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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.

Scarlet Tanager by Nicole Haroutunian

This story is an outtake from Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront. Read more about the book, and order it, here

OBJECT: Scarlet Tanager, Oil, Toxins

BODY OF WATER: Newtown Creek

Sunday morning, we’re sopping up Heinz beans with toast, taking our eggs over easy, drinking down restorative pints of Guinness. The pub is cool and dark, shelter against the bright, beautiful summer day outside. It’s not the same spot we were drinking at last night, but it’s right around the corner.

Erin’s college roommate, Judy, is staying with us at our parents’. I couldn’t wait to have Erin back home again, but three of us girls in the bedroom I’d just gotten used to having to myself, well. The boys, Eddie and Ralph, aren’t staying there, too—God forbid—but they were here last night and are back this morning, so they might as well be.

Feeling ok? Erin mouths. Although she’s only a year and half older than me, college has made the gap more pronounced. I let her baby me the same way she let me tag along last night. I turned eighteen last month so it’s finally legal for me to trail her into a bar. I nod. My waking headache recedes with each greasy bite of breakfast.

“You do look alike,” Judy says, eyes flitting between Erin and me. “It’s just your hair is a different color.” She twists a piece of her long light hair with Erin’s: same-same. “People ask if we’re sisters all the time.”

I cram a piece of sausage into my mouth.

“I said that,” Eddie says. “Didn’t I ask you that when we met?”

“You make it sound so long ago,” Erin says. She’s practically fluttering her eyelashes. “It was just last night!”

This is news to me. I thought these boys were college friends, too.

“No, no,” Judy sets me straight. “They’re in the Coast Guard.” She says it as if there’s romance to this.

I raise two fingers to my brow, salute.

“Cute,” Ralph says. I see my sister and her friend exchange a look. “You girls up for a walk?” he asks. “Some of the guys spotted a crazy oil spill while they were on a patrol the other day. It’s near here. Me and Eddie want to check it out.”

“Gross,” Judy says.

I was focused on catching up with Erin last night, edging between her and Judy for a little of her time—well, that and drinking beer after beer—but I remember now, Ralph hanging around me, Ralph buying me some of those beers. He’s definitely the more appealing of the two boys, but I still don’t want to encourage it. What would Judy and my sister do with only one guy between them? I’m the obvious fifth wheel. “I should go home,” I say.

“Yeah, you don’t have to come,” Erin says to me, proving my point. A gold claddagh ring, her one adornment today, glints as she gestures for our check. The ring was our grandmother’s. I used to think that once I got to be Erin’s age, I would start to accumulate some of Nanna’s “special pieces,” too, but it turns out I will never be Erin’s age.

“She does have to come,” Ralph says. “Of course she does.”

We make our way out onto the sidewalk and let the boys lead the way under the pigeon-haunted looping arcs of the seven train, across the frenetic eight lanes of Queens Boulevard and down bustling Greenpoint Avenue, as if we weren’t the ones who are from here. Me, I don’t follow boys, but I do follow my sister. I always have. Some girls gain weight when they go away to school, but Erin, I see in the sunlight, casts only a sliver of shadow. Our mother, entranced with canned goods and proud of her perpetually full pantry, whispered to me on the way out this morning that I best make sure my sister finished her breakfast. I’ll report back that she did, although it was Eddie who ate the last of her eggs.

Ralph walks backward for a block, asking us how long we’ve lived here (forever), how we like it (it’s where we’re from, what does liking it have to do with it), if there were any good spots to buy comic books (what?). In the early summer sun, his eyes are dark and luminous, like Coca Cola in a glass.

He turns back around and I tug on Erin’s elbow. “Who are these people?”

Judy laughs, as if I’d been talking to her. She casts a pointed eye at the rear of Eddie’s tight jeans. “Like, do you need any more information?”

Erin wraps her arm around my neck, a brittle vice grip. “We’re just having a nice day,” she says, squeezing. We cross over the LIE, the traffic rushing underneath us, to and from Manhattan. We’re coming up on the cemetery where we’ve got a family mausoleum. It’s not one of the fancy ones with stained glass and carved angels, just a plain old grey stone box.

Opposite the cemetery is a crumbling brick school, sort of gothic with turrets at the top. It used to terrify us as children. Kids would sneak in to ghost-hunt at Halloween every year. When I was twelve and Erin was fourteen, she went with a bunch of older kids and I thought I would die waiting for her to come home. When she finally did, she had this story of how she hadn’t seen a ghost but had felt one, a cold cloak touching all of her body, an icy feeling she couldn’t shake. It was with her, she said, still with her, right there in our bedroom. She climbed into my bed and cried. I still don’t know what really happened in that empty building that night, but I know it didn’t really have to do with a ghost.

