Hell Gate

6 Feb

Well that’s it New York, I’ve had enough.  So long and sayonara – I’m getting out of here.  I’ve had it with your cold streets and colder people, the casual way you knock down dreams, chew them up and spit them out onto the curb like so many empty peanut shells.  Who was I kidding here?  I’m heading up to Boston, where the chilly winds never blow and coffee runs free at every Dunkin Donuts.  Thank God.  Oh, and I’ll be back on Sunday.

I’ll be back that is, assuming I can make it over Hell Gate.  That’s right, Hell Gate, cruel cruel Hell Gate – that treacherous tidal strait in the East River, separating Astoria from Ward’s Island and its psychiatric hospital.  It’s lived up to its name over the years, with hundreds of ships finding a watery grave beneath its roiling waves.  That includes the English frigate Hussar in 1780 and its supposed $5 million cargo, still waiting at the bottom of the river.  I mean sure, I could probably make it across fine at certain points, when the waters go slack and it’s apparently as placid as a lake.  Or I could probably take a bus over the RFK/Triborough Bridge, or even ride a boxcar over the Hellgate Bridge.  But still, you never know.

You don’t find too many places now a days that are named so succinctly, and yet are so poetic.  It really cuts right to the point.  Give credit where it’s due; as with a lot of New York the Dutch are responsible for the name, originally calling it “Helleget,” which ironically enough loosely translates as “beautiful passage.”  The English heard the name and thought it sounded just right like it is.  And apparently the good people at the Parks Department have a similar inclination for the poetic – on either side of Hell Gate is Charybdis Playground, in Astoria, and Scylla Point, on Ward’s Island.  They’re named after the mythical monsters that guarded the Straits of Messina.  Charybdis was Poseidon’s daughter, turned into a monster by Zeus; she would suck water in and out of her giant mouth, creating whirlpools.  Scylla had the head of six wolves, or else they might have made up her midriff.  So you know, no big deal, either way. That old poet Homer tells us that Odysseus had to sail by Scylla and Charybdis on his long journey home from the Trojan War, opting to go closer to Scylla since her six heads could only kill six men.  And Odysseus sailed to the underworld, so you could say he’s been to the gate of hell: Hell Gate.  I’m not sure if Homer pictured it quite the way it looks in New York.  But hey, he was supposed to be blind, so who knows how he pictured things.  And also, it’s debatable if he even existed.  I don’t know anything about that.  But in 3000 years they’ll probably say the same thing about you.

(Originally posted Nov. 28th, 2008 on Takethehandle.com)


One Response to “Hell Gate”


  1. Hallets Point | Corner by Corner - November 14, 2014

    […] staying in the present.  Despite its ominous name, the treacherous body of water known as Hell Gate actually took its moniker from the Dutch word “helleget,” which means beautiful […]

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