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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.

We Cross by Tobias Carroll

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Tobias Carroll was in residence on Governors Island from August 6-19, 2018.


[excerpt from We Cross]

One day in the center of the season of autumn I was asked to go to a nearby harbor city, make contact with an associate of an associate of an associate, and camp out there for several weeks. This seemed agreeable to me. I liked the feeling of coastal towns in the off-season, and I generally savored the way the smell of the ocean blended with the breaths one took to experience the feeling of trees at that time of year.

And so I ended up at the bus station, sitting in a waiting room for a bus line on which I’d never traveled before. The room fit fifty comfortably and held perhaps thirty. I found a group of seats removed from the bulk of the travelers, sat down, and opened a magazine. I was wearing comfortable clothes, jeans and a shirt with a bit of text on it, an allusion to a local radio station whose esoteric broadcasts I enjoyed. Three or four minutes after I sat down, I noticed someone standing over me. I set down my magazine and looked up.

The man who stood there was of average height and seemed in early middle age. He had thinning hair and an athletic frame, and wore wire-rimmed glasses. He was pointing at my shirt. “Why do you have that on?” he said. “Letters and numbers on your person are how they get in, when we cross over.” I stared at him blankly. I expected him to hand me a pamphlet or other religious tract at any moment.

“We cross over unclaimed territory on the route,” he said. “Don’t you know that?”

I told him that I had no idea what he was talking about and asked him to leave. He glared at me for another few seconds and then walked away, shaking his head. I saw him sit with another man of similar age at the other end of the waiting room. I could see the two speaking, both men gesturing emphatically. Periodically the man who spoke to me would look over in my direction and point at me. I watched this for another minute or two and returned to my magazine. We had twenty-three minutes before boarding. The journey was slated to take four hours. I didn’t expect to sleep on the way, but there might be some blessings left to occur on this trip.

Twenty-two minutes later the bus began to board. In this way it was like every other journey by bus that I’d taken: we queued, we handed our tickets to the driver, we boarded. I found a seat towards the back of the bus, gathered together my reading material for the trip, and switched on the overhead light.

The bus pulled into a rest area ninety minutes into the trip. I had never traveled this way out of the city before, and I was savoring the route. We seemed to be traveling on smaller byways below the concrete infrastructure of the interstate highways. We maneuvered through marshland, past small radio transmitters whose call letters I didn’t recognize. I could see reeds fifteen feet away, and I wondered if this route was prone to flooding. It had been a dry season so far; the waters here were unlikely to overtake the pavement on which we drove.

It seemed as though this was a parallel route to some other, more efficiently crafted journey. But we were also making good time: we carried on at a rapid clip, and the road down which we traveled had few stop signs, traffic signals, or congestion. Eventually the marshes gave way to buildings with a more industrial cast. I wondered how near we were to the closest waterway. I saw fisheries nearby; some of the buildings nearby had signage evoking the bodies of fish, or the shells of clams and oysters. And then the bus stopped at a small building, roughly the side of my own apartment, on the side of the road. Waiting there was another man clad in a uniform similar to that of our driver. A few cars sat in the parking lot, and a vending machine out front promised effervescent beverages to those with the cash in hand. The driver fired up the PA.

“All right, folks,” he said in a jovial tone. “That’s it for me on this run. Mr. Bass will be taking you across the state line and through the unclaimed territory to our final destination. As always, it’s been a pleasure being your driver.”

The bus came to a stop, and this driver stepped off and the other man got on board. He settled into his seat and reached down to the microphone. His voice was needlier; it seemed less reassuring than that of his predecessor. “Good evening, passengers,” he said. “I’ll be completing the last leg of the journey. We should be at our final destination in approximately forty-four minutes. For those of you who have brought sacks or hoods, I’ll let you know when we’re in sight of the state line.” And with that the bus left the parking lot and headed back onto the road. In the seats in front of me, I could see the telltale signs of fidgeting, of passengers looking through bags or cases for something in particular. And, once they had each located what they sought, the satisfied postures of one with fewer cares than they’d had a moment earlier.

Ten minutes later, the new driver took to the PA again. “We’re about ninety seconds from the mark; those of you who have your hoods will want to put them on now. Everyone else, please avert your eyes and clear your mind, lest you end up fully fucked like me.”

At this point my heart began to wrack itself against my ribs. I had little sense of what was happening. Around me on the bus, I could see my fellow travelers each donning shapeless sacks over their heads, akin to hostages or journalists conveyed to unknown locations in some wide-screen melodrama. Across the aisle from me, a teenager paused in covering his face and turned to me. “What the hell are you doing?” she said.

“What are all of you doing?” I asked.

