Cynthia Manick wrote her poem in response to Chester Higgins, Jr.’s photograph, which captures a commemoration on the Coney Island beach of Maafa, the Kiswahili term for the “terrible occurrence” or “great disaster” of the Middle Passage and its ongoing effects. Buy a copy of this broadside here.
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.
Elizabeth L. Bradley has contributed to Underwater New York, Salon, Smithsonian.com, and Gothamist. "Water" is excerpted from her new history, "New York," by permission of Reaktion Books, London, England (please note Anglicized spelling throughout). "New York" is available for purchase here.
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.
It is tempting to suggest that circumnavigating the island is the best way to enjoy its coasts. How else can a visitor be sure to see the fabled ‘Little Red Lighthouse’ perched on Jeffrey’s Hook just under the George Washington Bridge? Or catch a glimpse of the mysterious and deadly East River strait of Hell Gate, made famous by the stories of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and by HMS Hussar, a British frigate that sank there in 1780, supposedly with a cargo of gold that has never been recovered? For the intrepid, the non-profit group Shorewalkers hosts an annual ‘Great Saunter’ around the island every spring: 32 miles, rain or shine, extra socks encouraged. But Manhattan’s shores are easier than ever to discover in smaller increments, thanks to Hudson River Park, a 550-acre park that runs from 59th Street south to Battery Park and includes every possible amenity from batting cages and a carousel to rock climbing and a trapeze school. It also includes the busiest bike path in the United States, which pedestrians cross at their peril. Brooklyn Bridge Park, on the other side of the East River, compresses some of the same programmes into a much smaller footprint: 85 acres in the shadow of the bridge, including public boating, a restored 1922 carousel in a Jean Nouvel-designed acrylic-and-steel hangar and artisanal lobster rolls. Unlike Hudson River Park, on the Brooklyn side visitors can actually dip their fingers (and their feet) in the salty estuarial water of the East River, thanks to several pebbly bays scattered throughout the park, and when a passing barge or ‘booze cruise’ sends a wake towards the shore, the gentle waves breaking on the shore might briefly be mistaken for an oceanfront beach – briefly.
If circumnavigation still appeals, there is a smaller, more verdant island that can satisfy the most ardent shorewalker without risk of blisters. That is Governors Island, the former military base, now partly open as a public park and easily covered on foot or by bike (after a quick ferry ride to the island from Brooklyn or Manhattan). But for visitors hoping for a chance to do their best On the Waterfront, New York’s coastline offers plenty of challenges, minus the longshoremen. Begin by canoeing with the Gowanus Dredgers on the Gowanus Canal, a nearly 2-mile-long waterway that has just been designated a Superfund site by the u.s. Environmental Protection Agency. The canal, which still serves as a shipping channel for deliveries of gravel and scrap metal to industries located on its banks,is noteworthy for the opaque, grey-green colour of its water, its noxious odour (stronger in warm weather) and its near- complete lack of animal life. No birds float on the surface of the Gowanus, and the only animals that have been spotted swimming in it are those that have made a wrong turn from New York Harbor into Gowanus Bay. Still, the canal intrigues residents and visitors as much as it alarms them. Despite its peculiar hue and stink, the Gowanus suggests something romantic and vigorous in Brooklyn’s past – and it looks quite beautiful in the moonlight. The canal’s Superfund cousin, the Newtown Creek, divides Brooklyn and Queens and has a more noble purpose: it is home to New York’s Wastewater Treatment Plant and the plant’s spellbinding, stainless-steel ‘Digester Eggs’, which look as though they were taken straight from an MGM lot to the plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The Digester Eggs are open for public tours once a month, but reservations are required, and the waiting list is long. Closed-toed shoes are a must.
In lieu of a Superfund site or two, true devotees of New York’s coasts take to the beach – in particular Coney Island, in Brooklyn, which is more famous today for its amusements (including the shiny new rides of Luna Park) than its narrow seashore, and Rockaway Beach, in Queens. The Rockaways, as the skinny Rockaway peninsula is known, comprise a diverse set of communities, from public housing projects to single- storey beach bungalows to private, gated communities, surrounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the calmer waters of Jamaica Bay. The Rockaways, and their neighbouring island of Broad Channel, were all but obliterated by Hurricane Sandy in the autumn of 2012, and the turn-of-the-century character of some of the older neighbourhoods may never be fully restored. But the A-train subway service has been restored, and with it comes one of the most peculiar of New York summer traditions: surfing the Rockaways. It is not unusual to see Manhattanites board the A-train to Far Rockaway with a longboard tucked under their arm, prepared to take public transit to the only legal ‘surfing beach’ in the five boroughs. For boarders, or those who wish to rub (wetsuited) shoulders with them, the ideal place to end a day at the beach is Rockaway Taco, a brightly-painted tin shack just off Beach 90, famous for its surfer cool, even in the face of hurricanes. The boardwalks may not yet be completely replaced, but the fish tacos are definitely back.
