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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.

PURPOSE (or, the Great Subway Leviathan of 1904) by Jeff Tang

OBJECT: Subway Cars

BODY OF WATER: East River 


Such Strange Gravity, illustration by  Tomoyo Hirioshi

Such Strange Gravity, illustration by Tomoyo Hirioshi

SUCH STRANGE GRAVITY by Jeff Tang at National Sawdust

Get your tickets now for Jeff Tang's SUCH STRANGE GRAVITY, featuring PURPOSE, OR THE GREAT LEVIATHAN OF 1904

Use the promo code UNY and we will give you a free broadside featuring original artwork and poetry.

Saturday, August 11, 8:00 pm

Tickets ($15) here.  

Such Strange Gravity: Songs of Gotham” is a theatrical song-cycle that explores and deconstructs the mythology of home via the narrative of a “hidden” historical anthropology of New York City that spans from the first European contact with the Lenape tribe to the near future. Composer Jeff Tang has worked with a variety of lyricists, playwrights, and poets to interrogate how the identity of a city is created and evolves, the question of whose stories and histories persist or are expunged, and how the process of naming and renaming affects the dominant cultural memory. 

Making a necessary inquisition in today’s climate, Tang’s collaborators map to the multitudes of voices and issues of our city. Rigorously researched and inspired by factual events, the project uses some as jumping-off points to create new mythologies. Stories include the “sandhogs” who built the subway system, the spectacular 1911 fire that destroyed Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park, the demise of the Collect Pond, once the primary life-source for generations of the island’s inhabitants, and more. Narratives both large and small from across time will form a mosaic of our great metropolis.

 

PURPOSE, OR THE GREAT SUBWAY LEVIATHAN OF 1904

Photo by Jeff Tang

Photo by Jeff Tang

 

From the New York Times, Sep 29, 1895: "Phillip N. Jackson, Vice President of the Newark Electric Light and Power Company, confirms the story told by Willard P. Shaw of 41 Wall Street, New York, last week, of the appearance of a sea serpent last Sunday off the shore at Spring Lake [New Jersey]. Mr. Jackson says he saw the monster with his naked eye a half mile from shore, and also had a view of it when two miles away, through Mr. Shaw's marine glasses. He says it was traveling through the water at a great rate of speed, and was about 100 feet long. A number of folds in his body were plainly seen as they rose and fell. At times the monster raised his body ten feet in the air, and it then presented a terrible sight. Mr. Jackson says that, so far as he is concerned, he has no doubt that the object he saw was a genuine sea serpent."

MAN
There once was a man in the ground        (CHORUS: Hmm…)
Some say he's wandering
Some say he drowned                                (CHORUS: Hmm…)
He grew up a sailor
On a Sag Harbor whaler
For forty long months her barrels sat dry
For the sea was fished bare
As the cold winter sky

He hitched from the coast into town        (CHORUS: Hmm…)
To help build the railroads that ran underground
He dug with the others
w/SANDHOGS
Called sandhogs, these brothers
At night each would dream what his purpose should be
MAN
But the man when he dreamed
Only dreamed of the sea
How the crew would sing

CHORUS/CREW
Hey ho
This sea is my home
A four-letter word that I learned to let go of
Hey ho hey ho

MAN
All aboard they sing
w/CHORUS
Hey ho
It's this ocean I love
The endless below and the boundless above, so
Hey ho
Hey ho

===

FOREMAN
The foreman that day, he was nervous and mad
Not enough track
Not enough rail could be laid in the time that they had
in that hey hey hole
SANDHOGS
Blasting a tunnel from asphalt to hell
Not enough air
Not enough pay in the world to be huddled down there
In that hey hey hole
All the sandhogs sing
Hey ho, this hole is my home / They sing
A four-letter word that I learned to unknow / so
Hey ho hey ho
MAN
All day long they sing
w/SANDHOGS
Hey ho
it's this mud that I know
The almighty above and the devil below, so
Hey ho hey ho

===

SANDHOG 1
Well he'd heard in the tunnels a terrible tale
A man fell thirty feet when they blew through a rail
And the sight of his fall
w/SANDHOG 2
And the sound of his wailing
Would haunt all the men in their dreams
SANDHOG 3
And yet he survived and called out
w/SANDHOG 1
Through the black
SANDHOG 3
So they lowered a lantern then watched
ALL 3      
As the water he'd landed in foamed
Then churned, then attacked!
And the memory's drowned out by the screams

SANDHOG 1
But the ones who were there
They gathered to swear
They'd never admit what they'd seen
SANDHOG 2
Yet whispers were heard
SANDHOG 3
They were twisted, absurd
ALL 3
For man is, by nature, a greedy machine
When they dug out the tunnels too quick and too deep
They awakened a thing that they should have let sleep

===

(IRT Ribbon cutting ceremony, October 27, 1904)
CITY SPEAKER
Ladies and gentlemen - the Mayor of New York City!
MAYOR MCLELLAN
I give to you the Interborough Rapid Transit railroad! 

(spot light up on SANDHOG GHOSTS)

Well they lost two more men by the end of the year
     (Hey ho hey ho) 
(MAYOR MCLELLAN: "City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes!")
Then they lost twenty more when they quit out of fear
     (SANDHOG GHOSTS: Hey ho hey ho)
(MAYOR MCLELLAN: "The fastest and safest in the world!")
The mayor needed this monster -- he needed it dead
MAYOR MCLELLAN: "Put an end to it."

Is all that he said

====

(Months later, a subway car is sitting stalled in the station. It’s hot. PASSENGERS are agitated and waiting to leave. A busker enters the car. PASSENGERS groan…)

BUSKER
There once was a man in the muck
Some call it Providence
Some say it's luck
For only one sandhog at work in the biz
Had the right set of skills as specific as his
And the point of his resume
Was to chase that goddamn whale!

(The traincar revs and the lights flicker; MAN: "Stand clear of the closing doors!" The train is propelled into darkness. The passengers sing and sway rhythmically as the lights flicker on and off like a haunted carnival ride.)

CHORUS
Those so obsessed
They are blessed with a higher calling
PASSENGERS
I have a purpose - I just have to find it!
CHORUS
Find one or Gotham will swallow you whole!
ALL
Hey hey ho
CHORUS
Purpose will keep you alive…
MAN
---There she blows!
ALL
Hey hey ho

All aboard they sing
Hey ho, this city's my home now
A four-letter word
That I learned to outgrow
Hey ho hey ho

All aboard they sing
Hey ho, this rock is my high
We plant our dreams in the dirt
Pray to steel in the sky
Hey ho hey ho

(The train bursts through a wall and lands in the East River. Water floods the car and PASSENGERS scream. The lights flicker and die. BLACKOUT.)

====

MAN
There once was a train in the deep
Some say they searched
But rescue’s not cheap
So a small superstition persists to this day
When approaching a bridge your conductor might say
"There's traffic ahead and a minor delay."

And even the skeptics they don't make a sound
Just a nod to those lost on this merry-go-round
And the one who discovered his purpose
Deep underground

 


JEFF TANG is a Brooklyn-based music theatre composer and arts + culture producer whose work has been seen in New York, Chicago, London, Minneapolis, and La Jolla. Commissions include NYC's Leviathan Lab, the NYU Write/Act Festival, Music Institute of Chicago, Theatre Latte Da in Minneapolis, and St. Anne's School in Brooklyn. He is at work on a song cycle on the hidden history of New York City with a variety of lyricists, playwrights, and poets. He spends his days as a producer on the Metropolitan Opera's Media & Presentations team, and many evenings co-curating and producing National Sawdust+, a new performance and conversation series in Williamsburg. MFA, NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing. Find him at www.jefftang.com

Reaching Through Time by Tara Hempstead

OBJECT: Robot Hand

BODY OF WATER: Great Kills State Park


 EXT. ATLANTIC OCEAN-SUNSET

A large passenger liner slices through the waves of the Atlantic.  New York’s skyline as it appeared in the 1920’s disappears into the horizon.  