I sweep my hand across the landscape. “This is called Blissville,” I say. "Really."

Judy sniffs the air. Her nose wrinkles, porcine, unflattering. I am glad we’re moving toward the smell.

“That’s the Creek,” I add.

“Are you starting at New Paltz in the fall, too?” Ralph asks me. “Joining your sis?”

I shake my head; Judy slips her hands into her back pockets, pushing her chest forward. I almost say that she’ll have Erin to herself again soon enough but instead I pull my tortoiseshell sunglasses from my bag, slide them up my nose. “Nearby,” I say. “Vassar.”

Eddie laughs, nudges Ralph. “Girls school, huh,” he says. “Nice.”

“It’s been co-ed for nearly ten years,” I say. Eddie’s head is going pink in the sun, the skin exposed by his military shearing.

Ralph’s face is pink, too, but likely from the embarrassment of being associated with Eddie. That the pale buffoon is who my sister seems to have her eye on is a disappointment.

We’re coming up on a chain link fence. On the other side, Newtown Creek. Because the sky is a flawless blue, from here it sparkles like any normal body of water, despite the grey industrial tangle on either side of it. Ralph holds a piece of fence to the side so we can duck through. Some prior explorers or ne’er-do-wells have cut it with sheers. The ground is silty, strewn with broken glass, tires, jagged flinty rocks. Judy picks across it in her raffia platforms, fighting a scowl, trying to seem game. She lifts up her left foot, inspecting the sole. Erin and I are in matching blue Dr. Scholl’s, keeping us out of the muck. We head straight for the green-slimed pier at the water’s edge, trying to see below the surface.

“I expected black,” Erin says. “Plumes, streaks.”

“It just looks like water,” Judy says. “Regular, dirty, disgusting New York City water. I’m from Long Beach—we should go there next week.”

They retreat; Eddie follows. I crouch. It’s true that there’s no dramatic, see-it-from-the-sky oil spill evident, but up close, the water looks psychedelic, slicked with a purple-silver film. It doesn’t look regular. Ralph comes up beside me, hitches up his jeans and squats down to inspect.

“So, is it the oil spill that gives it that smell? No,” Ralph says.

“Our uncle worked at this factory,” I say. Erin perches on a slab of cement overlooking the water. I worry for tetanus, but join her. Eddie takes the corner on her other side, his thigh pressed against hers. I wish she were wearing jeans like the rest of us, but Erin is always in a dress—this one, red and blue vertical stripes with big white buttons down the front.

“More like a plant,” Erin corrects me. “Rendering animals for glue. For a while when we were little we thought he stole pets to burn up—it was explained to us too quickly.”

“Really, it was scraps from butchers, house pets that had passed, police horses,” I say. “He told us that once they even broke down a circus elephant.”

Ralph hovers between us and the water, toeing a role of waterlogged rug with his brown boot. Erin pulls her hair to the side, exposing her freckled neck. As Eddie eyes it, I notice that Judy is leaning on him, the curve of her hip, where her shirt is riding up, snug against his side. Erin tips her head closer to his, and he takes her hand. Together, they examine her gold ring, Erin explaining the Irish iconography, the clasped hands and heart.

I talk over her: “He lost his job a few years back when the place got caught pumping all kinds of rancid fat and stuff into the water. It’s still in there, I bet. Hence, the smell.”

“God, can we talk about something other than rotting carcasses?” Judy says. She is a breath away from a huff, a toe-tap away from a stomping tantrum. She wants attention and she is not getting it, not from anyone. I almost feel bad. Her eyes snap from Erin to Eddie at a dizzying clip. She tosses her head, looks to Ralph now. He’s still listening to me. “Like, anything?” she says. “Like, what should we do tonight?”

“Our uncle told us about an explosion that happened over here when he first started working at the plant,” I say. Judy wanting to change the subject is all I need to keep going. “The crew heard this terrific boom and then, sailing up three stories into the air, they saw a manhole cover. Flipping like a coin. They started calling heads or tales.” I point up at the sky, draw an arc with my finger. As I do, I actually see something in the sky. A glint of red.

Ralph squints up at where I’m pointing. “Is that a balloon?”

No one else sees it; they’re not looking hard enough. “Right there,” we say, tracing its flight. “There!” I shield my eyes with my hand, pick my way down the shore of the creek, following the little flutter. The smell of the water intensifies as I skirt a rusted cluster of rebar. This area is still active during the week, but on a Sunday, it’s just us, the charred, caustic smell, the water, the sky. The red flicker settles on the bare branch of a slim, gnarled tree.

