Droning with Tom: The Blessed Bronx

A Droning with Tom post.

Today, the three kings arrive at the manger to find the baby Jesus. Tom knows two holy sites in the Bronx and off we go in honor of the Epiphany.

First, though, Tom wants to stop on the banks of the East River and fly the drone across the water to North Brothers Island, and the ruins of an old city hospital. It’s a graveyard, as well, for over a 1,000 people who died in one of the country’s worst boating accidents. The buildings have long ago gone to ground, birds nesting among the overgrowth. The city doesn’t allow anyone on the island but, somehow, people have gotten on it. Tom has a friend with a boat but flying the drone across it would provide us with a map.

He sets the drone on a rock and switches it on. Nothing. He tries again. Nothing. Picks it up, examines propellers, battery, everything. Returns it to its perch. Nothing. This is when we find out the drone has an internal locking setting that activates whenever it detects it’s too close to flight patterns, like those over Laguardia Airport. We stand for a long time gazing across the river, the island so close we can see a leaning tower and the splintering dock, before accepting our first failure. We’ll have to call Tom’s boat friend.

Everyone else in the city seems to be taking the Bronx River Parkway with us. It’s uncharacteristically quiet in the car, Tom not telling me one of his stories, me trying to guess where the hell we’re going. Finally, we turn on Mace Avenue and park two blocks away from what Tom says is an amazing place that I just have to see for myself.

“We should’ve brought an empty bottle,” he says.

“Why?”

“There’s a stream coming out from the rocks that’s suppose to cure you of things.”

“What rocks?”

“The grotto’s rock.”

A Bronx grotto–I have to see this. “It’s going to cure us of what?”

“Whatever you got.”

Like our dejection? I don’t know. But why not? I have approximately twelve years of Catholicism rattling around inside me to still believe in miracles. An old bottle of seltzer is found in the back seat and trickles empty as we walk toward a replica of Our Lady of Lourdes’ grotto.

The faithful, reciting the rosary, reading prayer books, sit quietly in front on nearby park benches. Next to the grotto is something called the Hall of Saints, crowded with plaster statues of saints I never heard of and, since my dad was in the habit of amusing his children by reading aloud from the 1756 edition of The Lives of the Saint, you’d think at least some of the men and women I’m looking at would be familiar. ( I don’t want to be sacrilegious here, but if you happen upon this book and read even a few of the saints’ histories, you’ll understand why I began to wonder about faith at a pretty young age.) I’m already somewhat spooked by the time I make it to the front of the hall and freeze at what I take to be a man in a coffin surrounded by funeral sprays, the scent of carnations and lilies thick about him. But then I realize his face is bloody from his crown of thorns, hands, feet and side dripping more blood, the tiny loin cloth he wears browned by the dust of Jerusalem.

‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,’ I whisper in alarm and skedaddle past a man praying with out-stretched arms before a life-size statue of St Francis of Assisi who has a small bird perched on top of his head.

Once outside, Tom nudges me toward the grotto. “It’s probably just city water,” he says. “Or the Bronx River.”

Neither of us are half as unbelieving as we’d like to be. I take my place in line and, when it’s my turn, fill the bottle to the top.

There’s a second shrine behind the grotto but the gate around it is locked. We must look pathetically disappointed because a man comes outside and lets us in.

“You Gary?”

“No,” Tom says.

“Gary was supposed to be here this morning repairing some of the masonry.” The man gestures over toward a pile of rocks on which an angle blowing a long horn has alighted. “You wouldn’t happen to know about masonry, would you?”

“He’s a carpenter,” I reply for Tom, in the cockeyed hope he might let in a fellow artisan. Also, it helps to lie every now and then when you’re on missions like ours.

“Too bad,” the man says and nudges us out the gate.

“You should’ve said you were Gary,” I say.

Tom gives me a lopsided smirk as we walk away to the sound of the chain being woven back through the gate handles and the lock clicks shut.

We have plans to stop at Arthur Avenue to pick up some ingredients for our holiday feasts. Plus, as always, I’m starving. But there’s one more place to visit in our long day.

The Bronx was just coming out of its rural nature back in 1905 when Francesco Lisanti built a private chapel beside his family’s home. Streets took to trespassing across pastures. Orchards and fields divided into smaller and smaller plots, sprouting houses, instead. Carved in stone above the chapel door reads, F. LISANTI IN DEVOZIONE DELL IMMACULATA PER SE  FAMILIA ERESE 1905. In devotion for the Virgin Mary. Mr. Lisanti’s grandchildren left the Bronx a long time ago but they still come back to tend their chapel.

We took a few photos but did not unpack the drone out of respect for the neighbors. At Arthur Avenue’s old WPA market, we bought holiday fruits and meats and devoured a couple of slices before joining the great flow of traffic back to Brooklyn.

The holiday week crowded with friends, family and cooking. By last Thursday, I found myself in need of to fleeing and having a good tired weep. A long long walk from Coney Island to Brighten Beach took care of most everything. I started the car and, thirsty, took a deep sip of water from the bottle in the front seat. I’ve felt cured of what ails me ever since.