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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.

Island, Romance by Asya Graf

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Asya Graf was in residence on Governors Island from October 1-31, 2018.


It was June, not yet summer. The clouds hung low over the towers in the Financial District and Staten Island was a hazy idea, more mirage than landmass. A fine drizzle pricked our faces. Bracing ourselves against the railing on the upper deck of the ferry—8 minutes to Governors Island, the sign said in the waiting room at the Battery Maritime Building—it was like we were swimming already. As though all it took was some water and the anticipation of our bodies in it to erase all that seemed solid and insurmountable.

*

I signed up to swim in the annual race around Governors Island in order to experience my city from a different angle and from a different element, trading air for water, the vertical for the horizontal. I told myself I’m not here to race: I’d spent enough of my youth racing in water, oblivious to everything save my body fighting to beat time. I’d meant to take it slow, to notice the particular way the Statue of Liberty loomed over the water to my right and the four verdigris cupolas on the roof of the Main Building on Ellis Island floated like a fantasy over the industrial waters of the harbor. I wanted new, but what I got was old.

As soon as my body entered water, I had only two goals in mind: stay warm, win. And once the race began: only win. The harbor flicked on and off from view, but all I knew or cared to know was my racing body. Total self-absorption, a paranoid state of proprioception and fixation on a feel for the water to the exclusion of all else. The very thing I longed for—to know my city from the water—receded as soon as I touched water. This tension felt old and familiar: loss at the very moment of possession.

*

Maybe it’s only that I wanted to say, misquoting Whitman: I too lived, Brooklyn was mine. I too walked the streets of Manhattan and swam around it. But swimming around Manhattan felt beyond me, a pool swimmer trained to go for hours back and forth, not around. Instead, there was this little island, a circumference of two-something miles, which was my measure, the measure of my body. Governors Island was intimate and lyric alongside Manhattan’s epic. An island I could hold in my mind, an island a child could draw, a blob with no complications. An ice-cream cone. An island of the mind and of the body. My geographic twin.

*

It’s not quite accurate to say I fell in love, and yet there must’ve been an original falling. The first island I deliberately sought out was Shaw in the San Juan Islands, cupped between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island. I went toward, but mostly came away from. I thought of islands as negative passions: freedom from, escape from, absence of. On the ferry from Anacortes, I scanned the waves for orcas but couldn’t look away from the pale bulk of Mt. Baker behind me. The white mass above, the possibility of whales below—it wasn’t islands I was after but wildness, not shelter but exposure. On Shaw, I found a benign kind of domesticity, the opposite of wildness, although I now understand this to be a false binary. I stayed for a week with the Benedictine nuns at Our Lady of the Rock, learning to card and spin wool and clean the chicken coops. The sisters were an island on an island, their lives weaving together the conflicted connotations of insular—insulated and isolated, safe and cut off.

*

What does it mean to swim around an island? The artist Paul David Young swam across the New York Harbor to Governors Island in order to complete Christopher Marlowe’s unfinished poem “Hero and Leander,” a retelling of the Greek myth in which Leander crosses the Bosporus each night to visit his beloved Hero. It doesn’t end well: one stormy night, her light goes out, he drowns, she throws herself off a cliff. But that wasn’t my myth, was it? I thought I wanted a sense of completion and the satisfaction of encompassing: “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” as T. S. Eliot said. A tight loop around a small island is not transgression, as in crossing a treacherous strait, but a wish for homecoming. Even Odysseus’ ten-year zigzag around the Mediterranean is a circumnavigation of Ithaca, the wildness of his journey subsumed by its purpose—to reestablish domestic integrity. Though of course, in the end, as Tennyson rightly pointed out, Odysseus was not particularly thrilled to be home.

*

And yet something remains from my circumnavigation of Governors Island, something more than my obsession with the race or its myths. Breathing to the left as we passed Castle Williams, I was heartened to see a family of four pedaling south in their rented red surrey, pacing me. I remember too the momentary vertigo after we rounded the southwest tip of the island and all of Upper New York Bay opened up, clear to Staten Island, down to the Verrazano Bridge. Cargo vessels were anchored out in the bay, awaiting clearance, for a tugboat to come fetch them, giants amassing as though plotting a takeover. The gantry cranes loomed over us across Buttermilk Channel, at the Red Hook Container Port. They were loading or unloading an enormous blue container ship, though now I think this was a hallucination. I remember the precise vulnerability of my body. It’s a feeling like sandpaper across the back of my scalp. An industrial harbor is no place for the human body. And yet, this vulnerability takes the form of longing, like the desire for a lover to crush you. I still have dreams of swimming among an armada of container ships. I’d be lying if I said these dreams were nightmares.  

*

Two days later, B. found the sea lice bites. I took off my shirt in the bathroom and B. asked me, “What’s that on you?” The bites looked like measles, a rash spread across my stomach and breasts, following the contours of my swimsuit. The itching was gradual and then persistent. By the time B. pointed out the bites, I was in denial of the other symptoms: fever, lactic burn in all my muscles, shortness of breath, nausea. We were flying to Mexico City in a few days. I should’ve gone to the doctor but didn’t. Two days later, straining up the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, I was still carrying traces of the harbor. Under the high-altitude sun, my body wouldn’t let me forget the place I called home, a damp archipelago where jellyfish larvae terrorize the unwary swimmer. Female swimmers in particular, trapped in our one-piece swimsuits and bikinis.

*

When I asked a teammate what it’s like to swim around Governors Island, he said it was fine till you got to Buttermilk Channel. That’s where you’ll really smell the diesel, he said. He was right. Once we rounded Picnic Point—the bottom of the ice-cream cone—the quality of the water changed. From the mint and mud smell of the estuary, it took on a thin papery quality, as though it had lost some of its density. Something about it reminded me of acetone. The tide was going out like someone had pulled the plug on the harbor, and we were pushing up against it. The waves were slapping me in the face and I swallowed water. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the harbor is the cleanest it’s ever been. But still: I likely swallowed fecal matter. It was my way of saying, again misquoting: I am fused with you, men and women of Mannahatta!

*

Ports are places of grief, Philip Hoare writes. Sailors refused to learn how to swim, since swimming would only prolong the agony of drowning. Ports are places of temporary arrival and inevitable parting, of risk, hard labor, hard lives. The containerization of the shipping industry has made the smaller, tighter anchorages of the city unworkable for cargo vessels. The Red Hook Marine Terminal is still a working port, but most shipping has moved to New Jersey and Staten Island. Swimming around the city’s harbor means immersing yourself in grief for its robust history, for its departed vessels, warehouses, carriages and horses and carts and trucks, brothels and saloons and boarding houses and markets. The eeriness of swimming here is due in large part to how empty it is of people.

By contrast, Governors Island feels alive and intimate. A body that will allow me near it. That I can approach, encircle, make mine.

*

After supper my first night with the Benedictine nuns on Shaw Island, I walked over with the other guests to the priest’s house to watch a wildlife documentary. He had just arrived from Kenya, sent to this island by the Church. I wondered what sin he’d committed to merit this exile. He showed us leopards and lions stalking their prey as his eyes filled with tears. Were we the only ones homesick on this entire island, a black African man and an atheist Soviet Jew? Afterwards, in the dark with a flashlight, I hiked up to the highest point on the island in desperate search of reception so that I could call B. I cried imagining B. on our red loveseat binge-watching “Wallander.”

*

Swimming around an island is an exercise in melancholia. Attempting to encompass something you cannot own, to approach something you can only circle around. It is intimacy through distance, being kept away when your heart’s and body’s desire is to possess. For the privilege to land on Governors Island, Governors Island Trust, acting as the Charon of New York Harbor, levied a steep toll from the race organizers. As though to touch the body of the island had to come at a price. The fee notwithstanding, the island’s very geography makes it unapproachable, surrounded as it is by a perimeter of landfill, a bulwark of sharp rocks and debris dredged from the bottom of the harbor and collected from subway construction over a hundred years ago. The island is defended, and I’m self-absorbed, and we’re both impenetrable.

*

Tracing the perimeter of things, knowing all along that circumnavigation is not enough. Who wants to trace the outside when the prize lies in getting through? Governors Island was used primarily for defense of the Upper Bay and the city beyond it. Like the Byzantines’ chain across the Golden Horn—much good it did them against the Ottomans—Castle Williams and Castle Clinton across the water in Manhattan were meant to block British ships in the War of 1812. Then as now, the island is not easily breached. I might have encircled it by swimming around it, but all the fortifications remained between us. The jagged rocks of the seawall, the chain link fence around the promenade, the bureaucratic obstacles to touching the body of the island. Which in fact we never did. We entered the water off a boat and exited via a ramp, never feeling under our feet the fine, squelchy sediment at the bottom of the harbor.

*

One of the first books I read after our immigration from Soviet Russia to San Diego was Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. The book was, and still is, a staple of the California middle grade curriculum. Of course, I identified with Karana and the real woman on whom her character was based, stranded alone for eighteen years on San Nicolas Island: her home, but not domestic; a wild, terrifying, lonely place that took all her wits to survive. Two ways to lose home: you leave, or all the people you love leave and you alone remain. You desert or are deserted. On clear Santa Ana mornings, I’d strain to see San Clemente Island, the southernmost of the Channel Islands. It seemed close enough to swim to. Remote and unreachable, it became the stand-in for the lost home. A place to long for. If nostalgia is a longing for a home that never was, an island on the horizon is an ideal embodiment of that impossible home.

*

“Remoteness is inseparable from movement, but it is created through a special kind of movement that separates at the same time it connects,” writes John Gillis in Islands of the Mind, talking about the way the remoteness of islands is a social more than geographic construction. I create the distance between us, and then I seek to erase it. Blurring the boundaries, I bring you near while somehow still keeping us apart. Isn’t that what all romances are? Playing with intimacy while striving to maintain boundaries? Or maybe what I was after was an end to this game. I wanted to surrender. Don’t ask me, surrender to whom? Rather, surrender what. Surrender is transitive but not dative. Psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent writes that surrender is a passionately sought controlled dissolution of boundaries, a relinquishing of our false self, an intense wish to be known and recognized. Instead of landfill, I wanted landfall.

*

Several weeks after a friend died, I happened to be traveling to Iona in the Hebrides Islands. It was remote and cold, and yet the place was overrun with tourists. Ignoring the crowded abbey, I made for the southern beach where St. Columba was supposed to have landed in the sixth century. There I picked out three spherical pink marble stones, each about an inch in diameter, and brought them home with me. I’d meant to put them on my friend’s grave, but they’ve been hard to give up and I’m no longer even trying. My favorite of the three is the most perfectly round. Flecks of mica glitter as I roll it around on my palm. In Jewish tradition stones stand for the permanence of memory. From Governors Island, I’ll carry always on my body the sea lice scars, mingled with those from chicken pox, contracted one summer thirty years ago in a Soviet sanatorium. I’ll keep too the vertigo of the open bay, the terror under the gantry cranes, a queasy longing for the container ships, and the taste of mint, mud, and diesel.


Asya Graf’s poetry and essays have appeared in Boxcar, Cimarron Review, Comparative Literature, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Sport Literate, Underwater New York, and Vestal Review, among other journals. 

The Fact That it Can Do This Without Falling Apart by Tia Anae

OBJECT: Rubik's Cube

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


The evening skyline in late August looks cold from the High Line, but it’s 75 degrees with humidity. People are up here with me—the 22-year-old west coast naïf—but I’m the only one around watching the black sky and blacker water. A loud someone takes a photo to my right and the flash lingers, icy and white, when they walk away. I stand at the railing, pretending to look native, despite my backpack, and not clueless, despite the Google map I’ve got queued up on the phone in my pocket. I’m short a dad double-fisting a hot dog and a Big Bus brochure—which is my actual dad right now in our Times Square hotel.

