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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.

Gowanus Time Slip Map by Edmund Mooney

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Edmund Mooney was in residence on Governors Island from July 9-22, 2018.


gowanus time slip map.jpg

Materials: Archival ink jet print on paper
Dimensions: 57 x 26 inches

Artist Statement: An 18th-century map of Gowanus Creek was overlaid with a 1990 aerial photo of the Gowanus Canal. The layers were then finessed until a fusion of graphic content was achieved.


Find more about Edmund Mooney at edmundmooney.com.

Entrapment 1 by Alexis Neider

Alexis Neider created this artwork for an event in collaboration with Marie Lorenz's Flow Pool at Recess. See pictures and read more about it here.


OBJECTS: Surveillance, Baby Jello

BODIES OF WATER: New York Harbor, Gowanus Canal 


Photographs by Alexis Neider and Nate Dorr


The ice hand sculptures are connected by a web of crochet tentacles that swim, entrap, and survey the waters.  Ideally, the ice will act as a buoy for the ropes. As the ice melts, the tentacles will swim, fly in the current, and then sink. This piece is "surveillance" as an object, and also "baby jello."


Alexis Neider is a painter and print-maker.  Her work uses domestic forms to address patterns of entry and barriers to entry over time.  Alexis has exhibited widely across NYC including at Local Project, A.I.R. Gallery, Clemente Soto Velez Center, Centotto Galleria, Steuben Gallery, Pratt Institute, Cuchifritos Gallery, Brian Morris Gallery, and Spacewomb.  She has exhibited internationally in Budapest at Villa Barabás Galeria and in Spain at Can Serrat.   She has attended residencies at Can Serrat, A.I.R. Budapest, Fowler Dune Shack Residency, and Catwalk Artist residency.  She lives in and creates work in Brooklyn, NY.

 

The Game by A. E. Souzis

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.
 

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Jaula Dorada 1 (Golden Cage 1) by Alexis Neider

Alexis Neider created this artwork for an event in collaboration with Marie Lorenz's Flow Pool at Recess. See pictures and read more about it here.


OBJECT: Birdcage

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


Photographs by Nate Dorr


I've been working on the idea of borders-spaces of entry and rejection. After reading an article in El Diario that called the US, "la jaula dorada," or "the golden cage" in which migrants can enter but cannot leave, I created my own golden birdcage. I hope it floats! 


Alexis Neider is a painter and print-maker.  Her work uses domestic forms to address patterns of entry and barriers to entry over time.  Alexis has exhibited widely across NYC including at Local Project, A.I.R. Gallery, Clemente Soto Velez Center, Centotto Galleria, Steuben Gallery, Pratt Institute, Cuchifritos Gallery, Brian Morris Gallery, and Spacewomb.  She has exhibited internationally in Budapest at Villa Barabás Galeria and in Spain at Can Serrat.   She has attended residencies at Can Serrat, A.I.R. Budapest, Fowler Dune Shack Residency, and Catwalk Artist residency.  She lives in and creates work in Brooklyn, NY.

Whales by Nicholas Hurd

OBJECT: Whale

BODY OF WATER: East Hampton, Gowanus Canal


Artist's Statement

This print a re-strike of original linoleum block carvings by Clement Hurd, illustrator of Goodnight Moon. The original linoleum blocks were carved as illustrations for the Children’s book The Mother Whale written by Edith Thacher Hurd 1973. The blocks were rediscovered by their grandson Nicholas Hurd who has reprinted the blocks in the form of a larger print.


Nicholas Hurd is an artist and printer from Oakland, California. He received a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from the California College of Art. Nick is one half of the art duo Mack Card and runs the Brooklyn letterpress shop Wasp Poster & Print , producing posters, cards and artist editions. He is an expert letterpress printer and has taught extensively at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, California and the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in NYC. 

Cages by Arden Levine

OBJECT: Birdcage

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


My mother collected antique birdcages. Nature abhors a vacuum
so we filled the cages, first with budgerigars and canaries. They died

and we filled the cages again, with exotic finches that my father chose
and a pair of lovebirds (that detested one another). They died

and we filled the cages again with a grey-cheeked parakeet and a long-
tailed beauty (that didn’t live a year and had the solemnity of a widow).

 My father vacuumed the floor beneath the cages and the parakeet
shrieked, shrieked, shrieked: “Abhor! Abhor! Abhor!” My father died

and we didn’t fill the cages again. We moved, we put the cages
in storage, we moved, we put the cages in the basement. We filled

the basement with other things and discarded the cages. I saw a cage
in the canal: the canal had filled the cage with silt and branches.

The water slapped          slapped                slapped:
                                           Abhor.                  Abhor.                                 Abhor.

 


Arden Levine lives in Brooklyn and is a reader for Epiphany.  In 2015, her poems have been or will be featured in AGNI, Rattle, The Delmarva Review, Bodega Magazine, Emotive Fruition, the NYC Poetry Festival, and elsewhere.  Arden holds an MPA from New York University and consults to nonprofit organizations.

Water by Elizabeth Bradley

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.

 

Riparianism by Nicole Antebi

OBJECT: Toxins

BODY OF WATER: Newtown Creek, Gowanus Canal



Nicole Antebi considers herself a student of animistic thinking and landscape. She works in non-fiction animation, motion graphics, installation while simultaneously connecting and creating opportunities for other artists through larger curatorial and editorial projects such as Water, CA and The Winter Shack.  Her work has been shown in many places including High Desert Test Sites, The Manhattan Bridge Anchorage, Teeny Cine’s converted trailer, Portable Forest, a Texas Grain Silo and in the cabin of a capsized ship at Machine Project, Los Angeles.

For Luck by Carlea Holl-Jensen

Drown the bird for luck, she tells me. It will keep him alive.

All right, I say.

The bird is small and yellow and white and grey, a songbird. When she puts it in my hands, I can feel its pulse shuddering against my palm. Tiny thing, I could crush it just as easily.

