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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.

Found in Nature by Barry Rosenthal


In today’s world, consumer goods are increasing in volume. At the same time, their useful lives are shorter and shorter. Consuming without a thought of what is left behind is what we are taught. Found in Nature spotlights the remnants of consumer goods in the context of ocean borne pollution. The viewer confronts collections of found objects pulled from the shores of New York Harbor and experiences the way humanity is managing its relationship with nature and the oceans in particular.


Barry Rosenthal, a fine art photographer, is also an urban archaeologist and sculptor. He studied photography at the Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio and at the Apeiron Workshops in Millerton, New York with notable photographers Emmet Gowin and George Tice. Barry‘s fine art images can be found in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Springfield Museum of Fine Art Springfield, Massachusetts. Barry is a resident of Lower Manhattan, along with his wife and daughter.

Found in Nature, started in 2007 as an offshoot of his botanical work, has evolved from miniature collections of found objects into large-scale images that represent ocean borne trash. By using a combination of sculpture and photography and breaking down the found object trash into themes of type, color or whimsy, Rosenthal is able to bring awareness to the global issue of ocean pollution.

His project Found in Nature has a worldwide following and has created opportunities for Barry to talk about his work to a larger audience. His photographs have been published in arts and culture magazines as well as general interest news publications around the world.

In the fall of 2010, Rosenthal became a resident artist at chashama in the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Brooklyn, New York. It was then that he was able to refine his vision of his project to where it became socially and environmentally conscious.

The Bicentennial by Claudia Isler

OBJECT: Eels, shoes, fish

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


All these white people with blankets and bottles of wine and bits of cheese were camped out along the river to see the tall ships. It was hot as fuck, New York summer wet, with the stink of garbage and something worse, something I don't have a name for.

Mom took me and my little brother to the West Side to see them. The boats were pretty cool, from all over the world. The best was the Amerigo Vespucci, from Italy--I had just learned about that explorer at school. The ship was huge and had more sails than I'd ever seen before. The closest I'd ever been to a sailboat was the models people played with in Central Park. We just went over to a railing and watched for a while. While we were watching, all of a sudden it started pouring. It had been sunny but we were drenched. We ran for a bus, and when we got back east, we saw it hadn't rained there at all. For laughs we told our older brother we'd fallen in the river, and he believed us. Dummy.

Not everyone was excited about the boats and the Bicentennial, though. No flag-waving. Plenty of illegal fireworks lit on rooftops uptown later that night, but not patriotism, not hooray for America.

Sitting with Indira and Saribel that night, after the heat of all the July Fourth celebrations, talking a little but mostly listening to their parents, we heard about Ray and his family. Kids knew to shut up. It was the best way adults would forget you were there and say all kinds of stuff—gossip, curse words, dirty jokes. Saribel's dad, Mr. Desoto, was saying that Ray's mom never took good care of him and that his older brother was a waste of space. "Of course that kid died. Ain't nobody looking out for him." But then Mrs. Desoto and Indira's mom started speaking in Spanish, real fast, "takatakatakak" and I lost the rest. But we looked at each other, like, Ray died? What?
Saribel said, "Mamí, did you say Ray died?"
Mrs. Desoto looked at us then like she just noticed we were there. "Pobrecito," she said, "he fell in the river, mi iha. He couldn't get back out."

We didn't know what to do. We just sat. No more talking. Sounds of adult conversation, iced drinks, traffic, radios, and basketballs ran together into a peace of white noise that held us, suspended. Seems like we were always finding out stuff that way, overhearing our mothers. The only protection from bad news was to walk away, to do anything not to hear. My mother was always talking on the street to somebody, no matter where we were going or what kind of hurry we were in. We'd be standing there forever, but I'd hear how my friend's father was a drunk, how they all got in a big fight and even the women left with black eyes (somebody hit somebody with a big, heavy telephone receiver). How he'd been drunk when he drove us across town to the movies, how he'd drink in the bathroom in the morning when I was there for a sleepover. I heard about my own dad's cheating. I heard how my brother was selling drugs to my teacher.

