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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

An Oral History of Atlantis by Ed Park

Illustration by Adrian Kinloch

Illustration by Adrian Kinloch

I have seen things I never wished to see, and every night I hear the ocean. If it seems passing strange for a short man to sport such a lofty tone, consider that the other venues of pleasure are closed to me. I stand 4 foot 8 in honest shoes—though hydraulic insoles and good posture get me to 5 even. I am not a true midget and am allowed passage on most major roller coasters. Here at the lighthouse on the island’s northern tip, I hang lanterns that mean “All Ports Closed,” and spend my days pitched somewhere between anticipation and dissipation. I study the forgotten chapters of the Chicago Manual of Style, with their helpful instructions on bookbinding, perhaps included so that civilization can start anew, after the bomb or the wayward comet, when absolutely everything needs to be relearned.

That task may fall to me. I am compact but I contain volumes. I know the lore of semaphore, the meaning of ship’s bells, and the beautiful Beaufort scale, running from 0 to 12, with which I rate the force of wind. Right now we’re at nil, the “sea is as a mirror.” I build drink after drink and wait for the rains to come.

My youth merits less than a sentence. At eighteen, when it was clear nature would not begrudge another inch, I stopped the height shakes, the protein packs, the kelp-based head balm that scented my sleep with sulfur and salt. My parents, those twin towers, proceeded to kick me out of the house, unconvinced to the end that I wasn’t some prolonged sight gag. I walked to Manhattan, arriving at noon. This was the day before the day the city blew up every bridge, back when they thought rats spread the dread metagenetic phoresis, or “Metaphor,” virus, which they wanted to contain or exclude, it was hard to remember which. By 1:30 I had found gainful employment as a messenger, by 3:15 a studio apartment six stories above Water Street. Such is the dedication of the tiny. My room fronted a parking lot, a bit of suspicious real estate that never held a single car. Beyond stood a disused warehouse, ampersand and ampersand, all its signage washed away.

Summer became winter without a fall. Night classes, situps, self-improvement. The room had come with a slight northward slant, a heap of broken seashells, and a heavy box of books. In those pages, as stiff and frangible as potato chips, I read of miniature races the world over, and of entire cities that rise from the sea at times of grim conjunction. I took notes, and took notes on my notes.

A neighbor helped install a rod across the bathroom doorway. Every night, after my lucubrations, I snapped into a pair of cunning anklets and hung from it like some hairless bat god, with a forbidden name full of diphthongs that would drive the pious insane just to say it. Thus I tried to touch the ground—secretly, shamefully—and dreamed my bones’ slow migration.

One night, hanging insomniac, I felt a light against my eyelids. I opened them to see my body squared in silver, as if ready for transfer to a larger canvas. Light splashed through my window’s grid, so strong it hurt to look. My ear flushed with cold night air, I discerned a formidable rattle. It was three in the morning and somebody was typing, hard strokes falling without a gap.

When I awoke, snow had gathered on the sill, and the books there had begun to ripple. The window across the lot was now quite closed. I studied the glass, but none of the dark shapes moved; below, the paving held no traffic. At two I broke for lunch: a plate of chops as big as my torso, a glass of Ovaltine the size of my forearm, and a side of potatoes only slightly smaller than my brain. Then, full of midget vigor, I ordered the same meal again.

At the other end of the counter sat a man of about forty, tall but not disgustingly so, who was reading a foreign paper. He had most of his hair, gold wire glasses, and an intellectual slump to his thin frame. Whenever anyone coughed, he would wince, but then, so did everyone else. No one cared to contract Metaphor.

It was only when the man got up to leave that I recognized him as Walter Walter, the exiled Dutch writer. I had never heard of him before Water Street. One of his early books had been among those left in my apartment; I’d read it on a thunderstruck Halloween, as the walls went white with lightning and every terse phrase sent a chill. The library had his other titles: a few bracing policiers that established his name in criminous letters, plus a fat volume of memoirs with the demoralizing subtitle “The Early Years.” There had been some Low Countries scandal to run him out of Europe. So here he was, Walter Walter. His recent outpourings predicted plagues and the rise of every atavism. The articles appeared only in obscure journals of the occult persuasion, some of which I’d found neatly twined at curbside. Now I began to wonder whether this was coincidence. If he lived in the area, perhaps I had been reading his trash. I decided to follow Walter Walter.