She holds the door to the birdcage open for me and I put the bird inside. Trapped, it beats its wings, quivering from one side to the other and twisting midair, crashing against the sides of the cage. Under the susurration and snap of its wings, a sound like breath leaving the lungs.

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Meditations on Dérive and Grief by Cynthia Ann Schemmer


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)

 

 

The Minke Whale by Isaac Kestenbaum

OBJECTMinke Whale

BODY OF WATERGowanus Canal


In the 1950s, US Navy submarines heard a strange underwater noise near Hawaii and southern California. A coiled chirping sound that sprang to a rapid crescendo, and then fell just as quickly. No one knew what it was.  The sound became known as a “boing.” Scientists later guessed it was a whale, but it wasn’t until nearly half a century later, in the winter of 2002, when a boatload of researchers in the Hawaiian Islands finally heard a boing and spotted a whale at the same time. The boing remained a mystery for so long in part because its source is one of the smallest of the whales, one that doesn’t make a big spout and doesn’t surface for long: a minke whale.

While small for a whale, Minkes still weigh up to 20,000 pounds and measure as long as 30 feet.  A couple hundred years ago, a Norwegian whaler named Meincke mistook these little whales for their bigger, more profitable relatives.  Meincke did this so often that the whales were named for him; this was in the time before everything had a name.  Minkes are also sometimes called “sharp-headed finners” and “pike heads,” because of their pointed snouts.  They often come up into the air head first, a move called “spy hopping.” Their huge mouths turn downward, but their eyes appear half-closed, as if they’re frowning drowsily.

In the spring of 2007, a huge storm hit the Northeast coast, bringing rain, snow and flooding.  It cancelled flights and drove people from their homes. New York’s governor deployed National Guard members to low-lying areas of Long Island.  And at some point during the storm, or shortly after, a young minke whale headed towards New York City.

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A news helicopter spotted the whale a few days later, on April 17, 2007, and reported that it was swimming in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn—an inhospitable place for any marine mammal. The Gowanus was once a lush wetland, but derelict factories and tanneries now line its banks, and the water is notoriously polluted.

But the reporter was mistaken.  The whale only went as far as the mouth of the canal, where it empties into Gowanus Bay.  Other television stations, blogs and newspapers picked up the story, many repeating the initial error, first reporting the whale was in the canal, then publishing corrections.

Canal or not, the press embraced the 12-foot-long whale.  It was reported that the whale “frolicked” in the water, and “delighted and surprised even the most hardened of Brooklyn residents.” The whale even received a nickname: “Sludgie,” after the perceived condition of Gowanus Bay, though at no point does it seem the whale was covered in sludge.  Sludgie is also a reference, perhaps, to Fudgie the Whale, a type of ice cream cake manufactured by Carvel.  Fudgie is made of layers of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, milk fudge topping, and lots of something called “crunchies.”

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Much longer ago, before the invention of crunchies, before news helicopters, and before old Meincke was misidentifying whales, Thor, the Norse god of thunder, went fishing with Hymir, a frost giant.  Thor was in disguise because the frost giants were sworn enemies of the gods, massive beasts with stone heads and ice feet.

Even incognito, Thor wanted to impress and intimidate Hymir. On the way to the boat, he tore the head off one of Hymir’s oxen to use for bait.  At sea, the strength of the giant and the thunder god rowing together quickly brought the pair well beyond Hymir’s usual fishing grounds. Still, before long, Hymir caught two huge whales and tossed them in the boat.  They could have been what we now call minke whales, or they could have been almost any kind of whale; this story happened before most things had names.

But then Thor pulled up Jörmungandr, the massive serpent that encircles the whole world.  Normally this serpent lived in the deep, with his tail in his mouth.  But something about that ox head was enticing.  Jörmungandr started thrashing, hissing and spitting poison, whipping the entire ocean into a tempest.  So Thor started pounding the serpent in the head with his hammer.  This was a scary scene—even for a frost giant like Hymir, who was so frightened that he cut Thor’s fishing line. Jörmungandr sank back to the dark bottom of the ocean, and put his tail back into his mouth.  When the fishing party returned, Thor carried the whales, Hymir, and the boat itself all the way back to the frost giant’s hall, where they feasted on the two whales.

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Minke whales are still eaten today, hunted in Greenland, Japan and Norway. No one paid attention to minkes until other whales were scarce.  There are close to 200,000 minkes in the Atlantic, but it’s possible that their population has been reduced by as much as half due to whaling.  Modern whalers use harpoons tipped with an explosive. Harpooners aim for the whale’s chest, hoping that the grenade will explode in their hearts.

Sludgie’s end was less violent.  Two days after it was first spotted, it tried to beach itself near an oil refinery at the mouth of the Gowanus Canal. A representative for the fisheries service later said: “it thrashed a little, then expired.”  The Army Corps of Engineers tied the whale’s corpse to a dock, with the intention of bringing it to New Jersey for an autopsy. But when the Army first tried to lift Sludgie into their boat, the knot failed.

Sludgie’s body returned to the ocean, just as Jörmungandr did.  Divers hauled the baby minke back into the air, but the serpent is still down there.  Maybe he knows that he’s destined to meet Thor again in a true battle at the end of the world.  Thor will kill Jormangundur, then turn and walk precisely nine steps before collapsing dead from the serpent’s poison.  Until that day, Jormangundur waits, bruised, but not defeated, in the darkest, coldest part of the ocean.  Far deeper than Gowanus Bay.  Above him swim minke whales, making indecipherable noises that we will never truly name.

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Isaac Kestenbaum has worked as a newspaper reporter, a teacher, an organic farmer and a sternman aboard a lobsterboat in his native Maine. A 2008 graduate of the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies, he now works at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, New York.

Ink by Elizabeth Albert

OBJECT: Heavy Oil

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


ink by elizabeth albert.jpg

Elizabeth Albert is a painter and collagist living in Brooklyn, New York. She has received fellowships from the NEA/ Mid-Atlantic Arts Council, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Inc., and the MacDowell Colony and her work is exhibited nationally. She teaches courses in painting, drawing, design, and the art and architecture of New York City at St. Johns University in Queens, New York.