“It’s a bird!” I say. It is palm-sized, if that, scarlet with black wings and a black tail. Its peppercorn eyes, level with its pale beak, give it a serious look, despite its festive plumage.

Ralph, right behind me, says, “Well, what did you think it would be?”

“It’s the end of June and that tree is dead,” I say. “The water is filled with oil and decay. I didn’t think it would be a perfect little bird.”

“I’m just teasing,” Ralph says. “Maybe it’s like a canary in a mine, you know?”

“Yeah,” I say. “If it dies, we’ll know that we need to get out of here quick.”

The bird makes a surprisingly throaty sound: chick-burr, chick-burr. Ralph says, “It knows we’re talking about it.”

“It must be used to being watched,” I say. “I don’t think there are many birds like this left in Queens.”

“Bird watchers call the bird that hooks them, that makes them want to buy their first pair of binoculars, their spark bird,” Ralph says.

I stare into those sugary eyes of his. “Are you sparked?”

He opens and closes his hands over his head, wiggling his fingers like fireworks. I laugh as he sparkles, drawing closer to me. I flash forward to the fall, to my own college roommate—who will she be?—asking about Queens, about my last summer there. Me telling her, “There was this guy in the Coast Guard…”

A low-flying plane roars by, descending into LaGuardia. The noise startles the bird as much as it does us. It has a bit of a false start, a stutter that gets it only as far as another branch on the tree, crying low—chick-burr, chick-burr—but then it is off, away and gone.

When the bird noise and plane noise clear, what is left is the whooshing of my own blood in my ears as Ralph leans in, the crackle of sparks, sparks, sparks. Then we hear a splash, a splash, a splash. Three in a row, or is it four?

Ralph takes off running. His strides are long and he doesn’t bobble as his boots crunch down on all manner of detritus as he flies along the shore. He is military after all. I follow, toes curled to keep my slides on.

Judy is wet, but it is Erin in the water. Eddie is in there, too. Ralph seems poised to jump in, but pauses, assessing.

“What the hell?” I yell. I am dizzy from the sparks, the run, the fumes, the worry. I hold my hands out to Erin as if she could reach.

Judy’s jeans are soaked from the knees down, a little higher on the left than the right, the water-weight causing them to droop on her hips. The tips of her blond locks are dripping and she is retreating from the water’s edge. Her eyes are wide and scared, but her mouth is set in a bitter line. “She pushed me,” Judy says. “Into that water.”

“Why is she the one in there, then?” I ask, as Erin’s head dips below the surface. She’s not drowning. She’s diving. Eddie is treading, groping under the surface, trying to get a grip on her. His face is red from the exertion and, it seems, from anger.

“You need me in there, man?” Ralph calls.

Eddie answers by kicking his way back to the water’s edge. “She’s crazy,” he says. “She won’t come out.” He uses his big arms to hoist himself onto dry land.

“Erin,” I scream, my hands balled up at my sides. “Erin, get out of there!”

“She’s crazy,” Eddie repeats. We watch, helpless, as Erin bobs up for breath, goes back under. “Goddamn it, my skin is going to fall off.” Eddie holds out his arms, examining.

Judy approaches, saying, “Let me look.”

“You,” Eddie says. To us, he says, “This one, too. She threw Erin’s ring in the water, is what this all is about.” He makes a terrible hacking sound in this throat, spits, repeats.

I feel bile rising in my own throat listening to him. I ask Judy, “Why would you do that?”

The corners of her mouth turn down. “I didn’t think,” she says. “I just saw her take it off to show Eddie and I grabbed it and threw.”

“When our uncle died,” I say, “the one who we keep talking about, the one who worked here before losing his job, he lived with our grandmother. Her gave her that ring and so she gave it to Erin. In remembrance of him. At the funeral.”

I don’t know why I say this, except that it works: Judy starts to cry. There’s no special story to that ring. There’s no way to explain what Erin is doing out there in the Creek. From here, the oil and the toxins, the heavy metals and the death, turn the water into a perfect mirror for the sky. Each time Erin dives under, it is like she disappears into the clouds. It must be deeper than it seems.

Later, after we’ve sent the boys back to the Coast Guard, after we’ve sent Judy back to Long Island, after Erin has showered, and showered again, and I’ve brushed her long blond hair, after she sleeps it off and a few days pass and we pretend what happened was funny, I go to the library and check out a field guide to birds of the coastal northeast.

I don’t know what Erin’s spark was, if it was in that empty school, or away at college, if it was stoked by the swirling oil swallowing her ring in Newtown Creek; I don’t know what she’s left looking for. But me? I lace up a pair of boots and tell my sister to do the same. We’re going to find that little red bird. 


Nicole Haroutunian is co-editor of Underwater New York.