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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.

Web Waters by Alice Neiley


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

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

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

*

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

*

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

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


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

 

An Oral History of Atlantis by Ed Park


Illustration by Adrian Kinloch

Illustration by Adrian Kinloch

I have seen things I never wished to see, and every night I hear the ocean. If it seems passing strange for a short man to sport such a lofty tone, consider that the other venues of pleasure are closed to me. I stand 4 foot 8 in honest shoes—though hydraulic insoles and good posture get me to 5 even. I am not a true midget and am allowed passage on most major roller coasters. Here at the lighthouse on the island’s northern tip, I hang lanterns that mean “All Ports Closed,” and spend my days pitched somewhere between anticipation and dissipation. I study the forgotten chapters of the Chicago Manual of Style, with their helpful instructions on bookbinding, perhaps included so that civilization can start anew, after the bomb or the wayward comet, when absolutely everything needs to be relearned.

That task may fall to me. I am compact but I contain volumes. I know the lore of semaphore, the meaning of ship’s bells, and the beautiful Beaufort scale, running from 0 to 12, with which I rate the force of wind. Right now we’re at nil, the “sea is as a mirror.” I build drink after drink and wait for the rains to come.

My youth merits less than a sentence. At eighteen, when it was clear nature would not begrudge another inch, I stopped the height shakes, the protein packs, the kelp-based head balm that scented my sleep with sulfur and salt. My parents, those twin towers, proceeded to kick me out of the house, unconvinced to the end that I wasn’t some prolonged sight gag. I walked to Manhattan, arriving at noon. This was the day before the day the city blew up every bridge, back when they thought rats spread the dread metagenetic phoresis, or “Metaphor,” virus, which they wanted to contain or exclude, it was hard to remember which. By 1:30 I had found gainful employment as a messenger, by 3:15 a studio apartment six stories above Water Street. Such is the dedication of the tiny. My room fronted a parking lot, a bit of suspicious real estate that never held a single car. Beyond stood a disused warehouse, ampersand and ampersand, all its signage washed away.

Summer became winter without a fall. Night classes, situps, self-improvement. The room had come with a slight northward slant, a heap of broken seashells, and a heavy box of books. In those pages, as stiff and frangible as potato chips, I read of miniature races the world over, and of entire cities that rise from the sea at times of grim conjunction. I took notes, and took notes on my notes.

A neighbor helped install a rod across the bathroom doorway. Every night, after my lucubrations, I snapped into a pair of cunning anklets and hung from it like some hairless bat god, with a forbidden name full of diphthongs that would drive the pious insane just to say it. Thus I tried to touch the ground—secretly, shamefully—and dreamed my bones’ slow migration.

One night, hanging insomniac, I felt a light against my eyelids. I opened them to see my body squared in silver, as if ready for transfer to a larger canvas. Light splashed through my window’s grid, so strong it hurt to look. My ear flushed with cold night air, I discerned a formidable rattle. It was three in the morning and somebody was typing, hard strokes falling without a gap.

When I awoke, snow had gathered on the sill, and the books there had begun to ripple. The window across the lot was now quite closed. I studied the glass, but none of the dark shapes moved; below, the paving held no traffic. At two I broke for lunch: a plate of chops as big as my torso, a glass of Ovaltine the size of my forearm, and a side of potatoes only slightly smaller than my brain. Then, full of midget vigor, I ordered the same meal again.

At the other end of the counter sat a man of about forty, tall but not disgustingly so, who was reading a foreign paper. He had most of his hair, gold wire glasses, and an intellectual slump to his thin frame. Whenever anyone coughed, he would wince, but then, so did everyone else. No one cared to contract Metaphor.