Gowanus Spills by Rose Nestler

 OBJECT: Heavy Oil

BODY OF WATERGowanus Canal


Gowanus Spills 2, July 9, 2008

Gowanus Spills 2, July 9, 2008

Artist Statement 

Through exploring human attachment to material objects, my work investigates the appreciation and gradual depreciation of the objects that we possess. I am interested in the material objects, which we discard or neglect, searching for places where discarded or outdated objects become resident in natural landscapes. I am equally interested in ornamentation whose form attempts and ultimately fails to imitate the natural world.  Within my sculptures, installations and drawings, I expose the lives of inanimate objects once they cease to be human possessions.


Rose Nestler is a Brooklyn based mixed-media artist who finds her inspiration in forgotten found objects, architectural façade and the redefinition of craft.  She holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College in Fine Art and Art History. This year, Rose was awarded a studio residency at the Supporting Women Artists Project (SWAP) and has exhibited work at galleries in New York and Chicago. Her past residencies include Byrdcliffe Artists Colony, NY Studio Gallery ARTcamp, Harold Arts, and Vermont Studio Center. Rose works as a teaching artist, conducting after-school and in-school residency programs through The Joan Mitchell Foundation and the Guggenheim's Learning Through Art program. Find her online at rosenestler.com. 

To the Thirsty I Will Give Water by Alex Dimitrov

OBJECT: Volvo 

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


Yesterday morning while I read Montaigne
a man drove his car into the Gowanus canal.

I have never seen a greater monster or miracle
than myself, Montaigne wrote in the late 16th century.

It was a bright day.
The sun forgave no one.

Not even the firefighter who first saw
the car taken by the water while he was praying,

lighting a cigarette, remembering his lover’s face—
what was he doing, what did he think of before diving in?

It is not death, it is dying
that alarms me, Montaigne tells us.

Because he swallowed enough black water during the rescue
the firefighter was given two Hepatitis B shots afterward.

The man who lost his car was given his life back.
We were given Montaigne’s heart

which is preserved in the parish church named after him
in the southwest of France.

We were given more than we can drown.


Alex Dimitrov is the author of Begging for It, published by Four Way Books. He is also the founder of Wilde Boys, a queer poetry salon in New York City. Dimitrov’s poems have been published in PoetryThe Yale Review, Kenyon ReviewSlatePoetry DailyTin HouseBoston Review, and the American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize in 2011. He is also the author of American Boys, an e-chapbook published by Floating Wolf Quarterly in 2012. Dimitrov is the Content Editor at the Academy of American Poets, teaches creative writing at Rutgers University, and frequently writes for Poets & Writers.

Gowanus Canal by Nate Dorr

OBJECT: Deck of Cards

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


Gowanus

Gowanus

Artist Statement

New York is a city of nooks and crannies, discovered and undiscovered, above and below the waterline. Years of industry and years of the collapse of that industry have left much of the city ringed in relics: sunken piers, cement edifices, twisting metal. Recent times have seen much of the coastline reclaimed by municipal projects and developers, much more remains as it had been. And whatever the changes on the shore, it seems likely that the oil-slick surfaces of inlets like Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal will hold onto their mysteries for much, much longer. All of this is worth investigating, and worth documenting along the way.


I was dredged out of the Gowanus and deposited in Brooklyn in summer 2004. When computer problems forced me into a musical hiatus shortly after, I found myself wielding a camera with ever increasing frequency until musical concerns were all but forgotten. For the last couple years, I’ve bridged the gap as a photographer and writer for Impose Magazine.

Oil So Heavy It Sinks by Nura Qureshi

 OBJECT: Heavy Oil

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


Qureshi_Nura1.jpg

Qureshi’s range encompasses fine art photography as well as photojournalism. In 2008, she was awarded a grant to travel to Cambodia and document survivors of the Khmer Rouge. She has also documented medical missions in Ghana and Guatemala. Qureshi’s work has been featured in a number of group exhibitions: photographs inspired by unearthed histories around New York shown in the “Underwater New York” exhibit in 2009-2010 at Proteus Gowanus Gallery and the Frying Pan. In 2010 she was part of the Biennial Juried Photography Exhibit at the Edward Hopper House, exhibiting images from her current work of “The Itching Hijab” which explores the complexities of coming from the East while living in the West.


You Will Not Find Her at the Bottom of the River on Whose Shores Your Life Has Been Squandered by David Hollander


Well then down you go.  Spiraling into darkness with the regulator hissing and the funk of the Hudson clinging to your suit like rime, the spotlight held at arm’s length and advancing its bad joke into a slurry of black mud and pollution, the bubbles racing from your mouth toward a theoretical surface as you penetrate deeper into that living darkness which cinctures the earth and makes a mockery of your personal ephemera, of the husband you no longer recognize, of the advanced degrees that belie your fecklessness, of the psychotropic prescriptions that mediate your pain, of her empty crib with its bone-white spindles, of the lewd smile of the young man at the dive shop, of the dappled morning sunlight outside your bedroom window and the ferocious joy it has occasionally instilled, of your fear of spiders and your fear of bridges and your fear of stained glass cathedrals—the darkness making a mockery of love.

Your heart punching at the wetsuit as you sink to the bottom of this urban river on whose shores your life has been squandered, this river which preserves that original conundrum from which the entire cosmology was birthed in an unfathomable instant of fire, pushed from some icy womb of Nothingness so as to spread out virus-like and then die its slow death.  The depth gauge glows green in the murk, fifty feet, then sixty and then yes, as promised, here is the oily bottom rising up to meet you and you lay your belly down in the earth’s black blood, indulging in the deep gulps of air you’ve been counseled against taking, your body hot and electric within the suit as if the neoprene enclosed only pulsing organs and circulatory twine.  You peer out across the riverbottom and down a corridor of visibility above which the particulate matter hovers like smoke in a housefire, then you kick hard once and glide out above the planet’s bottom where creatures deformed by metropolitan poisons live out their sorry half-witted lives.

