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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.

On Sand by Lisa Kunik

This  piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.

 

I grew up in a 1950s ranch house cradled among the pine trees towering over Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills. We were only thirty minutes from the ocean, yet to my recollection my mother took me to the beach only twice. One time we built lopsided sand castles on the public beach just north of the Santa Monica Pier and the other we were guests of family friends at the Surf and Sand Beach Club. From both occasions I remember little except the checkerboard of light glittering across the waves. The mental snapshot is so iconic I suspect it’s been influenced by TV and picture postcards, or perhaps falsely generated altogether.

We rarely spent time at the beach because my father said so. He detested the sand. As a boy he’d summered at a cabin in Michigan near the lake, where he preferred to stand gloomily beside his mother with his hand resting on the kerchief protecting her freshly set curls rather than swim and skip rocks with the other children his age. Stories of muggings along the Venice-Santa Monica boardwalk in the 1980s only compounded his aversion, resigning our family to admire the sea only from the safe and civilized distance of the occasional Ocean Drive restaurant patio.

It’s hard to say whether I inherited a wariness of the sand or my lack of exposure exacerbated a genetic predisposition. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when my parents separated and also when I got my driver’s license that I drove to Venice Beach on weekends simply because I could. The colorful beachfront community wasn’t defined by the beach so much as by its eclectic residents—artists, screenwriters, bodybuilders, surfers, and dreadlocked tweakers—and that bohemia resonated with me, or at least I wanted it to. I walked Abbott Kinney without traversing the sand. A handful of times I rollerbladed along the boardwalk and lunched at the beachfront Fig Tree Café. Yet I never took a post-rollerblading dip in the ocean or stripped down to a bathing suit to lie out in the sun. In fact, I don’t recall ever stepping out onto the sand. Still I thoroughly dusted myself off every time before getting back in my car. I cringed at the thought of sand trapped in the grooves of the floor mats or the crevices of the cup holder. Driving home on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Pacific receding to a butter knife sliver of blue at my back, I always felt satisfied with my ocean-side exercise, accomplished without contact with the beach itself.

After college I moved to New York. Manhattan was surrounded by water but you wouldn’t have known that from my 13th Street apartment, which faced an airshaft, or my desk in an art gallery in the Fuller Building on 57th Street and Madison. I craved high rises, dive bars, and ethnic cuisine. The pavement embraced me, and I liked it. When each summer nearly all of Manhattan made a mass exodus to the beach, I was more interested in landlocked outdoor summer concerts, easily-snagged restaurant reservations, and air-conditioned museums.

I first met my husband in an elevator in the Fuller Building, and then again several months later in the hot tub of the Loews Miami Beach Hotel during Art Basel Miami. (That night he skinny-dipped in the ocean. Needless to say, I didn’t participate.) August 2005 we drove Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, stopping for several nights at Deetjen’s Inn in Big Sur. We hiked a crumbling cliff-side path with mythic views. It was foggy and fifty degrees, the kind of sleepy and still day best for curling up in the hotel rocker and browsing the Inn’s in-room journals, which later that day we did. But that morning we were out on the trail, hazy and undisturbed, digesting impossible views. We had sex overlooking the Pacific. We weren’t lying in the sand with waves tickling our feet. We weren’t sprawled on a Mexican serape working off a picnic lunch. We weren’t liquored up and laughing our way through our irreverence. We had most of our clothes on. We were awkward and shaking, half hidden behind a rock and praying a couple of unsuspecting hikers didn’t happen upon us.

I went into labor with my son at 32 weeks. In the 44 hours I was hospitalized before delivering I often found myself imagining the placidity of a Sugimoto seascape. Why I sought solace in a mental image of the ocean I can’t explain since I had no personal association with the sea and serenity. I met my son in the NICU at Mount Sinai. I was instructed to wash my hands. Everyone who touched my son needed to wash his or her hands or use hand sanitizer. My son spent 18 days in the NICU and the next 4 months confined to our apartment to assure he didn’t contract RSV, respiratory syncytial virus. I don’t recall the delicious baby smell of his hair. Life was Purell. Once, at around 9 months, I was helping him stand near a slide in the playground when a nanny told me, He is not an egg. Her 10-month-old charge was crawling on the rubber playground flooring, hands and knees covered in sand and broken leaves. I couldn’t imagine my son ever getting that dirty.

Our worry in his first twelve months was not just about germs, and when he was cleared at his 12 month well-child visit of any developmental delay, we marked our relief with a trip to Los Angeles. On Christmas Eve day we drove to Venice for lunch. Naturally my husband suggested showing our boy the waves. 

I recalled a walk on the beach I’d taken with my father in Montecito the summer before last when I was still pregnant—yes, somehow I’d cajoled my father into a waterfront stroll. The entire walk he’d commented on the trash, the occasional splotch of oily residue from the offshore oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel, and how generally “awful” and “filthy” the beach was. Meanwhile, my husband was already standing barefoot in the Venice Beach sand with our son on his hip. He was smiling at me in the buoyant way he does only when we’re in LA. Everything will get wet and sandy, is what I was thinking. “I’ll stay here with the stroller.”

I watched my husband and son recede toward the shore. For a moment I grieved the missed opportunity. I should be taking my son to experience the Pacific for the first time. I am, after all, the one from California. Soon they were fiery flecks backlit by the afternoon sun and a brilliant watercolor splash of sky. My husband was pointing, first at a surfer, then at a passing seagull. I looked through the viewfinder of our camera but even with the zoom lens I couldn’t see their faces. I clutched the handles of the stroller.

My husband returned to the boardwalk, squatted, and plopped our son down in the sand. Intuitively our boy raked his fingers, fast and furious, through the tiny grains. Sand flew everywhere. My husband kept pointing at our son as if raking sand were the most novel thing he’d ever seen. Then the obvious but unforeseen happened—our son tipped over, face first. My husband righted him, lifted the bill of his sunhat and brushed the sand from his cheek. No sand had gotten into his eyes or mouth, but that wasn’t what I was thinking about. My son had, for a moment, engaged me with a patch of beach.

I happened to be taking a video, which I’ve since watched probably a hundred times, smiling every time. My son’s lips are furled in elated concentration. Sand is stuck to his pants and the damp and dangling straps of his sunhat. He is a propeller of sand, and a propeller of life. He is reckless and vital. He is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.


Lisa Kunik is a Brooklyn-based writer and gallery director originally from Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared on Anderbo.com and LostWriters.net and her author interviews in the Brooklyn Rail and Small Spiral Notebook. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College.