It was only when the man got up to leave that I recognized him as Walter Walter, the exiled Dutch writer. I had never heard of him before Water Street. One of his early books had been among those left in my apartment; I’d read it on a thunderstruck Halloween, as the walls went white with lightning and every terse phrase sent a chill. The library had his other titles: a few bracing policiers that established his name in criminous letters, plus a fat volume of memoirs with the demoralizing subtitle “The Early Years.” There had been some Low Countries scandal to run him out of Europe. So here he was, Walter Walter. His recent outpourings predicted plagues and the rise of every atavism. The articles appeared only in obscure journals of the occult persuasion, some of which I’d found neatly twined at curbside. Now I began to wonder whether this was coincidence. If he lived in the area, perhaps I had been reading his trash. I decided to follow Walter Walter.

I made my last pass at the spuds, left a quarter tip, and walked outside. The street looked empty. One block east marched a conceivably Walteroid figure. The thickening snow made him look even thinner, as if ready to slip away between dimensions.

A crab of newsprint scuttled past. Every so often I’d maneuver behind a call box or dumpster, not that he ever looked back. He turned left where I’d turn left, then right where I’d turn right: Water Street.  He dashed up the warehouse stairs. I stood by the lamppost as though plucked from a dream, studying the silent door. In my room, waiting for him to appear, I eased myself into his later essays. It was writing as disease—a torrent of speculation and data, with no trace of the proportion or wit that marked his admirable detective fiction. The only thing that had carried over was the fear.

Around five, I thought I could hear typing again, at a less sure clip, the machine’s report larded with silences. The sound stopped two hours later. Night had fallen. I donned my foul-weather costume and nearly tobogganed down the stairs. I emerged to see Walter Walter, in derby hat and overcoat, heading north.

I kept a full block behind. Even if he slipped from sight, there were fresh tracks in the dusting of snow. I counted ten cross streets, then stopped counting. The snow fell harder and the wind moved higher up the Beaufort scale. We went west, a tall man and his shadow incarnate, hitting a region of mild industry—all flashing lights and mechanical pleasures. Every lurid satisfaction could be had. I began to think less of Walter Walter, not that a sleuthing lilliputian should judge.

The lights, the falling snow, the Pine-Sol reek of every slippery venue—it was Christmas Eve, I realized. Good God, what had I become? Even a minnikin should have standards. The dingy marquees and tattered banners touted assorted sordid scenarios, but in the most oblique possible terms. What did they mean by “Japanese Eggplants,” “Sitting Pretty,” “Bulbs While-U-Wait”? I couldn’t imagine—but of course I could.  Or was I just seeing what I wanted to see?

My quarry finally ducked into the Wandering Womb, the initials like mammaries. A little bell rang; I heard him stamp his feet. The blacked-out windows bore slopes of steam. I counted thirty Mississippi before following.

It was a gaslit room, diverging from the straight exterior walls to curve like a ship, with a plush green carpet and bespoke lowboys and a player piano doing the “Salt-Water Rag.” The walls were papered in velveteen, incised with anchors and fleur-de-lis. At the antique cash register stood an even more antiquated man. The clerk was kitted out in a trig dark suit with batwing collar and a cap that suggested a telegraph operator. I exchanged a ten, all I had, for a cup of  brass slugs. They were heavier and smaller than quarters, with double Ws raised on each face.

A dozen booths were set into the walls; a narrow staircase suggesting more underground. I kept to the surface. The doors were mahogany with black curtains behind, some with boot-tops beneath the fringe. Quaint signs said “fresh” and “hot” and “wet.” I could feel the clerk’s eyes on me, so I ducked into Booth 3 and shut out the world. It smelled of paraffin and hearts of palm. In the dark I could make out a weathered hand- crank and the stout shaft where the images lived, lunging up like a friendly seal. The bench was far too low, but a few phone books, concealed inside, made for an adequate perch: I was sitting atop all of Manhattan. Fitting a slug in the slot and my face to the eyepiece, I took a deep breath and manned the crank.

Somewhere in the shaft a bulb hummed on.  It was like light from the nineteenth century, unsure and shrouded. Now a few black cards clacked by in sequence, connected to the turning spindle. They were ink black, save the worn auroras at the corners. I spun faster, till the shadows gave up a shape.