You sail into a strange dreamscape, as if the Hudson were articulating the collective remembrances of those countless cadavers drifting through the roiling current, skeletons and zombies conjuring up a limbo of fantastic design: Here a freight train ten cars long, half buried in the mud yet still endowed with illusory motion by the visibly streaking current, the penumbral forms of phantom hobos slithering back within the enormous cargo boxes as your spotlight rotates.  Here an ice cream truck whose former delights are yet promoted on a side panel, Ice Cream Tastes Good!, alongside a grisly portfolio of the truck’s one-time wares, treats now betumored by bulbous mollusks that shrink eerily beneath the light.  Here a collection of ten-foot ivory worms attached—at their gaping mouths—to a wooden beam weighed to the bottom by a thick iron chain, the worms stretched taut and wavering like the stripes on some wind-stiffened flag and each thick as a thumb.

She can’t be that sick.  Just look at her. Oh but she was, goddamn you all, she was even sicker than that.

Here now a grand piano, squatting perfectly upright in the black mud and so you pause at the keys, adjust your buoyancy, one hand holding the light and the other reaching slowly through the water, fingers splayed to tap out the opening bars to Fur Elise, and though no sound issues forth you nevertheless hear the notes as played by your own mother whose warm smile and warm heart only served in the end to foster those illusions to which the river is antithetical.  You push gently back from the instrument and the keyboard’s perfect teeth seem to smile grotesquely and something silver flitters in your periphery, reminding you of your own alienness and of the demons that lie in wait for those who would search out angels here in the darkness of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered.

Here now an old muscle car, a painted eagle splayed across the hood and a small spiny fish behind the spiderwebbed windshield.  Here a formica dinette, several chairs upset in the mud as if an aggrieved family had only just departed, their accusations already regretted, their long-pent rage now spent on internecine resentment.

She can’t be that sick.  Look at her.  It’s impossible. Sleeping peacefully among a menagerie of stuffed animals whose dead eyes stared back at you with an absolute detachment that you would remember later, when she was in the tiny casket with her own eyes sewn shut but surely aghast beneath the tiny lids and you ran your hand over that dead face and found yourself unable to make the connection between this pale corpse and the little girl asleep in the white crib who could not be that sick just look at her it’s impossible and already there before the casket you were thinking of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered, because she had asked you from her hospital bed if this meant she wouldn’t get to go paddling with you, Mommy can I still go when I get better?, and even then you knew that you would make this one and only dive and that you would tell no one, not the doctor nor the university colleagues nor the husband you no longer recognized, down you’d go into darkness just as your own father had those many years ago and you had seen the man swim,Captain Tuna, his navy buddies had called him, and men like your father did not succumb to rivers though they might choose them.

And now the wreck of the Princess Anne, just as they’d promised at the dive tutorial, a 350-foot side-lying behemoth with an enormous iron smokestack embedded in the slime like the barrel of some doomsday weapon.  You peer into a cabin porthole half expecting an ulterior world to fashion itself from the ship’s debris, your breath hissing and the bubbles racing upward toward a surface you remember and long for and despise. What accompanies your exhalations and dissipates into this idiom impervious to language?  What will remain of you to drown?  And is she after all at the bottom of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered?  Is she here where the dream symbols incubate, where the dead are born and the living perish?  Is she here among the refuse of a city that never gave a goddamn about you, that inflicted its own tidal erosion upon your soft and ill-prepared heart, that wore away at your every desire before destroying the one thing it could not take by simple attrition?

Maybe you ought to have climbed our tallest remaining skyscraper instead, scanned the windows as they rushed past for some fleeting glimpse of her brown-blond hair.  Or you might have searched the expression of a subway conductor as you hovered before his brighlit onrushing cockpit in one last, enduring caesura, looked there for meaning or for forgiveness.  (The crunch of bones, the explosion of light and blood.)  Or you might have done what the others do and just endured, the way he was enduring, you might have lived with her ghost always just outside your periphery, always waiting for you to alight upon the secret spell that would drive the marrow back within her phantom bones so that she could again embrace your legs and giggle, and fall, and laugh with a joy that ripped your heart in two.

You push now within the hull-split wreck.  Ruptured plates and once-inhabited cubbies.  Horizontal movement through the ship’s vertical layers. You take enormous breaths.  Your thoughts race for the surface of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered.  Her tiny body on a tiny bed.  Tubes and wires.  Monitors with their bright peaks and valleys.  Her blood a poison to itself, her blood not unlike this dark river in whose downdraft you now coast.  Up there on earth there were people moving about, surefooted and unapologetic.  Up there they ate and drank, they laughed and made love, they suffered and died.  The river does not care.  You hear it now… Fur Elise… drifting toward you on a wave of pure light, an anti-oblivion that will preserve you—as if in amber—here at the bottom of the river on whose shores your life has been squandered.  You turn back toward the wreck’s sundered hull and you see the colors rush toward you, a many-hued brightness with the notes spinning visibly within the blinding quanta and the river now an empty channel through which this deadly beauty flows and you, down here, sorry at long last that nothing, not even this, will restore you to yourself.

The sleeping child in your arms, her warm breath on your neck, you turn to face the crib with its bone-white spindles and you suck in her smell and you hold it deep within your aching lungs and you do not exhale, you will choke on it, goddamn these goddamn people who never lost a thing.


David Hollander is the author of the novel L. I. E; his short fiction has appeared inMcSweeney’s, Post Road, Unsaid, Swink, and Best American Fantasy.

Mysterious Goo, Immune to Diseases by Ben Greenman

OBJECTMysterious White Goo

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


“Except for waist-bands, forehead-bands, necklets, and armlets, and a conventional pubic tassel, shell, or, in the case of the women, a small apron, the Central Australian native is naked. The pubic tassel is a diminutive structure, about the size of a five-shilling piece, made of a few short strands of fur-strings flattened out into a fan-shape and attached to the pubic hair. As the string, especially at corrobboree times, is covered with white kaolin or gypsum, it serves as a decoration rather than a covering. Among the Arunta and Luritcha the women usually wear nothing, but further north, a small apron is made and worn.”