Perhaps this chain of events amounts to nothing
more than a malfunction: one million light bulbs
bursting in succession, a fire spreading rapidly
through the landscape of lath buildings.
In the avenues, one-armed men search
for phantom limbs & an actress covered in ash
rows her gondola across the boardwalk. Nearby,
a lion rushes through throngs of bystanders
but kills only a single cop.
I move through
the crowds with a piece of marquee lodged
in my ear. In the distance, a train derails
from its tracks: no passengers, no survivors—
another accident reaching its logical conclusion,
another carnival burning slowly into the sea.
Conley Lowrance began writing poetry after an aborted career in punk rock. His interest in lyrics and subculture literature eventually led him to the University of Virginia’s poetry writing program where he received his BA. His poems been published by Tupelo Press, The Glasgow Review of Books, Gadfly, Columbia University’s Catch and Release, and Counterexample Poetics. Currently, he is exploring the intersection of Surrealist poetry and detective fiction and working at Columbia University’s Heyman Center for the Humanities. Follow him @ConleyLowrance.
The boardwalk transforms
every couple blocks.
The wood runs seaward,
shifts toward north
or goes missing
behind caution tape.
I prefer it to the street;
a one mile walk past
the wet and empty funhouse,
blocky old folk’s homes
and thin chickens
in barren gardens.
Once I pass the ball field
I enter a teflon town
deemed more resilient
It requires stamina,
all of me to reach you;
with your sharp wit and
your middle finger and
your clutter and
You are aquamarine
sea glass in cigarette sand,
dirty and disguised,
to be collected.
Ian Johnson lives in Brooklyn. His poetry is often inspired by his work and travels as a therapist for homebound seniors in the New York metropolitan area.
(a found poem)
Next to the bearded lady, premature babies.
Lined up under heaters, they breathed filtered air.
No more than three pounds. Infants in incubators -
part of the carnival; a quarter to see.
The Incubator Doctor, an oddity - premature
babies, expected to die.
Dr. Couney used local babies, employed
a French head nurse, new mothers to give milk.
In 1911 his reputation tarnished - Dreamland
went up in flames.
The babies, safely whisked to Luna Park, though
The New York Times reported that six had burned to death.
He carried a crook- handed cane, called himself
a propagandist for the premature; saved at least 6,500.
All those quarters bought him a big house
at Sea Gate; he died forgotten.
Today pretty girls and seagulls play their games;
nobody has seen the likes of him for 60 years.
All lines of the poem taken from the article: And Next to the Bearded Lady, Premature Babies by Michael Brick. New York Times, June 12, 2005.
Amy Schreibman Walter's debut chapbook, Coney Island and Other Places, was published in January 2013 by Lulu Press. Her poems have appeared in various online and in print journals, including Metazen and Elimae. You can find her here: www.amyschreibmanwalter.com
Tornadoes arrive in New York, Coney Island
roars in destiny but not destination and that’s the problem –
things bubble up in a dreamland with absolutely nothing
to celebrate except a temporary sentiment
that collapses in a fit of thunderous applause
– and if it does,
maybe I am myself: a sunken pier
jettisoning into a space that exists in tandem to reality;
dreams do not
dredge, and to deal with discrepancies
remember that scrutinizing the universe
is not a logical traipsing down the boardwalk;
in dreams above the water,
nothing can float away.
Kevin Grijalva is a Southern California native living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in decomP magazinE, Radius, and The Catalonian Review.
They were part of something larger and escaped. They somehow made it down the Belt and down the main drag of Surf Avenue. Lefty wanted in on the action; Righty wanted to run and hide. Unarmed, and trying to communicate, they went eastward into the Land of Dreams. Passing Steeplechase, and The Wonder Wheel, Lefty said to Righty, “ I want thrill.” Then, Righty said to Lefty, “but we’re on the run and I miss her voice and her lips.”
In the beached, they gurgled in the sea-mist and thought about the world as a place. They wanted to challenge the encased. They felt quirked and swayed and associative: If sea then waves. If sun-licked then frothed. If adrift then swallowed.