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
INT. SHIP’S DINING ROOM- NIGHT

ORCHESTRA MEMBERS TUNE and REHEARSE amongst themselves at the end of the dining room as a CROWD in eveningwear enters.

A FLUTE MELODY rises above the beautiful, disjointed sounds of the orchestra and soars across the dining room. PATRONS gradually separate from the CROWD to their dining tables, where WAITERS greet them with teacarts.  The sounds of PATRONS CHATTING and the CLINK of chinaware grow louder as PATRONS settle into the space.

The PRINCIPAL CELLIST and CONCERTMASTER nod to each other and stop playing.  Following suit, the ORCHESTRA falls silent and straightens their spines.

PATRON 1, who has a cup of tea pressed to his lips, becomes self-conscious and gingerly sets the tea on its saucer and onto the table.

PATRON 2 and 3, a couple, inch their bodies closer to each other in anticipation.

The ORCHESTRA stands as the CONDUCTOR appears on the stage. PATRONS watch as the CONDUCTOR steps onto the podium center stage and turns to face them.

He bows.  AUDIENCE, roused from their reverent silence, bursts into APPLAUSE.

The CONDUCTOR scans the ORCHESTRA through his wide glasses as they take their seats.  His lip turns upward to suggest a smile.  The room is at his mercy as he waits for an intangible sign to begin.

EVERYONE inhales as the CONDUCTOR raises his arms. There, holding the baton, his hand glitters, reflecting the light overhead.  The hand is not made of skin, but of metal and bolts.  

PATRONS breathe out as the CONDUCTOR dips his bionic hand and the MUSIC begins.  The MUSIC emanates such sweetness that PATRONS can’t help but sway, buoyed by each tender moment.

A VIOLINIST sitting near the middle of the ensemble fastens his gaze onto the CONDUCTOR, moving through each note as if it came from his soul.

The CONDUCTOR seems to look past the VIOLINIST every time.  The VIOLINIST’S fingers maintain a certain delicacy, but his gaze turns into a piercing glare.

The CONDUCTOR’S hands begin to tremble, and the ORCHESTRA slowly grows louder. VIOLINIST grunts as CONDUCTOR raises his arms higher. The TRUMPET PLAYERS lift their bells as the ORCHESTRA reaches the pique of the crescendo.

The CONDUCTOR beams as the ORCHESTRA triumphs at the climax of piece.  VIOLINIST closes his eyes in rage and buries himself in the music.

The ORCHESTRA strikes its final chord and the CONDUCTOR claws the air, as if to catch the piece in his hand.  He is frozen with his robotic hand clenching the baton above his head as the chord vibrates through the hall.

His hands fall to his sides, and the AUDIENCE rises to its feet, adorning the performance with thunderous praise.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
INT. CONDUCTOR’S STATEROOM- EVENING

The CONDUCTOR trudges into his stateroom brimming with uneven stacks of music scores. His footsteps can barely be heard in the thick carpet, and his ears RING in the silence.

He removes his robot hand with a grunt and sets it on a piece of folded cloth on his desk.

He melts into the chair at his desk and rubs his temple. He blinks at the portal window, watching the noiseless waves.

There is a KNOCK at his door.

The room slips back into silence.

There is another KNOCK, this time, louder.

CONDUCTOR rises and crosses the room.  When he opens the door, VIOLINIST storms into his room.

VIOLINIST squares off with the CONDUCTOR, who’s still clutching the door open.  VIOLINIST’S eyes travel from the CONDUCTOR’S surprised face to his handless arm. He squints.

VIOLINIST
(Nods)
Maestro.

CONDUCTOR twists the lock into the doorframe.  The door hits the interfering lock with a CLUNK.

CONDUCTOR
(stepping toward Violinist)
Good evening.  Is there any trouble?

VIOLINIST frowns.

VIOLINIST
I’ve played under your baton for years. (Twisted smile) Surely you’ve at least noticed that?

CONDUCTOR
Yes. I remember your first rehearsal.

 

VIOLINIST
(giggling)
Yes, I bet.  In many ways, it’s like I’m still there.

CONDUCTOR
How so?

VIOLINIST
You see, I’m still in the same seat I started in.  Haven’t moved, haven’t gotten any better. But all of my peers have passed me by.

CONDUCTOR looks away from VIOLINIST and steps away from the doorframe. 

CONDUCTOR
I see.  

VIOLINIST
(suddenly stern)
Surely there’s a reason I’ve been overlooked all these years.

VIOLINIST starts circling the CONDUCTOR toward the desk with his hands in his suit pockets.

VIOLINIST
I work harder than any player here.  I would say that’s plain to see, but- well- that’s our predicament, isn’t it? I want to move forward- yes- be recognized. Finally. (Stopping at corner of desk) But, you’ve heard this all before, I’m sure.  And you don’t have an investment in a seemingly replaceable player like me.

VIOLINIST SIGHS, dropping his chin.  He sees the robotic hand on the desk.  He perks up.

VIOLINIST
Or maybe you do?

CONDUCTOR opens his mouth to say something and takes a step forward.

VIOLINIST gingerly plucks the robot hand from its resting place. Amused, he points a finger on robot hand and wags it at the CONDUCTOR.

VIOLINIST
Nuh-uh.

CONDUCTOR halts.

VIOLINIST LAUGHS and lunges.  The CONDUCTOR steps back in alarm.  VIOLINIST shoves the hand into his pocket and runs.

INT. HALLWAY- SECONDS LATER

CONDUCTOR stumbles into the hall as the VIOLINIST disappears around the corner.  

EXT. SHIP DECK- NIGHT

CONDUCTOR crosses the threshold into the night.  VIOLINIST stands near the rail at the edge of the ship, perfectly still as he battles with himself, searching CONDUCTOR’S face for an answer. VIOLINIST clutches robot hand to his chest.

CONDUCTOR stops, powerless for the first time.

CONDUCTOR
Please—

VIOLINIST
You won’t get any better.

VIOLINIST winds his arm back and throws the hand into the ocean.

CONDUCTOR runs to the railing and looks overboard. VIOLINIST grimaces and walks away. THE CONDUCTOR is met with a pool of darkness.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
EXT. STATEN ISLAND NEIGHBORHOOD- PRESENT DAY

Dawn breaks over a row of antiquated single-family homes in Great Kills.

INT. BEDROOM-SUNRISE

A flashlight illuminates a desk with homemade musical instruments- an inventor’s workspace. A GIRL’S shadow is projected onto the chipping floral wallpaper of the old home.

GIRL, about ten years old, hunches into the flashlight’s glow.  Her hair is messy and her eyes are as wide as the bags under her eyes.  There’s an empty box of animal crackers nearby.  It looks like she has not moved all night.

She plucks a string on the instrument inches from her face and it RESONATES.  She grins.

Footsteps ECHO in the hall.  

There’s a KNOCK at GIRL’S bedroom door, which she has no time to answer before her MOTHER enters.

GIRL turns around and looks at her MOTHER in shock.  MOTHER takes one glance at her daughter framed by her inventions in the flashlight’s dome.  

MOTHER
(unsurprised)
Were you up all night again?

GIRL pretends to notice her workspace for the first time.

MOTHER
(laughs)
Right.

She crosses the room and throws the shutter shade back.

GIRL squints.  When her eyes have adjusted, she leans toward the window and looks down the block.

MOTHER
It’s Saturday.  Were you gonna go back to the park?

GIRL turns to her mother with a reassuring smile.

MOTHER
See, I know you!  I need to do some work today, so you’ll have to go by yourself this time.  Is that okay?

GIRL confidently climbs off chair and adjusts her bathrobe.


GIRL
Yeah! I got it!

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:

EXT. NEIGHBORHOOD- LATER THAT MORNING

GIRL rushes out of the house and down the street

EXT. STRIP- MORNING

GIRL passes a row of storefronts, skidding to a halt in front of the music store to look at the violin in the window display.

After a few seconds, she adjusts the bag on her shoulder with resolve and continues running along the path.

EXT. GREAT KILLS PARK BEACH- DAY

GIRL kicks off her shoes at the edge of the sand and scoops them up.  The breeze HOWLS in her ears as she looks over the beach.  She steps forward, crossing into a peaceful place.

