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 Game by A. E. Souzis

OBJECT: Deck of cards

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal

It was poker night at the Gowanus Social Club and Jake didn’t want to be there.

He didn’t want to be in the room, which was like a rec room basement, with walls like strips of brown tar, and men with mouths like that, too. He didn’t want to sit at the chipped Formica table, staring at the tits on a ripped St. Pauli Girl poster and the dented dartboard, flipping through a greasy deck of cards and drinking flat beer. 

He knew where he wanted to be. Celebrating his first night home at his mom’s one-bedroom in Bay Ridge, sitting on her floral couch, eating her famous lasagna and watching Criminal Minds. Lisa would have finally forgiven him and she’d be there too, and when his mom left for the late shift at the hospital they would laugh about how the squeaky springs on the couch, after four years, hadn’t changed.

“Your move,” said the fattest of the bald men sitting next to him. Jake didn’t want the card, but took it anyway. He didn’t want to look at the men, who wheezed when they spoke, and walked slowly, and were blotchy, who guffawed for no particular reason. Most of all, he didn’t want to look at Sammy, who kept smiling crookedly at him and whose eyes were hidden under a mess of brown curly hair.

Sammy always had that crazy hair, as long as Jake could remember. It was in his face in grade school when he sat in the back of the classroom, when the kids laughed at the dirty sweatshirt he always wore and when he stuttered while trying to read aloud in English class. It was in his face when Jake found him lying in the schoolyard surrounded by the boys from the soccer team, and it was only after Jake, who could never resist an underdog, had sent them running that Sammy pushed his hair out of his face and turned to grab Jake’s outstretched hand. 

He never let go after that. He was always waiting for Jake, whether it was after his karate classes or piano lessons. He’d follow him home until Jake invited him in, to watch TV, play video games and eat his Mom’s lasagna, and stay as late as he could until she’d finally smile and say, “Sweetie, it’s time to go.” And because it was dark, and Jake was already an orange belt, he’d walk Sammy back to the dark apartment he was never invited up to above the laundromat.

Sammy was still there when Jake went to the scholarship high school, and was there even more after he dropped out from his own vocational one. When Jake starting going out with girls, Sammy came, too. The girls put up with Sammy, even Lisa did later on, despite his stained sweatshirt and chewed nails, his aura of desperation, because Jake was tall and played sports and got good grades and their mothers would jokingly hint that he was a good catch, that he was going somewhere.  

Sammy didn’t go anywhere, except to the Upper West Side when Jake went to Columbia. He napped in Jake’s dorm room, waiting for him to get out of class. Jake watched the way his new friends would avoid looking at Sammy, and started spending more time at Lisa’s. One day he came back to his dorm room and found Sammy gone. But before Jake had a chance to breathe, Sammy was back, wearing a black leather jacket and gold watch, carrying a $600 phone and throwing around a thick wad of cash.

Sammy disappeared again a couple of days later. It was months before he showed up again at Tom’s Diner, sliding into the booth where Jake was studying for the LSATs. He had a black eye and a broken arm, and was silent as he drank his coffee until Jake cleared his throat, pushed aside his papers, and said, “What’s up.”

The cops were waiting for them at the abandoned warehouse near the Gowanus Canal. Sammy got away by ducking under the barbed wire fence, but only because he was so small. This time it was Jake who lay face down, next to the locked briefcase Sammy had asked him to help deliver, and it was a plainclothes detective who helped him up. Jake followed the code and said nothing, waiting. Then he waited some more. By the time he realized he should stop waiting it was too late. Even with the lawyer that cost his mother all her savings and Jake’s good grades, his glowing references, he still got four years. 

Now that his life had fallen apart, Jake finally had time to be alone. Four years to think about what he really wanted, what he was owed and how to get even. Four years without a word from Sammy. Until Jake wrote him, pretending all was forgiven, and on the day of his release found Sammy waiting, exactly as planned, with that crooked smile and a shiny new SUV.  

It was a warm night, and Jake insisted that Sammy drive him through the old neighborhood that he no longer recognized, on their way to the game he never really wanted to play. Who would want to stay at a luxury hotel near a polluted canal? Or buy organic baby carrots at a supermarket built on its banks? Who could afford $26 for free-range oysters and $15 for a cocktail, let alone the 20% tip? Why would all those kids tapping away on their phones outside that ridiculous shuffleboard club ever want to be there? 

Jake didn't. But after four long years, he knew what he wanted, and why he had to be in the dank room with those reptilian men and this Judas. It was time to make Sammy pay, just like Jake had. 

So he sat there, on poker night at the Gowanus Social Club, while they waited for him to play his hand.

A.E. Souzis is a Brooklyn-based writer and interdisciplinary artist. Her writings, site-specific tours and installations use storytelling and technology to uncover or reimagine public space, alternative or underground histories and real-life networks of power. Her work has been featured in venues and publications that include the Transit Museum, Queens Museum, Art in Odd Places festival, the website Urban Omnibus and journal Cultural Geographies, among others.