It's pretty amazing that most of these people are still alive.

But not Ray.

They were messing around, Ray and his brother ’Nesto, and ’Nesto threw one of Ray's sneakers into the water. They were laughing and all, I heard. I guess Ray thought he knew what he was doing, and I know he would've caught hell from his mother over the shoe, so he jumped in after it. While I was looking at boats, Ray was drowning. Kids kept talking for months about how an electric eel came and wrapped itself around him, but that didn't happen. The kid drowned, is all. But there always has to be some story.

I looked it up the other day. There are eels in the river. But they're not electric eels. Those critters pack around 600 volts, get to be eight feet long, and live in the Amazon. Different jungle.

After the Bicentennial, I thought about Ray a long time, not with the eels, but what it must be like to drown. The river wasn't clean, for sure. Not like some blue Caribbean paradise. It was dark green, and it was hard to see anything moving in it. Except for its flow, it looked almost like a solid, like Jell-o made from the liquid that runs out of the garbage cans on the corner. When I lay in bed at night trying to go to sleep, I'd imagine Ray suspended there in the deep dark green, and I'd panic. He didn't struggle. He floated there in my imagination, wide-eyed, looking straight at me while small fish nipped at his shirt, at his sneakerless foot. It haunted me in the dark--during the day I could shake it off.

Raymond was the kind of kid you were friends with at school but not at home. You might invite him to your birthday party, but only if you were inviting most of the class. He was small boned and light brown, and he had a scar near his right eye in the shape of a crescent moon. I asked him a couple times how he got it, but he said he didn't remember. I didn't believe him. It looked like something anybody'd remember. His older brother was kind of a jerk. Ray was nice and all, but he was a little hyper, and that just got annoying sometimes. Thinking about it, it isn't so surprising he jumped in the river. But he was the first person I knew who died. And he was just a kid, a little kid, like me.

After a month or two, the dream of him floating there in the river didn't scare me anymore. It became like a visit we would have. He didn't look sad or scared, and sometimes he even smiled or waved at me, so I'd know he could see me, too. I started to look forward to it. I think it made me feel better, like he wasn't really dead.

And in the fall, kids at school talked like it was gossip, not like something really bad happened. None of the teachers said a word about it, and there was no assembly or grief counseling. It was one of those things that happened, like when Meryl's sister got arrested for beating Meryl so bad she couldn't come to school for a week, or when Cindy's brother went to jail and got disowned by his family for stealing from St. Francis, up the street. Cindy's mom crossed herself every five seconds, but she couldn't erase the shame.


Claudia Isler is a New Yorker living in the South. Naturally, she writes about the city of her memories. She's the Vice President of Seven Cities Writers Project, a non-profit bringing free writing classes to under-served communities in southeastern Virginia. Previous publications include five non-fiction books for children and young adults.

Because Water is Dutch for Water by Nicole Haroutunian

OBJECTS: Horse bones, Bottles, Shoes

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


Editors' note: This story was written for Underwater New York's January 24 event at Winter Shack, a temporary exhibition space designed by Alex Branch and Nicole Antebi, who curate a series of site-specific installations/readings/exhibitions that encourage audiences to engage with one another's work and to build community in the darkest hours of the year.  


 

“Do you like the wine?” he asks and I swirl it, waft it towards my nose. 

“It’s oaky,” I say. “Or maybe I taste peat. Do you detect, what, a note of jam?”

Why do I flinch at his dimples? It’s his blue eyes, too, his complete edgelessness. I’ve never liked someone without a fight.

“Does that mean no?” he asks.

“In this case,” I say, “it means yes. But don’t think that’s what I always mean.”

Tomorrow, my coworker Jenny will throw her stapler at me. She’ll say, I heard how you behaved. He blushes and I say I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m just nervous, I tell him, and drink down that very good wine. 