EXT. GREAT KILLS PARK BEACH- LATER

GIRL sits near a patch of green with her eyes closed, hearing COMPOSITIONS in her mind.  

She hears BEACHGOER’S VOICES as they pass, as well as the OSPREY CALLS and whisper of the rolling waves.  Each seems like a soloist as they move through her piece.

She opens her eyes, entranced by the BEACHGOERS. In the distance, CHILDREN SQUEAL and SPLASH in the water.  

TEENAGE GIRL passes with BOYFRIEND, carrying a bucket of shells.  The shells CLINK as she rummages through them.

After they pass, GIRL notices she is alone.  She reclines.

A metal object pokes out of the sand next to her head.  Noticing this out of the corner of her eye, she SCREAMS and shoots back up, sand flying.

The object doesn’t move.  She leans forward and the object reflects a ray of sunlight onto her face.

She brushes the sand away to reveal the CONDUCTOR’S robotic hand. Now, it is mostly dull and missing some fingers, but it is the most fantastic thing GIRL has ever seen.

She brings the hand close to her face.  Her eyes grow wide.

She slowly looks down at her other arm.  For the first time, we see she does not have a right hand.  She measures the hand against the end of her right arm.

GIRL GASPS.  She hops to her feet and runs off the beach.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
EXT. STRIP- DAY

Running in the opposite direction as before, she passes the music store, grinning as she catches a glimpse of all the instruments in the window.

INT. BEDROOM- EVENING

GIRL, wearing the robotic hand, brings her arm up to her face and bites the excess banding on the mechanism she constructed to secure the robotic hand to her arm. 

As the banding drops to the floor, she extends her right arm in front of her and turns it to marvel at the hand from all angles.  She added extremities made from household materials to where they had been missing earlier, and the failed prototypes sit scattered across her desk. 

She uses her other hand to bend the robotic hand’s fingers around a pencil, which she pulled from the failed finger pile.

Satisfied, she glances at one of her music inventions standing nearby.

She reaches over and plucks the string on it. The string VIBRATES, and she glances upward as if she can see the sound rise.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
INT. MUSIC STORE- THE NEXT MORNING

The bell above the door JINGLES as GIRL crosses the threshold.  Her new right hand is stuffed deep in her coat pocket.

She wanders the showroom, glancing up at the towering shelves of instruments.  A LUTHIER glances up from a violin he is repairing at his tall desk.

LUTHIER
(from desk)
What can I help you with?

GIRL jumps.

GIRL
I would like to try some violins.

LUTHIER
What kind of sound ar’ya lookin’ for?

GIRL
I dunno… I’ve never played before.  
(Confidently) But I want to learn!

LUTHIER
Well, I’m no teacher, but this is always a good place to start.

INT. SHOWROOM- LATER

LUTHIER supports the violin on GIRL’S shoulder as she presses the side of her face into the chin rest.

LUTHIER
Okay, hold it right there.

GIRL blinks at him as he steps back.  He examines the GIRL with the violin awkwardly protruding from her shoulder, standing stiffly because she’s too nervous to move.

LUTHIER nods, with a slight smile.

GIRL beams and rocks on her heels.  LUTHIER picks a bow from the collection he’s laid out on the table.

LUTHIER
Now, the bow is just as important as the violin.

GIRL watches with wonder as the delicate bow comes into focus before her. He kneels at her side to position the bow, and she lifts her arm enough for her sleeve to pull back. He stops when he sees her robot hand.

LUTHIER
Fascinating.

GIRL
(flexing hand)
I found it.

LUTHIER whistles.

GIRL
Do you think I can play with it?

LUTHIER, still kneeling with bow in his hand, looks up at her with warmth.  

LUTHIER
You wouldn’t be the first.

INT. BEDROOM- A FEW YEARS LATER

MUSIC fills the room as GIRL PLAYS the violin masterfully.  She abruptly sets her instrument down and picks up a pencil.

She leans into her music stand and scribbles music notes onto staff paper.  She HUMS the passage to herself then picks her violin up again and PLAYS the piece in its entirety.

It sounds similar to her beach compositions from years before, only more expansive in its emotion and the control she exhibits over her instrument.

She flings her bow off the string at the piece’s end.

                                                                                                                                               CUT TO:
INT. CARNEGIE HALL- YEARS LATER

LARGE ORCHESTRA REHEARSES as AUDIENCE shuffles to their seats.


CUT to GIRL sitting slightly off center from where VIOLINIST sat earlier, warming up and watching AUDIENCE settle into their seats in high spirits.

The lights dim and the AUDIENCE turns quiet.  CONDUCTOR takes the stage and the ORCHESTRA stands as the hall surges with APPLAUSE.  GIRL looks excited as he steps onto the podium.

As before, he bows to the AUDIENCE, but this time motions for FOUR SOLOISTS to join him. They file onto the stage, each holding one of the GIRL’S inventions.  She grins as they bow.

The FOUR SOLOISTS nod to CONDUCTOR that they are ready.

CONDUCTOR turns to ORCHESTRA and lifts his arms, baton pinched in a chrome hand. ORCHESTRA raises their instruments as one in response.  GIRL puts her violin on her shoulder and sets the bow on the string at the frog, robot hand framing her face.

CONDUCTOR and GIRL make eye contact.  She nods slightly.  He grins and thrusts his arms up higher still.  When he drops them for the downbeat, they start the piece.

End.


Tara Hempstead is a writer, violinist, and multimedia artist based in Brooklyn.  Her writing often builds on her background in music, which began fourteen years ago when she signed up for orchestra to get out of class.

She studied TV and film production in her native Florida, where a number of her comedy and drama scripts were produced.  Find more about her writing, music, and art at tarahempstead.com and follow her on Instagram (@popt_art.)

Mother of Exiles - the Hudson speaks to New York City by Laura Fairgrieve

OBJECT: Statue of Liberty

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


Liberty was not delivered to us in an envelope
she was shipped from grayer pastures and I
breathed life into you in a new land
I brought you here and into her arms
and I am awash of postcards and trapped lightning
I am scabbed over from the coins tossed into me
my currents were made for larger bodies

I yawn and a hundred years worth of trash
gives way to bronzed shores
bronze arms
all greenness is forgotten by the wish for heat
the hope of skin and blood to greet it

keep your pomp, my waters were meant
to rush like a busted dam
to tangle and mix with bodies tossed by
the Atlantic, the Mediterranean
born by the Queiq
to clean off the pomp of their regimes
not to paint on a new one
to surge beneath foreign ships
not to knit a net against them

ban your own pomp and if you don’t know who I mean
imagine a fountain
a pipe bursting outwards like a rocket
a rising tide erupting from an index finger
pointing into its own pale eye

my waters were meant for mightier shores
and the woman above me
shrinks at the seams
while my currents stretch like fingers
searching for the worthy whose rafts
are kept away
our golden door is bolted and
my currents itch outwards.


Laura Fairgrieve received her MFA from Adelphi University where she currently teaches. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Inscape Magazine, Mortar Magazine, Ink in Thirds, The Bitchin' Kitsch, East Coast Ink, and Words Dance Publishing. She is a recipient of the 2016 Poets & Writers Amy Award. She lives in Brooklyn. 

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.

 

Resurfaces by Kelly Sullivan

Kelly Sullivan wrote this poem for an event in collaboration with Marie Lorenz's Flow Pool at Recess. See pictures and read more about it here.


OBJECT: Dead Bodies

BODY OF WATER: All Over


1989

That time at ten when the sunglasses, for which
you felt such pride, slide down your nose and hit
the slow movement of water in the bay, splash, twist,
descend. The way your father watched
and as he held your hand, he said oh no! in mock chagrin
so that — sunlit flash — you remember the day in the aquarium

when a man grabbed your hand and dragged
you across the darkened rooms, the starfish swirling
in kaleidoscopic knots and his hand wrenching
your shoulder as you resisted. You whimpered, yelled,
but nothing sounded in those underwater halls
as if you too were aquatic, mute as a fish, blowing your gills

open and closed, open and closed as schools of humans
parted the way. It was the man who stopped dead like vertigo,
dropped your hand and stood mouthing oh no oh no
I’m sorry, I thought you were mine
. Unrecognizable person
so unlike you, claiming to disclaim, mute mouth aghast,
his face distorted through the light-refracting water and glass. 