I didn’t know until eavesdropping on a tour that this place is called the High Line, and I found it by following the water. I walked from Greenwich Village through I think the Meatpacking District then down a side street. In new places, I’m almost always geographically stupid, and here is no exception. In my solo ambling, I forgot New York had rivers, or honestly, water. So coming from California—a place well known for its water (and more recently its lack of it)—when I saw what I didn’t know until later was the Hudson, instinct reeled me in.

Another thing I didn’t know until later is that about three summers ago, a giant Rubik’s Cube sailed down this Hudson River for its 40th anniversary and its creator’s 70th birthday. Architecture professor Erno Rubik, who invented the cube to teach 3D movement, created an object that didn’t disassemble when it twisted and turned. Originally it was named for this phenomenon: the Magic Cube.

Walking along the High Line, I’m interested in the lookouts that line the path and face the river. I stop at one, a blue metal table and matching chair. Perched awkwardly near the middle of the pathway, under this low concrete archway, they’re inviting in a somber way. I sit there for the view of the water, which is not much of a view because of the arch, but I can see the white and yellow city lights twitching and poking out of the black sky. I don’t sit in this spot long because I soon feel in the way. A herd of people drifts by. Like a boulder in a current, I’m by no means a barrier—they slip around and past me after all—but I feel obtrusive. Too aware of my singularity here, I stand up and keep walking. And anyway, that’s how they do it here. No one stops.

Well, but I do. Two minutes later, I turn right and stop again at another railing to watch the water from a different angle. From here, I can see on the water’s surface the reflection of the W Hotel’s red ‘W,’ big and ostentatious across the river. The red light has lost its shape in the water and moves like crimson oil in the ripples. The surrounding water is deeply black against the skyline’s halation.

It’s almost ridiculous now to think of a massive toy floating downstream here. Maybe it’s the nighttime, or something high brow I’m sensing about this well-groomed High Line, but New York—while home to eccentricity, no doubt—seems severe; severe in a way that could call an icon ersatz or shrug off avant-garde as camp. A Rubik’s Cube on the Hudson sounded like Lady Liberty on ice. After all, the cube itself looks, despite its complex mechanics, elementary. And apparently this was intentional. When designing it, Erno Rubik needed a type of coding to orient the cube’s rotations. The simplest and strongest answer, he said, was color. So he assigned one to each of its six sides. The cube’s a black skeleton covered in color—blue, green, white, yellow, orange, and red—making it a kind of a geometric circus box. Maybe it’s fitting then that the giant Rubik’s Cube that floated down the Hudson River was inflatable. The ballooning that typically makes recreational air-filled things hard to take seriously actually made the scrambled cube immobile, and thus unsolvable. New York seems too smart to have missed this.

A couple joins me on the railing, so close to me that I try to slide away in that subtle polite way we’re taught to give space to people who didn’t ask for it. I’m out of railing though—we’re sandwiched between beds of greenery—so I turn away and rest my elbow on the rail’s edge. Watching the water this way is a neck cramp, so I look to the right and see a sculpture among the plants. I leave the railing for a better view; the sculpture is white and wraith-like in the evening backlight. Growing out of the black dirt in a line are four structures that look to me like melting steamboat cylinders. The plaque below tells me this is an abstraction of a hand called Amulet II, part of a multi-artist exhibition called Mutations. The High Line Art website tells me Mutations examines “how the boundaries between the natural world and culture are defined, crossed, and obliterated” and asks, “as technology becomes more invisible and genetic engineering more conceivable, how do the delineations between nature and culture shift and transform?” A woman in an orange cardigan moves to stand between the sculpture and me. I side-step her and twist through an oncoming wave of humans.

***

The Rubik’s Cube is made of 20 small cubes called “cubies”—12 edge pieces and 8 corner pieces—and a 6-bolt rotating core. Speedcubers, competitive Rubik’s Cube solvers, advise beginners to think of the whole cube in terms of these smaller cubies, rather than the stickers on each edge. They refer to memorized solution sequences as algorithms, which in math speak are instructions for arriving at a final state through successive, defined states. Some steps in the sequence affect others, some don’t—some have side effects, some are solo shifters with delayed realignment. There are 43 quintillion ways to scramble a Rubik’s Cube; if you had one cube for every permutation and laid them end-to-end, they would stretch 261 light years or cover the earth in 273 layers.

By now I’ve left the sculpture and found a chessboard, an art installation called chess: relatives. It’s an interactive piece and you play the game by replacing the chess pieces with people, who represent different family members. The board is white with 64 squares, each with the word “white” or “black” written on them. Standing beside it, I read that the artist, Darren Bader, “bridges absurdity and sincerity, resulting in humorous, tongue-in-cheek works that question how certain things—objects, events, thoughts, or concepts—come to be honored as art objects.” Given my conditioned fear of scolding for touching artwork, I don’t want to know the consequences of stepping on it. I make a point of walking around the board to get back to the path.

Rubik’s official website will tell you, “Erno has always thought of the Cube primarily as an object of art, a mobile sculpture symbolizing stark contrasts of the human condition: bewildering problems and triumphant intelligence; simplicity and complexity; stability and dynamism; order and chaos.” When I found this, post-High Line, I thought of the John Guare play, Six Degrees of Separation. I first saw the film adaptation in high school. Two of the main characters are an affluent couple, an art dealer named Flan and his wife, Ouisa. They own a double-sided Kandinsky, which in the film is painted on one side with his radical Black Lines (1913) and on the other with his geometric Several Circles (1926). There’s a scene where Flan spins the Kandinsky around and around as Ouisa chants hypnotically, “chaos, control, chaos, control.” In another scene, she tells her daughter about the theory of Six Degrees of Separation—the idea that each of us is connected by six other people. She says, “I find that extremely comforting that we’re so close, but I also find it like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the connection.” Years later, it was always her “chaos, control” bit that haunted me. But now it’s her frustration with this hex-web and her concern with human proximity—at once invisible, precise, and obvious—that either intrigues or depresses me; I can’t tell which.

I walk along the High Line a bit longer and search for a place to view the river one more time. I find it near the restrooms. When looking for a way to explain three-dimensional movement to his students, Erno Rubik took inspiration from the Danube River in Hungary. Watching it one day, he saw how the water moved around the rocks, and from this emerged the cube’s twisting mechanism. “The fact that it can do this without falling apart,” he said, “is part of its magic.”

Here at the Hudson, I lean over the corner edge of the railing and wonder what this water looks like in the daylight: if it’s blue or green, stagnant or depthless. Maybe during the day it’d be easier to see how it moves. I turn away from the water, and I notice for the first time that most of the passing pedestrians up here are, as far as I can tell, alone. They duck through and around each other deftly and without thought, sometimes reconvening a little down the path, sometimes not. Their flow is confounding and comforting and, I realize now, necessary. It’s a matter of physics: people here move to stay in motion.


Tia Anae recently graduated from Northwestern University's School of Communication. She's from the Bay Area and has been to New York exactly once. She currently lives in LA.

The Hudson River, The Trains Below by Tobias Carroll


Tell me about memory and distance and time. I don’t quite understand how they converge even now, pushing forty. I used to view distance solely in terms of time, used to think any trip that was an hour north was in the same place: visiting cousins in Bergen County, going on trips to museums in the city, venturing off to my dad’s office in North Brunswick. They were all in the neighborhood of an hour from my hometown and, being a child, I never looked at a map, never gleaned where they all were in relation to one another. I thought of everything with a flawed logic, without a sense of space or geometry. That was something I had to learn. It shifted when I went from passenger to driver, changing my relationship to the roads on which I traveled.

Cue up the next course, then; cue up the next track. In this case it was public transportation: at the age of eighteen I moved into a Manhattan dorm and began to familiarize myself with the New York City subway system and its cousin, the PATH train. I’d taken the subway once or twice before, most memorably to save money on parking when friends and I had driven up to see Pink Floyd at Yankee Stadium in the summer of 1994. But the subway took some work, even considering that I was taking it in the most simplistic manner possible: largely, between Greenwich Village and Midtown. Brooklyn was a mystery to me then, a place where I’d travel with carefully remembered directions; Queens and the Bronx and Staten Island were even less on my radar.

I’m pretty sure that the first trip I made on the PATH was to the Newport Centre Mall, along with my oldest friend. I don’t remember what the purpose of the trip was. It might have just been that most archetypal and predictable of decisions made by people who grew up in the Garden State: we missed seeing the inside of a mall. The PATH is similar enough to the subway that it shouldn’t feel all that different, and yet it does. Some of that pertains to the stations, with tiled floors and walls that look more roughly hewed. Some of it is the smell–-not a bad one by any means, but a more industrial one, and one that’s sufficiently different from the subway to be easily recognizable as such. Blindfold someone and place them in the 9th Street PATH station, then lead them one block away to the 8th Street entrance to the station housing the A/C/E and B/D/F/M lines. There’s a noticeable difference there, despite their proximity and similarity of function.

In those days, the train seemed to take ages between the Christopher Street stop and its next destination, either Hoboken or the Pavonia-Newport station, depending on the line for which you’d opted. In college, I made that trip frequently–-sometimes to see movies at the Newport Centre Mall, sometimes to meet up with a friend at the Hoboken stop and drive around the northern part of the state talking about punk bands. The spaces between stops in Manhattan felt fast and regular: 33rd to 23rd to 14th to 9th to Christopher. And then, the wait.

That gap under the Hudson no longer seems as long, and I’m at a loss as to why. Maybe the speed of services has improved in the last twenty years. Maybe I’ve gotten more familiar with the route and it simply seems faster. I’ve kept on taking the PATH from Manhattan to Hoboken. I’ve kept on taking it to Pavonia-Newport, to visit friends or pick up rental cars in the mall’s parking garage. I’ve taken it to Grove Street for bookstores and bars. And in recent years I’ve also become familiar with the World Trade Center’s PATH station, traveling to Harrison repeatedly to watch soccer games and, for a little less than a year, to the Exchange Place station as part of my morning commute.

***

It’s a strange corner of Jersey City. Pavonia-Newport abounds with towering apartment buildings and office spaces. Grove Street and Journal Square feel comfortable and residential: they’re places where people live, shop, and eat. Exchange Place felt disorientingly generic, as though I was walking through a video game’s idea of what a waterfront business district looked like. The PATH train was the last leg of my trip there in the mornings and the first leg of my trip home at night. Sometimes I’d sit and drink a cup of coffee and write at the Starbucks next to the station first. Sometimes I’d be there late and I’d go straight to the station and begin the slow trip home.

After a while the routine got to me. The temporary platform to which the train ran in Manhattan made for a bleak start to the commute back, and the tendency of those waiting on the platform for the New Jersey-bound train to push their way on before those of us who were heading into the city had had a chance to disembark added to the frustration. Atop an already-jittery work situation, this seemed to be one source of stress that I had some ability to work around. So the trip home found some variations; I sought new ways to cross rivers.

I began to take a roundabout way home: a ferry from Jersey City to South Street Seaport, and then a second ferry from there to a stop closer to my neighborhood. A large boat on the East River, and a smaller boat to cross the Hudson. It was a welcome change; it was nice to sit and stand and look out and see the open sky, to watch the blue and the clouds above. The sensation of moving down the river with skylines on either side, the sense of being surrounded by life on all sides. There’s a certain point where the sky starts to seem like something alien, where cloud formations resemble structures and vessels hanging impossibly in the distance. I welcomed it.