But it wasn’t a woman at all. It was a whale.

That tongue of a body barrelled toward me, voluptuous tail held aloft, white fins fanning in tandem. I turned, harder.  Each image, I could now see, was stereoptically doubled, enabling an antediluvian 3D.  I gasped as it corkscrewed, the crank damp: then the picture froze. Before the bulb could simmer, or perhaps the cap snuff the candle, I entered another slug. A new set of cards came into play, whirring like wingbeats as I spun. The humpback rose and rose, through leagues of sepia, its body now caught in reticulations of light as sun met sea. It was coming up for air, while I merged with that ancient water.

The whale, my whale, largely traveled alone. For a time it joined a regiment of dolphins, and now and then cut through schools of smaller fry, dagger-shaped, that parted like a veil around it. My mind supplied a plot where of course none belonged, some briny threnody with unseen hovering harpoons, Moby-Dick from the beast’s point of view. I didn’t believe it myself when I began to cry, my tears falling directly on the quick-milling cards: fresh, hot, and wet. I spun and  blubbered, wondering what “Dutch treat” Walter Walter had come here to watch—whether the Wandering Womb was all whales, all the time, or if it offered deep-sea coelocanths, manatee matinees, self-propelled versions of the kraken.

The wind from the cards cooled my cheek, and I swear I felt a spray. To complete the cetacean sensorium, a medley of bovine moans and expressive hinges, perhaps etched on a wax cylinder, issued from a cabinet by my legs. Sometimes the view straddled the waterline, whitecaps like flame; other times it looked shot from a boat, as a school of humpbacks turned in sequence like the coils of a single vast serpent. But mostly things stayed underwater. My breathing adapted. Each slug seemed to last longer. The humpbacks sang in half-hour arias; my face was damp with sweat or spume. I woke when I started dreaming that the crank was an oar. The captain’s command to fire was a klaxon blast from the front desk.

I emerged at four bells, the last one out. I tried asking the clerk about what I’d seen, but he just glared at the grandfather clock and twisted his blond handlebars. I glimpsed myself in a pierglass, looking suitably depraved, with all the starch gone out of my shirt and the corners of my eyes as red as roses. Now it was a thousand blocks in the punishing snow. There were no footsteps to follow—the trail gone literally cold. As I turned onto Water Street, something glinted under the streetlamp: a pair of wire spectacles, like a crumpled insect, the lenses shivered in the snow. I put them on the handrail, where nobody could miss them.

I never saw Walter Walter again. I lost him in the chaos, as the city heaved under the rule of Metaphor. People acted out, walking pie-eyed in the middle of traffic, playing musical instruments they had no right even owning. All the dogs committed suicide; electricity was touch and go. There were fewer rats since the bridges went, it was true; but the ones that remained had developed antennae.

At night I’d float in my tub, head against the enamel. I could hear elevators plumb and launch, wind howling through the garbage chute, ghostly voices of tenants too tall to talk to. It was a direct line into hidden nerves, a blueprint’s subconscious filtered right through my skull, and it sounded like nothing so much as whalesong.

These private oracles served as a fix, but I passed my days in a benthic haze: I wanted to swim again, to be by my blowhole familiar. Unable to resist, abject as any addict, I finally made a return visit uptown, but the entire district had been rezoned; the mayor, linking Metaphor to vice, had decreed that only pizza parlors could operate there now. They’d renamed it MUNGO, for Municipality near North Grosvenor and Orange, as if that would make people forget.

It did. The Wandering Womb had wandered away. Everyone was new. They all wore clip-on neckties and couldn’t answer my questions. I was hungry but I didn’t stop. All the way home my mouth was open, and snowflakes fell in like krill.