“Haven’t you done this route before?”

“No,” I said. Across the aisle, her posture softened.

“So no one told you,” she said. “No one told you about what happens when we cross.

“No,” I said. The feeling that I was confronting something wholly irrational continued, now abutted by the sense that there was actually something to fear.

“There are things that get in you when you cross,” she said. “If your eyes are open, they’ll get in you. If you’re thinking about something, they’ll get in you. Because there’s something on your shirt, they might get in you.”

The driver’s voice came over the loudspeaker again. “Thirty seconds to the state line.”

“Look,” my row mate said. “Close your eyes, keep your head down, and take deep breaths. Focus only on the breathing. That’s the best advice I can give.” She turned her face back to the front of the bus and pulled the sack over her head.

What else could I do? I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and breathed in and out as evenly as I could. I focused on the rhythm.


Artist Statement: During my residency, I found that the rituals of crossing the river to get to and from the island had gotten somewhat under my skin. I became interested in the rituals of traveling, and of the nature of liminal spaces. Cross this with my interest in weird fiction, and you get this novella-in-progress, tentatively titled We Cross, which is excerpted here.


Tobias Carroll is the author of Reel and Transitory. He lives in New York. 


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.

A Waterside by Tobias Carroll

OBJECT: White Boat

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


On the small kitchen table lay a set of objects: a vial of pills that looked prescription but bore no prescription; the scuffed cover of a punk CD of unknown origin; and one of the manuals, the writing on its cardboard cover Sharpie-scrawled and illegible. Like the pills, it had arrived from her mother the previous day. Vera Schiele Obek stood over it all, eyeing the items and wondering what the coming voyage would hold.

Her mother had the unified theory of nostalgia. Her mother toured obscure universities in Europe now, and would occasionally surface in interviews on cult website and newsletters. It was a kind of fame; she had opted for this shadow academia instead of the more accepted avenues in which she’d once traveled. Sometimes Vera would see her mother’s name listed on the covers of still-extant countercultural or psychedelic publications. Sometimes it seemed to her to be the stuff of crankery. On the other hand, the pills, and their undeniable effects. That cascade of memories, of knowledge, of some other self. She was never sure what they were meant to be: a past life, a parallel life; a vision of a life she could have had had she been born into a different skin, a different nation, a different waterside.

And so Vera lived out here on the borders of the Navesink River in a kind of exile. Low-slung buildings and boat slips and the sound of automotive traffic heard from across the water. Her last boyfriend had muttered, “I hate myself sometimes,” in his sleep, and she’d parted ways with him not long after the dozenth time she’d heard it in the midst of wracked snores. She had come to this place six years earlier and had stayed quiet, temping sometimes and sometimes accepting assignments from her mother: rites to be carried out on the water to stifle incursions, to wound the pockets of nostalgia that were born, shimmering, off the coasts of cities and slowly made their way towards buildings and trafficked avenues, promising docile nightmares.

When she had been a child, when her mother’s academic life had been a more traditional one, Vera believed in undiscovered blocks behind the shopping centers they frequented. She believed in gaps and cracks and archways; that there was something mysterious to be found there. A store that sold something unavailable, its proprietor just waiting for the right customer to walk under the jingling bell by the door; or a park on the shores of a secret river. A potentially private miracle. Instead, there was this.

***

The routine had codified by now: the arrival of a manual and the accompanying pills. Vera would drink down one or two of the latter and wait for the memories to come, first in dreams, then to walk among in meditation. And then, on the following day, she would take the boat out to whatever corner of the water had been specified, would carry out some action, and would have the beatific taste of another’s life to walk in, parallels to carry with her and fan out like a prognosticator’s deck.

Her mother had explained it to her once, or at least had gotten there halfway. Her mother had still been developing her theories then; was still salvageably normal. Vera remembered her in her workshop, gloved hands clutching compounds, powders; distilling and combining. “These patterns,” her mother had said to no one in particular. “You can chart them, I think.” At that age, Vera never knew if she was the recipient of these lectures or simply a bystander to something else, a secret progression, a war against a concept given form.

Vera sat at the table and read the manual. Theories of overlay and nostalgia; the notion of displacement, of collective memories, of incursion. Her mother was fond of the word, and had begun using it around Vera’s twenty-first birthday to describe the blossoming, burgeoning vessels that they sought to staunch. In the manual, Vera came across numerous references to ships unearthed from sea floors and ships rebuilt and lost again. Sweden raising the Vasa; the Bounty remade for a World’s Fair long past, then sunk again; tall ships in New York Harbor in 1992. The incursions, her mother wrote, came in the shape of sailing vessels, inconspicuous in their scale. They would reach the shores of the nearest city and spill out of their forms in cryptic light. And the minds of the cities would ebb and wander and grow archaic.