It wasn’t an everyday occurrence. And for all that I live near a ferry stop, it isn’t really a service I use regularly. It is hard to argue with the frequency and utility of the city’s train systems. Even so, the drift and the different types of motion are welcome. It’s a reminder of something older and something rapid. It’s a trip out of the tunnel; it’s an elision of time and distance. It’s a crossing of an empty space, or the realization of new ways to move, and a welcome conveyance home. 


Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has been published by Bookforum, Men's Journal, Tin House, Hazlitt, and Rolling Stone. He is the author of the collection Transitory and the novel Reel. He's on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.

Islanders Like Me by Alanna Schubach

SONG: The Downeaster 'Alexa' by Billy Joel 

BODY OF WATER: Atlantic Ocean 


The year I was born, a hurricane made landfall on Long Island that sent gray Atlantic waves gobbling up the sand and slamming against the building where my family lived. We had a third floor apartment that faced the sea, nothing but a strip of beach between us. When I got a little older, my father would take me onto our terrace during storms to see bolts of lightning slice the water, or watch as the ocean slowly swallowed the sun.

As south shore kids, we bragged about our wipe-outs, how strong waves sucked us into themselves and sent us somersaulting until we could only guess which way led back to breathing. Once, a friend collided with another child’s boogie board and emerged onto the sand slicked with blood running from his nose. When his mother saw him, she fled in the other direction. Once our parents spotted a baby, upside down, chubby legs churning in the air after it tipped into one of the buckets of water we dragged up to our piece of beach, where we laid out towels and vinyl chairs, where the adults sat under umbrellas reading or talking nonsense or doling out pieces of fruit, occasionally hauling themselves up to stand at the shore and watch over us. The danger was part of the appeal, as was the discomfort, the sunburn, the sand collecting inside the crotches of bathing suits, the stripes of zinc under our eyes, the heavy sensation in our lungs when we took deep breaths after swimming for hours. During the day, our beach was populated with gentle characters: the sand sculptor who with his hands shaped huge turtles, the bagpiper bleating at all hours, the martial artist up at dawn doing tai chi by the jetty. But at night, the boardwalk became dotted with shambling figures that required a wide berth; they were left over from the deinstitutionalization of the 1970s, when city mental institutions discharged their patients to ancient motels lining the Long Beach sand.

When I was seven, we moved a few miles inland, to a town that was wealthier and whiter. And greener: here was your classic suburb of split-levels, sycamores, and well-groomed lawns. My brother and I were forbidden from watching television when the sun was out, so we pulled the neighbor kids from their air conditioning and onto the streets, which we crosshatched with chalk drawings. My parents started calling our house Camp Schubach, and we quickly forgot that it ever hadn’t been ours.

But something must have remained off-kilter. Once, while riding bikes down one of the smooth avenues of our neighborhood, a friend shared with me her prophecy: “You’re going to leave and I’m going to stay here, and every now and then you’ll come back and visit and tell me about where you went.” And the idea, Stay here, suddenly struck me as impossible; it provoked a disgust I couldn’t explain.

*

Last summer some friends and I drove out from Queens to the island to spend a weekend at the beach. Before we headed back to the city, we stopped at a diner. It was packed for Sunday breakfast, and as we waited to be seated, carful after carful of Long Islanders piled in behind us, surveyed the crowds, and proclaimed to whomever would listen, “I’m not fucking waiting.”

The situation, we learned over and over again, was bullshit, this place was poorly run, if a table didn’t open right away they were leaving. The pitch of their anger seemed at odds with the well-lit, bustling circumstances of the little diner, almost to the point of the surreal. But in fact it was familiar, the impatience and the aggravation, the suspicion that, absent constant vigilance, you will get fucked. Many Long Islanders do not have deep roots in this country; growing up, most everyone’s grandparents, including my own, had foreign accents. Perhaps it’s how they had to fight for their little pockets of affluence after who knows what kind of nightmare stops along the way, a fight passed down the generations but now missing a reasonable target. The hostility was like a gene activated at the onset of puberty; I remember wondering a few days into middle school, the kind of place where reading Lord of the Flies would have been redundant, is this what it’s going to be like? Where were the friendly beach clans, the children whose brutishness ended at carving up jellyfish with plastic sand shovels? So I found a new clan—the Goths—and made it my business to loathe Long Island, to make my outsider orientation clear to everyone.

Long Island can be shockingly provincial, its proximity to one of the world’s greatest cultural centers seemingly not a factor at all; it’s among the most racially segregated areas in the country, and in 2014 the state had to order school districts to enroll undocumented immigrant children, after they claimed to have no room for them. My brother’s peewee baseball coach once told the players to run like a pack of people were chasing them, using a slur to describe said people that is not appropriate for children or for anyone, and when I had my Bat Mitzvah, another girl told me that her mother disapproved of the whole proceeding because the invitation cards had been “too casual.” Often, people’s approval and disapproval seemed misplaced; what stoked their outrage had little to do, I thought and continue to think, with what was actually wrong.

We Goths felt that we alone knew this. We were imbued with the righteous authority to identify poseurs, followers, and Jewish American Princesses, to forge our own paths. What you feel you discover as an adolescent about your culture, its pettiness and justifications, its encouragement of the forfeiture of dreams and values, is not actually wrong; you just gradually become acclimated until you fall victim yourself, like being sucked under a wave, only very, very slowly.

My affection for Long Island has not exactly grown. I jettisoned my accent in college because students from the New York suburbs were widely known to be brash, entitled, and oblivious, about as appealing as an eight a.m. class. But it’s started to come back. I’ve found it makes me sound tough, if only to myself, when I want to seem like I’m not nervous or self-conscious. That edge of hostility, unfounded though it may be, imbues us with power. Holding onto misplaced rage is a form of self-harm, like holding a hot coal in your hand, but we can always throw that coal at someone else.

Maybe what we’re all angry about is being from Long Island. But none of us control where we come from; place of origin is as arbitrary as it is formative. Which may be why it’s so appealing to overlay our homelands with an ambitious sweep—which in turn explains Billy Joel.

The homegrown troubadour unites nearly all Long Islanders, be they Goth or poseur—though of course even he sings mostly about the city. “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’,” though, evokes a dream-Long Island, gritty, romantic, and sea-swept; it’s the ballad of a down-on-his-luck fisherman from a vanishing community, struggling to make a living off the same waters that hemmed us all in, left us vulnerable, formed an incubator for the kind of insular, territorial island culture that has at some points in history bred cannibalism. In the music video, a solemn-faced Joel plays an accordion on a crumbling dock and then underneath a boardwalk, intercut with images of bearded men shaking out damp fishing nets on ship decks. The song is so epic that it includes a violin solo by Itzhak Perlman. Its seriousness can be a little tough to take.       

But his brazen earnestness must be what people love about Billy Joel, why he is playing thirty consecutive shows at MSG this year. Long Islanders, too, often carry with them a touching streak of sincerity; my friend from Islip does an impression of a “classic Long Islander,” which is a middle-aged tough guy wandering nervously around a drugstore, looking for the tampon aisle because his girlfriend sent him out to get some.

“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” concludes with a nod to Long Island’s social divisions: “There ain't no island left for islanders like me,” Joel sings. The track is at its heart a folk ballad about a vanishing nautical community, but hearing Billy Joel intone the phrase “islanders like me” almost feels like tacit permission to be just a little proud of coming from Long Island. And you can’t sing about it without singing about the water; the whole region’s saving grace may be its vulnerability to the natural world, which periodically makes sure to remind us that the apartment towers, the motels, the baseball fields and shopping malls and wedding venues, can be taken by the waves, the pettiness and provincialism is nothing against the mouth of the ocean, which can swallow it all as easy as it swallowed the sun every night when I watched from the terrace. 


Alanna Schubach is a teacher and freelance journalist living in Queens. Her fiction has previously appeared in Newtown Literary, Post Road, Prick of the Spindle, the Bellevue Literary Review, and more. She was named a 2015 Fellow in Fiction with the New York Foundation for the Arts.

 

Web Waters by Alice Neiley


There’s a perfect view of the ocean if I sit on the highest monkey bars of a Battery Park playground, or on one of the blue chairs that face north in the Poets House library across the street. Tree branches block the reality of an opposite shore. Green and yellow leaves catch Manhattan’s gauzy sunlight and the water appears endless; the Hudson River is the sea.

This won’t work in the winter of course, but for now, early October, my imaginary ocean and I still have another month or so together. Soon, I’ll just be watching as the river flows toward the New York Harbor, underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and into the darker, truer sea I can’t see from here.

Sometimes I wonder if love is fate, a choice, or what. Can you make a list of what’s in it? 

*

Before moving to the city, I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a small fishing village at the tip of Cape Cod. I jumped in the water every day my last year there—no wetsuit—even in January. Patchy sheens of ice over the beach some mornings, I’d dive in head first, breath leaving my body as if sucked through a vacuum. The quiet cold would tighten around me fast, squeezing all the energies I’d ever had through my body and just like that, I’d be wrapped in a rumpled towel, strangely warm. The whole experience never lasted more than five minutes. It was like being shot from the belly of a firecracker for the hundredth time—both mechanical and explosive.

I told people I did it for the invigoration, the kick-start to my day. But really it was for the moment between underwater and running to shore. When I’d burst back into the December, January, February air, only my skin noticed if there was sun, or snow, or waves. My skin woke up, questions disappeared, and for that moment there was nothing else to say or think, nothing else about me at all.  

 

Since moving to New York, I’m prone to anxiety attacks. Sweaty, chest tightening choke holds that seem to come out of nowhere—in the middle of a quiet stretch of Central Park, in the middle of a meal, in the middle of the night. I found Battery Park a few weeks ago, and watching the boats drift on their moorings, I can breathe.

I’ve started to make a mental list of all accessible bodies of water near the city, researched where the water is deepest, most swimmable.

“Hell’s Gate,” a portion of The Narrows tidal straight where the New York Upper Bay, Long Island Sound, and the Hudson River intersect, is 35’ to 40’ deep. But even though the tides keep the area relatively clean, I’d need a boat in order to take a dip out there, and probably a tether to attach myself to its cleat. That same tidal flow can speed up to 5.0 knots depending on the wind and lunar cycle, increasing the depth and current to a swirl unforgiving to swimmers.

When my girlfriend, Karen, and I are  apart, I think about her hands a lot. Even for the longer, three month stretches we’ve spent in each other’s company, I’ve never been able to stop looking at them: her long fingers typing, turning a key, braiding between mine like the beginnings of a web.

One winter visit to Ottawa, near sunrise, Karen threw on a giant hoodie sweatshirt and went downstairs to get a fire going. I got up, stood by the window, and rubbed my eyes. There. There was the ocean. I pressed my nose up against the snow spattered glass and almost yelled out why didn’t you tell me it was here!, when a pink and blue tinted cloud lifted, and the smoke stacks across the city appeared, the hard angles of houses.

“Hey do you think the almond milk from last week is still good?” Karen called up the stairs; she knows I like it in my coffee.  

I sat down on the bed. I covered my eyes with my hands and rubbed, trying to get the ocean back.

I sometimes still wish she would figure out a way to bring it to me, even just a little piece—a piece of my old self for this new, concrete self I don’t recognize at all.