— W. Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen, “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” 1899

This description never fails to fill me with a mixture of longing (for the frank and carnal descriptions of the indigenous peoples) and boredom (I cannot abide the implication that it took two men to write that paragraph). But I do not want to remain focused too narrowly on those Central Australian women and the fur-strings that are fanned and attached to their pubic hair. Instead, I would like to turn to Spencer and Gillen, the two men responsible for this bit of informative, if somewhat wooden, prose.

As any student of Australian anthropology knows, Spencer was a principal of the Horn Expedition in 1894.  The expedition, the first to make a comprehensive attempt to understand Australia’s interior, left by train from Adelaide, proceeded to the railhead at Oodnadatta, and then left the tracks for camelback. The brave men of the Horn Expedition, Spencer among them, spent time in the Finke River basin, the Macdonnell Ranges, and Alice Springs. “It is beastly cold and beastly hot,” he wrote home to his elder brother, “sometimes simultaneously. In last evening [sic], I witnessed a buzzing bug the size of a dingo land upon the back of a wallaroo and drain the poor thing of its very vitality.” Spencer was prone to exaggeration.

Gillen was not. He was the more cautious of the pair, submissive and romantic. Though he was Spencer’s senior by five years, he was merely an assistant on the 1894 expedition. Following that journey, the two men struck up a friendship that blossomed into a professional relationship, and they soon collaborated on “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” which was published in 1899, and from which the description above is drawn. I have been told by anthropologists that “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” which runs to more than six hundred pages, contains valuable insights into initiation rituals, sun and moon myths, and the Witchcetty Grub Totem. I must believe them, as I have no desire to investigate for myself.

My interest in Gillen and Spencer stems not from their scholarship, but from the fact that they produced in me the greatest pleasure known to man. This requires some explanation. In 1990, I was disowned by my family, which was an Austrian industrial dynasty responsible for designing and then improving the kind of light aluminum railing that can be seen around the edge of suburban pools and other small bodies of water. “This is a terrible thing to be rich for,” I used to say to my father, and though he scowled at me, this was not why I was disowned. Neither was it the result of my scorn for his railing-gotten millions, or my insistence on using some of those millions to train myself as a bespoke boot maker. “I can buy you all the world,” he said, “and yet you waste your time making them,” to which I responded, without any intention of cleverness, “I do not need all the boots in the world, and I prefer to think of it as spending my time rather than wasting it.” The cause, rather, was Pamela, my first wife, who had a face as smooth as a water-worn stone and a mind as dirty as the bed of the river beneath it. The first time we met, we were at a formal dinner that was being hosted by my family and paid for out of my father’s trench-deep pockets. I introduced myself, and she scowled slightly. Later, she would tell me that she had an inborn suspicion of money and that which it had poisoned. But she was kind enough to speak to me, and moreover, to ask me questions. When she learned that I was a reluctant heir, and that I considered boot-making not only my trade but my fundamental identity, her eyes went soft and watery. “That’s not the only thing that went soft and watery,” she said: a mind as dirty as a riverbed. That was enough to spark the flame of love, but what kept it burning was her elaboration. She was an anatomist, a biologist, but also a sensualist, her great-grandfather’s great-granddaughter in many essential ways. “The female of the species, when aroused,” she said, “is liquefied by science.”

I repeated this insight to my father, who asked me where I had heard it, and then, upon learning its source, cautioned me against indulging the weakness brought on by the female of the species. “You are not exactly resistant to the manipulations of others,” he said.

“Except for yours,” I said.

“Just do not marry this woman,” he said, “or else it will be your final act as a member of this family.”

I committed this final act, of course. For anyone who thinks I was acting foolishly, I can only remember Pamela and what she looked like then. It is a form of explanation, which is not to say rationalization. When my father disowned me, he made the only joke I ever knew him to make. “You’d think you would like getting the boot,” he said.

As a wedding gift, I made Pamela the most wonderful pair of black leather cowboy boots. When I presented them to her, my head was still ringing from the dressing-down I had received from my father, and so I did not notice that she began undressing immediately. She took off everything and put on the boots. I let her break them in on our honeymoon night. We scuffed the tips repeatedly.

The next morning, she told me that she had a present for me. I closed my eyes. She leaned her bare breasts into my hand and then laughed. “That’s not it,” she said. “But open your eyes.” I did. Her great-grandfather’s book was on the table, open to the paragraph I have reprinted above. I read it.

“Do you want one?” she said.

“One what?”

“A tassel,” she said. I did not respond. “I mean a tassel on me that you can remove and then tie around your finger while you have your way with me.” I nodded. “Come,” she said. “Let’s walk.”

I followed Pamela out of the house. The boot heels clacked on the pavement. She kept a few paces ahead of me and sped up whenever I did. I could not catch her. As we went, she told me a story. While her great-grandfather was exploring in Central Australia, he filched one of the pubic fans from a woman to whom he had an immediate and powerful attraction. “Science was not impersonal for him,” she said. Later, when he married and became a father, he showed the tassel to his wife, but did not allow her to wear it. “Marriage had meaning for him, but it did not have ultimate meeting,” she said. When Gillen’s children were old enough to look for mates of their own, he presented them with a series of what he called “inspirations and injunctions,” the central message of which was that they should look for a partner with whom they felt a “powerful and uncontrollable mix of respect and attraction.” When they located that prospective partner, Gillen said, they should present him or her with the tassel (which would be passed from eldest child to eldest child) or the equivalent (this, Gillen said, could be anything that a younger child believed had the same symbolic and talismanic value as the tassel). Pamela’s grandfather, an Australian physician, was the first recipient. Her mother, who came to New York City as a fashion model and then, later, a furniture designer, was the second. Pamela herself was the third. When Pamela was thirteen, her mother gave her a box fashioned from desert rosewood; inside was the tassel. “Show it not to your first lover, but to your true love,” she said. When Pamela was twenty years old, she met a man, found herself attracted, traveled with him, even shared an apartment with him briefly, but did not show him the tassel. A few years later, she met another man, felt a significant attraction, felt respect, but did not feel compelled to show the tassel. Some years after that, she fell completely in love. She did not give me the man’s
name, and so I will have to invent one. I will call him Bill. When Pamela met Bill, she knew at once that they would be together forever.

