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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.

The Diplomat by Deb Olin Unferth

OBJECTPan Flute

BODY OF WATERDead Horse Bay

PanFlute-560x420.jpg

This story is published in collaboration with Significant Objects

I was an ambassador once—of a small African nation. All of us diplomats, that is our dream: to be an ambassador. At least once,  at least for a little while. Many of us get a little Eastern or African nation for a year or two. We are eager when it happens because our life’s goal is complete. But it isn’t so special after all. Soon it’s over and we continue on. We are diplomats again, and our time of glory is reduced to a sentence we can say in passing at a party, “Oh, I was ambassador there once, for eighteen months.” Or at a meeting, “Well, when I was ambassador, as I recall, witchcraft was still a powerful force in the north. I knew a man who believed his daughter had turned into a tree.”

Or when entertaining one’s wife’s friends, “That flute? Oh yes, when I was ambassador, the prince of the country rode two days on a camel to present it to me. Don’t know where he got it. They love plastic, you know. Who are we kidding. Plastic was the real revolution.”


Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the novel Vacation, the short story collection Minor Robberies and a memoir, Revolution. She is an assistant professor at Wesleyan University.