New York City’s “Rite of Passage” into Manhood

Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

In American society, getting a driver’s license is much more symbolic than what is displayed on the three-and-a-half inch, laminated card.  Getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage for most teenage Americans.  A license provides freedom from parents, freedom to get a job, and the freedom to explore.  Even driving to a nearby fast food joint on a Saturday night with a couple of friends, brings a newfound adventure to the adolescent life, although millennials are statistically less likely to purchase a car compared to past generations, according to the Washington Post.  However, given that most New Yorkers don’t have cars, if an outsider asks a lifetime resident of the city “what was one of the defining events which helped transition you into adulthood?”, they might entertain you with a more fascinating recollection of that “rite of passage”.

I was born in New York City—in the Bronx specifically.  I spent the earlier part of my life in Riverdale, where my mother and grandmother were both born.  I am safe in saying that I have a lot of family history rooted in New York, backed up by some of the most ridiculous, and hysterical stories about the antics of my uncles growing up. My roots in the Bronx played a large factor in my decision as to where I would attend Fordham University’s Bronx campus.

As much as I thought I knew about the city, when a friend of mine, who goes to Pace University, another New York City university, asked me if I wanted to jump off the “C-Rock at Marble Hill” with him, I needed an explanation.  He told me that the “C-Rock” was a cliff in the Bronx that people jump off of.  My immediate retort was, “Cliff jumping in the Bronx? Do you know where you are?” To think that in this urban landscape that there would be cliff, let alone, one which you can jump from was outlandish to me.  So, logically, my next step was to refer about my friend’s invitation to my most knowledgeable source of all things “New York City”—my uncle Jimmy.  To my surprise, when I asked my uncle about the C-Rock, his face summoned a reminiscent grin; a grin which embodied his youth and boyhood nostalgia.  From his grin, I believed it was safe to assume he knew a little about the rock.  So I figured I should ask him about his experience with this “C-Rock”, and what about it made him grin.  Now, the most appropriate way which I can characterize my uncle is that he’s a “man’s man”, so when he tells a story, he skips over any scenic description or emotional depth, to highlight aspect which he believes are funny.

When my Uncle was around 13 or 14 years old (he just turned 50 this past week), he and his friends Amon and Jimmy Buzz were all young boys attending the St. Margret of Crotona Catholic School in Riverdale. This was the boys last year in school together; they were all going to attend different Catholic high schools in the city.  It was necessary that before these young men could enter their new school, there was a barrier they needed to cross. My uncle told me that it was tradition in the Northwest Bronx that boys needed to jump off of the C-Rock before they were able to enter high school, as men. He and his friends knew this as fact.

So, one mid-summer afternoon, they left to jump off the rock. Departing their homes in Riverdale as young boys, unsure of how they would return. “We were all pretty fucking scared” my uncle told me, “but I was not there was no way I was gonna let them know I was”.  A behavioral façade I would expect from a group of young boys; puffing out their chests, shoving and “one-upping” one another, all to distract themselves from their fear of the rock.  Now, one could assume that they were afraid of the actual height of the rock.  But I think their fear was something different, widely shared fear among anyone entering adulthood.  A fear of what’s to come, not knowing what to expect, a fear of moving on.

So they made their way to the rock, and began the climb to the top.  My uncle admitted to me that while climbing up the side of the rock, his manly display was being chipped away with every rock he ascended.  As they reached the summit of the C-Rock, the question then was, “who is going to jump first?”  Hilariously, it was at this point when the true nature of these scared young boys was in its fullest effect, each deferring the right to jump first to each other.  Then suddenly, with a burst of impulsive courage, my uncle Jimmy, jumped off the rock into the Bronx

View of the "C-Rock" from   Inwood Park

View of the “C-Rock” from Inwood Park

River.  “I felt like I was in the air forever,” he explained.  Afterwards his friends followed his lead and made their way into the water.  He told me that he felt as though he walked out of that water a little bit taller, for he and his friends had completed their rite of passage as men.    For these boys, this jump meant that they were ready to enter the next stage in their lives as men, confident to take on all of the challenges tied to manhood.

Now, unfortunately, when my friend from Pace University invited me to jump off of the rock with him, I was unable to do so, because at the time I had injured my ankle.  However, I was still curious about the underlying symbolic nature of the C-Rock. So, after he jumped, I was eager to hear about his experience.  I wanted to see if he felt a similar passage into manhood, as my uncle had.  To my surprise, despite the generational difference (nearly forty years) between when my uncle jumped off the rock and when my friend had, I was shocked in the similarity of their experiences.  He admitted to me he was also very afraid, not only a fear of the jump itself, but how the experience would change him.  He also admitted to masking his fear to his friends as my uncle had.  However, once he jumped he felt the same rush of adrenaline, the influx of self-courage. He told me, “For the rest of the day I could have taken on anything.” Despite the generational difference between my friend and my uncle, the significance of the rock remained the same.  However, my friend detailed an important difference between their experiences.  While my friend is not originally from New York City, has always felt a special lure towards it—the culture, the diversity, the art, the fast-paced lifestyle.  This jump was significant to him because not only did he feel as if it was a rite of passage into manhood, but also, a rite of passage into being a part of the City.

