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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.

Meditations on Dérive and Grief by Cynthia Ann Schemmer

OBJECT: Horse Bones, Bottles, Toxins, Typhoid, Typhus, Cholera, Gonorrhea, Tugboat Graveyard

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay, Gowanus Canal, Arthur Kill

I call out that I’ve found a bone, a spinal vertebra perhaps, and I begin to pull away the seaweed and sand crabs from where the marrow once was. The friend I've brought here appears at my side and I hand him the horse bone. He turns it over in his hand; it looks more like wood than bone from years of being tossed and aged in the bay. We keep pawing through the broken bottles and tinker toys littering the shore and find a very bone looking bone: long and thin in the middle and bulbous on the ends, like a dog toy or a bone you’d see in a cartoon. We are preoccupied with this carnal treasure hunt. We have done the remarkable: we have found a certain joy in death.

Dead Horse Bay is in South Brooklyn, right before the Marine Parkway to the Rockaways. There is a path, entered from congested Flatbush Avenue, which leads you to the waterfront. The bay is kept hushed behind a ten-minute walk through thick blades of grass and twisted canopies of tree branches that cradle nests.  The warm breeze keeps things swaying to the panicked call of the red-winged blackbird, and though I haven’t seen one yet I know that they are out there. I’ve found blue curl, Queen Ann’s lace, the long-legged great blue heron, and weeping lovegrass along the walk. Eventually the grass and trees bow away and there you are, at the mouth of the bay, given its name by the horses processed into glue and fertilizer there during the 19th century. The boiled bones were expelled into the water.

Since the horses, more of the city’s refuse has wound up in the bay. There are dolls and other toys, milk bottles and green vials I imagine once contained elixers, potions. Inside some of the bottles are homes; I lift a cap-less Mason jar and examine its insides: crabs crawling through entangled and hairy roots the color of bile. They make do in this unnatural landscape while we crawl through and examine a hollowed out speedboat. I pick up a large brown jug with the word “Rose-X” embossed on the side, a beautifully named rat poison, and decide to take it home to create a vase. Bones are harder to come by; aged and rusty brown, they are camouflaged in the sand.

We’ve come here in the middle of summer, 95 degrees in Brooklyn, and we are young and broke. We spend our time on bicycles, finding things to do that don’t require money, exploring and figuring out this city we often feel so confused in. We seek the bones, the remains of places and beings that no longer exist, as an attempt to renew our affection for this city and understand what came before. I want to keep these hidden histories nestled in my skull and on a shelf above my bed rest my findings: the Rose-X, three green and brown vials, a lumbar vertebra, and a first phalange all next to a photograph of my mother, whose death prompted me to explore this place in the first place.

On Flatbush Avenue, as we leave Dead Horse Bay behind, our ears pulse with car horns, my sides drip with sweat, and I hear someone catcall. We walk past a group of young boys on bikes who ride by the path to the bay; I turn around to see if they make the turn, but they don’t. I think this path is missed everyday.

In the 1950s, Guy Debord theorized the concept of psychogeography, the study of the effects of urban geography on our emotions and behaviors. In his essay, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Debord makes a list of the neglected phenomena of urban experience: “The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance that is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to physical contour of the terrain); the appealing or repelling character of certain places…”  One act of psychogeography is urban exploration, the act of exploring your environment, natural or manmade; it is examining the normally unseen or off limit sections of an urban area and preserving history by a physical act. Philibert Aspairt, one of the earliest urban explorers, vanished in 1793. He had been exploring the Parisian catacombs, a buried cemetery contained within Paris’ underground quarries, by wavering candlelight; a precarious guide in that honeycomb of skulls. The missing features of the faces were illuminated in the grave hush of the tunneled tomb: bottomless eyes and upside down black hearts where noses once bulged. He moved quickly. A key ring jangled. A way was lost. And then, the light went out. 

Aspairt’s body was found eleven years after he disappeared. Withered to the bone and mingling with the rest of the catacomb residents, his body was identified only by his keys to the Val De Grace, the French military hospital where he worked as the gatekeeper during the French Revolution.  He is recognized as the earliest cataphile in history. Perhaps Aspairt’s reason for entering the underground cemetery is why we explore the ruins of our own cities today: no heart beats forever and no home is eternal.

*

Bart helps me into the canoe. He is thin, with jowls that swing from the bottom of his neck and white hair that hangs from under his baseball cap that reads, “The Gowanus Dredgers.” He volunteers here, at the Gowanus Canal, where he educates Brooklyn residents about the waterway by means of rowing. I step carefully onboard and sit in the front of the canoe, staring at the foamy water.

“Isn’t it nice to have such accessible nature right here in Brooklyn?” Bart asks as he kicks the canoe from the dock and I float away. A crumpled Frito Lay bag drifts alongside the canoe.

“How many people canoe the canal?” I ask.

“We expect around two thousand this season. Our biggest crowd yet.”

This is my first time in a canoe. It’s quiet as I move past the houseboats, one of which has charming lace curtains in the windows. Bart will later tell me that this is “Jerko the Gowanus Water Vacuum,” a salvaged houseboat that serves as a show space for do-it-yourself sustainability projects. I continue past and find a great egret standing atop a rotting barge, demolished cars stacked like silverware along the shore, a pussy willow releasing its gray blossoms into the edges of the canal and empty silos and heaps of trash casting shadows. The used condom count rises to eight.