I was seasick, but not from fantasy. The bridges, it seemed, had acted like stays securing Manhattan, and now it was moving south to freedom, while its edges slipped into anonymity. No more West Side Highway; no more FDR. And beginning that night, no more warehouse. An eraser-pink crane deleted it by a floor a day. As each level went, I could see nothing of human life but thousands of sheets of paper, perhaps all of Walter Walter’s hopeless writing, whirling like birds as they blew away.

The epidemiologists, at wit’s end, suggested things like “Smoke-a-Pipe Day” and “Make Fun of British People Day.” I knew from my reading that my time drew near: the little man, when not playing percussion and symbolizing the madness of World War II, was always a convenient scapegoat. So before the mayor could megaphone any anti-nanist propaganda, I threw out all my books and climbed as far north as the Manhattoes allowed.

Here I see no one, I plan for the flood, I do my mundane midget things. Some nights the hour advances in step with the Beaufort scale, so that at 7 “whole trees sway”; at 9 “shingles may blow away.” I could chart other events for you: the mylar hearts lost at the zoo, the gulls turning in wide circles like a planetary system. On the water to my left, on the water to my right, float barges so big they’re like pieces of the city, whole blocks wrenched loose with not a soul on deck. They continue at night, maybe the same ships in a hell of repetition. Their lights are orange and imploring, and glide in a line as steady as math: torches on some river whose name we’ve forgotten, whose name we were maybe never even meant to know.

Note: An Oral History of Atlantis first appeared in issue 35 of Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, in 2002.


Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days, a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Foundation Award. He is a founding editor of The Believer.

Descending by Ella Mei Yon Biggadike

OBJECTThe Abyss

BODY OF WATER: The Narrows


Everett’s not asking why anymore.  He rubs the wedding band on his finger, shimmies it down to his knuckle, and pauses.  The band hovers loosely as he steps closer to the edge of the bridge.  He looks over to Staten Island and over to Brooklyn. The adrenaline is numbing.  He sticks his hand into the wind and shakes the band free, letting it fall into the blackness. He watches it disappear, wanting to hear it break the water’s surface. This is what he’s gotten himself into. The groove in his finger where the band once was is a smooth valley and it makes him realize she’s carved into him.  It reminds him why he is doing this. From behind, the sound of a car horn emerges, as the bridge, brittle, wavers in the wind.

They got the rings on a whim in a tiny little antiques shop in a Long Island beach town two hours from the city.  Olivia wanted beach, despite the weather. They were bundled head to toe in a vacation town muffled with snow and finding it difficult to make conversation.  Each could imagine the sunshine, spilled ice cream cones, saltwater taffy and amusement park laughter–– mental images that, much like their happier selves, haunted them. They too, had seemed like ghosts of themselves lately, haunting each other.

Olivia sat on the floor of the shop, pulling on items from a woven basket. By the time she held the two gold rings, tied together with a red string, out and toward Everett she was wearing a large English tea hat, strings of faux pearls, big crystal clip-on earrings, lacey black gloves, and a pair of 50’s style winged glasses.  He burst into laughter at the site of her, grabbing his stomach and nearly stumbling.  It was finally something genuine.  He had been making his way through a stack of weathered old photographs from the early 1900’s.  He got the chills looking at their stone-like expressions, their pale ashen faces, half expecting them to come to life and start talking to him.  Seeing her dressed up like that was a relief to him. He looked at the two shining gold rings dangling from their string between her thumb and forefinger. This trip had been meant to save them.  He walked over and took them from her, held them in the palm of his hand, and bounced them around a bit, listening to the rings’ optimistic jingling. He was ready to save the day.

On the bridge, Everett lifts a leg over the barrier and stops for a minute, straddled there.  This seems the point of no return.  He shrugs to himself.  It doesn’t quite matter that much anyway now. The night comes back to him. The sweet girl and her blond hair in his face, the floral bed sheets, the perfumed spots on her neck and wrists. She hummed in his ear, and that made him certain she loved him, loved him in the way Olivia couldn’t. He curls his toes over the edge, grabs on to the safety rail behind him, and leans into the wind, a preview of what it will feel like to jump.