“I felt everything,” she said, “from the cleanest and most crystalline intellectual affinity to the most transporting frightening physical throb.” One night, she disrobed before him and revealed the tassel, which she had attached to her hair in precisely the manner described in her great-grandfather’s book. She passed a blissful month with Bill, but at the conclusion of that time, he told her that he had met someone else. She despaired. She considered ending her life. Instead, she committed a kind of symbolic suicide, casting the pubic tassel into the river. That was eighteen months before she met me. Now that the two of us were together, she wanted to retrieve the tassel and try again. “Just because I have not yet lived up to my great-grandfather’s ideals does not mean that I should stop trying,” she said. Then she said, “Here is the spot.” We were on a bridge that spanned the Gowanus Canal. She went to a nearby tree and broke off a branch, scratching her hand in the process. “A small amount of pain is a small price to pay for what we are about to see,” she said. Then she walked down
to the water’s edge and stepped over a short aluminum railing, pointing at it and laughing as she went (her message, I assume, was that it was manufactured by my father’s company, and I admit that it could have been, though I did not check). She knelt down and sunk the branch into the canal to its hilt. Her hand almost touched the surface. She wiggled it around against the edge of the wall and then withdrew it with a happy cry. On the end hung the tassel. “Come here,” she said. I went down to the edge to meet her. She dried the tassel on the hem of her dress. On the way home, she stayed a few steps of me again; the boots went quickly on the sidewalk. When we were inside the apartment, she lifted her dress entirely, revealing that it was the only garment she was wearing. Again, a mind as dirty as a riverbed. She quickly fastened the tassel to herself. “Come here,” she said. I did. “Hold it in your hand,” she said. I did. The tassel oozed through my fingers. She frowned and quickly untied it from herself. “Look,” she said. I did. The white material, the kaolin covering that had been immersed in canal water, had come into contact with the scratch she had received from the branch, and it was having an immediate and visible effect, shrinking the scratch away to nearly nothing. She quickly saved the rest of the kaolin, which was softened nearly to a lotion, in a bag, which she put inside a jar. The effect of the canal water was not uniform: while it had jellied the kaolin, it had brittled the strings, which snapped in half. Pamela threw away the rest of the tassel. That evening, we repeated our performance of the previous night. When we were finished with our carnal exertions, she got up out of bed—again, wearing only her new black leather boots—and went to get the jar containing the kaolin. She set it on her bedside table and scrutinized it. Now it was no longer a jelly, but something even less solid. She inspected the contents with a magnifying glass. She held it up to the light. She dipped the end of a cotton swab into the jar. When she applied the tip of the swab to a blemish on the back of her hand, the mark vanished immediately. “Somehow, this substance has acquired healing powers,” she said. I did not understand how this was possible, and said so. “You know how it goes,” she said. “Liquefied by science.”

I did not understand, but I was not such a strong man that I was able to insist upon scientific transparency after being fobbed off by a glib remark from a beautiful woman wearing only boots. The marriage did not last long. When we dissolved our union, she wept and raged and told me that she was going to go down to the canal and pour out the contents of the jar. That time, she went out the door not in her black leather boots, but in a far more modest pair of flats. She did not return for the boots. She did not return at all. I reconciled with my father and was presented with a sports car that he told me was worth half a million dollars. I drove it like it was worth far less. I drove it thinking only of Pamela. I drove it with a mixture of longing and boredom. A few months after that, I received a letter from Pamela in which she told me that she thought of me often, but never thought of me directly. “When I went to the canal that day,” she wrote, “and crossed over the railing, I thought of it as you, in a fashion, and I could nearly not bear it. I poured out the jellied kaolin and was surprised to see how fast it broke the surface and made for the bed of the canal. It is there now, sitting at the bottom, healing whatever it touches.  It could have been yours.” A few days after that, she sent a second letter, her last, asking me to send her the boots.


Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction, including SuperbadA Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both, and the recent novel The Slippage. He lives in Brooklyn.

The Birdcage by Nicki Pombier Berger

OBJECT: Birdcage

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


Kate was scouting the pan-Asian buffets when she first saw the magician. A few chirpy women were clustered around him, and Kate watched from a distance while he rendered them boneless. They gripped each other’s elbows. They tittered and yelped. She moved to the edge of their circle and watched while the magician folded the nine of hearts into a triangle, stabbed it through with one woman’s lapel pin, an emerald dove, then vanished both from his hand. The card reappeared, unwrinkled, unpoked, in the liner pocket of another woman’s jacket.

The women shrieked. None asked what happened to the dove.

Kate was impressed, but didn’t stick around for another act. She was not a woman predisposed to wonder, not a believer in much beyond the evidentiary. As a litigation lawyer, she manipulated language to conjure or advance a particular reality, which might seem to some like slight of hand.  But there was no magic in it for her. She wasn’t looking for it.

She was looking for her husband, who wasn’t where she’d left him. Kate had her third gimlet in one hand and her first plate of food in the other, and went right to hungry rage when she couldn’t find Mike. They had a system for these non-tabled events – she hunted and gathered, he schmoozed and held the plates. Where was he? Kate brought her plate up to her chin, took a nibble of Pad Thai.

They were at the holiday party for Mike’s firm, an investment-banking biggie whose belief in the failed magic of real estate securities spelled impending disaster, evidenced nowhere. Here was Midtown indulgence at its finest, the same degree of shebang Kate had been going to for ten years now, undiminished, if anything enhanced by the mood of coming doom. She wove through banquettes by the hundreds, spread thick with slick meats, and fruit plates too landscaped to eat, cheeses and cakes and steaming vats of this and that, sushi rolls like zygotes, eyeing her from every table.