“I’m never going to be able to buy you a nice sweater for a gift, am I?” she joked once. I wanted to tell her that of course she could. I wanted to say I’d love anything from her. A sweater, a bunch of flowers. I wanted to be an easier person. But what I wanted even more was proof that if I was to forget who I was, she would remember. I wanted her to know that one rose and a bouquet of carnations were found in New York City’s Dead Horse Bay, still fresh and colorful, probably not even a day old. I wanted her to know—osmosis, telepathy—that those flowers would be a perfect gift. Or a photo of those flowers, or even if she had been the person to tell me about them—how they survived underwater and died when they were pulled out.

 

There’s a tangle of cross currents known as the “The Spider” off Battery Park. The Hudson’s breadth and the East River’s fast flow converge at their worst about two hours after high tide. The current rushes north in the Hudson River and west from the East River. This spidery water movement can cause ships to be trapped, unable to turn or change course under their own power. For hours, no one realizes they’re motionless, stuck, even in the place they most understand how to navigate.

*

When I turn all the other lights off, my room is illuminated only by a string of Christmas lights, completely green. For a moment I’m not pretending to be somewhere else. I’m not wishing whatever I’ve left behind would come back.

The Hudson River is not the ocean, but they’re the same color, especially when the light hits at 6pm. My room is suddenly the flashing safety light on top of coast guard stations, buoys, lighthouses, ship masts, underwater forests. 


Alice Neiley has a BA in English from the University of Vermont and an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from Hunter College in New York City. Her work has been published in Vermont Quarterly, Nashville Review, Eckleburg Review, Brandeis University’s Kniznick Gallery, ReSearch: Ezine of Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, ReviewYou, Tottenville Review, ReviewYou.com, Tahoma Review, Provincetown Arts Magazine, and now Underwater New York. She currently works as a creative writing professor for undergraduates at Hunter College.

 

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.

Submerged by Charis Emily Shafer

OBJECT: Parts of Zone B

BODY OF WATER: Hurricane Sandy



Artist's Statement:

Personal narratives reveal the minutiae of an event so epic in scale it escapes understanding. So it is here with the recollections of Sally and John: an artist and his muse. On May 3rd of 2013, they recounted their mutual affection and shared struggles with gentle ribbing and creative interplay. A clandestine painter, John stored his completed canvases in the basement of their Sheepshead Bay home. When Hurricane Sandy flooded the neighborhood, the house was spared, but not so with the paintings, many of which were of his muse, Sally. But, in spite of this, the two find humor and joy in each other and, because of it, they are embarking on another as-yet-uncharted creative voyage together. 


Charis Shafer has worked on a boat and has swum with bioluminescent phytoplankton; she is also an independent multimedia producer living in Brooklyn who moonlights as the Assistant to the General Counsel at the Open Society Foundations. She has worked for the Columbia Center for Oral History, conducted oral history interviews with the Brooklyn Historical Society, recorded podcasts for the LA Review of Books, and produced the short film Occupy: An Oral History Project, featuring narratives of those involved in Occupy. Her current projects include: BrooklynPop, a Brooklyn-based podcast on pop culture; a music video with the singer/songwriter, Julia Weldon; and a satirical Web series. And yet, she still finds time to explore aquatic New York with her wife and their dog, Sylvie. 

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)

 

 

Following the Water: Snapshots of my Everyday Journeys by Cheryl French

BODIES OF WATER: Saw Mill River, Harlem River, Bronx River, Hudson River, Rum Brook, Sheldon Brook, Silver Lake, Andre Brook


Sitting beside the Bronx River with the sun warming my back and a gentle breeze tossing my hair in my face, I hear the whistle and clatter of the trains as they rumble to and from Grand Central. I hear the hum of traffic along the parkway. I hear the high-pitched whir of the HVAC system for the train station. I also hear robins, chickadees, sparrows, and orioles chirping, geese honking, new spring leaves rustling, and water flowing in eddies and currents down the river. This is what I love, and this is why I walk.

Nearly three years ago, I decided to leave the stability of my full-time job and return to the uncertain world of freelancing. I also let go of my car, choosing instead to rely on public transit and my own two feet. My work takes me all over Westchester County, where I live--a land of suburbs and small villages just north of New York City--and the city itself.

Water shapes my days and nights. From my perch on top of the hill, nearly every step out my front door propels me toward water. The mighty Hudson pulls me forward. It provides a constantly changing landscape and a reassuring familiarity at the same time. I follow the Hudson to and from work most days. I bid it farewell as I turn to follow the Harlem River, and I greet it upon my return. There are other waterways, too, many of which I never would have noticed from a car. Like me, many of the smaller rivers and streams eventually make their way to the Hudson, or they flow into the Long Island Sound, which then mixes with the East River, which finally joins with the Hudson in the Upper Bay. 

As with walking, relying on public transit requires time and patience. My schedule is not fully my own. Half the time, I have to rush to make a train or keep an appointment, only to arrive at one place with time to spare before the next leg. I have learned to savor those in-between moments as opportunities to explore; water is everywhere. The Saw Mill River, the Bronx River: I used to drive the parkways; now I walk beside the rivers themselves. Mamaroneck used to be the name of a town I could never remember how to spell or pronounce. Silver Lake was a preserve I read about online and thought I needed a car to visit. Then there are the streams, brooks, and tributaries: Andre, Sheldon, Rum, and others whose names I am still learning. They appear and disappear, forced under roads and buildings.

Taking photographs reminds me to pay attention. Sometimes I want to remember a particular moment or the play of light and shadows on the water; sometimes I want to return to a photo to try to identify a flower, tree, bird, or stream; sometimes I merely want to document how a scene changes from week to week.  

I can’t always stop to take photos, nor can I always capture images the way I see them. Even when I do not actually snap a picture, the habit has changed the way I see and experience the world around me. I have discovered tranquil water in the midst of urban and suburban settings where busy highways, parkways, and city streets lie just outside the frame. I see the trash, the abandoned shopping carts, and other signs of human carelessness, the ways we try to control nature and direct the water to suit our purposes, and the birds and other creatures that thrive in and along the waterways despite it all. Following the water means being rewarded by moments of quiet beauty, by the gangling grace of long-legged birds taking flight, by the glassy smoothness, gentle ripples, icy patterns, rough whitecaps, and angry currents of the water. I move slowly, and I stop to look.


Cheryl French is a writer, educator, editor, and photographer. She lives in Tarrytown and spends her days traveling around the Greater New York City area trying to engage her students in the wonders of the English language. She takes photographs along the way. You can follow her on daily rambles on Instagram: http://instagram.com/csfrench

Beach Days: A Cost-Benefit Analysis by Steph Cha

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.


My last proper Los Angeles beach day was in June of 2008. I was a summer associate at a law firm and one of the recruiting events was a Saturday morning surf lesson at Venice Beach. I didn't really want to go, but it was free for me and I liked that it was costing that terrible place a neat chunk of money. I don't remember the surfing lesson. I don't remember touching a board, or going near the water, or having a single minute of fun.

I do remember what happened next.  I'd arranged to meet up with high school friends for a full beach day after the lesson. My friends weren’t coming right away, so I shut my eyes for a minute to enjoy the morning sun while I waited. I woke up when they called me a couple hours later. I had an angry sunburn painting me head to toe.

We quickly discovered that we were on opposite ends of the Venice Boardwalk. I walked for thirty minutes to meet my friends halfway. I was tired and stinging, and the day was getting hotter, and I have rarely been so miserable as on that long walk through the chaos of Venice, schlepping my beach day supplies over raw red skin. When I finally found my friends, I was embarrassingly close to tears. Any nice beachy times we shared that day are lost to me. All I remember is the pain.

 _________

With my yellow-tinged, skim-milk complexion and my constitutional distaste for the smeary sensation of sunblock, I have had many bad sunburns over the years. Even so, that ’08 Venice Beach sunburn was probably my all-time worst, because it fried up my whole face. That same night, my friends and I went clubbing (it was that brief window in my life, when I could commit to two trying activities in a single summer day), and I did the best I could with a complexion that looked, more or less, like it had been achieved with a cheese grater. I got blasted, made out with someone I was pretty meh on, and for some unknown reason took a thousand pictures. My friends and I still laugh at those pictures.

I’ve since accepted that I need to wear sunscreen. I have also never spent another day on the beaches of LA.

It's not that I don't like the beach--I actually love it, as long as it's right outside my hotel room. I enjoy waking up, throwing on a swimsuit, borrowing a towel someone else has to wash, and then plonking down for a while with a book and a fruity cocktail while the sun and sea breeze ease me into a gradual tan. Have you ever been to Hawaii? I highly recommend it.

But LA is big, and most neighborhoods are not in walking distance of the water. I’ve lived here almost my whole life, first in the San Fernando Valley, and, more recently, in Los Feliz, between Hollywood and Downtown. Both places are about thirty to forty-five minutes of freeway away from the beach, without significant traffic. A round trip between my house and the water would cost at least an hour and a half of pure drive time. In an hour and a half, I could walk to my favorite bar and back about six times. Alternatively, I could walk there once and have three Bloody Marys. It is a very rare beach day that can top three Bloody Marys.

And it’s not just the driving, either. A few weeks ago, I went to a friend’s baby shower, way the hell out in the Pacific Palisades. Since we were already out there, my friends suggested going to the beach afterwards. I was all set to agree, but then I realized what I would have to do to get ready. I made a list in my head: pack towels, sunscreen, and a change of clothes; either ride across town and sit through a baby shower with a bikini bottom riding up my ass or change awkwardly in the car or in some sand-and-filth-crusted beach restroom. To figure out all these beach day logistics, I would also have to wake up ten minutes earlier than necessary. In the end, I woke up just in time to get ready for the baby shower and the decision was made by default. My friends went, and later that afternoon, I liked their pictures on Instagram. They looked happy, sun-fed and healthy.

But what did I really miss? A parking nightmare? A struggle to find an unoccupied rectangle of sand? At best, a beach day yields a few solid hours of hot sun and cold water, some relaxation on a thin towel with a good book to block the strongest rays from burning right through my eyes. Not bad, as things go, but not a super high return on investment. I don’t see the point in working so hard to relax when my couch is honestly pretty nice.

If I ever leave LA (never) I'll miss the tacos, the bookstores, and maybe the cocktail bars with Edison bulbs. I'll miss the sun. But the beach? Eh. Hawaii would still be a plane ride away.


Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, a feminist hardboiled detective novel. She lives in Los Angeles and mothers a basset hound.

The Canals by Amanda Montell

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.


"Tip the world over on its side, and everything loose will land in Los Angeles."
—Frank Lloyd Wright

I never know where to take people when they come to visit me in LA. I like to think my friends are too sophisticated for the stereotypical Hollywood route. The Chinese Theater, the Walk of Fame—it never even feels tempting to take them to the beach. The idea is to prove that LA is unexpected. That it defies its shallow, plastic reputation. I want to show my out-of-towners that LA has character, like New York does. That it wasn't a mistake for me to move here.

I came to LA for Ben. His job was here and I followed him. I hate admitting that, even to myself. I prefer to pretend it was a more independent choice. Maybe it was for the wine or a personal sense of manifest destiny. But I never dreamt of Southern California like I dreamt of New York City. I felt so proud when friends came to visit me there. So allegiant.

LA doesn't put its personality on display. It keeps it hidden in deep, unknowable pockets. In liquid trenches. If you walk out my front door now, you'll find a suburb. A grass-lined sidewalk, a row of stucco houses, silence.