2015

Manatees, sea cows made light in the saltwater,
swim up the springs, the temperature always 70 degrees
summer or winter. To cool us in mid-July we enter
as the noon sun slips through moss-covered trees.
She holds the baby aloft. Her husband laughs, snaps photographs,
updates status, Instagram. But from here I wonder at their happiness,  

what comes if it is just display? At the state park we lowered carefully
into the tank. The sea cows swarmed against the glass designed
to give a view of feeding. Now we’re the one’s consigned
to enclosure, their bodies as landscape divided our periphery.
In afternoon humidity above a storm erupted with damning
force. Under the water’s boiling skin the manatees placidly swim. 

And sheltering in that submarine glass it resurfaces: it was your own father him
who put his hand in that girl’s hand and didn’t look and dragged
her through the galleries, brazen serpent, belligerent thug,
child-stealer, unable to recognize his own kin
by touch or scent, and after stood chagrined and apologized to her,
the girl, and not to you, alone, underwater, the unclaimed daughter.


I had intended to write a poem about all of the bodies that end up in the New York City waterways. I was thinking about the strange case of a man named White who murdered his roommate, named Black, in a homeless shelter in the Bronx. For a few days helicopters trolled the Hudson. Then I read that they had found White’s body, apparently the victim of suicide. But this exploration of drowned bodies turned into a litany of the things we submerge and that later emerge again, sometimes in a different form. --Kelly Sullivan


Kelly Sullivan’s poetry and short fiction has appeared in Salmagundi, Poetry Ireland Review, Southword, and elsewhere. She published a novel, Winter Bayou, in Ireland in 2005. She teaches Irish literature at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. kellyesullivan.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Islands

 

At low tide on Easter Sunday we walk the donkeys

across an chois, the step, to Straw Island, the one time of the year

when new moon and sun converge to make the aquatic

almost terrestrial. The donkeys graze for three months

on marram grass and vetch, birth their foals, drink rain water left

in angled rocks except some years someone forgets

we’ve left them there and drought or storms or geography

constrict so they are half-starved, parched, and try their best

to swim. In 1974 we found their skeletons scattered across

the ground, dry as desert. An chois — the step — because

to step across from Inishmore to the island of straw rests in principle

on the fact that bodies in gravitational pull grow stronger

the closer they come together. And Easter an ancient celebration

of the rising year, when we shift our balance back to day.

Just a step between coming together or falling away.

 

 

This poem derives in large part from a beautiful passage in Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran Pilgrimage in which he explains the gravitational forces underlying tidal movement, and the practice of taking donkeys out to graze on Straw Island off Inishmore, accessible by sandbar only at the lowest tide of the year. 

Mirage by Erika Vala

BODY OF WATER: New York Harbor



Erika Vala is a painter, curator and merchant of beautiful adornments.  She was born in Oregon and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her current medium is watercolor and is influenced by the great watercolorists of the 18th and19th century; Turner, Granet, Charles Burchfield, Homer and Thomas Moran. The mood and feelings evoked from the renderings of “classic” landscapes are her primary interest and focus. She can be contacted at vala.erika@gmail.com

She by Dianca London Potts

OBJECT: Mermaid Figurine

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


The circumstances of separation, the severing of fin from torso, were simple. It began slow and subtle. The rot spread from scale to scale, made the iridescent shine of her tail dull. Summer slipped into fall, the rot continued its advance unnoticed. During winter, the cold slowed the process of decay. But as the waters warmed again, spring then summer, she could no longer ignore the rapid rate at which her body altered. How had it started, this change, this disassembly of parts?

The rot was finite like her seduction of wide-eyed wharf-boys and the weight of the tiny trinkets that she collected. The rot had become a part of her; inseparably organic. It redefined her anatomy. She swam the length of the island and it crept beneath her scales. She warmed her back with the sun, stretched out atop a large smooth boulder beneath the Brooklyn Bridge She combed the gritty floor of Dead Horse Bay, searching for necklaces, lockets, for thin crosses on delicate chains. She unpinned hair clasps of carved ivory from the tresses of women whose bodies swelled with water, who were placed there by jilted lovers or slipped beneath the surface willingly. She relieved them, these women, of their heavy woven bracelets cluttered with charms.  She considered herself a savior, preserving the memory of their passing. This was her sacred work. 

The rot grew heavy.  It became difficult to reach the women. Smooth faced as if they were her sisters, the maiden corpses were left lonesome in their adornment, visited only by fish that nibbled their flesh and once painted fingertips. Like them, she too was being devoured, immobilized.

Anchored to the surface, she sulked away the hours, imagined the women at the floor of the bay as they once were: warm, mobile, intact. The rot marched on.  She gathered the bay’s gifts, adorned her neck with silver rosaries and freshwater pearls. She placed rings on each of her fingers, nestled an ivory comb between the strands of her hair.

Sinking slow with her eyes open, she slipped from the surface of Dead Horse Bay, returning the scavenged goods to the women she once adored. Tailless, she lay there, in pearls, gold and silver, waiting for another like herself to claim the trinkets as their treasure.


Dianca London Potts is a writer, music blogger, and follower of the fictive craft. She is currently earning her MFA in Fiction from the New School. She is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and VONA / Voices alumna. Her work has been featured in New Wave Vomit, APIARY Magazine, Bedfellows, theNewerYork, and the Village Voice. She currently resides in Brooklyn.


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.  

What is Left by Jen Fitzgerald

OBJECT: Pants, Crabs

BODY OF WATER: Cedar Grove Beach


When you dumped your engine
to be gnawed at by the ocean,
what better place than near
the pillars that held the floors
that held the beds of the dying
children?  Their foundations
pulled back to the center
of the earth with that ebbing
and flowing, that cistern
of empty vessels and decay.

Everything here holds something,
in one way or another.  Empty
space between them and nothing
like the empty space between
what we say and what we mean.
We all spiral inwards.

You speak in quatrains,
every third sentence a lie,
every forth sentence strewn,
lying limp, like abandoned jeans
that faintly hold the form of
their deserters.

One hundred yards away
umbrellas defy the sun
and bodies sway with
the water, resisting
the shoves of waves.

A postcard unchanged
for decades, their smiles
burnt to paper like skin
burnt from sun. In this
memory, a waft of sun
block fills their nostrils.

They won’t look to their left;
won’t see us and our abandoned
stack of rocks. They decided
to forget that years ago.

But we will hold it up,
you and I; rebuild
with crab shells
and beer cans. A castle
of broken and strewn.
Press your body
on this side and wait
until someone notices.


Jen Fitzgerald will begin working toward her MFA at Lesley University in 2012.  She is a freelance writer living on Staten Island.  This is her first publication.

The River and the Skull by Rich Villar

OBJECT: Human Skull

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


for John Rodriguez

1
The Skull of Jordan L. Mott

This is all mine.
The iron they pull from the water
came from my hands.
You can find me, if you don’t believe me,
in the names you hold in your teeth
like a pipe. In the smoke rising
over Mott Street, Mott Haven,
Mott Ironworks. The root is mine.
The name is mine. Your heroes died
on streets named after my grandchildren.
My picture hangs in Cooper Union
in a painting called Men of Progress.
What do you know about progress
that hasn’t been hitched to the backs
of what I created for you? Gratitude,
if you please, for I gave you the iron
bleeding heat into your apartments.
Without me, you would not know steam
on your grandmother’s kitchen windows,
the poems you think you pull from the air.
Even the river belonged to someone once.
Jonas Bronck’s River, which flowed past
my doors once. This is my birthright.
I earned this. What pride do you carry
that I didn’t forge first?

2
The River

A man sings: Cada cabeza es un mundo.
Yours was the world you needed.
Iron will rust. The factories repurposed.
Everything comes back to water.
What does it say, then,
when even I won’t keep you?