He leans back in his chair to make room for the waiter to place a slab of lasagna in front of him. I receive my bowl of red-sauced gnocchi. Not that I didn’t want the blind date to be over too, as soon as it began, but still I was surprised when he ordered first and went right to the entrees. Who skips appetizers just like that? It was my fault it started off so poorly. I kept insisting that we’d met before. Jenny’s birthday? That barbecue at her brother’s? He got frustrated. No, he said. We’ve never met.

“So what did Jenny tell you about me?” I ask him, chewing a rubbery nub of pasta.

He plucks a strand of cheese, almost daintily, from his chin. “That you were her smartest coworker and have long brown hair. That you like to take pictures in your spare time. Oh, and that you’re thirty-two.”

I nod. “I think she covered everything. You know what she told me about you?”

“Probably that I’m not her smartest cousin and I’m in finance. And I’m twenty-nine.”

“Nope,” I say. “All she said was, ‘you’ll thank me.’”

“That’s really all?” he asks. He shifts in his seat and pours us more wine. I suddenly understand.

“You,” I say, feeling my body start to make a few adjustments as recognition dawns. I lean in across the table and study his bland, handsome face, less bland by the second. “Now I know where I know you from.”

He grimaces and nods, as if accepting the inevitability of it all. “Was it the Post?” he asks. “AM New York?”

“All of that,” I say. “The TV news, too.”

He puts down his fork. “People like you still watch the news on television?” he asks.

Part of my brain screams, people like me? while the other part is the one that says aloud, “Don’t tell me you’re embarrassed.” 

“I mean, no,” he says. “But I didn’t expect it to be such a…thing. All the interviews. I don’t know.”

I hold my arm over my face as if to block the paparazzi. “No pictures, no pictures!” I cry. He forces a smile and I feel like I should change my tune. “But really. You literally saved lives. It’s amazing.”

Now that I recognize him, it’s hard to even see him clearly. He’s dematerialized by all the associations I have with him, swirling and blurring and pixelating him. Bennett is New York City’s latest folk hero.

I’m not one to click on these amateur videos when they pop up online, but this one was unavoidable. It starts off following a tugboat on the Hudson, chugging along behind an improbably massive garbage barge. It’s both adorable and grotesque, the herculean effort exerted by that little ship in service of all of our trash.

Then there’s a flurry of activity in the bottom left corner of the video. On rewind, it’s a woman leaning on the railing beside the water. She’s unremarkable—not perched on a precipice, not teetering on a ledge. But then—then!—she hoists something into the air, something she’d been holding in front of her, and, with effort, hurls it into the water. As it makes its short, quick descent, it forms, there, in the air, into a baby. 

The camera phone operator, it’s clear, doesn’t notice. There’s no audible splash; the camera doesn’t waver. But then, Bennett enters the frame, jogging, almost the same instant the baby appears and disappears. He’s running straight and then makes a seamless right turn, sprinting to the edge of the river as the woman—the mother—goes up and over the railing. He disappears into the water, literally on her heels. It is so fluid it seems almost choreographed.

Bennett blinks, forks lasagna into his mouth. He shrugs. “I know it’s cliché, but anyone would have done it. It was a baby for god sakes.”

Does he get, in that moment, even more handsome? He does.

“I saw a man step in front of a bus once,” I tell him. “He was standing on the curb, just a normal guy dressed in a khaki colored coat and dress shoes. I’m not sure if this is a trick of memory or what, but I feel like I remember thinking, right before it happened, that he was about to do it.”

“Do you often have psychic episodes?” Bennett asks.

I squint. “Do you?”

He finishes his lasagna and shakes his head, his eyes twinkling. Thank goodness, I think, it wasn’t a serious question. But then he gets serious. “Wait, so what happened to the guy?”

“Well, he died,” I say, taking a long swallow of wine to get the gnocchi down. “There’s a reason you were the one of the two of us in the newspaper.”