My first trip to LA was in 2010. Autumn. Ben picked me up at the Southwest arrivals gate in a cherry red '91 BMW convertible. I was visiting from NYU, but Ben had already moved to LA—become a Southern Californian, through and through. We'd be bicoastal until I finished college. The distance didn't scare me; my concern was that I'd get to know LA and I'd hate it, because I understood that if Ben and I were to last, I'd have to leave New York behind.

"Hop in, babe," Ben smiled, blonde and white-toothed. I knew the air in LA was supposed to be filthy with car exhaust, but it seemed pleasant to me—dry and warm. Promising.

At Ben's apartment in Santa Monica, we opened the windows and drank beers in the daytime. We'd been together for only five months, and the combination of new love and my early afternoon buzz made my stomach tickle. We walked to the Third Street Promenade, where Ben bought me a vanilla cupcake and a wide brim hat, which blew off into the ocean fifteen minutes later, as we leaned too far off the Santa Monica Pier. I gasped, reaching after it.

I had always been wary of the Pacific. Its size. Its mysticism. I preferred the sort of water you could look across and see the other side. Take the Hudson. If we leaned too far off the railing at Battery Park, at least I knew my hat would end up in New Jersey.

"Don't worry, babe, I'll buy you a new hat every time you come to the beach with me," Ben grinned. California did suit him.

As the sun sank behind the far edge of the water, we hung out on the boardwalk and ordered shrimp tacos from a yellow truck.

At dusk, Ben was out of ideas.

We kicked a seashell eight blocks back to his apartment, and as the purple-lighted street become increasingly barren, I began to dread that the rumors were true. It was barely 8pm, and LA was already dozing off. Locking up boutiques, getting diners drunk and tired. Becoming a wasteland. I walked nervously beside the man I loved, convinced that the intrigue of this town ended at a cupcake and a suntan, where everyone said it would.

Which probably explains why, when Ben finally mentioned the canals that night, I thought he was referencing a local rock band. "The Canals." I imagined four slender hipsters playing synthesized noise before a crowded club in Hollywood. It didn't occur to me that he could be talking about bodies of water. After dark, when Ben decided we'd spend our evening in Venice and drove us southward, I refused to believe a neighborhood in Los Angeles with rivers for streets and boats for cars even existed.

"I swear," he defended. "Like in Italy."

"But Italy doesn't keep its canals a secret," I insisted. "How have I never heard of these?"

"I don't know, babe," he laughed, taking a sharp left on Lincoln.

Ben and I wound through narrow, unlit streets. Ten minutes later, we arrived. Parked in a damp, empty alley. Ben took me by the hand. We rounded several tight corners. Then, out of the dark, a slender white arch appeared in the foreground.

"See?" he whispered.

I squinted.

Illuminated by the moon and a string of dock lights lay a 20-foot wide waterway, two rows of colored mansions on either side. A curved ivory bridge connected the banks. Gondolas and paddleboats decorated the winking water, roped to miniature ports. On land, bougainvilleas swathed the walls of waterside palaces in every form—some three stories high and Spanish style, some flat and wooden like bungalows. Others with Art Deco exteriors, turrets, turtle ponds, balconies, gazebos. It was Beverly Hills, afloat. Surreal, a kingdom.

"There are more."

Homes fit for movie sets, spaced no further than five feet apart, lined canals by the dozens. Yet unlike any city attraction I'd ever seen, the neighborhood was desolate. It didn't feel deserted, though. It felt pristine.

"Is it usually more crowded?" I asked, eyeing a two-story made entirely of glass.

"Never," Ben said. "It's always like this."

"Wow," I whispered.

"I guess people go to the beach if they want water."

Alone, we crossed each bridge, picking our favorite houses, guessing sticker prices. Laughing in the dark.

Four years later. Ben and I worked out. I moved to LA, and by the time I did, it didn't feel so much like a sacrifice. Because no matter how much you worship New York, it will never love you back. It has too many people to look after. Too little room. After a few years of the good fight, I was ready for calmer waters.

I take all my visitors to the canals. Maybe the narrow channels don't wear their excitement on their sleeve, but that's the very reason why they continue to mystify me. It's their dreamlike spirit I'm taken with. Their self-unawareness. But most of all, it’s how quintessentially they speak of Los Angeles—this bizarre place, so expansive and hard to dissect that even the most beguiling things can feel unblemished, undiscovered, because everybody's simply gone to the beach instead.


Amanda Montell is an East Coast-born writer, blogger and peach Snapple enthusiast living in Los Angeles. She graduated magna cum laude from NYU in December 2013. She doesn’t have any books or fancy awards yet, but in the meantime, here’s her Instagram account.

You Don't Look Like You're From LA by Annie Heringer

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.



When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them, “Los Angeles.” But, if pushed to be more specific, I have to reveal I actually grew up in Pasadena. Some people get angry. “Pasadena is not in Los Angeles” they say, seeming to accuse me of pretending I’m a real Angeleno. Pasadena is indeed its own independent city, not part of the City of Los Angeles and in pointing­ out my geographic vagueness, these people are also tugging at an old, deeply buried inferiority, the heart of which begins at the Pacific Ocean.

Pasadena lies twenty-five miles from the coast, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. When summer winds blow smog inland off the water, it stops in Pasadena, the mountains holding it in like soup. That’s when it’s best to escape to the beaches where the air is much cooler and cleaner. But try to reach the coast on a hot day and inevitably you sit in traffic, becoming the very thing that is causing the smog-soup that you are trying to flee.

Nevertheless, my family did make the journey to the beach a few times each summer. At some point growing up though, I became aware that the rest of the world views Southern Californians like some privileged, sun-bathed tribe that practically lives at the beach. I began to wonder where my own rights had gone, especially since my family had once lived at the beach too—in a neighborhood called Mar Vista. Even people who don’t speak Spanish know that name means ocean view. But when I was four, my parents forsook my foothold on happiness to move to what they thought was a more wholesome, landlocked city. 

Pasadena summers were hot and a typical day was largely spent indoors in the darkened cool, with lots of TV watching. When I was ten, I became obsessed with Gidget, the 1960s TV series about a whitebread, teenaged girl who was always at the beach and a huge surfer—even if the footage of her riding the waves was so clearly shot in front of a green screen. But the show’s fakeness was what I loved most: a perfect, unattainable Technicolor vision of what growing up in LA should be and therefore perfect fodder for my growing complex about living a life that was far from it.

In high school, I became friends with a girl who was a grade older than me and had a car. She had long blonde hair and unlike me, was very tan. We would often go to the beach together and on one of our long drives to the coast, my friend asked me if I could be only one thing—tan and fat or pale and skinny—which I would choose. I remember really considering my answer. I have the kind of skin that sunburns easily and I was incredibly self-conscious about it. Being tan was the mark of being from LA, part of the club. I would try lying out in my backyard in small increments, then check for any forming tan lines at night. But my skin would just sprout more freckles. Definitely tan and fat.

By the end of high school, my friends and I were into music and art, activities that were generally in opposition to a sunny, healthy Californian lifestyle. The last time I went to the beach before leaving for college was a school-sponsored trip for the graduating senior class. A caravan of yellow school buses ferried us out to the coast. It was a brisk, early summer’s day in June when the water temperature felt barely above freezing. It didn’t matter—we threw ourselves into the surf en masse. Our school was big and we must have numbered in the hundreds and to my surprise not a small number of my classmates were wearing t-shirts and shorts in the water, either out of modesty or because they didn’t own a bathing suit at all.

The fact is that the majority of students at my school did not look like Gidget—they were African-American, Latino and Asian. Some of them surfed, but most of them didn’t and no one but me seemed to have a complex about growing up so far from the beach. Everyone was really enjoying themselves. The golden light sparkled in a thousand points on the water.  A soundtrack of shrieks, then breaking waves, played in an endless loop.  My obsession with erasing my inland-identity suddenly seemed small and, above all, stupid. Los Angeles is a huge, sprawling place and to limit it to the community that lives by the ocean is to ignore a massive part of its history and culture. In a few months, I would be thousands of miles away in a cold, New England city, but that day I was living the LA dream. Did my Pasadena roots give me any less claim to it?

In college, I got all sorts of comments when I told people where I was from. “You don’t look like you’re from LA,” felt hurtful, but I knew what was meant: I didn’t look like the people on TV or in the movies that were supposed to be from Los Angeles. I knew that if I clarified that I was from Pasadena, I would just be reinforcing the misconception about what true Angelenos look like. I thought about my high school and all the different people that call LA home—including millions of Latinos, a population that has been there since the city was just a pueblo on the river. “Well,” I would answer, “I am from Los Angeles.”


Annie Heringer is a documentary filmmaker and television producer currently living in Berlin, Germany where she feels more from Los Angeles than ever.

Hypos in the Upper Bay by Elizabeth Bradley

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.


OBJECT: Currents

BODY OF WATER: Upper New York Bay


 

"A distant glimpse of navigation lights, the remote passing of a liner from an office window, perhaps a Sunday excursion around Manhattan or across the Bay to Staten Island—such is the sum of the average New Yorker’s acquaintance with his port.” - Jan Morris, The Great Port

 

Paddlers called it "The Soup." From a distance, it didn’t seem to be anything special: just the green expanse where the Hudson and East Rivers come together in the Upper Bay, en route to the Atlantic Ocean. For the experienced kayakers on my trip this was just what open water looks like. But from the cockpit of my little yellow loaner, it looked like a good time for prayer. The Hudson, which a minute before had been manageable, if not exactly glassy, suddenly boiled over with whitecapped waves that surged sideways across the hulls of our boats, smacking taller people in the chest—and me in the face. I wiped the salt water from my eyes in time to see a Staten Island Ferry bearing down on us, orange and inexorable. It was not my first attempt to paddle to Governor's Island, but I was now fairly certain it was going to be my last.

I first tried kayaking at summer camp, skimming like a Jesus bug over the surface of the water. I liked how paddling made me feel nimble and self-sufficient. After that, I kayaked—alone, preferably—through college and grad school, wherever I could— roughed-up rental boats on weedy rivers and choppy bays, sit-on-tops through mandrake groves and in quiet lagoons. After I moved to Manhattan, New York seemed the obvious next place to put in. I was born in a hospital overlooking the East River, after all—surely the city's waterways were my birthright? "You'll need a tetanus shot, and maybe a rabies shot, too," my father warned. Friends mentioned the Toxic Avenger, looking more worried than impressed by my romantic notions. I started volunteering with the Downtown Boathouse's free summer kayaking program, and told no one that I was slinging boats and practicing water rescues until the bruises on my arms, legs and ribs became too Technicolor to escape notice.

It was at the Downtown Boathouse's old shed on the Tribeca waterfront that I first learned what a real kayaker looks like. They look like New Yorkers. Some of them smoke without ceasing. Some talk without ceasing. Some take their coffee light and sweet. But all place a higher value on street smarts than on style—especially when the street is the Hudson River. It’s hard to be sentimental in a spray skirt, after all. As a fellow volunteer, I tried to imitate their cool, mostly without success—torn Umbros and Tevas do not an old salt make. So I learned to fake it, instead, and displayed the nonchalance of a lifer when a group of novice paddlers hauled in a bag of oranges they'd found floating in the river ("Can we keep them?") or a bunch of tough-looking teenage boys dissolved into giggles when they saw each other in life jackets for the first time. 