The purpose of the C-Rock has also played a role in film (Image at the top).  The rock was featured in the 1995 film “The Basketball Diaries”, about the renowned New York City poet, writer, and punk musician Jim Carroll, who passed away in 2009.  The film is about the descent of Carroll from a high school basketball star into a life of pain and drug abuse.  In the film, Carrol, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his group of teenage buddies Micky, Neutron and Pedro jump off the rock to prove if they are a “punk” or not.  When Carroll is describing the function, it is clear that the jump determines whether he and his crew are “manly”, for he compares it to the other “manly” feats for boys from around the city.  For example, he says “In Brooklyn, they put a lit cigarette on your arm and let it burn all the way down to the filter without the slightest flinch.”  Carrol then continues with “Us Manhattan boys, we jump off cliffs into the Harlem River”, seeking of course about the C-Rock, alluding to its purpose as both a rite of passage and a justified sense of manliness.

This projection of manliness mirrors the story of my uncle.  After he and his friends took their jump, it gave them a similar sense of manliness. During his story, when the boys were walking home from their experience, my uncle admitted that he remembers looking down at his bare chest, to see if any hairs had sprouted up as a result of their jump.  It appears that the “rite to manhood” does indeed coincide with a sense of manliness.  While proving oneself as a man allows for an innate boastfulness, it is also often times a reminder of impending adulthood, with all of the responsibilities entails.

In “The Basketball Diaries”, before Carroll and his friends take their jump from C-Rock, the story of these boys emits a boyish, sense of youth and immaturity.  For example, prior to their jumped off the rock, they felt the need to “moon” the tour boat which passed them on the Harlem River.  However, after Carroll and his friends took their jump, the plot takes a complicated turn.  Carroll is immediately hit with a number of adult conflicts, dealing with drugs, the death of his friend Bobby, and future of his basketball career.  Unfortunately for Carroll, he was not yet ready to become a man before he jumped off the C-Rock.  He didn’t yet have control of his life resulting in downward plunge into heroin addiction.   The symbolic purpose of the rock in this film is clear; the rite to manhood entails all of the responsibilities of being a man.  I believe this tied into the fear my uncle was feeling before he took his jump.  He and his friends were afraid of the challenges they would face in adulthood, and if they were ready to handle them.

After all of these influences, I was still determined to experience the C-Rock for myself.  Unfortunately, by the time I was healthy enough to climb and jump, it was already late October and there wasn’t a chance that my friends were willing to plummet into the Bronx River that late in the year.  Relatively unfazed, I was still set on visiting this landmark.  So, I hopped on a bus from Fordham University, and headed towards Marble Hill.  After a brief walk I reached a seemingly insignificant hole in a fence.  Even now, being twenty years old, climbing through a cut out hole in the fence sparked reminiscent feelings of boyhood.  It reminded me of the sense of invincibility, the adventure and lack of obedience which accompanies youth.

The hole in the fence that  leads to the "C-Rock"

The hole in the fence that leads to the “C-Rock”

Following the fence was an approximate fifteen minute walk along train tracks leading to the side of the rock.  As I was walking I couldn’t help but visualize the scene of my uncle and his friends; picturing him and his friends walking along the track.  It reminded me of Rob Reiner’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel Stand by Me.  Oblivious to the dangers of the train tracks, the boys were driven by the experience and blinded to the danger by their own sense of invincibility.  I then reached the base of the rock, and I began to scale the side.  Climbing the side of the rock was treacherous.  To describe the rock itself, it is a thin sliver between the Harlem River and the Metro North.  As I ascended higher the fear grew within me and I became more conscious of how strong the winds were becoming, and how far down the tracks were on my left.  Ultimately, despite the nerve impulses telling me to stop and climb down, I pressed onward to the summit of the rock.

I finally reached the top.  The view from the top of the rock could convince someone that they are no longer in New York City.  The view of the landscape, notably the Henry Hudson Bridge and Inwood Park in the distance, removed me from the urban environment.  I felt like I had just transitioned to upstate New York, or Vermont.  It is the kind of view that makes you want to take a deep breath of fresh air, even if you’re in the Bronx.

The view from the top of the "C-Rock" with  Columbia's Lawrence A. Wien Stadium to the left, Inwood Park in the center, and the Henry Hudson Bride in the center.

The view from the top of the “C-Rock” with Columbia’s Lawrence A. Wien Stadium to the left, Inwood Park in the center, and the Henry Hudson Bride in the center.

Despite being part of that magnificent view, I couldn’t help but feel upset.  Because of the fact that I went to analyze the rock by myself, I hesitated to jump into the water and leave my belongings at the top.  Additionally, I didn’t want to jump into the water without someone watching me, in case I injured myself.  So, I didn’t jump off, and, in a way, I felt robbed of the experience.

On my way up to C-Rock, I was feeling extremely impulsive—so compelled to jump.  I had done all my research.  I had even ventured up the side of the rock for myself, and just around 50 feet below me, was the jump that my friend and uncle took to solidify themselves as men of New York City.  Nevertheless, it would appear that this year I am only able to experience the C-Rock through the stories of my uncle and my friend.

Like my friend Joel, I too have always been drawn towards New York City.  It may be because I was born here, or the fact that so many members of my family are here.  Maybe the constant talk of the City throughout my adolescence could have established this intrinsic appeal within my subconscious.  My desire to jump off the C-Rock comes from something innate, and will not be settled until I can take my plunge into adulthood, and indoctrinate myself as a man of New York City.

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