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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.

Two Red Things by Steve Mentz

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.

 

The ocean has many colors. Whenever I look into its blue or green or gray or foaming white face, I think it’s telling a story. It’s remembering something, splashing together lost histories. What does froth murmur?

The Atlantic is childhood.

The Pacific is youth.

I grew up near the Jersey shore and spent many hours walking its uneven sands. That beach is still the landscape through which I read all waterfronts: a gently sloping expanse of gritty beige sand, punctuated by tar-stained wooden jetties that may or may not contain beach erosion. The water is warm in the summer, and the surf rolls on a human scale. Lots of kids start with boogie boards and graduate to surfing, but not me. I never rode the waves any way but on my belly, head down, hands knifing the water in front of me like the prow of a blind boat. If you catch the wave right, it carries you all the way up the beach and leaves you high and dry, face down, eating sand.

In my early 20s I lived for one year in Venice Beach, California, in an apartment on Westminster Avenue, two blocks from the Pacific. I needed to move suddenly in early September, and a guy I barely knew who played rugby with me said he had an apartment I could move into right away. It was a basement unit in the back of the building. Wind off the ocean blasted sand across the parking lot through my ground-level kitchen window above the sink. Everything tasted crunchy that winter, but I had a place. The building super lived upstairs, with a bumper sticker on her apartment door that read, “Skateboarding is not a crime.”

My Atlantic talisman is a red beach towel that I lost on a Sunday afternoon in May or early June of 1991.

My Pacific touchstone is the chorizo omelet that I ate for breakfast on Martin Luther King Day, 1994.

These red things aren’t wet. I am a swimmer, but these objects hold my past selves at a slight distance from the water. Towels dry you off. After breakfast, you’re supposed to stay out of the water for half an hour. I’m not sure why I remember these things, but I do.

 

1. Red towel. Bay Head, New Jersey, 1991

The red towel left me on a grey afternoon in spring, a few months before I left the East coast. It happened in Bay Head, between Karge and Harris Streets, where family history mixes with silica. I had come out for a swim after dinner with two friends, but we ended up not going in. We carried beach towels, including the red one that I lost that afternoon but whose exact terrycloth match sits today in my swim bag. Both of the towels used to sit folded in the bathroom closet of my family’s house at the shore. I must have taken the one I still have with me when I moved to California later that year.

The boy wasn’t that much younger than I was. The papers later told us he was a senior in Point Pleasant Beach High School, ready to graduate that spring. I was then maybe a half-dozen years older. He was frantic, soaking wet in jeans and no shirt, running in circles and gesturing with outstretched hands.

He didn’t look at us, didn’t notice we were there. He splashed back into the water as we watched. He fell awkwardly in the surf, then thrashed his way back up onto the beach.

The story as we later learned it was that he’d been at an afternoon concert at the Garden State Arts Center up the parkway with his buddy. They’d gone for a quick dip in the surf after driving back from the show. Only one had surfaced.

He ran back into the water when the police arrived, but pretty soon he came out and listened to them.

We stood there watching as the police diver slowly and deliberately poured himself into his wetsuit and assembled his diving gear. The solitary boy now sat on the sand, staring at the surf. My friend Maryam walked up behind him and draped the red towel over his shivering shoulders. He didn’t notice.

They found the body an hour later, after the three of us had gone back inside.

 

2. Chorizo omelet. Venice Beach, 1994

My Pacific story is happier. It begins with disaster. At 4:31 am on the morning of Martin Luther King Day in 1994, a massive earthquake hit the Los Angeles basin. Its epicenter was in Northridge, and it topped 6.7 on the Richter scale. Between the pre-dawn quiet and the holiday and some luck, casualties were low.

I woke up in my basement apartment with thirteen stories of concrete dancing above my bed. Not a Californian, I didn’t know to duck under the doorframe. I sat in the dark and shook along with everything else for what the seismologists measured as twenty seconds. I didn’t understand what was happening.

Along with most of the other residents of my neighborhood, including my skateboarding landlord and the two rugby players from New Zealand who were living next door in a converted closet rent-free so that they could play for the Santa Monica team, I wandered outside after the earthquake. The sun didn’t come up for a couple hours, and the street lights were all out, but we could see by moonlight, and besides we knew where we were going.

I walked across the concrete path where I used to roller blade onto the flat gray beach. There was nothing to see. The surf churned invisibly in front of me. I stared for a while, listening.

When I came back from the beach I sat under the red and white awning of The Sidewalk Café, where I often ate Sunday brunch by myself. I ordered a chorizo omelet, as usual. The power was still out, but the gas was working so they could cook, and nobody bothered about the bills that morning. We were all glad to be out from under concrete. I talked to people I’d seen before, but whose names I didn’t know. As the sun came up, we peered together across the expanse of beach until we could glimpse a shimmer of Pacific.

 

What do these stories mean? Are they symbols of mortality and failed rescue, of solitude eased and community almost-restored? Twin parables of human fragments scattered amid harder substances on disparate beaches? The stories tell me that I remember red, the warm color of a towel laundered in my parents’ house, the darker shade of Mexican sausage peeking out between layers of eggs. For years I asked questions of the ocean and received no clear replies.

My final answer, it turned out, would be conventional: marriage, and a coast unlike either New Jersey or California, the south-facing Connecticut shoreline on Long Island Sound. But that’s another story.

 


Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St John's where he teaches Shakespeare, oceanic literature, and literary theory. He's written two scholarly books, including most recently *At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean* (2009), edited two more academic volumes, and also published many articles on literary culture and the maritime environment. His works in progress, performance reviews, and swimming autobiography can be found on his blog, The Bookfish (www.stevementz.com).