As a volunteer, I got first dibs on trips outside the gentle water of the embayment, into the Hudson’s quite literal stream of commerce, where at any minute a "hand-powered vessel" (as the Parks and Recreation Department referred to our kayaks) could be mowed down by a ferry, Circle Line, or a gleaming Chris-Craft—at least, that's how it seemed to me. My first trip was the Boathouse’s inaugural excursion to Governor’s Island, made a year or so after 9-11. We had only just paddled past the Battery Park bulkhead when we were halted by a Coast Guard response boat, complete with machine guns mounted fore and aft. The young Coasties on board peered down at us from the deck of their orange-bottomed vessel, which resembled, from our vantage below, an enormous and lethal bath toy. We must be some kind of kamikazes, their looks suggested: why else would we venture into busy New York harbor in our frail plastic crafts? The trip leaders offered our bona fides and the express permission we had received to land on Governor’s Island, all to no avail. We were already potential terrorists. "You can't cross," the officer in charge shouted into the wind. And then: "HEY! Come back here when I'm talking to you!"  We had stopped moving at his command, but the East River current hadn't, and it swept our boats upstream. Passive resistance by tidal estuary.

This time, however, there was no swaggering Coastie to keep me out of harm’s way. The Soup was my own fault. I had agreed to be part of a small group circumnavigation of the island—just an easy Saturday paddle from Tribeca and back, keeping close to the Jersey shoreline on the way there, and cutting through Buttermilk Channel on our return. But now Taino, our expert leader, was holding his paddle vertically, and waving it over his head like a flag. “This is the best way to signal to a large vessel,” he yelled. I guessed he meant the ferry, but Taino, usually a paragon of cool, had an even more immediate peril in mind—one that had arrived without warning on the periphery of our skyline view. It was the Beast, the Circle Line speedboat that is the bane of every hand- or wind-powered craft in New York waters. The Beast, which has yellow eyes and rows of pointed teeth painted on its prow, pummels down the Hudson River at speeds reaching forty-five miles per hour (by comparison, the Ferry cruises at a stately thirty mph), throwing up a dense wall of spray as it whips its way south toward the Statue of Liberty. The zippy little water taxis give the Beast a wide berth, and even the hard-drinking sailors aboard the floating yacht club near Ellis Island clutch their cups a little more tightly at its approach. It had been secretly exhilarating to tangle with the Coast Guard (they weren’t real New Yorkers anyway, right?), but there was nothing plucky about facing down The Beast.

The group drafted after Taino like so many frantic ducklings, paddling hard at an angle to the waves. We were as close to Liberty Island as their security would allow (here again, we were a potential threat to the homeland). I looked over my shoulder at Manhattan in the distance, bottom-heavy with skyscrapers, indifferent to my panic as the twin menaces approached. How many sailors have drowned in sight of that island? Were there skeleton middens under my boat right now? I pictured the prison ships in Wallabout Bay. The General Slocum. Wasn’t the Titanic bound for New York? I didn’t feel the least bit nimble or self-sufficient anymore. This was no gentle lagoon. This was the gateway to the New World, and we were about to be mowed down in broad daylight. Taino waved the paddle again, and suddenly, miraculously, the ferry made a minute adjustment, passing us by. Following that lead, the Beast, perhaps a bit petulantly, swung off to play chicken with a Circle Line cruiser. The whitecaps subsided. And our little group prepared to make a sharp left turn across the Upper Bay to Governor’s Island. “All right, people, we’re jaywalking here!” Taino hollered back to us as he ventured into the middle of the Upper Bay. I set my eyes on the middle distance, like a real New Yorker, and bid adieu to romance, and to The Soup.

 


Elizabeth Bradley is a Brooklyn-based historian and editor whose books include Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York and the forthcoming New York: Cityscope. She received a Ph.D. from New York University and hopes to paddle the Arthur Kill this year.


Sand in My Joints by Antoine Wilson

This  piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.


Bald guy in his twenties paddles out next to me, introduces himself. Jason. Friendly, eager, not your standard head-nod type. Afterward, every time I paddle out at that spot, he's there, talking to somebody in the water. He introduces himself to me again and again. He tells me he's now friends with a local surf shop owner. One day, it's head-high and stormy. Nothing crazy. Jason paddles to the outside, announces that it's the biggest he's ever seen it out there. Nobody says anything. And then, as quick as he appeared, he's gone. I think I see him in a supermarket once. I ask if the guy surfs the spot, he says yes, I ask if his name's Jason. No, he says, it's John. I never see Jason again.

This is in the nineties. An older guy cruises past on his stand-up paddleboard and harasses us. You're just sitting there, he says, I'm getting a workout. You must be cold down there, he says, up to your armpits in the water. He looks just like late Picasso. He preaches to us the virtues of his watercraft. He's obviously a madman. Fifteen years later, stand-up paddleboards are everywhere.

We see a massive triangular dorsal fin in the water, about ten yards beyond where we're sitting. We freeze at the sight of it. Definitely not a dolphin. The fin tilts away from us until it's flat with the water. We see the barnacles first, then the massive body of the whale, lumbering up the coast.

I go to a therapist for a little while. I tell him that surfing keeps me sane. He tells me he's a surfer too. A few sessions later he tells me that a guy at the beach who teaches surf lessons (whom I thought was cool) is an asshole.

We're up early. No hyped swell, no traffic. We come around the bend past the power plant and there's a young woman on the bus bench, next to a giant backpack. Either she's just been kicked out, or she's bumming her way down the coast. D says, Check out this chick. Our windows are up and she's quite a distance away, but somehow she tunes into his attitude and flips us the bird, arm outstretched.

It's not crowded and the waves are average, but it's sunny and there are a lot of people on the beach. After my session, I'm walking up the sand when a beefy guy steps toward me. I can't tell if it's fat or muscle. He smells of alcohol. Hey! he says. You! I walk over. You live around here? He says it like a challenge. I tell him, yeah, my house is around the corner. His demeanor changes completely. You were killing it out there, he says.

W and I head north looking for uncrowded waves. Check a spot and a sketchy-looking guy pulls up. Tattooed and ripped, he's got the edge of someone who has just been released from prison. I ask him where he's checked the waves. We compare notes. His name's Eric. He turns up later, at another spot, and W calls him Mike. It's Eric, he says. When we get back in the car, we bust up, in part because we're safe, and in part because the guy's name totally should have been Mike.

I'm waiting for a table at a sushi restaurant when I spot some guys I think I went to school with. I talk to them, trying to figure out how I know them when I realize they are professional surfers. Years later, I bump into one of them on a remote beach. I've just ridden the biggest, gnarliest wave of my life. How is it out there? he asks me. Big, I say. Looks it, he says.

D gets better parking than I do, so after I'm suited up I go to meet him on the beach. He's lying on the sand. I figure it's his stretching routine, but when I get there he tells me he stepped into a hole he didn't see. I ask if he thinks he can make it back to his car. He says yes. I tell him he should get home and ice it. The waves are really good that day. Afterward, I listen to a message on my phone. He's in the ER—his ankle is broken. He won't surf again for a year.

Guy who looks like Peter Gallagher snakes me. White leash. I call him off the wave but he doesn't pull out. When it's over he looks scared but also like he has no idea why I'm mad. I never see him in the water again. I see the real Peter Gallagher in a restaurant, but I don't say anything.

Paddling for a wave, I hit something solid with my hand. After I drop in, a dolphin ejects out the back. I realize I've just snaked him. I want to apologize but he swims away.

I'm checking it early and there's a guy standing on the beach, sipping a coffee. Contractor truck, white t-shirt, square shoulders. His dog is running around and does his business not far from where I'm standing. I put a stick in the sand to mark the spot. On the way back past the guy I tell him about the stick. He asks me if I thought he wasn't going to pick up his dogshit. I explain that I was only trying to do him a favor. His eyes narrow. He mumbles a what the fuck. I tell him that I'm just trying to keep my beach clean. He says, Your beach? Your beach? Then he tells me that he was born in this town, that he's lived here all his life, and that I should get the fuck out of there. I say, look, I walk out here with my kid and I'm tired of dodging dogshit—surely he can understand. He tells me again to get the fuck out of there. He won't look me in the eye. I tell him I didn't mean any disrespect. He's looking at the ocean. His ears are bright red. Get the fuck out of here, he says. I realize that he's not threatening me. He's not puffing his chest. He's warning me. He doesn't think he can control himself. I walk away. Later that morning I return. The stick is still there, but the dogshit isn't.

One morning D and I are pulling on wetsuits in the parking lot. I tell him that I hope Jerry Garcia dies before someone tries to drag me to a Grateful Dead concert. After our session, we hear on the radio that Jerry Garcia has died. For fifteen years, I make sure not to wish death on anyone. Then one day I look up his time of death on the internet. Two hours before I said anything. I go back to casually wishing people dead.

My brother's friend tells me he can get free parking at the beach lot. When we get there, he drives toward the exit end, rolls up the curb, over a grassy median, across a sidewalk, into the lot. Years later, I realize I haven't seen the guy around for a while. I ask my brother about him. Turns out he's in prison.

The waves are comically small. I decide to paddle to the pier and back for exercise. I pass a guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt, standing in the water up to his thighs. He's staring out at the horizon, a haunted look on his face. I ask him how it's going, but he doesn't respond. On the paddle back from the pier, he's still there.

I'm walking down the beach after a session and I see a girl in the water calling for help. She's lost her board and is panicking. I paddle out to where she is and help her onto my board and get her to shore. Once on dry sand, she doesn't thank me, which I find odd. Years later, when I help someone else in trouble, I know not to expect any thanks.

I paddle out with D into big, stormy surf. After a half-hour of trying to make it to the outside, I'm getting pummeled by a set when I realize I have no business being out there. I go in.

Surfing at night, the takeoffs are blind, done strictly by feel, but once I'm looking down the line, the light from PCH illuminates the contours of the wave. Paddling back out, I hold a glowstick in my mouth so my friends don't run me over.

Browsing in a bookstore after a morning of good waves, I tilt my head sideways to read a title and the ocean pours out of my nose.



Antoine Wilson wrote the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Best New American Voices, and The New York Times, among other places. He is a contributing editor of A Public Space. He lives and surfs in Los Angeles. You can find him at antoinewilson.com or on twitter: @antoinewilson.

The Quiet Edge by Lauren Dockett

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.



Moving to the northern edge of Manhattan can be a lonely venture. The island’s tip is formed where the Harlem River pushes west into the Hudson, and in my first days living there, coming home felt like trekking into a metropolitan wilderness. Train lines sputtered out, the city’s streets gave way to an untidy landscape and big waterways, and wildlife that would normally be road kill in midtown squawked and scurried about.

I had lived in this part of town as a small child—it’s where my parents grew up—and moved back for the solace of family memory after a close friend threw herself out a Flatiron window. We were estranged when she died and the guilt stayed thick on me for a year afterward. I figured the farther uptown and into my own past I travelled, the farther I’d get from my shared past with her.

Though few friends found it novel enough to visit, I took comfort in being in a place where video stores and bars catering to seasoned drunks could cover the rent. The food was cheaper, there was a Dominican vibe and a counterweight of cologne in the cleaner air, and on days when the city felt like a prison, there was always a big river in the background that opened north to anti-urbanity.  

Shortly after moving I went out in the gloaming and perched on a rail at the quiet edge of Dyckman Pier. With the ruffling darkness of the Hudson below, I called my seventy-year-old father in Florida. He didn’t know anything about R.’s death when he said, first thing,

"You are standing on the spot where I saw my first dead body.”

“I’m surprised the cops didn’t shoo you off that day,” I said.

“Ah well, there was a crowd. Awful, though. They yanked her out of the water with poles and she skid onto the boat like a dead fish. And the things they said...”

“Like what?”

“They could carve her up and have her for lunch, for one.”