They thought of God in this steepled place among The Clowned, The Sidewinders and The Freaks. Righty felt speechless under their umbrella’s shade, but gained strength in his gestures, “Look, I’m going to say something wrong now, She is getting between us.” (Lefty felt it, too). “I’m telling you, a way to say it is to look in the holes.”
So they rolled onto their rounder sides and peered into the mollusk holes in the sand. Righty pushed Lefty and Lefty flung himself into the sea. He never looked back, just forward, into the deep.
Righty saw him doing the Back Stroke. Saw his gossamer dip and swirl. Then, saw him befriending the Kelp and thought well, HMPH! There are ways to control this banditry, thought Righty. I will germinate here, on this lip of shore. I will call out to the nested, and find my way back to the Road.
It grew hot. Righty felt he needed to reframe the situation. He booked a room at the motel. Ate a hot dog and sauerkraut. After all, he thought,
the world is my oyster.
Leah Umansky is a New Yorker by birth, a teacher by choice, and an anglophile at heart. She received her BA in English/Creative Writing from SUNY Binghamton, her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and is a recipient of a 1-week fellowship at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. She has been a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG, a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus and a guest blogger for The Best American Poetry Blog. Her poem, “Chess” won an Honorable Mention in the 2012 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize from the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. Her poems have appeared in: Barrow Street, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Ping-Pong, Catch-up and Cream City Review among others. Her first book of poetry, Domestic Uncertainties, was recently published by BlazeVox. She is also the Host/Curator of COUPLET: a poetry and music series (http://coupletreadingseries.tumblr.com). Read more at her blog: http://iammyownheroine.com.
One of my favorite things about Underwater New York is that all of these strange, evocative objects we collect in our list, objects that have no business being beside each other on dry land, coexist underwater. I sketched some of my favorites so they would be beside each other here, too.
Nicole Haroutunian is an editor of Underwater New York. You can find her bio here.
These photos of people ringing the Dreamland Bell were taken just a few days after it was raised from the ocean after ninety-eight years underwater. It was on display for Labor Day Weekend at the Coney Island History Project’s exhibition center under the Cyclone. In one of the photos, you’ll catch a glimpse of an archival image of the Bell welcoming visitors at the Iron Pier of Coney Island’s original Dreamland Park (1904-1911). Both Dreamland Park, which was on the site of the New York Aquarium, and the Pier, were destroyed by fire in 1911. Coney Island diver Gene Ritter, who had been searching for Dreamland artifacts for two decades, found the Bell twenty-five feet underwater, about one hundred yards offshore.
In these images, joy and optimism about the future of Coney Island is reflected among the many friends and acquaintances who made a special trip to see the Bell. The discovery of the Bell symbolizes and presages the rebirth of Coney Island; it marks the return of something that was thought to have been irrevocably destroyed. No one expected the return of an artifact lost nearly one hundred years ago in a fire, and certainly not such an important artifact as the Dreamland Bell.
The Bell came to the History Project with just a few days’ notice. I had anticipated that Labor Day Weekend would be a sad occasion since it was the first anniversary of the closing of Astroland. I brought a bouquet to commemorate the closing, and a few of us even wore our Astroland T-shirts. What happened instead was that Bell helped heal our sorrow over the lost Astroland. The Bell marked the return of the real and eternal Dreamland, as opposed to the so-called “Dreamland Park,” a temporary assemblage of rides and attractions brought to the former Astroland site in the summer of 2009.
Tricia Vita spent the first 17 years of her life traveling through New England as a carny kid. A scholarship took her to Sarah Lawrence College, then to an independent study program in Kyoto, Japan. She is the translator of Inagaki Taruho’s One Thousand and One-Second Stories (Green Integer). After working as a freelance magazine writer for a decade, she took a sabbatical from journalism in 2007 to work with the Coney Island History Project.
Photo credits (c) Tricia Vita/Coney Island History Project.
Listen to the original song by Lawrence Kim and His Boss: Dreamland.
You can also watch the live performance of this song at the Underwater New York launch party aboard the Lightship Frying Pan here.
Lawrence Kim and His Boss are Lawrence Kim and Jen Black.