From reading enough of her mother’s handwriting, Vera understood that the pills were a sort of vaccine, an isolated dose of another’s past to keep the false ships’ charm from overwhelming her. She had never actually seen one of the phantom ships; she had seen discolorations in the water, a patch of fungal orange in the Atlantic’s familiar slate-blue, more than once. She didn’t know how she would recognize one if she did see it: from the type in the manual, they were indistinguishable from the real thing save to the touch -- and to touch one was to be bonded to it. The movements of the phantom ships’ phantom crews were sometimes sickly, their forms limited -- but how to judge that against ordinary sameness, ordinary flaws?

Vera swallowed the pill. She would read the manual in its entirety tomorrow. She folded the cover back, black industrial tape serving as binding and fulcrum of the cover’s text both. In the memories summoned by the pill. she stood on the Australian coast and watched an ancient fleet approach. She was herself and she wasn’t; soon, she knew, she would gaze in a mirror, would understand more of her face and her fate. The pills made it easier to understand the influx, the mid-water structures, and the threat that they caused, but the flood of memories that accompanied them left her disoriented, unsure of herself. Sometimes, she was unable to recognize half the items in her home for days.

***

Vera had bought the boat from a fisherman who had told her he was trading up. She had had it for as long as she’d lived there; it was white and fully open, a shade under twenty feet; fast. She lived walking distance from its slip. It could get her as far as she needed to go, which was local; trips that took her close to Manhattan or Long Island had never been required. The chop outside Staten Island echoed off the bottom; it never failed to raise her and drop her and leave her feeling wracked, her inner ear attuned to different rhythms. It seemed a sensible barrier.

Today, that barrier would be crossed. Inside the back cover of the manual, Vera’s mother had written “near Gun Hill,” and “look for the Ironclads.” And so Vera charted a rough course: out to Raritan Bay and north, tracing Staten Island’s coastline and passing beneath the Verrazano. Up the Hudson, past skyscrapers and maritime facilities, and north. And afterwards, refueling, somewhere safe on the trip home.

The following morning, she woke early, bought a sandwich and a few bottles of water from a nearby deli, and walked towards the slip where her boat was stored. The gas tank was full; she removed the boat’s cover and let herself sit for a few minutes, savoring the newborn moments of the morning, the sun still working its way up the sky. In the boat was the bag of food, a cup of coffee, her mother’s manual, materials for stifling the incursion, and the remaining pills.

Vera sat and opened the manual to its last section, the journal entries that her mother had Xeroxed, the usual prelude for manifestoes to come. The first line to catch Vera’s eye was this: “They always embraced the trickster, even when he unhoused them in the name of chaos.” Vera nodded; she would probably read this same sentence in a year or two as part of a properly bound tome. She liked to think of herself as her mother’s first reader, though she knew that this was not the case. A peer reviewer, then. Or someone to pull her from the brink, or someone to be pushed from some kind of precipice.

Soon enough, it was time to cast off, to start the engine, and to begin her journey north with a slow exit from the slips. Not yet a lot of boats on the river, she saw. Good. It would be an unpunctuated trip, at least for the first forty-five minutes: time enough to pass Sandy Hook and head north, into the chop.

The incursion, Vera’s mother had written, was triangulating itself around two sources: the display of a restored early submarine in a Chelsea art gallery and a museum exhibit on Civil War ships elsewhere in the city. This one, she had written, was different; this incursion might be in the early phantom stage, where an echo of a form, the outline of something old and familiar, might be rising.

***

She rode through the swells, shuddering with each of the boat’s collisions with the water’s surface. This was always the question when dealing with water this open: should you take it fast and risk the jostling, the uneasy quarrel from side to side? Or should you go slower and risk drift, aimlessness, a loss of position? She had never tried to reach the city from her home. These broken skips over the water’s darkening surface summoned fear. Her life jacket would certainly keep her afloat, but who might see her out here, stranded, miles from any shoreline, an anonymous crier on the open water? She had never capsized, and hoped never to capsize. She feared taking on water; she feared that one of the boat’s impacts after rocketing from a wave might split the hull open, might serve the same purpose as the capsizing she so dreaded.

Irrational, she knew. Still, rationality wasn’t why she was out here. If she wanted empirical evidence, there were better places to go than to stifle phantom ships looking to wear down the progress of cities. This was where she and her mother parted ways: Vera’s mother had devised measurements and measuring instruments to calculate the degree of the incursion, its rate, its purpose. Not for the first time, Vera wondered if her mother was mad, if the pills were placebo, if this weren’t some long con being pulled on her. Not the best anxiety to have as one’s ship was tossed on the open water.