River corpses are almost always police cases. Homicides and suicides. My dad was eight when the naked, bloated body of a woman surfaced near a crescent of sand north of Dyckman Pier. He’d told me this before. He and his friends were chasing each other through the crumbling asphalt at the end of Dyckman Street when they saw a police boat anchored off shore.

Sixty years later, plenty of women still float up to the Hudson’s surface like broken mermaids. Two were found along Manhattan’s tip a couple of months apart last spring, one again here at the pier. Men appear too, especially in the warmer months, when the heated water reinvigorates decomposition and gives their sunken bodies a gaseous lift. But they mostly emerge with their clothes still on.

Dyckman Pier isn’t far from the George Washington Bridge, maybe twenty blocks north by foot, and the Hudson—part river, part tidal estuary—flows both ways. I turned toward the bridge’s lit towers and tried to see the woman my father saw not as a murder victim but as a jumper too, in control of her own fate, who aimed herself downtown so she could merge eternally with her city, and got swirled upstream.

Despite the ending, R. used to tell me she never felt better than she had when she first arrived in New York.

“Finally,” she would say, “a sense of belonging.”

But the city was no match for her collapsing life. She couldn’t make a job work. Her husband was divorcing her and living a few blocks away with someone younger. Her only real comfort was a sweet, white-haired dog with a panic disorder that wore kerchiefs soaked in lavender to calm him down. The two of them slept together every night on a big bed with red sheets.

Toward the end R. continued to cook lavishly for a shrinking circle of friends but she had begun to eat like a dancer, all cigarettes and watered-down coffee. In her beautiful apartment with the giant windows that looked out onto Gramercy’s water towers, she had a silver fridge big as a sci-fi movie set piece and just as empty. She kept no food, only flavorings: tiny cans of truffles or sprigs of sage in little plastic trays from upscale bodegas. I’d be sure to bring nuts on the train and open the bag on her counter between us and for a minute or two she’d eat, palming five at time and talking with her mouth full until she noticed the bag getting emptier and stopped.

R. asked me about suicide once. We were drinking and in our pajamas and I told her we owed it to those who loved us to hang on. After that I tried to take us to happy places. She’d want to scan the shelves at Chelsea Market without buying anything and I’d steer her toward the river and down to 10th Street where we could watch the sun go down on tough gay teenagers trading hats on the pier. But the river was never really her thing. She wanted the inner streets with their tall buildings huddling overhead like guardians, herding and containing us. Nature was less a respite from her problems than an opening for more painful contemplation.

She and I finally fell out on a busy street on the edge of Chinatown. Standing in the blaring light of an accessories store, its bins overstuffed with bedazzled hair combs, I insisted she pay attention to my problems. But she couldn’t do it. I remember turning from her with a tiny bag of barrettes swinging from my middle finger. I took my rage up Broadway, cursing the precedence of her depression.

When R.’s husband called, I knew she was dead. He held a memorial service for her in a sun-drenched loft near their apartment and stood her photo on an easel before a window as tall as any of us.

That night on Dyckman Pier, suspended over the Hudson with the darkness deepening and the phone growing hot in my hand, I wondered why I couldn’t stop imagining what R. must have looked like jumping. How in the beginning I’d thought of her crying and flailing as she fell but later I’d come to see her full of peaceful intention, her hair a floating fire and her face lifting to the sky. And then, as the months passed, how that dreamed-up image of her, quiet as a restful swimmer, had come to supplant so many of my real memories of her.

“So what do you think of the old neighborhood?” my father asked.

I shifted on the railing, hesitating, not wanting to talk about how untethered I still felt here. What I really wanted were more details about his dead woman, at least enough to give his ghost the power to overshadow mine for a little while. But I was afraid if we went there I’d spill about R., and I had no intention of being soothed, of having the ugliness of our estrangement plucked with parental certitude from the many reasons she was gone.

I told him instead about a fish, a sturgeon big as an arm that I’d just learned lived at the bottom of the Hudson. It had swum past Dyckman Pier since dinosaur days and endured a noxious last century by pointing itself low and dropping its jaw under the moting silt at the bottom of the river.

“In my day the river was no place for fish. It reeked of sewage,” my dad said.

Yes but this fish was indiscriminate, I told him. It vacuumed in everything: the sediments of fresh poison and rotted trash, but also the little shelled and crawling creatures whose skin mottled and glowed but didn’t disintegrate. They and the ancient sturgeon held on together until a dozen years ago when mussels striped like zebras loosed from the hulls of European container ships, multiplied on the river floor and became the sturgeon’s miracle—endless food; so constant that pulling one of the fish from the river now is like holding a fat, slick bag of castanets.

I let go of the railing to mime “castanets” to no one and ended up lurching forward. The black river rose up, rattling me, and it took a moment to quiet my breath.

“Are you alright?” my dad asked.

 “It’s OK, just a slip.”

“Jesus kid,” he said. “Hold on.”

 


Lauren Dockett left New York to teach journalism at the University of Hong Kong, where she had a view of the floating commerce on Victoria Harbor. She now lives near a creek in Washington, D.C. and is a print, online and radio journalist and an editor. She’s published a mix of fiction and nonfiction, including three books that have been translated into six languages. 

 

Open Water by Julie Sarkissian

This  piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.


I grew up in Orange County, California, twenty-five minutes from the Pacific Ocean and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, but as a teenager, it was swimming pools that preoccupied me. Any old person could go to the beach, but not everybody had a swimming pool, and the people who did were important. And if you were lucky enough to be invited poolside, so were you.  

It meant a lot to live in a house with a pool. A pool meant people would always want to come over and you got to decide who got in and who stayed out. A pool meant not only could you get people to come to your house, you could also get them to take off their clothes. And you didn’t even need to bother yourself with the pesky task of entertaining your guests; the pool was its own entertainment. Above all, having a pool meant money, meant your family was smarter, luckier, or just plain better than the rest of us. And having a pool often came hand-in-hand with the ultimate Orange Countian status symbol: the gated community. Being behind the gates, next to or in a pool meant you were somewhere that most people couldn’t be. It meant you were special.

In stark contrast to the luxurious communities I coveted, my parent’s home was in “The Canyons,” a highly anomalous part of Orange County made up of three small canyons protected from development by land grants and inhabited by an eccentric crowd of nature lovers, horse lovers, and conservationists. My parents’ ranch-style house was modest with a wrap-around deck and huge garden, no television, no perfunctory sitting room or formal dining room, no extra fridge in the garage to be stocked with snacks and bottled water, and certainly no pool. My parents prized the natural beauty of the canyons above any other aspect of their home or property; a value system I thoroughly rejected. What good did a backdrop of some mountains do for my social standing? I couldn’t invite people to come over to look at the hills. If I had a house with a pool, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to invite people over, I assured myself as I lay awake at night fantasizing how drastically my lot in life would improve if my family would only start subscribing to the OC dream. I was certain that with the right house, behind the right gates, with the right pool, people would finally see me for who I was really meant to be: popular, powerful, rich. Elite. And I would start seeing myself that way, too.

For all the time I spent obsessing about how to be invited to the right pool, I spent more time at the beach than I did poolside, since my grandmother lived in Newport Beach. Newport is a big, popular public beach, displaying a diverse intersection of native culture, wildly diverse if you account for it being in Orange County: tattooed rockabilly twenty-somethings who live in the local rentals, wealthy, plastic-surgery-preserved older couples who live on the beach front property, Mexican families who swim fully clothed as if they hadn’t planned on going in but just couldn’t resist, dogged beach combers with metal detectors who will diverge from their path for no man, parents in heated sunscreen negotiations with young kids, and, of course, your heart’s content of surfers. The sand is crowded with blankets and bodies, the wind crowded with cries from volleyball players and horns from bicyclists as they nearly collide with the skateboarders, and the air is crowded with the smell of salt water and salty foods, sunscreen and barbeque. But I was always distracted at the beach by my social neuroticism, trying to figure out how--if at all--cool, going to the beach was, and ultimately deciding that the beach could not be cool whatsoever if this many people were allowed to go. As I had learned from the swimming pools and the gates, places were only as cool as the percentage of people who weren’t allowed in.

At eighteen years old I headed to Princeton for college. I had long prayed to be part of a homogeneous elite; oh how my wish had been granted. Students at Princeton looked the same; their skin was the same northeastern shade of pale, they wore the same business casual attire, carried the same beat up LL Bean backpacks with the same sense of irony. They spoke of the same boarding schools and vacation locales. We had all taken the same aptitude tests and gotten the same grades, but I didn’t feel special, chosen, or powerful. And as for feeling rich, I was so pitifully behind the curve that I had only been praying about having one nice house; I wasn’t even aware that I should have been asking for three or four.

Though I missed my friends, I didn’t miss their swimming pools or track houses or gates. When I wished I could go back, I didn’t wish to transport myself to a pool so clean the grout between the titles sparkled as white as teeth in toothpaste ads, in the backyard of a house so indistinguishable from its neighbors that I routinely resorted to playing eeny meeny miny mo with the front doors before knocking when visiting my best friend. When I desperately wanted to talk to someone from home, it wasn’t to give a gatekeeper my name, or tell them that I was on the permanent guest list. Living that life had been my dream, but now it didn’t feel anything like home.

What I did dream about, and talk about, and remember in details I hadn’t been aware I was absorbing at the time, except to scrutinize degrees of lameness, was the beach. The Fun Zone with its famous frozen bananas and ski ball and Ferris wheel, the Asian families in long sleeves and under umbrellas, school children on field trips, the fake boobs, the leathery skin, the surfers, the fisherman, the docks, the crab restaurants, the rollerblades, the volleyball players, the sand castles. Remembering Newport brought me back home because it was filled with all the different people who also called Orange County home.

I had long rejected my parents’ philosophy that natural beauty should be available to everyone and that free things could have great value. In my mind, belonging to everyone meant belonging to nobody. If nobody owned it, then how could it have value? Owning things that other people didn’t was how the world knew we were special. But at some point during my homesick meditation I realized that what makes Newport magic is that despite its desirability, it doesn’t have any gates, your name doesn’t need to be on any list, and there aren’t any membership dues. Along with the waves and sand and the feeling of forever that looking out at sea inspires, the culture that its open door policy creates makes the beach priceless in a way the most extravagant pool never can be. 


Julie Sarkissian is the author of Dear Lucy, published in 2013 by Simon and Schuster. Other writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, and The Huffington Post. She graduated from Princeton University and has an MFA from The New School. A native of Orange County, California, she currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband. 

Wages of Water by Steve Mentz


 

This fragment has two parts. The first splashes through the Hudson River one early morning this past September. The second will take place next week, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, inside the canal of my left ear.

 

1.     Flotsam

 

At 4:04 am at the Battery on Saturday September 26th, the tide turned. An instant of stillness – though nothing remains still in the water -- and then the flood came, and the vast Atlantic started rolling up the Hudson. By high tide at 10:09 am, the water level at the Battery was 5.7 feet higher than it had been six hours before.

But by that time I was upriver, flotsam in the current, swimming north.

I jumped into the water at the 79th St. Boat Basin just before 8 am. I swam north for five miles, aiming for the Manhattan stanchion of the George Washington Bridge and the Little Red Lighthouse in its shadow. Passing under the span, I reached land near the northern tip of the island at the Dyckman Street Marina. I finished in 2:14:10. The winning time was 1:38.

Long distance swims are solitary events, spent mostly with your face underwater. I went out with the second wave and, feeling good in my new sleeveless wetsuit, soon caught many swimmers from the first wave. There may have been a moment, say around 8:30 am when I caught a glimpse of the tower of Riverside Church at 121st St, when I may have been near the front of the pack. Then a bunch of fast swimmers who started behind me surged ahead at the bridge, and I finished in a crowd.