It rained on and off for several weeks. A canopy of gunmetal grey hung over everything and Bella was gone. The morning after her mother’s funeral she had disappeared and the house on Albemarle Road felt empty without her. Without the red heat from the stoked furnace of her pillowed belly, or the raunchy giggles of her personal perfume it just wasn’t the same. Stanford and Elmer found her room a shipwreck. A violent jumble of sheets and pillows crouched on the bed like a pack of wild dogs. Dresser drawers hung open, their contents spilled. The vaulted doors of the waterfall chifforobe stood splayed. Scarves bled onto carpet, dresses sat in heaps next to hats scattered like lonely life preservers. Only a few keepsakes seemed to be missing; the sliver chain necklace with its St. Anthony medal, her charm bracelet, and the two photos; the one of the baby and the silver-framed picture of the strongman with Bella on his shoulders.
She’s never done this before, Elmer said.
The little landlord stood in the middle of the debris like a lost bird. He pointed to a naked nail above her bed. And look! he said. She took the Christ with her!
Stanford glanced at the plus sign shadow of unfaded pink paint in the middle of the wall. It marked the cross’s old territory. Like a dagger. Where do you think she went? he asked.
Elmer’s head toggled. I don’t know. Maybe like Dreamland she fell into the sea. He picked up a record, cracked and chipped on the rim. Paul Whitman and his Orchestra. All of Me. He placed the record on the Victrola, and wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his kimono.
Stanford was used to Elmer’s hyperbole. It was everywhere. In the wainscoting, the chandeliers, the massive antiques, the ostrich plumes, the obnoxious bird, the room they were in, and, of course, the tenants, including, Stanford knew well enough, himself. After all, Stanford carried a toy stuffed monkey, regularly spoke to his long dead nanny, and silently pined for the other young man who had recently raped him.
What do you mean the bottom of the sea? he asked.
Well, she hurled herself into the waves once before, Elmer said. Four years ago, while walking my dog Miss Twinkles, I found her, beached on the sand at Coney Island, like a dead baby whale. She was purple, but still alive. Later she told me she was trying to kill herself but the water had spit her back out. He raised the edge of the kimono to his throat. The sea had rejected her, he whispered. I brought her back to the house. He picked a hanger and a dress up off the carpet. That’s how she came to live here, he said. We saved each other. Bella and me. He hung the dress in the chifforobe and shut the doors. Poor Bella, he said. A mother’s death is hard to bear.
Bella hates her mother, Stanford said. Almost as much as I hate mine.
How could you hate your mother? Elmer asked.
Listen, your mother may have been Mildred Pierce, Stanford said. But mine certainly wasn’t. And neither was Bella’s. I saw her slap her mother’s corpse. Three times. Stanford looked to where the picture of the baby used to be. I don’t think Bella would try and kill herself, he said. And I don’t think her leaving has anything to do with her mother’s death. I think it has to do with the fact that Bella is a mother herself.
The spectral echo of an infant’s cry crackled over their heads.
What did you say? Elmer asked.
Bella had a baby, Stanford said. When she was fifteen.
The little landlord stared. I don’t believe you. How do you know?
She told me. Just like she told you she’d tried to kill herself. She told me she fucked a boy on his kitchen floor one morning. When they were both sophomores in high school. She fucked him because it was a snowy day and because she was tired of being a virgin.
Elmer sat on the edge of the bed.
It was during the big snowstorm of thirty five, Stanford continued, and nine months later she had a baby boy. She called him Robert. Bobby, she called him. She kept him for a while but her father made her give him away. To the Catholics. Like a donation.
Elmer grabbed the collar of his kimono.
She got him back, Stanford said. But there was a fight. A gun was fired.
Elmer’s hand went up to his mouth.
Her little brother’s ear was blown off.
Then the baby was taken away. For good. And Bella never saw the little thing again.
Holy Mother of Christ, Elmer said.
Stanford crouched down and looked under the bed. Bella’s pink hatbox, her carryall, was gone. This was the buoy he needed to grab onto; the hope he needed to hold. Holy Mother of Christ, be repeated.
Two consecutive Sunday dinners were canceled. After that, the family style meals consisted of overcooked potato stew. Bella’s magic was gone. Her elixer, the tomato gravy, was sorely missed. Customers just stared at their pastaless plates, not knowing what to do with the vile-looking glop in front of them.
Where’s Bella? they all asked.
She’s on vacation, Elmer said.
Damp day followed damp day. A humid fog, as heavy and as thick as the overcooked stew, met each morning. It lingered for hours. Then it slowly lumbered up to heaven like a bloated blanket until it was ready to relieve itself.