“Speaking of zygotes,” she said, picking up a spicy tuna roll with her drink hand and wagging it at Angie, a fellow wife who materialized beside her. Formerly Kate’s partner in food scouting, Angie was secretly pregnant, six weeks along and not telling anyone except anyone who asked anything like how’re you doing, which was everyone here, of course.

Angie made a face. “Don’t rub it in.”

“Can you believe you’ve got a little fish in there?”

“I hope not. God, put that thing down, I feel sick. The smells in here!” She clutched her stomach. Kate rolled her eyes.

“Seriously! And I’m stuck with this.” Angie lifted her vodka-less soda, and Kate clinked it with her gin.

“Have you seen Mike?”

“He was with them.” Angie rounded her hand over an invisible stomach. Mike’s department had four women huge and hard with late-term pregnancies, their belly buttons visible like third nipples. It’s like a disease, he told Kate. I hope you’re not a carrier, she said back.

She poked at Angie’s future mound. “You’re one of them now.”

Angie moaned miserably, clearly ecstatic. “I should find them, actually. Get a few tips. Before I never see them again.” She gestured vaguely at the room. Kate saw Mike’s boss not far away, gripping a highball, laughing himself pink to the scalp. She saw one of the first-year analysts bent over a brick of Manchego, sawing hard against its rind, his wine glass spilling unnoticed. Kate saw, high above, an acrobat, hired like the magician to charm them all blind to the end. The acrobat dove through an arc to no oohs or ahs, her bare legs bound in spirals of ribbon, and alighted alone on a platform near the ceiling. Kate saw the magician amid another clutch of women, and clicked her glass against her teeth to keep from laughing.  And then she saw the magician see her; Kate bit down on her glass, tipped it back, downed the rest slowly, showing the length of her neck.

“You go ahead,” she told Angie. “I’m still hunting.”

Angie left, and the magician lifted his chin at Kate, pointed to his shoulder. Kate touched hers, and there it was: the nine of hearts, slipped beneath her thin strap, cool as a palm against her skin. She put the card on her plate and her plate on a table and grabbed a glass of white from a passing tray, and when she turned back, the plate and card were gone, and though the magician was nowhere to be seen, she could feel him, as a wire feels a bird just taken flight.

Taking another glass of wine from the bar, she made a full circuit of the room, raising her two glasses with a shrugging smile when she passed people she knew, or thought she might know, or should. Can’t talk, important business, delivering drinks. No magician. Down a corridor lined with silent auction prizes, yacht rides and Hampton mansion weekends, lunch with Eli Manning and portraits painted to order from all manner of artists, she passed into a room crooned to by a Dominican Sinatra, and there he was. Mike, standing with Angie and the others beneath a behemoth ice sculpture of the bank’s crest, an eagle with wings held primly in, beak cocked, knowing and silent.

Kate turned quickly, took shelter behind the charity obelisk, a towering glass cylinder filled near to the tip each year with kumquats, each fruit attached to some child whose life was somehow bettered by the bankers. Who counted out the kumquats? Where did it come from, this fruit in such bulk? By what measure does a child become a kumquat? Kate ticked her fingernails against the obelisk and finished her wine, peeking back at Mike. From this distance he was small – squinting, she did a mental I’m squishing your head – and abstracted. A Mike-person, a banker, and a handsome one at that. Another sip of wine. Animated as always, Mike reached a hand out in emphasis, touching Maya’s forearm where it rested on her belly like it was a desk. A husband person. Kate felt like that acrobat, unwatched, watching from a private landing high above. By what measure does a life require a kumquat?

“Blue skies,” sang the Sinatra person, “smiling at me.”

They’d had an understanding. They didn’t need kids. But when the Mayas started blooming, at Mike’s firm and Kate’s, too, and among their friends, and Mike’s sisters, the space between them started to feel like an absence. Kate resisted, maintained a vigilant silence on the subject, deeply resented the suggestion that it was simply a matter of time. She was still fine. Another sip of wine. Mike and Maya looked right, side-by-side, and it struck Kate as impossible that it was she who was attached to Mike, that Mike was her husband-person. From this distance he was so clearly Maya’s.

She felt relief so sudden and deep and fleeting she rested a palm on the obelisk to steady herself. When she pulled away, the nine of hearts clung to the glass where her hand had just been, and when she looked up, the magician was there in place of Mike, a deck of cards alive in his hands, his face visible to Kate between Mike and Maya’s backs. He caught her eye, lifted his chin skyward.

Perched on the ice eagle’s beak was an actual bird. And then came the bad magic.

A caterer passed by, a raven tattooed up his neck. Kate backed out of the room, moved quickly to the nearest bar, where the bartender’s wrists were inked with wings. He shook out a gimlet and stuck it with a parrot-topped stir stick, and Kate startled, knocking into a man whose eagle crest cufflinks caught the light as he shook spilled drink from his hand.

Kate put down her gimlet and made for the bathroom, but the bathroom attendant was readingTo Kill a Mockingbird, and, in the mirror, there was the tremor of a forgotten feather in Kate’s own hair, peacock, pinned just above her temple, drawing out the flame in her hair, the blue of her dress.

She needed Angie. Food and Angie. Back in the party, she hit the first table she saw. Oysters, thank God, as far from flight as animals can get, limbless and slick, like little stopped hearts. She picked one up and slurped it down and heard a caw and shut her eyes, opened them when she heard it again, looked up and there it was, the bird again, no sparrow or chickadee or wren, but a crow that no one else seemed to hear or otherwise notice, a crow, possibly the first of thousands soon to come, thousands with intent to descend and blind them with their beaks, deafen them with Biblically thunderous wingbeats, feathers loosed in fury and drifting like ash, like burnt scraps of paper, the crowded ceiling descending, crumpling down in the shapes of these birds, each bird a shard of untold truths and failed hopes and petty victories, a bird for each transgression—

But. Kate didn’t believe in transgressions, didn’t believe in Biblical fury, didn’t tamp her hopes down into some dark inner pearl. She plucked an ice cube from the platter of oysters and sucked it, nice and slow. She smiled at the caterer, who had the loveliest skin, cloudy tan, like wet sand, smooth as a sea-stone and completely blank. She looked up: the bird was gone, and she moved to the window, needing to touch something.