I made my last pass at the spuds, left a quarter tip, and walked outside. The street looked empty. One block east marched a conceivably Walteroid figure. The thickening snow made him look even thinner, as if ready to slip away between dimensions.

A crab of newsprint scuttled past. Every so often I’d maneuver behind a call box or dumpster, not that he ever looked back. He turned left where I’d turn left, then right where I’d turn right: Water Street.  He dashed up the warehouse stairs. I stood by the lamppost as though plucked from a dream, studying the silent door. In my room, waiting for him to appear, I eased myself into his later essays. It was writing as disease—a torrent of speculation and data, with no trace of the proportion or wit that marked his admirable detective fiction. The only thing that had carried over was the fear.

Around five, I thought I could hear typing again, at a less sure clip, the machine’s report larded with silences. The sound stopped two hours later. Night had fallen. I donned my foul-weather costume and nearly tobogganed down the stairs. I emerged to see Walter Walter, in derby hat and overcoat, heading north.

I kept a full block behind. Even if he slipped from sight, there were fresh tracks in the dusting of snow. I counted ten cross streets, then stopped counting. The snow fell harder and the wind moved higher up the Beaufort scale. We went west, a tall man and his shadow incarnate, hitting a region of mild industry—all flashing lights and mechanical pleasures. Every lurid satisfaction could be had. I began to think less of Walter Walter, not that a sleuthing lilliputian should judge.

The lights, the falling snow, the Pine-Sol reek of every slippery venue—it was Christmas Eve, I realized. Good God, what had I become? Even a minnikin should have standards. The dingy marquees and tattered banners touted assorted sordid scenarios, but in the most oblique possible terms. What did they mean by “Japanese Eggplants,” “Sitting Pretty,” “Bulbs While-U-Wait”? I couldn’t imagine—but of course I could.  Or was I just seeing what I wanted to see?

My quarry finally ducked into the Wandering Womb, the initials like mammaries. A little bell rang; I heard him stamp his feet. The blacked-out windows bore slopes of steam. I counted thirty Mississippi before following.

It was a gaslit room, diverging from the straight exterior walls to curve like a ship, with a plush green carpet and bespoke lowboys and a player piano doing the “Salt-Water Rag.” The walls were papered in velveteen, incised with anchors and fleur-de-lis. At the antique cash register stood an even more antiquated man. The clerk was kitted out in a trig dark suit with batwing collar and a cap that suggested a telegraph operator. I exchanged a ten, all I had, for a cup of  brass slugs. They were heavier and smaller than quarters, with double Ws raised on each face.

A dozen booths were set into the walls; a narrow staircase suggesting more underground. I kept to the surface. The doors were mahogany with black curtains behind, some with boot-tops beneath the fringe. Quaint signs said “fresh” and “hot” and “wet.” I could feel the clerk’s eyes on me, so I ducked into Booth 3 and shut out the world. It smelled of paraffin and hearts of palm. In the dark I could make out a weathered hand- crank and the stout shaft where the images lived, lunging up like a friendly seal. The bench was far too low, but a few phone books, concealed inside, made for an adequate perch: I was sitting atop all of Manhattan. Fitting a slug in the slot and my face to the eyepiece, I took a deep breath and manned the crank.

Somewhere in the shaft a bulb hummed on.  It was like light from the nineteenth century, unsure and shrouded. Now a few black cards clacked by in sequence, connected to the turning spindle. They were ink black, save the worn auroras at the corners. I spun faster, till the shadows gave up a shape.

But it wasn’t a woman at all. It was a whale.

That tongue of a body barrelled toward me, voluptuous tail held aloft, white fins fanning in tandem. I turned, harder.  Each image, I could now see, was stereoptically doubled, enabling an antediluvian 3D.  I gasped as it corkscrewed, the crank damp: then the picture froze. Before the bulb could simmer, or perhaps the cap snuff the candle, I entered another slug. A new set of cards came into play, whirring like wingbeats as I spun. The humpback rose and rose, through leagues of sepia, its body now caught in reticulations of light as sun met sea. It was coming up for air, while I merged with that ancient water.