Late one starchy morning, Stanford found himself alone. The house was as quiet as a stone. In the sauceless silence of the kitchen he pulled a lone jar of tomato gravy out from the pantry. He had hidden it behind the Cocomalt. He popped the lid and the seal broke. A tomato tang immediately burped into the air and briefly brought Bella back – her smile, her painted nails, her moody fits, her charm bracelet, her tomato rouged cheeks, her singing, her tits. He wanted to try and keep her there. Conjured. He took the flame stained cast iron skillet down from the shelf above the stove and plopped the gravy into its heavy black bottom. It sizzled its garlic and basil and tomato aromas into the air. For a moment he panicked, afraid the scent would send a false message.
But she wasn’t. Only the memory of her danced around the old alter of her stove. A brief prayer. A silent song, sung just for him.
He ate alone on the back steps of the house, and was filled with regret when he was done. Was that the last of her? Had he killed what little was left?
Afterward, he hopped on one of the neighborhood bicycles and pedaled all the way down to the boardwalk. Small packs of seagulls squawked and flapped over the boards. The parachute jump was closed. A few of the men in the white jumpsuits scaled the giant structure, testing turnbuckles and greasing springs. They whistled when they saw a lone set of gams stroll by and dared stray fellas to take a drop in the rain. Stanford thought about it. He wanted to see the world from way up high, to see if he could somehow spot where Bella was. The Wonder Wheel turned in the rain behind him like the hand of a giant clock. Music from the Looff Carousel chirped in the wet.
Could be Bella was at the bottom of the sea, swimming among the titanic bits of the long-dead, sea-buried Dreamland, her feet tangled in seaweed or one of Captain Bonavita’s old lion taming whips. Perhaps she was floating along with the barnacled bones of one of Madam Morelli’s leopards, or wading through schools of greasy nickels from dented ticket booth cashboxes, hypnotized like one of Morris’s Wonderful Illusions, levitating in the depths under the giant arch from Bostock’s animal arena, or maybe she was fin kicking past Our Boy’s In Blue, lit by one of Andrew Mack’s charred lighthouse towers. What if she was sucked into the disintegrating mouth of the old Hellgate ride where the bullet that began Dreamland’s infernal demise was shot? Stanford looked out at the sea, at the choppy little waves bouncing like diamond tipped party hats. He didn’t see her anywhere. He didn’t hear her drowning mermaid’s song, but he did hear a small wail. The tiny cry of a baby came over the vast expanse and he knew, just like that; Bella wasn’t in the water. She wasn’t in Coney Island at all. She was somewhere else, fucking a strongman, or she was with Jesus Christ, searching for her long lost son, with Saint Francis as their guide.
David Ciminello’s fiction has been included in the anthology BEST GAY ROMANCE 2010, the anthology PORTLAND QUEER: TALES OF THE ROSE CITY, and in the literary journal LUMINA. His poetry has appeared in POETRY NORTHWEST. His original screenplay BRUNO (aka THE DRESS CODE) was produced and released in 2000. He currently lives and writes in New York City.
Tom wanted a Cadillac Eldorado but his cousin George said he’d cut him a deal on the Lincoln and when it came to family that was that. Where George had gotten the Lincoln, who knows? His cousin was full of mystery. An entrepreneur, is what George called himself. He loved to lord his vocabulary over Tom, challenge him, stretch out the syllables. On-tra-pri-noo-er.Restaurant manager, realtor, car salesman. Why pin yourself down? George said. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, dabbling his fingers in the air. Master of none.
It was amazing for a family that had no concept of privacy—Tom would be standing in the middle of his bedroom, door closed, naked as the day he came, and blam, Aunt Bessie would bust in on him—that no one questioned George’s sources of income. Bootlegger? Bookie? Possibly, but Tom didn’t like to think about it. Or rather, he liked to think about it all the time, but some questions were best left unasked. And George seemed to like this enigmatic fire he’d started—especially when it came to talking up the lady customers in the restaurant—and Tom didn’t want to have anything to do with fanning those flames.
Flames. Tom was standing over the grill. Beads of sweat grew into marbles and shot down his spine, pooling at the small of his back. He slid his spatula under each of the patties and watched George through the pick-up window, strolling around the front of house as if he owned the place. Like any kid of the next generation, George wanted to talk about what he did more than he liked doing the thing itself. Truth was, he was a peon. He would be nothing without his father’s restaurant, but in George’s eyes, the restaurant was nothing if he couldn’t stake a claim in its ownership. Manager was the term George coined for himself. Tom watched George’s lips flapping away, talking up his cars, his property management, his so-called “side” projects to every customer who’d listen.