“I hear the tiramisu is good here,” he says.  

 

After we leave the restaurant, we walk, aimless, up Vanderbilt. We split the bill but he let me have almost all of the dessert, so I have no idea where we stand. The night is new-summer warm; no one’s sick of the heat yet. 

“I could stay outside forever if the weather was always like this,” I say.

Bennett nods. “I’m from Maine, so.”

I don’t know what this means, but assume he’s agreeing with me. I want to grab his hand, so I do.

“There has to be a word for it,” I say, tilting my head up as a delicious breeze stirs around us. “Maybe in one of those languages where they combine a sentence worth of words into one. Something like: mildsweetnight.”

“In Dutch,” he says, “I think it would be mildsweetnacht.” A city bus is hurtling up the road, as city buses are wont to do, and, as if we hadn’t just been having a nice time, he jolts towards it, towards the street. He’s not that close, but I unclasp my hand. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Obviously, he stops short of the bus.

I fold my arms and we walk in silence. I’m going to let Jenny have it tomorrow.

I realize Bennett has been leading me in the direction of the subway stop at the corner. We pause in front of it and he says, “So you really wouldn’t have saved me?” I think he’s laughing but I can’t tell.

“I mean, if you were in real danger,” I mumble.

He’s three steps down into the train station before he says, “You coming?”

 

It turns out that a New York City hero’s apartment is much like the apartment of any other random twenty-nine year old guy who works in finance. It’s nicer than mine, to be sure, and he doesn’t have a roommate, which is a blessing, but there’s an expensive flat screen television positioned across from a blue futon that must be a college artifact, and the potted tree in the corner is halfway to dead. It’s tidy, though, I’ll give him that.

“Can I get your cleaning lady’s info?” I ask and he says okay, before pausing and saying, “What, you don’t think I could sustain this level of hygiene myself?”

“If it were me,” I say, “I’d have that Post cover story framed on the wall.”

“You and my mom both,” he says, which isn’t the most auspicious start, but we wind up on said futon, and our clothes end up on the dustless floor. Now I think that Jenny will be mad at me for a whole other reason. “What, you’re going to date after doing that?” she’ll say.

After, I just assume that he’s going to hand me my clothes and my purse, but then again, he’s not New York’s latest hero for nothing. “For sleeping,” he says, gesturing to his room, “I think the bed will be more comfortable.”

Streetlights stream in through his window, illuminating the spare room a sunset orange. I check the time—it’s two a.m. I turn and peer at Bennett, whose head is half-sunken into his very plush pillow. “You know what would have really impressed me?” I ask.

He looks nervous. “Not about the sex,” I say, and he relaxes. “About the rescue. What would have impressed me is if it was one of the scary New York waterways. The Hudson, that’s well trod territory. What if it had been, you know, the Gowanus Canal? Spuyten Duyvil? Dead Horse Bay?”

He brushes a piece of hair from my face and leaves his hand tangled there. “Dead Horse Bay,” he says. “What on earth is that?” 

What should I say? Bennett is a man who pulls living things from the water, but at Dead Horse Bay, it’s the bleached, bare bones of the horses once rendered there that draw people like me to the shore. I take pictures of them, and of last century’s trash strewn across the sand, still spilling from a burst landfill cap. “It used to be called Barren Island,” I say. “Because barren is Dutch for bear.” Then I close my eyes because barren is a worse word to say in bed than dead, than horse.

Bennett says, “I think you mean barrenislandnacht, sweetbarrenislandnacht.”

I open my eyes and, in this orange light, I can imagine us picking our way across Dead Horse Bay, the grey sand, the woody, striated horse bones, the rounded lips of milk bottles, the salt-water soaked leather shoes. Maybe I’d throw out my arm and stop him just as he was about to land, tender-footed, on a tetanal iron nail protruding from a weather-cracked wooden plank.

Goodnacht,” we say.

                                            


Nicole Haroutunian is an editor of Underwater New York.