I happened to stand on the Third Street Bridge, taking pictures of the Gowanus Canal, when Rosa S. walked by and leaned over the railing next to me.
"See those plastic balls?" she asked me, while pointing at the buoys that mark the path of the submerged air ventilation pipe put in place by NYC D.E.P. last spring.
"They were bright yellow just a few months ago. Look at them now. They are all messed up" she continued while looking down on the faded, slime-coated buoys which floated below us. "See what that water did to the plastic in just a few months?" she asked me.
" You wouldn't want that water on your skin."
"You certainly wouldn't want to dive into that canal" I responded, agreeing with her.
"Oh, back in the late 70's, me and my friends used to do it all the time" Rosa S. informed me and began to tell me of her group of friends from Columbia Street, who used to hang out right at 3rd Street and the Canal.
In the summer, they used to dive off the bridge. They used to wait till their clothes dried before heading back home, so that their parents wouldn't know. Rosa's mother though, would always exclaim "Rosa, what's that smell! Go take a shower."
Rosa was a great swimmer. She used to be a lifeguard at the Red Hook Pool.
One day in 1979, she was diving off the railing of the bridge with a group of kids, as usual, when her friend Papo dove in, surfaced and seemed to struggle in the water. The kids did not take him seriously at first, since Papo often pretended that he was drowning, just for laughs.
This time, it was different. Rosa dove in to help, but it was like something grabbed at her leg and tried to pull her down under the surface and she had to get out of the water.
By the time the kids had alerted some nearby adults and had gotten help, Papo had drowned.
His body was found a week later in Coney Island.
Rosa now lives in Bushwick, but loves coming back to the Gowanus Canal and to Columbia Street. "I still have a few friends left there" she told me. " I love this area."
Below are two little video clips that I took of Rosa while she was telling me this extraordinary story.
Thanks for sharing it, Rosa. It was wonderful meeting you and I hope to run into you on the bridge again.