If by properties he meant the six-unit apartment building in Bay Ridge where his dad sent him on the first of each month to beat on tenants’ doors and collect the rents, okay, Tom would give him that. It was embarrassing to watch him. Publicly, the customers nodded politely when he yammered on about this and that money-making venture. Privately, they thought things. The kinds of things that Tom thought but didn’t ask. Bootlegger. Bookie. Didn’t he know he was propagating the stereotype of the Greek thug? George’d say he was anything but what he actually was. A hostess. A big baby thug, living off his father’s dime, in his parents’ house, working in his father’s restaurant. Admit it, you fucking baby, you malaka.
Mind you, Tom lived in the same house as George too, with Aunt Bessie and Uncle Mike, but still, his situation was different. He didn’t have a choice. He’d been sponsored, wasn’t totally legal yet, couldn’t afford his own place, and a Caddy would be the closest thing to a little taste of freedom, and isn’t that what this great land of theirs promised? He could steal away between shifts, cruise in it, enjoy himself, kick up his heels, smoke, ash out the stub in his own ashtray, listen to his own radio, maybe find a girl. Somebody other than the girls his Aunt Bessie was always inviting over for Sunday dinner. Tom could barely choke his soup down those nights, sitting across from them. A nice Greek girl with a five-o-clock shadow and eyes so black you knew there was nothing but misery in that future.
He wanted a Caddy but Aunt Bessie had badgered him into the Continental.
“You hef to help little Georgie,” she said. “He hef good car, you need car. Lincolns, they the best.”
God bless her, but Tom couldn’t say no to her. It would break her heart. Little Georgie, on the other hand, his heart he could break. Gladly. Tom crossed himself as he thought this, looked up to the kitchen’s ceiling as if he were looking at the Pantocrator himself.
“It’s okay,” the Almighty seemed to say, his face melancholy but stern, his hand held aloft as if about to bless him. “You do this for family. It’s okay.”
Uncle Mike went so far as to let them off work early that day to test-drive the Lincoln, doing his part to make the deal happen for his son. “Go,” he said, pushing them out the door of the restaurant at the end of the lunch shift. “Go.”
Tom was surprised by how good the Continental felt. Sixty-eight.
“Good year,” George said, palming the dash, twisting the rearview around so he could smooth out his chops.
George was always doing stuff like that. Every morning before work, walking into the bathroom after him, Tom had to scan it like a crime scene. Streamers of toothpaste clung to the edge of the basin, piss all over the toilet bowl, George’s underwear in the wastebasket. Just like a baby, Tom thought, shaking his head. And in some twisted version of motherhood, Tom plucked the toilet brush from its perch next to the bowl, used its bristly end to pick up George’s underwear by the waistband, and dropped them into the hamper. He could feel his anxiety kicking in just thinking about these little injustices, that familiar tightness in the chest every time George showed his ignorance.
Tom grabbed the rearview out of George’s hands, readjusted it with great drama and settled his sightline on the horizon. He sighed deeply. They were heading south, out toward Coney. Mid-week, middle of the day, not too much traffic. Sky grey as cement.
Although Tom hated to admit it, sometimes he wished he could be more like George. No sense, no qualms, no guilt. It would make his life easier. But that’s where the car came in. It was a fucking cliché. Immigrants and their cars. You could walk around the neighborhood and see dozens of men, alone in their parked vehicles, taking a break from the wife, the kids, the expectations.
“Check out the 8-track,” George said, popping a cassette in, and then, just as quickly, out again. “And the radio.” He tuned the dial with the nervous energy and attention span of a toddler. Skimming, crackle, skimming, guitar solo, crackle, Stevie Nicks, skimming.
“Jes tsooz,” Tom said.
“What?” George said.
“A stay-sion. Jes tsooz a stay-sion.”
“Easy there, cuz.”
Tom braced himself against the steering wheel, tightening his grip around its grooves. He hated it when George called him cuz. It was a reminder of who they were to each other. That their bond of blood and antagonism would hold them tight—beyond their living together, working together, eating together, buying cars from each other. They would take that bond to the grave and then beyond, the generations following them tapping at a family photograph during a holiday gathering and remembering them always, as cousins. There was no escape.
“You gotta relax,” George said. “And this car is going to help you do it.”