The whale, my whale, largely traveled alone. For a time it joined a regiment of dolphins, and now and then cut through schools of smaller fry, dagger-shaped, that parted like a veil around it. My mind supplied a plot where of course none belonged, some briny threnody with unseen hovering harpoons, Moby-Dick from the beast’s point of view. I didn’t believe it myself when I began to cry, my tears falling directly on the quick-milling cards: fresh, hot, and wet. I spun and  blubbered, wondering what “Dutch treat” Walter Walter had come here to watch—whether the Wandering Womb was all whales, all the time, or if it offered deep-sea coelocanths, manatee matinees, self-propelled versions of the kraken.

The wind from the cards cooled my cheek, and I swear I felt a spray. To complete the cetacean sensorium, a medley of bovine moans and expressive hinges, perhaps etched on a wax cylinder, issued from a cabinet by my legs. Sometimes the view straddled the waterline, whitecaps like flame; other times it looked shot from a boat, as a school of humpbacks turned in sequence like the coils of a single vast serpent. But mostly things stayed underwater. My breathing adapted. Each slug seemed to last longer. The humpbacks sang in half-hour arias; my face was damp with sweat or spume. I woke when I started dreaming that the crank was an oar. The captain’s command to fire was a klaxon blast from the front desk.

I emerged at four bells, the last one out. I tried asking the clerk about what I’d seen, but he just glared at the grandfather clock and twisted his blond handlebars. I glimpsed myself in a pierglass, looking suitably depraved, with all the starch gone out of my shirt and the corners of my eyes as red as roses. Now it was a thousand blocks in the punishing snow. There were no footsteps to follow—the trail gone literally cold. As I turned onto Water Street, something glinted under the streetlamp: a pair of wire spectacles, like a crumpled insect, the lenses shivered in the snow. I put them on the handrail, where nobody could miss them.

I never saw Walter Walter again. I lost him in the chaos, as the city heaved under the rule of Metaphor. People acted out, walking pie-eyed in the middle of traffic, playing musical instruments they had no right even owning. All the dogs committed suicide; electricity was touch and go. There were fewer rats since the bridges went, it was true; but the ones that remained had developed antennae.

At night I’d float in my tub, head against the enamel. I could hear elevators plumb and launch, wind howling through the garbage chute, ghostly voices of tenants too tall to talk to. It was a direct line into hidden nerves, a blueprint’s subconscious filtered right through my skull, and it sounded like nothing so much as whalesong.

These private oracles served as a fix, but I passed my days in a benthic haze: I wanted to swim again, to be by my blowhole familiar. Unable to resist, abject as any addict, I finally made a return visit uptown, but the entire district had been rezoned; the mayor, linking Metaphor to vice, had decreed that only pizza parlors could operate there now. They’d renamed it MUNGO, for Municipality near North Grosvenor and Orange, as if that would make people forget.

It did. The Wandering Womb had wandered away. Everyone was new. They all wore clip-on neckties and couldn’t answer my questions. I was hungry but I didn’t stop. All the way home my mouth was open, and snowflakes fell in like krill.

I was seasick, but not from fantasy. The bridges, it seemed, had acted like stays securing Manhattan, and now it was moving south to freedom, while its edges slipped into anonymity. No more West Side Highway; no more FDR. And beginning that night, no more warehouse. An eraser-pink crane deleted it by a floor a day. As each level went, I could see nothing of human life but thousands of sheets of paper, perhaps all of Walter Walter’s hopeless writing, whirling like birds as they blew away.

The epidemiologists, at wit’s end, suggested things like “Smoke-a-Pipe Day” and “Make Fun of British People Day.” I knew from my reading that my time drew near: the little man, when not playing percussion and symbolizing the madness of World War II, was always a convenient scapegoat. So before the mayor could megaphone any anti-nanist propaganda, I threw out all my books and climbed as far north as the Manhattoes allowed.

Here I see no one, I plan for the flood, I do my mundane midget things. Some nights the hour advances in step with the Beaufort scale, so that at 7 “whole trees sway”; at 9 “shingles may blow away.” I could chart other events for you: the mylar hearts lost at the zoo, the gulls turning in wide circles like a planetary system. On the water to my left, on the water to my right, float barges so big they’re like pieces of the city, whole blocks wrenched loose with not a soul on deck. They continue at night, maybe the same ships in a hell of repetition. Their lights are orange and imploring, and glide in a line as steady as math: torches on some river whose name we’ve forgotten, whose name we were maybe never even meant to know.

Note: An Oral History of Atlantis first appeared in issue 35 of Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, in 2002.


Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days, a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Foundation Award. He is a founding editor of The Believer.