I’d never swum that far in that strong a current before. The flood was behind me, which was better than the alternative but meant that the ocean was crawling up my back all morning, sloppy surges tickling my legs, shifting me off-keel. Travelling north were millions of gallons of salt water, me, two hundred seventeen other swimmers, maybe thirty kayaks, fifteen larger boats, twenty NYPD zodiacs, and a dozen blue-capped “Swim Angels” there to help anyone in trouble. It didn’t seem at all crowded at first.

All that fast-moving water and debris meant turbulence. I swam through constant movement: little waves pushing upriver, eddies, wakes from powerboats which left us tasting gasoline. Maybe half-way, with the Bridge not looking much closer, I started to feel seasick.

Longs swims mix exertion with meditation.  Diana Nyad calls swimming the “ultimate form of sensory deprivation.” I remember a wordless feeling, flowing forward with flowing water. Mobilis in mobili, is what Captain Nemo calls it, mobility inside a moving thing. For a little while that morning, I was part of the biggest moving thing in New York. Inside what Tim Morton calls “the mesh,” surrounded by a moving environment that buoyed me up and threatened me at the same time, swimming seemed part fool’s errand and part deep-down encounter with reality. Humans aren’t aquatic.

But when you’re in the big river, heading upstream with the flood, and your arms and legs move machine-like, and you’re churning upstream with New York City on your right and the Palisades on your left, you feel in your disoriented body why “flow” is a good thing to be inside.

 

2.     Excess

 

The knife will enter my ear canal deliberately on the Monday before Thanksgiving. It will move down three-quarters of an inch until it encounters two lumps of bone. These bone masses narrow my ear canal as rocky headlands narrow an estuary. A passage that was ten mm wide constricts with these bone-headlands to a single mm. That’s where the knife will start cutting.

 

The skin will peel back in still-attached flaps, flooding the canal with blood and exposing bare bone. The drill will start there. Several hours later, the extruding bone will be gone.

 

The bone-headlands grew and made that narrowness because of exposure to water. A lifetime of immersion in oceans, lakes, and rivers, cold water-fingers flowing into my ear canal up to the eardrum. Water didn’t go away when it got inside my head. It lingered, thick and heavy, an alien presence inside my skull. Eventually it flowed out – but for a long time, the insides of my ears have been intermittently wet. I’ve been living with a little salt ocean in my head.

 

There is a moral to this story.

 

We love oceans, but they don’t love us. We’re semi-aquatic apes who can’t endure the excess of ocean. Swimmers feel it: the water is no place to stay.

 

After the surgery, I won’t be able to put my head under any water for at least three months. Not until next spring.

 


Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St John's where he teaches Shakespeare, oceanic literature, and literary theory. He's written two scholarly books, including most recently *At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean* (2009), edited two more academic volumes, and also published many articles on literary culture and the maritime environment. His works in progress, performance reviews, and swimming autobiography can be found on his blog, The Bookfish (www.stevementz.com)

Message in a Bottle by Robert Fanuzzi

OBJECT: Whistle

BODY OF WATER: South Beach


photo.JPG

 

This is my day of reckoning.  In retrospect, it was only a matter of time.  I could only pursue my academic profession so avidly and so extensively in the five boroughs where I was raised before I started to double back on the paths of my ancestors’ lives and my family history started to catch up with me.  For the old rusty whistle I am writing about belongs to me—to be precise, it is my daughter’s whistle.  And the diver who found it is my Uncle Ed.  Before that, it was his uncle’s whistle, who lost it about eighty years ago swimming laps around the tip of Staten Island.  At least that’s what the message that came with this bottle says:   “South Beach:  For Mia. Catch of the day:  Uncle Johnny’s Whistle?”    For eighty years, this whistle lay underwater, drifting among the detritus of the bottom of the harbor, waiting to be found by its owner’s loyal, loving nephew. It took eighty years, but that nephew, my uncle Ed, did find it.  And he then handed it over to his niece, my daughter. 

If every underwater artifact is like a message in a bottle, bearing stories from the deep and the past, the stories that this artifact is telling are about me and my own past.  And if I read this message right, it turns out I come from people who lived on the waterfront.  I honestly had no idea of this basic fact until I started thinking about this whistle.

Let me tell you a story about a watery boundary zone on the western shore of Staten Island, where a young girl could take a tiny ferry to get her leeches from the apothecary in a Hungarian village in New Jersey for her father, suffering from migraines.  This was over a century ago, before there was a Verrazano Bridge or a West Shore expressway or even a Staten Island dump, and the town of Travis sat amid a vast estuary:  a tidal region where families lived comfortably in the sweet spot between farms and creeks teeming with shellfish.  That was my grandmother, going back and forth on that little ferry, and when she had children, they too lived on the water.  As a boy, my father would start out in the evening with a few scraps of meat from the butcher and return with enough crabs for everyone, including the butcher.  You played on shipwrecks piled up on the shore, and when you got older, had a nose for trouble, and a talent for the maritime equivalent of car theft, you snuck onto the captured Nazi warships that were parked offshore. Yes, once upon a time, the western fringe of Staten Island was the kind of place where you could plunder Nazi warships.

In winter, this fringe would freeze over, and you would have at your doorstep an expanse of ice that literally stretched to the horizon.  If you were small enough, and lucky enough to have a champion speed skater named Uncle Johnny for your favorite uncle, you could be picked up and shot across the ice with him like a speeding bullet.  Yes, everyone should have an Uncle Johnny, and if you do, you know that he is the perfect antidote to your kind, responsible father; that he could use you and your sibling for extra weight for his bicep curls and, when he wanted to, literally kick the air out of your football. 

You might have an Uncle Johnny but my great uncle Johnny was the son of Hungarian immigrants from the great Eurasian steppe and therefore a lineal descendant of Ghengis Khan.  If you doubt this, I just ask you to believe me when I tell you that he held us kids enraptured one night around a campfire eating twelve ears of corn in a row like a typewriter and devouring twelve hard boiled eggs at once.  Only a descendant of Ghengis Khan could do that.  Uncle Johnny in his prime was another species of man altogether:  a Hungarian Paul Bunyan who could trim trees the way you and I trim asparagus, and, I’m getting back to my story now, skate across that frozen tundra of Staten Island so fast that he would eventually skate a victory lap around the Madison Square Garden ice as the city-wide winner of the Silver Skates amateur skating award. 

If you were a Hungarian Paul Bunyan and the winner of the Silver Skates and a champion skater and you were Uncle Johnny, you thought nothing of tucking one nephew under your left arm and another nephew under your right arm, and hurtling across the ice with such abandon that those two boys would follow that trajectory for the rest of their lives.  I like to think of those two boys on that ice—one, my father, so enthralled by that speed that he just kept going and shot out of Staten Island, circling the world for business and pleasure and still not stopping; the other boy, my uncle Ed, just as enthralled, asking himself, “How can I make his last forever?”  And so he made himself a life that turned his adventures on Staten Island’s west shore into a trade, a vocation, and an expertise that connects him to the waterfront to this day.  You can see a very small sample of this life at “Silent Beaches, Untold Stories” in St. John’s University, where his artifacts are on display.  But if you travel to Governor’s Island and visit its “Shipwrecks” exhibit, you will find an entire room devoted to the diving career of my uncle and a caption that reads:  “Edward Fanuzzi:  A true collector and diver who began his diving career in the late 1940s at fifteen years of age and has been diving ever since.  All of the artifacts found in this room and many elsewhere in this exhibit are from his collection.” 

If I were building my own collection, I would start with the diving helmet that my uncle Ed fashioned out of a milk box when he was eight.  You know—turn it upside down, put some padding around the edges so it does not impale your shoulders, stick a garden hose in the top, make your own compressor to pump air, melt the lead that was always lying around every household in the 1940s for weights around your belt, and lower yourself into the waters by your home for a walk on the bottom of the sea.  Did it work?  Of course not.  But what is a boyhood without a near escape from death?

Before long, Uncle Ed was perfecting his own air mixture, getting his diving supplies from Navy surplus, getting a PT boat from Navy surplus, and starting up a salvage business that brought up sunken ships from New York harbor with a homemade bladder.  Yes, he also got a family and a job that led him to the position of Fire Marshall, but happily for us, he kept up the vocation that has retrieved more undersea artifacts from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first than any museum I know.  I know this for certain because I have been to his backyard.  And except for the objects that are St. John’s and at Governor’s Island, it is all there. 

My favorite is the flagpole that points bravely up to the sky amid the old tackle and the extra boat engines.   Snaking up that flagpole are the remains of his beloved salvage boat Mary Jane, its portholes and its steering wheel climbing to the pinnacle like morning glories.  He loved that boat so much that he actually dove into the hurricane roiled waters of New York Harbor in the early 1960s to save his unmoored ship from a terrible end, but not before diving into more hurricane roiled waters to save another man’s boat, drinking homemade hooch with a lot of grizzled old salts, and driving like a maniac along the shoreline to follow her.  New York’s waterfront in those days had nothing on its mean streets.   Uncle Ed could not save his salvage ship but he was able to salvage her, recognizing Mary Jane from all the shipwrecks along the shore of Brooklyn and Staten Island by the green paint he had mixed himself.   

It took me quite a while to wrest one of those portholes off the flagpole, which is to say from his grasp.  I don’t really have a plan for that porthole, but I do have one for this whistle.  My plan is to keep it for my thirteen-year-old daughter forever.  

As a child, Mia accompanied Uncle Ed on his metal detecting adventures on New York’s beaches and marveled at his eye for small shiny things.  (No, I have not allowed her to go deep sea diving in the bottom of New York Harbor with him, and she has not asked.)  I keep the whistle for my daughter because it is for me the equivalent of a story, a message in a bottle, about not only the man who wore it but the man who found it and wrote this message:  “For Mia—Catch of the Day—Uncle Johnny’s Whistle?”  They mean as much as the whistle itself, for in those words is the profound hope of every diver beneath the sea and every collector of artifacts:  that the circle be unbroken.  I am like that diver:  I believe the circle can be unbroken.  So I tell these stories to her and tell them now to you, about the diver who found the whistle and a petrified foot and raised two ton hulls and who swam through hurricanes; and about the man who wore the whistle—the great uncle who won the Silver Skates and ate twelve ears of corn and swam laps around the tip of Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, leading a very tired group of lifeguards far younger than him far behind. 

Somewhere in the waters off Fort Wadsworth he lost his lifeguard whistle, the token of his command and magnificent athletic ability, and somewhere off the shore of Staten Island, his nephew, my uncle Ed, found it eighty years later.  Is this all true?  You should know by now that it is true exactly in the way that the best family stories are true.    My uncle gave it to me to give to my daughter, and that’s the story I’m sticking with.   As I told you in the beginning, this is my story.


 

Robert Fanuzzi is Associate Professor of English and Director of the American Studies Program at St. John's. He has authored many articles and the book, Abolition's Public Sphere, on the 19th century antislavery movement.  He is at work now on a book on the impact of French colonial racial politics on American literature.  

At the Staten Island campus of St.  Johns, Dr.  Fanuzzi has developed interdisciplinary courses, programs, and campus initiatives that utilize community partnerships and promote civic engagement, particularly in areas of food policy, public history, and sustainable design.  The Staten Island waterfront, a fascinating locale for all these endeavors, is also where his family is from.   This is his very first creative writing attempt.