Of all people who couldn’t relax, George was it. Constantly fidgeting, shifting, picking, tuning, dialing, tapping, tucking, smoothing. As if on cue, George pulled out his komboloi and started clacking.
“Hey yero,” Tom said. “Maybe you relax.” He sensed he’d forgotten a word in that directive, but he couldn’t remember which one. The verbs and their tenses always messed him up. He shifted in his seat. The leather really did feel luxurious. Like floating on sheep’s milk. Okay, so it wasn’t a Caddy, but this, he could get used to. He stuck his arm out the window, letting the wind catch it, whip it back. The air ripped through the hair on his arms, giving him a prickly sensation that was equal parts pleasure and pain.
When he thought about it, it was exactly that balance that he wanted in his life. Starting now, he decided, he was going to seek out those things that brought pleasure into his pain. He turned to George. “So where you get the car?”
George fingered the worry beads, turning them over like possible responses. “Let’s just say I procured it from a friend who needed my assistance.”
There he went again with those big words. Ostentatious and unnecessary. A source of ridicule.
“Very good,” Tom said. Noble was what he wanted to say. But he couldn’t remember that word either.
“And now, in turn,” George leaned in, and in an exaggerated act of generosity, draped the worry beads around the mirror’s neck, “I’m assisting you.”
“You help me?”
“What do you mean?” George said. He shifted uncomfortably onto his left ass cheek, as if about to release gas, and then shifted back.
Tom reluctantly sniffed the air. “Way I see? I help you. Your mamá, she said…”
“Look at this,” George said, changing the subject. He gestured grandly out the window, his arm waving at the expanse of land and sea. “All Greek-owned.”
Tom looked at their surroundings. At the cinder-block projects, at the rusted Ferris wheel, at the parking lot full of low-rent rides. Coney Island. Where’d they get the idea that this was an island? Santorini? That was an island. Black sand, blue sea, beautiful women. Mykonos? That was an island. Corfu? That was an island. Not that he’d ever been to those places, but he’d seen them in postcards. He knew. This place had a tawdry, nauseating feel. Like something thrown together to make a quick buck, take advantage of the locals, and then beat it on back to wherever you came from. Come to think of it, it could have been Greek owned.
“Guy named George,” George said proudly. “Started with a restaurant out here. Family owned. Then built it up. Expanded.”
“George who?” said Tom. He’d never heard anything about Coney being Greek. Surely this was something that would have been talked about. Greeks took pride in each other’s accomplishments, if only so they could boast about them to Americans, feel like they had a part to play in a compatriot’s success, then criticize the shit out of them behind their backs. Burgers made out of sawdust. Place is full of rats. So on and so forth.
“Poulos, Pappas, whatever. You ever heard of a guy named George owned a restaurant who wasn’t Greek?”
No, Tom thought. No, he hadn’t.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so. Plus, look at the sign.” George pointed at a faded billboard. Steeplechase Park.
“An ode to the ponies,” George said. “Who would think to add a horsey ride to an amusement park?”
He had a point. Greeks liked the horses. Even Uncle Mike, honorable as he was, was known to make the occasional trip to the track, lifting a pile of twenties from the till when Aunt Bessie wasn’t looking. And Tom had heard people talking about casinos out here at Coney. Get a little gambling income going for the city. So, yeah, maybe the whole thing was Greek-owned.
Tom imagined what that would be like. To start small and really see it turn into something. But unless he broke from his Uncle, he knew he didn’t have a chance. The restaurant would go to George, even though he didn’t know a thing about work. George wanted the success but he didn’t want to give anyone the impression that he had worked too hard at it, that it hadn’t come naturally. He believed in the American myth. He had bought into those success stories of men who made it big through real-estate and luck. Of course they weren’t going to tell you how hard they worked. George didn’t want to see that part. He wanted to maintain an air of mystery—his little bit of this, little bit of that approach to life—so as not to reveal anything he might be ashamed of. As if hard work, the revelation of it, might be shameful.