The night sky had a cozy glow that signaled the hope of snow. Below her the city’s millions lit windows and taillights and who knows what private little fires. Kate fingered the waterspots on the glass, felt herself returning. She needed Mike. She wanted her husband-person. She turned from the window and bam, a bird struck the glass. Kate shrieked. The band went up a decibel, and with the panicked feeling that is the opposite of surprise but also the embodiment of shock, she recognized the opening notes of Free Bird, and someone hollered it out, Free Bird! and Kate finally lost it.

She slid along the window to an unmanned banquet, dropped to the floor and crawled under the table, pulling the heavy drapery still behind her. The dark was pitch. The carpet was a comfort and a surprise. The table was high enough for Kate to sit up, and she took off her heels and wrapped her arms around her legs and pressed her face into her knees.

The curtain lifted, and Kate saw feet, and then shins, and, all at once, a birdcage. The magician peeked in at her and smiled. Up close, his face was round and pale, his nose nudged like putty, smashed a bit to one side. He had the chin skin of a daily shaver.

He climbed in, arranging himself cross-legged, pulling in the empty birdcage, lit a squat white candle stuck within in. He grinned at Kate and pulled the curtain closed. His face vanished. The birdcage lantern cast little light, but Kate could see his hands, and the cards they worked like thought made visible, fast and synoptic, hypnotic, and she stared and stared.

“Pick a card,” he said.

Nine of hearts.

“Remember it, okay?”

Nine of hearts. Nine of hearts.

“Have you got it?”

Kate nodded, and then spoke. “Nine of hearts.”

Their laughter threw the flame into spasms. He tried again, and this time Kate kept it in her mind. She released the card back to him and it took on a life of its own, surfacing over and over as though it were some kind of gravity or true north the deck must always come to rest on, no matter the configuration, no matter the shuffle or split. And then it took flight from the deck entirely, appearing in her hair, in the crook of her arm, tucked in the inner velvet of her tiny clutch. He tore it into shards and opened his mouth and pulled it whole and dry from within.

“Hand me your ring,” he said.

A pause. In their silence the muffled party out there raged on, and Kate could tell even through the curtain that things were approaching that level of hysteria they do around midnight, when things start to get middle school, slip into cliché, when secret crushes get clumsily revealed, when kisses are sloppily planted, when threesomes are casually suggested in transparent jest, when desperation is betrayed on everyone’s faces, when even the happiest of them begin to wonder whether they aren’t, after all, deeply unsatisfied, or whether their satisfaction is in fact just complacency.

“First tell me something about what you’re doing. One thing,” Kate said.

“One thing… Magicians never tell their secrets.”

“Something I don’t already know.”

She heard the wingbeats of cards shuffled, shuffled and shuffled, a separate breath under the table, a third living thing.

“Magic is wasted on believers,” he said.

“I’m no believer.”

“Marriage is a believer’s game.”

Kate handed him her wedding ring.

He made it disappear.

Her nose stung. She turned her face so he couldn’t see.

He reached toward her, and his wrist brushed her ribs. Kate stiffened.

“No,” he said, “I’m just…” He pulled a tissue box out from behind her in the most ordinary of gestures. She took it and clutched it in her lap with both hands, as if it would fly away if she let go.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Sorry. I don’t know.”

“Why are you sorry?”

Just yesterday Mike sketched and framed a fat, maternal owl for their friends’ baby son. By what measure does a family require a child?

“I feel trapped.” Kate felt a small release, like the words themselves were birds that had been waiting to be freed.

“Magicians don’t believe in trapped.”

“How convenient for you,” she said. She could feel the closeness of his face, feel his hand on her bare arm, the grainy rub of his pant leg against her thigh where her skirt slid up under the coaxing of either magic or his other hand, which touched her so lightly that, of all that night’s questionable realities, it was the one thing she could not convince herself was really there.

“I’m not,” Kate started.

He let her go.

He blew out the candle. There was the momentary tang of candle smoke, scattered by a sudden rush of wings, and the immediacy of another breathing thing in the dark. Kate heard the bird fluttering in its cage without crying out. The magician found her hand and pinched one fingertip, and then touched her knuckle with the small cold circle of her ring.

Kate crawled out with as much dignity as she could muster, and the evening began to right itself. The magician was shorter than she thought, and younger. No more than twenty-five, Kate guessed. He pulled the birdcage out and produced a comb and ran it through his thick hair in two quick strokes.

They walked silently to the elevator as if ending a date. The button was pushed but no one was around. The elevator opened and he held the birdcage out to keep the doors from closing.

“The thing is,” he said, “you’re not – ” he shook the birdcage. “You can do whatever you want.”

He looked like a child.

“You sound like my mother,” Kate said, and that was the end of the magic.

He handed her his card. It said just Magician. Kate tucked it into her clutch. She found Mike, who stroked her hair where the feather had been, his palm warm, his voice low and slurred, his smell familiar. “You love that feather!” He looked genuinely dismayed.

When she got home, Kate looked for the card, wanting to throw it away. But it had already disappeared.




Nicki Pombier Berger is the Founding Editor of Underwater New York. She writes fiction, and works in nonfiction using oral history tools. She has worked at StoryCorps, and is Chair of the Board of Advisers for 3 Generations, a non-profit that curates stories from survivors and advocates working on human rights issues, connecting audiences to ways to action. Nicki has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a Bachelor of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and will complete the Oral History Masters of Arts program at Columbia University in Fall 2013. Presumably she will stop going to school at some point. She lives in Brooklyn.