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and facilitator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

Oshun's Bolero by Rich Villar

OBJECTPiano

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


for Peggy Robles-Alvarado

When I came to the mud
she said she knew
I was coming. She heard
windchimes, was moved
to answer back. She said
she’d never played before.
This, I do not believe.
To improvise, one must know
music, the way water knows
the stone it shapes,

and Tony surely did.
He used to find me
the nights he’d come home
borracho, or trying to find himself
bloodshot on the living room floor.
He would wake at 4am,
lost child toddling on 181st street,
the old sirens in his head,
needing to escape.

You cannot invent boleros
with your head swimming
in the rum bottle
unless you once found
something at the bottom.

The notes would fill the building
y la gente had stopped complaining,
because Tony wasn’t right,
and the old women knew it.
That was enough explanation.
Someone tried to say it was
his mother. The belt. Tecata.
A string of dead end jobs.
A daughter’s fist in Bayamon.
All I knew were his hands,
the deft swaying of fingers
over my keyboard,

a old knowledge Nancy tried to understand,
even as she lifted him from the toilet,
when she found him strewn
like the torn pieces of a son suite
discarded. He always said the music
was hers, but the only bolero
she could remember
was the clanking of the beer bottles
she dragged to the curb with no help.

No one asked why there were no tears
the day she buried him
next to his mother. No one tried
to stop her the day she wheeled me
ten blocks, uphill, to the bridge,
to the spot she knew,
just beneath a tree of glass,
and pushed me off the side,
and didn’t stop to listen
to the furious rumba resulting
from the crash of notes, and wood,
and water, and ivory.

Water fills my belly and carries away
the fury in the Nancy’s back,
the chaos in Tony’s fingers.
The woman in yellow is playing,
the way I expect Alice Coltrane
called for the response
in her son’s trumpet,
the way Nancy sings Periodico de Ayer
and smiles, bouncing down the sidewalk,
the way she must play, I suppose,
with windchimes in her ear.

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and facilitator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

Poem in Which the Poet Attempts to Teach Children... by Rich Villar

Poem in Which the Poet Attempts to Teach Children on a Walking Tour of their Own Neighborhood about the Purpose of Urban Poetry, Completely Ignoring the Tree and the River in Front of His Face



On the 174th Street Bridge

spanning the Bronx River
what you tell your children
about the nature of poetry
is that it’s not so much
about their assault rifle cadences
as it is about what they are able
to record between their mama’s Con Ed bill
and the scattering cucaracha
because their mamas were here before them
and the cucaracha will be here

after the last bomb drops and
shit like that could be considered pastoral
since nature poems in the urban setting
involve concrete and brick
weeds and trees bursting through
unfriendly ground to snake around
the rusted necks of overpasses
project brick compared to French cathedrals
winter sealed inside by landlords
who resemble Ronald Reagan and

you are satisfied with your lesson
because you have taught your children
to see the Bronx as it is but

the flaw in your theory is named Gerald
and he is Puerto Rican
and he is Gerald not Jerry
not salsa or bachata or bad language
and he keeps to himself as you walk and talk
the language of spray paint and breakdance
and he does not know who Afrika Bambataa is but

there’s a bottle in the grass near the river
which you can see if you crane your neck
it says East Tremont Bottling Company
and it reminds you of the anecdote of the jar
by Wallace Stevens who is suddenly
the realest motherfucker you ever met
and Gerald will tell you without words
that it’s been there since the river was the river
and there is a river underneath your feet
which was never meant to be a sewer
which is older than hip-hop and you
older even than poetry and

because there are green bottles in the trees
over your head
dozens of them filled with water and totems
bottles which ring and harmonize
every time the wind picks up
and Gerald calls them muerte bottles
because this is his neighborhood
and his cousins’ names are made of glass now
and that’s just what they do
to remember the dead and

this information overwhelms you
because suddenly you realize
that a teen on a bridge between a river and a tree
know more about surviving
than you will ever be able to teach her
about the poetics of struggle
because he is only enacting
the erratic line structure
of a walk home that is never the same
from one sunset to the next
because your lack of faith keeps you
from simply hearing a green windchime
simply harmonizing with a river
simply flowing beneath a bridge
simply plainly Oya speaking to Oshun

a child teaching a teacher
with no words needed to explain

 


Rich Villar is a writer originally from Paterson, New Jersey. He directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News, and his poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Renaissance Noire,Hanging LooseBeltway Poetry QuarterlyAmistadLatino Poetry Review, and the acclaimed chapbook series Achiote Seeds. Since 2003, he has served as co-curator and faciliator for the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase and the Acentos Writers’ Workshops, both in the South Bronx. His first collection, Comprehending Forever, is a finalist for the 2013 Willow Books Literature Award for poetry.

The Right Way to Tell a Story by Carolyn Ferrell

OBJECT: Piano

BODY OF WATER: Bronx River


November 24, 1993

Minutes before their first official date, Ralphie felt his confidence flag. He was standing on a street corner, and had to reach down to the hydrant for support. Why was he doing this? It was raining, just a touch, and the air was opaque; when he recovered, Ralphie walked into the bodega on 7th and sat upon a tower of rice bags. He closed his eyes. Any minute now she’d be coming, and he had to be ready.

Subrena Woods—it was her name that got him first.  Twenty-three, never married, one kid in hiding. Lovely brown voice, eyes that swept the room in one raging bound. Long legs, box braids, and golden doorknob earrings.  Technically, she was someone he shouldn’t have wanted—growing up on Sedgwick Avenue, he’d walked by girls who looked like her everyday. They were in the same graduate school; he, to finish his dissertation in psychology, she to quote unquote better herself. She wanted to be a schoolteacher. She loved action movies. She had a son she talked about in hushed tones. They couldn’t have been any more different than Manhattan and the Bronx. Quote unquote.

He wondered if this was him falling in love.

They knew each other from long afternoons in the Student Commons, where she would wax philosophical on 18th century women writers and he would remain mute in some corner, drinking a beer from a bag. One day she mentioned that she’d wanted to check out this one soul food place in the Village—chicken and waffles, hoppin john, cranberry collards—and when he looked up, he saw she was staring straight at him. Of course he didn’t tell her this, but he’d been to that very restaurant before, to disastrous results. Who the hell came up with the idea of chicken and waffles in the first place?

Let’s go out, you and me, he ventured. Let me find us a better spot.

His mother had always been of the opinion that he was not a soul food kind of boy, that he was, in fact, more like his Scandinavian ancestors on his father’s side, those people with their strange red berries and constant fish.  As far from the Bronx as you could get. You never found that sort of animal in the Bronx River—no sir.  Dexter, his mother’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, used to angle behind the stone mill at the Botanical Garden, catching an occasional trout, which she would then fry up just as lovely as chicken.

The day after his first date with Subrena, his mother listened and said, If you want this girl to stick, you better take her someplace like the Ikea restaurant in New Jersey.

What the hell did his mother know?

Her old boyfriend’s name was Dexter; and long ago, when he was about eight or nine, Dexter had taken him fishing in the Bronx River.  Late November, just before the first snow. A Botanical Garden guard came by after some time and told them to put out the fire they’d built on the river’s edge.

Why pick on us, Dexter shouted back. Why not clean up this place first before you start hollering?

You got a problem sir, the guard asked. His hand was on his hip flashlight.

Don’t you read the News, Dexter screamed. This place has gone to hell.  There’s nothing sacred anymore.

He was blue in the face. Ralphie tightened his grip, and soon the old man calmed down.

Stone cold crazy, the guard said, and kept walking, until he was a speck by the Conservatory.

Eventually the pair headed on home to his mother’s apartment on Sedgwick Avenue. Ralphie was sure he had frostbite. His mother scolded him and told Dexter to sleep on the fold-out.

Now the rain was getting worse. Ralphie got up off the rice bag tower and walked back outside. Subrena was supposed to meet him under the awning of GO SUSHI; hopefully she would know how to use chopsticks.

Hopefully she wouldn’t look too ghetto.

