someone so old, they need a shit-cleaning caretaker. Complainers is all they are, every single one of them. So we enlisted the Beacon to Irish–up the water supply. Keep everyone here nice and happy—make them more amenable, see, and then none of us have to put up with all their bitching. You get me?”
“Yeah. Just one question: what exactly are you putting in the water, proof-wise?”
The maybe-Durst scoffed. “You really can’t tell? You must be new to the neighborhood. Get the hell out of here. And don’t stain the walls with your chocolate hands on the way out.”
I headed back to Jack Moreland’s apartment for a nightcap from the tap.
“So that’s not water?” he asked, petting Masie on his lap. “God, well what does water taste like, then?”
“Nothing, Jack,” I said, sipping my drink. “It tastes like nothing.”
Michelle Hogmire is a literary agent assistant at Barbara Braun Associates and the Business Manager for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. She grew up in West Virginia and has a BA in Creative Writing from Marshall University. She currently attends the MFA program at Columbia University and lives in New York City.