Life of Riley

We paddle toward a watery graveyard of half-submerged boats on Flushing Bay: old yachts such as the Oceanic and the Bandersnatch, with their flooded cabins peering out of the steely water like frog eyes; workboats with rusted winches and tools left forgotten on their corroded decks; a palatial houseboat with moldering turrets, walkways, and a monumental spiral staircase but no pier to connect it to land; and a sunken barge with a tremendous rusted crane on which a sign reads, "For Sale Call Dick."

We beach the canoe on the mostly sunken deck of the barge and scavenge rope to tie it off. We pry open doors, try out the crane seat, and praise our luck, then paddle out to the boathouse, where we find a pile of bad cassette tapes from Windham Hill, a half-dozen huge piles of feces, and a ghostly softball among the rubble. Watching a fish swim through an old-fashioned ship's wheel appeals to Riley's piratical sense of humor. He begins to spin tales of New York's waterways, which, like his art, are a mingling of adventure (like the time he was caught by special ops scoping out the site of the General Slocum wreck on North Brother Island), maritime history (a now buried island that became a den of debauchery when the residents realized they could offer tax-free booze and cigarettes outside New York City limits), trivia (the much derided pigeon once dwelled in sea cliffs; pigeons have inspired much art in the course of Riley's life as well as three tattoos on his body), reminiscence (his onetime business partner T-Bone jumped into shark-infested waters while wearing a pork chop girdle to challenge his fear of the beasts), and imaginative hypotheses (the possibility of mermaids).

By the time we emerge from the water in the backyard of a bottling plant, sodden, covered in silt and rust, and vaguely reeking, I am quite sure our exploration has become a small part of a nautical gesamtkunstwerk. It's little surprise to me when we return to Riley's art studio cum laboratory cum junkyard at Pratt to find a recent museum acquisition crumpled in a heap on the floor—"You know," says Riley, "the older it looks, the better it is"—alongside the remains of a dolphin and a dog (found on Lawrence's Island and Brother Island, respectively).

Duke Riley in Greenpoint
photo: Tod Seelie
Duke Riley in Greenpoint

"It's the beginning of an East River mermaid," explains Riley, dragging a dirty hand across his forehead.

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