Hopefully she wouldn’t mention her son in that sad voice of unrequited love.

Hopefully he would look like someone she would perhaps admire, maybe want to kiss.

Was he a schizophrenic—why should he want her? He had no idea. The main thing would be to stay cool. To look like he was having fun. He was feeling something wide just then, unwieldy and yet tidy. Was this love? He looked around for a payphone.

And then, like a fairy tale, he saw her coming down the street, Subrena Woods, wearing a pair of golden ballet slippers, looking like someone he’d never seen.

November 23, 1979

It was the removal of the piano that had gotten Dexter so upset.

He’d been sitting in the kitchen of his girlfriend Candace’s apartment looking over the headlines in the Daily News when he came across the following: “Everett Upright Found at Bottom of Bronx River!”

Volunteers had offered to help remove the instrument from the water; there was a number listed that you could call to donate, time or money. Dexter closed the paper in disgust. A piano like that was a perfect starter instrument; it wasn’t something you’d keep around forever, but if you were just learning the notes, or the lay of the keys, you couldn’t ask for anything better.

How could someone go and kill an instrument like that? It was like killing the gods.

The doorbell rang, and Dexter shut his eyes. Let Candace see to that, he muttered. Then remembered she’d gone out.

About ten years ago he’d had a gig in the Amalgamated Houses—Jazz Saturdays, it was called at first, and then, when they couldn’t get the teen kids to attend: Senior Living Fun. The idea being to get the old folks—neglected by their families, left alone in overheated apartments—to stop wanting to kill themselves. Dexter knew jazz could calm any savage beast. Even the old folks at the Amalgamated Houses.

He knew this because he’d had always loved jazz, going back to the time he saw Lester Young at the Famous Door in 1946. He’d spent many years trying to impart to others the religiosity of that first experience, though his efforts were usually in vain. No one understood the real workings of jazz the way he did—no one saw its true origins not only in the blues and early black musical traditions—but also in the tonality and precision of Bach.

There, he said it: Bach—the first jazz musician. When he first told Candace how he thought jazz had come into being, she laughed.

Bach? Wasn’t he around with Beethoven and all them other white guy powderheads? Dex, you best do something productive with your time.

(Candace had never given him his true props as a jazz musician. If it had been up to her, he’d be working overtime at the janitorial gig over at P.S. 24 in Riverdale.)

Luckily the boy had shown a talent for loving music. Candace’s boy Ralphie.

Dex and Candace had been dating on and off for years, and for truth, he’d wanted to leave her many times. The thing that kept him was Ralphie.

Rafael, Dexter called him.

Dexter loved holding the boy’s hand and experiencing that child warmth he’d never known himself. He showed the boy the Bronx as if it were a treasure chest: the Paradise Theater on the Grand Concourse, where you could catch a great double feature. The toughened landscapes of the Botanical Garden, when they were still coaxing trees and shrubs into life. The wide-hipped boulevard of Mosholu Parkway, which in certain lights reminded one of a Parisian thoroughfare.

Paris in the springtime.

Once Dexter played a record album for the boy: Lennie Tristano at the Half Note. Rafael’s eyes nearly popped out his head. He was only six. You play like them, he asked. Daddy Dex, you play like that?

I play like that but don’t anybody really know I can, Dexter said. Nobody until you.

He had taken the boy everywhere by then, and would continue to do so, even well past the time the boy learned to be ashamed of him.

They traipsed all over the Bronx. Bruckner Boulevard—the old Estey factory. Longwood Avenue and Southern Boulevard; Hunt’s Point and its garrulous market. The Botanical Garden was the favorite destination. Is this your grandson, the ticket sellers would ask, and the boy would bow his head.

They spent time by the old stone mill standing in the Botanical Garden, trudging up and down the wooded cliffs, sliding into the banks of the River, where they came upon many things: a few abandoned cars and shopping carts, bicycle chains, dog skulls, broken bottles, tires, once a coffin. The boy—he was about eight—grew frightened at that coffin, but Dexter was able to calm him down. I think they was filming a horror movie here, he told the boy. One that might be playing up at the Paradise. You want to go and see?

They caught the last showing of Monster-A-Go-Go and The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. They ate butter popcorn and drank purple soda. They came out and counted the early evening stars on the Grand Concourse.

The boy, he was practically Dexter’s own. Six, seven, eight, nine. Then Candace said she was thinking about moving down to Manhattan, where the sun seemed to shine a bit brighter than it did in the Bronx.

Dexter was thinking about her and the boy’s move on the day he picked up the Daily News and saw the photo of the crane lifting the piano out of the Bronx River. All the volunteers smiling at the camera, white people with nothing better to do, he thought. Shame that.

Footsteps approached; had Candace returned? Hopefully it was her, carrying a last tray of lunch. Maybe a few extra Tylenol. He was feeling pain in his piano fingers.

Dexter opened his mouth and felt the air come crashing in. Why you sitting like that, he heard a voice ask. Why you got your mouth open like that?  Are you in pain?

Dex sighed.  You didn’t need a heart for anything anymore. At every bend in the river there was a large crane waiting to scoop everything out.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, felt his insides grow cold. Where was the boy when he needed him?

November 24, 1993

Subrena hated it when her school friend Ralphie phrased her situation as “one kid in hiding.” That was so not the case. Her son—Jay short for Jayquan—was staying temporarily with her mother on Longwood Avenue; and in this case, temporary was going on four years, but so what? She was going to give him a better life, one so far removed from the Police Athletic League on Fox Street and the miserable public school on Southern Boulevard and the doctors wouldn’t stop going on about the boy’s fragile mind—their true life was just a graduate degree away. But the first step was getting Ralphie to stop saying she had a kid in hiding. He thought he was being quote unquote funny.

The outside of GO SUSHI looked paltry, with a tattered paper lantern hanging above the ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT sign. Jesus H. Christ.

She was so not into a man at this juncture in her life, though she did kind of get a kick out of Ralphie’s persistence. He was doing something in psychology, already at the end of his studies, a dissertation perhaps. He talked to her with his hands in his pockets, a shyness in the dark-ringed eyes.  She liked that about him.

She also liked that often, in the Student Commons Ralphie told her a few stories about his life. One was about an absent father—been there, done that, she’d wanted to say. Another was about a job his mother had taken working the night shift in the looney bin of Montefiore Hospital. You really had to be there, Ralphie repeated, which made Subrena roll her eyes in boredom. Wasn’t the point of a story so that the listener didn’t have to be there?

She planned on getting this English degree and teaching in the public schools. It didn’t matter which one. Jay could come back and stay with her. He could be her little boy again.

Not a thing in hiding.

A light rain had slowly begun. The air looked and felt like Milk of Magnesia. Ralphie was late. How she hated late.

There was something about him, though. Subrena started looking for a pay phone—she would quickly call Jay and ask him if he loved her—when Ralphie suddenly bounded down the sidewalk toward her, his faced fixed in glow.

And Subrena suddenly recalled a story he’d told her one afternoon, one that moved her. This was just after the other students had left the Commons and they were alone. Evening had started to pour into the plate glass windows and the old radiators hissed.

When I was a boy, Ralphie said, my stepfather took me to the Bronx River, to fish. Dexter, his name was Dexter. I last saw him when I was thirteen, but I remember feeling much younger than that.

We got to the old stone mill that stands on the banks of the Bronx River—before then, we used to just jump between rocks and count the trees. I never knew there was an actual Bronx River. I thought it was a made-up place, a fairy tale. But here it was—here we were, poles in hand, Dexter rifling through the tackle box, a chilly day.  I tore off my shoes and walked out to rocks in the middle of the water.

It was November, already winter cold. Dexter was on the shore building a fire. I was looking at the trees—the old oaks hugging the shore, the new chestnut trees buckling the earth, the needy birches grabbing hold of what soil they could in order not to drown. Everything pointed upwards. Dexter put on his transistor radio; he began telling me the story of how he met my mother at a dance, and the way she chewed him out for being so old, and the nice kiss he left that dance with.