In the summer of 1988, Everett, 11 years old, stood on the diving board, bent at the waist with his hands hanging down toward the swimming pool.  His camp counselor, Suzanne, to whom he was hopelessly attracted, held him under the hips, her legs pressed up against him.  She lowered him slowly giving him time to focus on what he needed to do, though he couldn’t.  “Tuck your head before you hit the water,” she reminded him.  It wasn’t as scary this way, with Suzanne behind him, easing him into the water.  By summer’s end Everett was diving from the three meter, mostly to hear Suzanne cheer him on from down below.

Underneath him, below the bridge, is something like a black hole or the Bermuda triangle, or the rest of his life. Everett breaths intensely, working himself up, trying to get Olivia out of his mind and Suzanne in.  He tries to feel Suzanne behind him, feel the safety of her.  The water is black and slick in the moonlight. This is the point to jump, he knows.  It’s the deepest section of the river floor.  Ninety-six feet down. That’s where he wants to get to.  It’s his abyss; his prison. He hangs his body forward and drops his arms and tells himself it’s 1988.

Camp had been Everett’s relief.  The echoes of his father’s yelling resounded for the first week at Camp, but by August, he’d nearly forgotten how his body crawled away from the belt and his mind crawled further up the perfect floral wallpaper in their perfect 1950’s colonial.  The Christmas Everett broke the frosted glass Christmas tree his mother bought at Pottery Barn was the year he got on a Greyhound and rode three hours to Camp, only to find it boarded up.  He walked the campgrounds up and down, from his old bunk, to the tarp-covered pool, to the counselor’s bunks where one night the last summer he’d watched Suzanne through her bunk’s window.  She was wearing boxer shorts rolled down at the waist and a white tank top, reading a trashy novel with a flashlight. He watched her for a long while, until her light went out and even then sat, leaning against the shingled bunk exterior, looking into the sky.

Everett pushes off with his toes and falls. He had been trying to make himself dive by leaning further into the wind, half-expecting he could stop himself, half-expecting Suzanne to pull him back and say, “not until you tuck your chin–– hit the water with the crown of your head.”

His body breaks the water and a surge of pain runs up his arms. It is silent in his own mind and for a moment he just sinks. And then he remembers that he hadn’t meant to hurt Olivia, really.  He hadn’t meant to do her wrong, but even once he did, he hadn’t meant for her to find out.  He hadn’t even realized that what he was doing was quite as wrong as it was.  The girl was his and she had a woman’s eyes and that’s what made it seem okay.

As Everett descends, the warm water becomes cool, then cold.  The mixture is disorienting.  He rights himself and digs his feet into the sand.  There is a darkness floating in front of him. As he moves toward it, his foot slips from under him sending the bay floor up into a cloud.  He remembers bored days at the camp pool on Suzanne’s day off. He would let all his oxygen out and slide down the pool floor where the shallow end slowly became the deep end, then swim quickly to the surface for a deep and relieving breath.  He’d keep himself down there long enough to feel that he was a scuba diver searching for treasure or a merman looking for a cave.

Everett flips to his back.  The view from below the water’s surface: the underside of the Verrazano Bridge, like a long black strip with cables flying to nowhere and vague outlines of cruise and container ship hulls floating above like revolving full moons. He is nearer to the surface than he meant to be and he drifts on that top layer of water, his arms and legs lapping with the current.  The city lights make a galaxy and there is, nearby and coming closer, the red blinking light of a coast guard boat.  Out of the darkness comes the unnatural electric sound of a loud speaker.  “We’ve been looking for you.”

It was clear to Everett now.  Olivia had been the one badge of honor that he wore. That was all gone now.


Ella Mei Yon Biggadike has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MSc in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland, UK. She lives, writes, and edits in the Bay Area.