Coffee with … Wheeler Antabanez

Mark Twain had the mighty Mississippi as his muse, and Wheeler Antabanez has the polluted Passaic.

Like Samuel Langhorne Clemens, whose pen name took him on great adventures and brought him writing fame, Wheeler Antabanez is an alter-ego for the Montclair resident who is legally named Matt Kent. For the purpose of this story, we’ll just call both aspects of him Antabanez.

To extend the Twain comparison just a little bit further, Antabanez might just be a Huckleberry Finn to Matt Kent’s Tom Sawyer. Literary analysts believe that the deep friendship between Sawyer and Finn is partially rooted in the fact that Finn is able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and Sawyer emulates that freedom. And so it is for the Antabanez/Kent persona.

“Matt Kent isn’t the one who takes risks and goes out and does things. That’s the private and personal part of my life. But Wheeler, man, he just does what he has to do and gets the job done,” said Antabanez in a recent interview at his home in Montclair.

Having spent some time chatting with the writer, filmmaker, painter (see a few of his paintings in the photo above), Passaic River anthologist and intrepid explorer, I suspect that even before the incarnation of Antabanez manifested itself in Kent’s psyche, there was a pretty untamed guy in there.

Antabanez grew up freely exploring the buildings of the defunct Essex County Mountain Sanitarium (aka Overbrook Insane Asylum), and loving the anarchy of the abandoned, haunted and decrepit place.

It seems fitting, that Antabanez’s next frontier of adventure would be the most polluted and hideous river in the United States, with all its abandoned industrial buildings, treacherous currents and pollution.

When I say pollution, in this instance we’re not just talking about floating litter and spilled boat fuel — we’re talking about the largest Superfund site on the planet. Diamond Shamrock Chemical Plant in Newark dumped Dioxin, the deadliest chemical known to man, directly into the river for many years, and it’s still there.

“It’s known that if you eat bottom feeders, like crabs, out of the Passaic River, your chances of developing cancer are like 100 percent,” explained Antabanez. “There are signs all along the banks warning people, though plenty fish in the river anyway.”

Antabanez was — and continues to be — drawn to everything about the body of water, and appreciates the reality of its misery and stench. What would repel most people is paradise for him. He’s not an environmentalist and isn’t looking to change it, but rather find the river’s story and appreciate it as a reflection of how the human race inhabits the planet earth.

“The river is a goldmine for me. I’m uniquely suited for this job. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been drawn to the water, and the water around me has always been polluted, so it makes sense that I’d love the Passaic.” It’s a classic northern NJ love story; boy meets horrific river and falls helplessly in love.

Antabanez isn’t reckless, though, and he doesn’t have a death wish. He wears a life jacket and quit smoking for fear he’d somehow be sucking on dioxin-soaked cigarettes. “I’ve learned to respect the river.”

The hideous sirens of the Passaic, who call Antabanez so loudly and constantly, recently gave him some love back — sort of a thank you for appreciating them, even in their deformed and violated state.

Art Silverman and Shereen Meraji, producers for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” were recently looking for a Passaic River guide to help them with a feature radio and video documentary about the river. They easily found Antabanez’s web site “Wheeler on the Passaic,” and his riveting book, Nightshade on the Passaic, published by Weird N.J.

Silverman and Meraji spent five days exploring the river with Antabanez, and dubbed him their “urban sherpa.” “We traveled the river from Mendham to Newark, exploring places like Diamond Shamrock and Newark Bay and The Colt Mill in Paterson, and interviewing more than 100 people who had river stories to tell” he said (and on land, they dined at Raymond’s in Montclair, which quickly became a favorite for Silverman and Meraji).

The piece will air sometime during the week of November 8 and will include an online video documentary and interactive maps and visuals on the NPR web site (we’ll let you know exact date and time when we get it).

Antabanez is busy making a feature film about the Passaic and writing several books. He’s trying to raise funds for a motor boat to better explore the lower Passaic and Newark Bay. For that part of the river, his trusty canoe (appropriately named Nightshade) just doesn’t cut it. His future plans include building a shelter from found objects on one of the islands in the river (he won’t say where, yet) and living like Robinson Crusoe. “But I don’t want to be stranded out there,” he said.

Perhaps even unconditional love has its limitations, but based on this excerpt from Nightshade on the Passaic, they may be minimal for the deep-rooted affair between Antabanez and his “disgusting nightmare” of a romantic interest.

“As my hand vibrated on the motor, I began to realize that the beauty I am searching for isn’t necessarily the same as someone else would find… It sounds sick, but I take a certain comfort in decaying concrete and toxic waste. When I go out in the boat, I want to see drainage pipes and 55-gallon drums. My goal is to find old factories, junked cars, discarded oil tankers and drowned boats. I want to see the direct impact from the hand of man, the underbelly of our highways, the dirty bottom of our sewage system… I’m looking for the hidden places where no one ever ventures, the forgotten zone. I want to find her loneliest spots and keep them for myself.”

Watch the video below for excerpts of my conversation with Antabanez.

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  1. Perhaps Mark Twain / The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is not the right simile: perhaps it is Joseph Conrad / Heart of Darkness.

  2. I enjoyed Wheeler’s coverage of the raging Passaic this past spring, so I found this “Coffee With” interesting. As nasty as the Passaic is, parts of the Ohio and Mississippi are currently considered to be the country’s most polluted rivers based on the EPA’s toxic release inventory data. The Passaic doesn’t even rank in the Top 10 (PennEnvironment Research). Also, I saw something on PBS about the Berkeley Pit, ARCO’s old cooper mine in Butte, MT, claiming it was the nation’s biggest Superfund site. As for planetary claims, there are sites in China, India, and the former Soviet Union (Chernobyl!) that make Diamond Shamrock look like pristine wilderness.

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