I looked down at my feet in the stream; I’d never felt anything so alive, so tingly, so beautiful against my skin.

Dexter had promised me that there was winter flounder to be caught, striped bass in the river. Those names sounded so lovely. Though the river was really just a stream, Dexter came out in waders; his hat was full of beautiful flies—mostly for trout and minnows, but one crazy looking spider tie. Come on back, Rafael, he said to me, the only person on earth who ever used my real name. I think I’ve caught a beauty. Come on back and let’s get this party started.

Then he looked at my bare feet on the rocks. He removed his reading glasses.

Come on, Daddy Dex!

He screamed, dropped his pole, lurched over to me and swept me up into his arms: Leeches, he cried. I looked down and saw that three leeches had attached to my left foot, suckling the length of my toes.

Daddy Dex, I shouted.

Son, he said, trapping me in his arms, carrying me back to the fire. I never wanted to move again. I can’t remember if I ever did.

(At first she thought this story was corny as all get-out. And yet—years into their marriage, Subrena Walker never stopped feeling it kick in her ribs.)

THE FUTURE

They married. Years passed. They had two children, both graduating from the Horace Mann School; one later died in a car crash. Dexter passed away from a heart attack in 1980. His mother moved to a room in the Riverdale Manor, a nursing home just inches shy of the Yonkers border. More years passed. Decades. Who understands the passage of time?

Because then it was Rafael and Subrena Walker celebrating their diamond anniversary at the Kingsbridge Assisted Living Center, where a pair of ninth graders from Fieldston came to interview them. The kids had been summoned to do a community service project. They took out a list.

Question one:  Where were you born?

Question two:  What is your favorite part of the Bronx?

Question three: When did you know that this was your soul mate?

Raf and Subrena looked at each other. They could not, in good conscience, say it was love at first sight. But they also couldn’t remember when love entered the picture.

Question Four: Well then, what was it that got you two together?

It never occurred to them to say cheap sushi or 18th century women’s literature or the permanent institutionalization of Jayquan Woods or the deaths of their parents or subsequent life as two middle school teachers—one with a PhD, the other a mere Master’s.

Rafael said, I think we fell in love over an Everett piano. Me playing, her singing.

To which Subrena laughed, a mouthful of elegant dentures. Had she always been this beautiful, Raf wondered.

Husband, Subrena said, Just when did you ever put your hands on anything resembling music? Don’t confuse these girls.

(The couple laughed and held hands and the ninth graders took a photograph of them and left. Later that evening, Raf and Subrena looked into each other’s eyes. To have said they got together over a story about the Bronx River would’ve been such a sentimental piece of sap. Corny as all get-out. Yet had there ever been any other version?)

 


Carolyn Ferrell is the author of a short story collection, Don’t Erase Me. A recipient of grants from the National Foundation of the Arts and the Bronx Council on the Arts, Ferrell’s work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of the Century and This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers. For several years she worked at Bronx Educational Services in the South Bronx, where she led literacy classes for parents and children. She currently teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Ferrell recently moved to Yonkers from Riverdale, where she lived with her family for more than a decade.

Dread Beach by Cate Marvin


It’s a kill myself kind of day,
the sun itself refusing to lend
its flattering light to the skin
that makes my face, its eyes
set as facets to gaze on a sea
churning its organs up upon
the shore lit beneath a hurt,

where the gassy water’s salt
fattens and deposit its small
wealth of dead crabs clawless
among stunted mussel shells,
beach glass the worn lip from
Mad Dog, and someone’s lost
his pants three times by three

wave-worn rocks, by the pyre
of piss-filled gatorade bottles,
discarded tampon applicators,
two combs jagged with teeth.
I died here once. Before nothing
mattered. So I pocket sea glass.
In another life, it’d have cut my

thigh.  But all that’s here rusts.
A grocery cart estranged upon
rock.  Mattress coils deranged
with fishing net, and the plastic
bunting that once plied hospital
beds is now a white zipper twist
round a pylon staking remnant

pavement to sand this worn-at
children’s hospital a someone
said let the sea take away so as
not to have to cart its ugly onto
the inland.  And when the dead
began to matter was when my
wrists began to stagger, beach-

comb sea-glass. Dragging their
blood-nets all over. Back then,
I got my gift of fading into walls
simply by leaning. First time I
saw him, I knew I’d been done in.
See, your salt-crumpled pants
legs dead as sea crabs, thick tar

muddle glued beneath sun next
to a tire rind, that half full bottle
of Visine lying on sand in wait as
if to proffer its saline kisses to my
driest eye: froth your terrible past!
O, but if you only knew. Back then,
I was so much better at being dead.


Cate Marvin’s first book of poems, World’s Tallest Disaster, was chosen by Robert Pinksy for the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and published by Sarabande Books in 2001. In 2002, she received the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize. She is co-editor with poet Michael Dumanis of the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande Books, 2006). Her second book of poems, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, for which she received a Whiting Award, was published by Sarabande in 2007. She teaches poetry writing at Columbia University’s MFA Program and Lesley University’s Low-Residency MFA Program, and is an associate professor in creative writing in the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She is co-founder of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, an organization with the mission to  explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.

Sound Navigation by Katie Naughton

OBJECT: Surveillance System

BODY OF WATER: New York Harbor


For you it’s easy the slip the darkness me
my bones glow like gunshots on the wharf.

Before I even ask what are you swimming for
before I let slip a mess of wires out of my mouth

into the water. I get the sense someone is watching
for us I get the sense I should keep my mouth shut

when you kiss me this time swim off into the bay.
Put my ear to the planks and listen to water

pleating itself brackish in the pilings you weave
in by strokes kicking off the wires naked in the waves.

Want to follow you to that dry place below the bridge
where your chest is a paper lantern. Want to be gone

by the time the echo lets me know what you shouted
up to the train when it goes loud over the bridge.

If I get there if you make it back from if someone doesn’t
I would climb the tower dampen my luminous bones

in dressed-up flesh drop a handful of nickels down
in the river make a cloud of sound you could escape again.


Katie Naughton lives in Brooklyn. She writes about science for kids and others, and is looking forward to bike-to-the-Rockaways season. She can be reached at kathleen.e.naughton (at) gmail (dot) com

The Mermaid by Jaime Lowe


OBJECT: Mermaid

BODY OF WATER: The Coral Room


The water, even though it’s dirty and tastes like bleach, washes them away. It’s better than a corner; it’s a tank. I’m not writhing against a pole or sitting on someone’s lap. I wear costumes with sequins and chiffon. Sometimes I don’t wear anything at all; that’s when I’m at my best, somersaulting and nosing my way into your wallet.

I know I look sad. I do it on purpose. You guys want to save me. I’m fulfilling some complex your therapist will never uncover. I just dance underwater, in a tank, ethereal and swirly. I bend in ways you wish you knew. You see my doe eyes and think every last drop in the tank is from my tear ducts. Get a clue. The water is from the faucet; the hangover eyes are from turbulent dreams. Obviously, those didn’t go so well. I was meant to be Desdemona, I was meant to cry in tragic proportion. Now, I’m a mermaid in Chelsea, making tips and on-the-sides, and I share a hotel room at the Liberty Inn with an almost woman formerly known as George.

Let me walk you through my nights. I walk to the bar. I wear extra baggy sweats like a Detroit gangster, no make-up, no fins. I like to be human before I am fish. I strap-on a backpack I got from a drunk who drank too much. It came with a Scorpions t-shirt that smells of construction site. I wear that all the time, until his scent was replaced with mine. I make my way into The Coral Room.

I say hi to Frank. All bartenders are named Frank.

I climb a makeshift ladder behind the bar where the tank leaks. There are always puddles and white tubs that would be better used as drums in subway stations. Here, they catch diseased moisture. No, seriously, I got chlamydia in my left eye from this water. I climb the ladder, strip to nothing on good days. Sometimes Frank screws me with the early shift and I have to wear an irridescent body suit. Tips suck when I wear that thing. I stand on the wooden planks and hope for no splinters

The water is always cold, keeps the nipples alive. I dip my toes in slowly, elegantly, like an actual mermaid, I feel my feet overtaken, my shins, my crotch, my arm pits, my chin, my closed eyes, and outstretched limbs reaching for something far away while sinking softly into the fluorescent plastic coral. I shimmy, I squirm, I elegantly arch. I try to make eye contact with gentlemen, most only have eyes for whiskey. Occasionally, they look up and see how meticulously groomed I am, how gracefully I tangle in the water, how the lights soften the crevices of my now amphibious body.