But, for now, Tom had to sit tight. With Aunt Bessie, Uncle Mike, his single bed in the corner of his low-ceilinged bedroom—a room that Aunt Bessie had used for storage until he arrived, the baoulos she’d brought with her from Greece thirty years earlier still stacked in the corner, with his shirts, trousers, and even his kitchen aprons starched and pressed and put on hangers for him by Aunt Bessie, with George’s indiscretions in the bathroom, with his own lack of privacy, what with Aunt Bessie hovering over him every second he was home—did he want a little more soupitsa? Could she make him a kafe? Should she turn the TV on for him? With Uncle Mike forcing him to do his time as dishwasher before he could move up to the grill because what would the other employees think? Like who? Tom thought. Like George?Who’d never even think to wash the silver spoon he’d been fed with his entire life? With the waitresses hassling him about their bacon and eggs and their hot-turkey sandwiches—it wasn’t even food, really—with the icon of, of all people, St. George fighting the dragon that hung on the wall of his bedroom, placed there by Aunt Bessie to keep him safe, that greeted Tom each night as he entered his room, bid him farewell each morning. On really busy days at the restaurant, when Tom was forced to listen to George blather on in the dining room, he returned home exhausted and stared at the icon. Instead of the Saint’s face, he saw George’s, with his sharp nose and the thinning patch of hair that betrayed his future ofbaldness. George’s fat, smug face. It taunted him, mocked him, baited him. Tom fantasized about taking that spear and stabbing George in the forehead, right between his stray eyebrow hairs.
Tom looked at him now. “How fast she go?”
“Fast,” George said. “Turn it around though, right? Head back?”
Back is the last direction Tom wanted to move in. Back meant the village and a ritual unfolding of the seasons and a predetermined destiny. With Tom’s foot against the pedal, something electric, a bolt of excitement and fear, a party of charged particles, rocketed its way through his toes, up his calves, through his crotch, and settled in his chest. He felt his lungs expanding.
“What the hell?” George screamed, reaching for the worry beads.
“Those no save you,” said Tom.
Blasts erupted from the Lincoln as they sped closer to the end of the pier, keeping time with the thumping of Tom’s chest. The car’s eight cylinders fired, the carburetor sucked in vast quantities of fuel, and the wheel became difficult to steer. Like a body in its last exhalations, the Lincoln rattled under Tom’s hands as he was suddenly gripped with a fear—not at the thought of going off the end of the pier, but at not going off the end. Of losing control and rocketing out sideways, of becoming some sort of comic relief for the cosmos, of being denied the glory of propelling off the pier in a swan-dive arc, of reaching for heroism but ending in humiliation.
And then it happened.
There was the rush of sweet and salty, feelings of safety and panic, nausea and elation. The sky seemed to embrace them, held them aloft, and then, just as suddenly, let them go. The car tilted forward, the sky pancaked into the horizon, and a wall of water pounded the windshield.
“Jesus Christ,” George cried, crossing himself. “Jesus Christ.”
Yes, Jesus Christ, Tom thought, nodding. He looked up at the plush roof of the Lincoln, just as he had in the kitchen earlier that day, and searched for the Pantocrator’s blessing. He was nowhere. For a split second, Tom felt disappointed, abandoned. But soon he realized this was the Pantocrator’s intent. To give him the nod, and then cede control to Tom. This act was his own doing, he realized. And suddenly his clarity amazed him. So this is what he would be like under extreme pressure. He liked it. He liked it very much.
Tom thought all this as he watched the brown, brackish water begin its ascent.
George pushed on the door, heaved and grunted. He scrambled for the window crank.
“You no open window,” Tom said.
“We’re going to die,” George announced. “Do you fucking get that?”
“I serious,” Tom said. “You know physics? You open window now, water break in. You no fight it. You want live?”
“Yes,” George said mockingly, “I want live.”
“Then we sit here. We wait. When water is here,” Tom drew a line across his eyeballs, “we roll down windows and we swim.”
“You’re trelos,” George said, rolling his rs with fury.
“We wait,” Tom repeated.
The water level rose slowly, torturously. It trickled in from the window seams and from somewhere at their feet. As they waited and watched, the car settled, and Tom took in the sights. Through the murk of the water, unexpected things slowly came into focus. On the water’s bottom, he saw what looked like lampposts. Living beings swam past.
“What this place called again?” Tom said.
“Steeplechase Park,” George replied.
“And what heppened?”
“Big fire. Was called Dreamland before that. The whole place burned down at the turn of the century.”
This too was in keeping with George’s story. Greek lightning, isn’t that what they called it? A little flick of the match, and insurance to the rescue. Tom wondered where the business had failed.
Dreamland, he repeated to himself as he waited for the water to hit his chin. He tilted his head back and placed his hand firmly on the window crank, steeling himself.
Nice name, bad outcome.
Helen Georgas is an editor of Underwater New York. She is a writer and librarian living in Brooklyn. Her work has been nominated for Best New American Voices, she holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is currently at work on a collection of linked stories.