There is no way to know this now, in this moment on the Gowanus, but in a year I will find myself canoeing on a river in Alabama with my Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother and the sole surviving member of her immediate family. The environment will be completely unlike Brooklyn: we will float through the emerald waters in which we will see the rocky bottom, laugh into the vast blue sky, and breathe in fresh air. But my intentions are no different. I will ask him about my mother’s youth, to learn about her younger days in Brooklyn, the stories and memories that will disappear when he too is gone. Here, in and about New York, I do the same as I collect all of these abandoned stories before they join my mother and her past. 

I can’t help but be intrigued by this grotesque urban “nature,” but when you get right down to it, the Gowanus Canal is toxic. It is known to be contaminated with typhoid, typhus, cholera, and even traces of gonorrhea. When I get back to the dock, Bart tells me that the Gowanus Dredgers hope that the canal, a Superfund site, will one day provide oysters like it did centuries ago. I think this over as I look into the pearly oil rainbow below and am quite certain that I will never eat anything that comes out of the Gowanus. Some things are ruined forever.

*         

The emotional response I have to New York often falters.  My favorite waterfront haunt is only beautiful until I remember that I will never be able to swim in the East River. The pixilated skyline on a clear night has only a pathetic marquee of sparse stars. And the new is constantly replacing the old. I walk and observe the ever-evolving city: tear it down, rebuild, repeat. But it is the overlooked or unknown terrains, small pockets of the crumbled and decayed, which keep me on foot and looking for more. It’s history not contained in a museum for a price and a crowd. It is independent and solitary, resistant and waiting to be found. This is my personal version of Debord’s concept of dérive, which means to explore one’s surroundings without preconceptions or limits. He believed that happiness comes from creative life experiences: “…wanderings that express not subordination to randomness but complete insubordination to habitual influences…” 

Consider this: paths do not always need to be followed and we creatures of habit can break our ritual ways of everyday.

I live only blocks away from where my mother was born as I write this. She grew up in a small railroad apartment with a fig tree growing outside the fire escape and a family of gypsies in the apartment below (or so my uncle tells me.) He said they could smell the hops from the Schaeffer Brewery that once existed on Kent Avenue between South 9th and 10th streets. The apartment was also a few blocks away from the now defunct Domino Sugar Factory, another place I found myself exploring upon moving to Brooklyn just one month after my mother's death. These are the streets I live in and wander, without preconceptions or expectations. I choose the ruins of the city because I myself feel ruined, stripped of my mother too soon. I feel most content in these places that thrived when she was young and alive, no matter how grief-stricken they, and I, may be.  

*

I walk the plank; a splintered piece of plywood guides me over the swampy landfill, littered with empty beer bottles and lost shoes in Arthur Kill, Staten Island. I am headed to an unusual graveyard, only a couple of hundred feet from the cemeteries Joseph Mitchell wandered. The ship graveyard provides a final resting place for scuttled tugboats and steamers. There is no path to get to the waterfront to view the dilapidated vessels, so one has to walk along Arthur Kill Road, a narrow street spotted with abandoned fishing shops and taverns that run parallel to the Arthur Kill. After the shops comes a boating dock and a small wooden house, where, rumor has it, a fisherman will chase you with a shotgun if he finds you trespassing on his property. Beyond the dock and the danger is a rusty rainbow: blue, purple, pink, green and the typical rust orange all cover the ships like a jewel-toned watercolor painting. The ships float in an endless purgatory, half submerged in Arthur Kill. Some are just skeletons, planks of wood jutting out like broken ribs. Others are in a less sorry state and may become donors of parts. 

In her book, “The Future of Nostalgia,” Svetlana Boym wrote, “In the nineteenth century the nostalgic was an urban dweller who dreamed of escape from the city into the unspoiled landscape. At the end of the twentieth century the urban dweller feels that the city itself is an endangered landscape.” We are left with historical specters--a beach of bones, a boarded up building, a canal of filth--that will not physically exist forever; they too will vanish, just like the things that they are now the remains of. Even though I am nostalgic for the past, I am also nostalgic for the present, which is constantly disappearing, and the future, which is defined by the past. I seek out these abandoned places in order to breathe life into the dead and dying.

Here is one breath: my mother once told me to use the past to push me forward. She is gone eight years and yet I am still finding her remains--a handwritten note, a recipe, a forgotten memory triggered by the senses. Like my mother, perhaps this city is just too large and intricate to cease to exist, at least psychically; looming over me like a shadow.

Psychogeography and grief seem to follow a similar trajectory: you have to take in the repelling, heartbreaking parts in order to feel the full affect, the full weight, of what it is you are trying to understand. Just like a city, grief is an enormous and difficult concept to accept. I believe that like the heart of the city, in the spaces between the skyscrapers and hidden in the neglected terrains, my mother is in these pages I write even when she’s not, in between words and hidden in the white space.

 


Cynthia Ann Schemmer is a writer and editor who currently lives in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and has been published in Philadelphia City Paper, Broken Pencil, Toska Magazine, and Connotation Press.  She has also co-authored a chapter in Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, a collection of tips and narratives on ways non-parents can support parents and children. Her cat is her creative mews. (www.cynthiaschemmer.com)