The ones who know ask and I take them to a private room. I make enough in tips from my water dancing that I only I have to pull one a night and I’m done.

Sometimes, I have dreams of Daryl Hannah. Sometimes, I think about the way fish move, their electric scales rippling against waves. Sometimes I think that each baptism by chlorine is another chance to burn out a layer of skin. And every time, I think, maybe that skin will reveal scales.


Jaime Lowe is the author of Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB (Faber & Faber). Her writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Interview, Radar, Penthouse, NY Observer, Bon Appetit, ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated and the anthology Fathers & Daughters & Sports. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

East River of My Devotion by Lindsay Sullivan


Watch video of Lindsay and her collaborator Doug Keith performing this song at the American Folk Art Museum here

 

Lyrics

I took the sea to the C

searching for ghosts at Dead Horse beach

a ship appeared to me

I swam out so I could see

"Come aboard my darlin

it's the last time I'll be callin

come aboard and sail with me."

We sailed along the water's edge

Brighton Beach over Dreamland

cut right and towards the bridge

first Brooklyn then Manhattan.

"It wont be long my darlin

until you are drownin

and you belong to the sea."

Then the wind began to blow,

lightning struck and hit my boat.

I swam hard but fell below

I sang out to the River, don't let me go.

"You are the waves to my ocean,

East River of my devotion

I'll drink your salt

I'll breathe your sea."

I sunk down onto my knees,

Threw my head down to Her Sandy feet,

I begged Her please to let me breathe,

one breath of Her Salty Sea.

"You are the waves to my ocean,

East River of my devotion

I'll drink your salt

I'll breathe your sea."

<>

And I became the River Bed,

Dead Fish, Stripped Cars and Soda Cans.

River City below Manhattan,

Piano Keys, Submarines and The Princess Ann. 

I am the waves to Your Ocean,

East River of our Devotion.

I drink Your Salt and 

I breathe Your Sea.

Yes I am the waves to Your Ocean,

East River of our Devotion.

I drink Your Salt and 

I breathe Your Sea.


Lindsay Sullivan is a student, yoga and meditation teacher, singer, songwriter and piano player living in Los Angeles. In 2008 she released her debut LP, Long Road Home with her band Clair. 

Waterside by Rick Caruso

OBJECT: Concrete Pilings

BODY OF WATER: East River


waterside_proteus.jpg

 Artist Statement

 

My initial idea was to use old ledger paper that I had to make a cityscape and a waterline and show an above and below water level view of the city. As I started to construct it, it became more fractured and formal looking. I used an old East German machinists’ workbook that I found in a free book pile when I was visiting a friend in Berlin and realized that buildings I was constructing out of the graph segments looked vaguely German and cold and also looked a lot like some of the buildings at a place called Waterside on the East River, right above Stuyvesant town in the mid 20′s. I was working there a lot this fall for a friend’s landscape design company who has them as a client. The Waterside buildings have their own weird history. They were built on top of World War II rubble from bombed houses and buildings in Bristol, England – shipped over here for whatever reason (there is a little plaque at Waterside talking about it being built upon England’s “Oaken hearted fortitude”). There are four huge buildings there that were built in the sixties in this really ugly and cold in post Bauhaus communist / projects like style. Everything is hard edged and cold looking and reminded me a lot of the buildings I was making out of the graph rectangles. The other weird aspect of Waterside is that it’s built on a platform jutting into the East river which is supported by – I think – hundreds of concrete pilings and they actually have a team of full time divers that dive everyday to check and fortify the pilings. So, as I was making the piece I was thinking about Waterside and the system of supports and structures underneath the water, and how the coast of Manhattan in general is strange in the way that the water doesn’t just meet up with a beach or pier but has the system where it grows out into the water in this layered way.


More information about Rick Caruso can be found at carusowork.com.  

You Have the River by Michelle Wildgen

OBJECT: Contaminated Fish

BODY OF WATERHudson River


Years ago I had a plan. I lived over a hill from the Hudson River, past Sacred Heart Church, past a crumbling downtown and menacing, empty train station. The river in my town was brown and slick, banked with old cranes and unused piers, the bones of heavy industry. A few miles south, men fished in the water, casting lines off docks across 12th Avenue from Fairway, dropping disc-shaped fish into plastic buckets at their feet. They often stood several yards away from one another, not speaking, not looking over their shoulders at the people with shopping carts and their cars’ negotiations of the narrow parking lot. I was always curious whether the fishermen ate the fish they caught or simply poured the bucket back into the river when they’d gotten bored. The fish were small and yellowish, a discolored silver, something metallic and toxic, and I would not have eaten them.

My plan was this: I would tape a knife around my leg. The calf. Let’s say the calf, though the thigh might have been easier to reach. But also more likely to cut me before I was ready, so I planned to secure the knife on the outside of my calf. I would not overdo the tape. I didn’t want to be out there in the river, trying to work the adhesive off my skin, tearing hairs out by the roots, and floundering as I worked. Perhaps if the knife was sharp enough I could simply twist the blade right through the tape. This seemed the proper approach. I decided to have the knife sharpened professionally.

There are many places to enter the river. Docks, train tracks, scabby green banks. When I was making this plan, it was summer, so I knew I wouldn’t slip on ice. I could walk right down to the water, wherever I chose.

A quiet spot would be best. No cars. No shopping carts and fishermen.

I am a good swimmer. It’s been years since I tested myself, but I once swam across a lake, flanked by friends in two canoes trailing life buoys in the water in case I panicked or tired. My wife was in one of the canoes, watching me the whole time. She said very little, though the rest of our friends were laughing, making dinner plans. She watched me and she kept one hand near the rope with the life buoy. It’s true I switched from the crawl to a backstroke and back again. I did tire. But I never reached for the life buoy. I swam to the opposite bank, waited until my feet sank into the sludge of the lake floor, and stood. I rested and then I swam back.

And so I knew that I could swim out into the Hudson. I believed that I could make it to the center, where I would tread water in the trough between the currents, and then I would untape the knife. The plan was very thorough. If blood loss didn’t work, drowning would; if drowning didn’t work, infection would. There is a reason I would never eat those yellowed fish: the river is a filthy place to swim, and one should avoid all contact with a wound of any sort.

But the knife itself became the problem. My wife and I had received some good knives for a wedding present, a fine heavy paring knife among them, and I thought this would be small enough but effective too. She did not use the paring knife as much as I did; she liked the ten-inch chef’s knife. There are tasks a four-inch blade is ideally suited to, however, and I kept imagining my wife coring an apple with a chef’s knife the length of her forearm, or trying to slip its great blade beneath the skin of an avocado. I saw her getting in the car to buy a new knife, standing at a counter to choose from a selection, testing edges with a fingertip. In my fantasies she bought a top-of-the-line filet knife instead, a long light blade that would be more versatile in the end. I was being very maudlin around this time.

Gradually it became obvious that my plan was not a good one. Like so many of my ideas around this time—I was drinking then; I couldn’t stop—it was grandiose and over-complicated. There were too many places to lose control, too many opportunities for mere injury. You have the river, who needs a knife? Weeks passed, July and then August ended, and still I never went down the hill to stare into the Hudson, waiting for someone to ask me why I was there so much. I let the knife go dull. The plan began to waver and then to disperse. For some time that plan had been heavy and substantial, a thing I tended to. I often imagined it rounded as a heart and netted with blood vessels—an eyeless, pulsing creature I had cupped my hands around for months at a time—but now it thinned and flattened to a membrane, until I could pass my hand right through it.


Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not For Long and You’re Not You and editor of the anthology Food & Booze. She is a senior editor at Tin House Magazine.