The eastern coast of Staten Island drew closer, and she turned the boat slightly, her path curving to meet its jagged peaking arch. She hated this sound: the enraged burble of the engine and that rhythmic splash splash splash as she flew over waves and crashed down, again and again, her craft now wobbling, now proceeding straight ahead. It would lurk in her mind even more than the water’s lingering dizziness, the lasting sense of unsteadiness that would come when she returned to land.

Rituals were a large component of her mother’s manuals. They seemed at once ancient and hodgepodge, an improvisational riff on some half-formed idea of what an ancient rite might have been like. There were objects that she would throw into the open water, some of them common, some requiring research, trips to out-of-the-way groceries or orders placed by mailorder. And yet: she’d been told that her trips had been successful. It was, Vera thought, a strange way of being. There was nothing to lose her focus on here, the coastline and the water beckoned. There was never a question of bringing someone along on these trips: her mother, perhaps, but her mother was far away, living in Berlin or Tallinn on some obscure fellowship and fundraising and amassing the monies needed for these sorties. And no, there was no one else.

***

As she passed Governor’s Island, she had a thought that this might not go as easily as she had hoped. The sky seemed an odd shade of blue, saturated and hollow. Something seemed to loom there in the north. She’d checked the forecast, and had seen no sign of storms. As the city’s financial district rose to her right, she dry-swallowed two of the pills. Soon afterwards, she needed to blink before recognizing billboards and signs on Manhattan’s coastline. English, she realized; she was translating it out of English and back into it again. Again she wondered whose memories these were, if they even were memories or simply concepts, a distillation of an identity into something more abstract. A reshaping of her mind’s chemistry.

As she passed beneath the George Washington Bridge, she took another; thirty seconds later, the incursion seemed clear to her, a blossoming where before there had been only discolorations. A change much further along: a miscolored bubble or an egg or the tip of a clay iceberg awaiting form. It loomed; she could see, as she blinked, its afterimages, roots below the water’s surface. Cracks and fissures that spread, that reached out, waiting to envelop. Vera was a thousand feet from it now. She slowed the boat; it still tossed, but in the Hudson the cacophony was less pronounced. She took the ingredients assembled to dispel the incursion in hand and waited to approach.

And then the incursion vanished. No discoloration in the water; no roots or trails beneath her. She ingested another pill, and then another, and it returned to her. Its presence could again be felt; and so she turned the boat and proceeded towards it. As she looked around the landscape,  she noticed an abundance of grey; slowly, it came to her that she was now colorblind. Where once there had been red and green, now there was only an absence, a noncolor that was, in its own way, as disconcerting to her as the putrid shade of the incursion’s stain.

The documents of her mother’s that Vera had read over the years were inconclusive about the source of the incursions. There were hints that they came from some sort of collective mood.  Vera’s mother sometimes suggested other eras; even parallel worlds. Not for the first time, Vera wondered about the source of the pills and the memories that they brought. All of them seemed to come together in her: the Vera she knew; the colorblindness; the other languages that now swam through her mind. A delegation that made an outline around her, and a fluctuation that made that outline shudder.

Once again, the incursion vanished; once again, Vera swallowed a pill and waited for it to reappear, and for something else to follow it and live in her mind. This time, it was memories: a city block with roots rising from the pavement, and a child walking along those streets in early winter. Certain buildings resembled Astor Place; others seemed displaced from the streets around her own home. It was a new city or it was a lost city or it was a false city or it was something remaking itself, something assembling itself, something in the process of becoming. Or the landscape was overtaking her. Or she was being re-entered in the world, that space she once occupied revamped; she thought briefly of home, and four distinct front doors flashed through her mind.

Before her was the incursion. Fifty feet away it loomed, then flickered; another pill brought it back into focus. Vera saw it starting to ghost, saw its essence start to lift, beginning to approximate a ship’s hull, the brackish water lifting like a thin and awful mist. It would have been the hull of something huge, she saw. A tall ship or something stout and military or a fishing boat returning from northern waters. She was at twenty feet now; she pulled the materials from her bag and pitched them at the incursion’s center.

The incursion ossified for a moment: those reaching walls, the harbored structures that reached towards the sky suddenly becoming white, briefly solid, then crumbling into a saltish ash and falling back towards the water. It was done; her elements expired, her pills consumed, the manual no longer needed.

***

There was a slip on her way back, near Sheepshead Bay. She took the boat there slowly; there would be fuel, or there would be somewhere to stop and rest, somewhere to set foot on solid ground and abate the rocking, the constant rocking that pervaded her body. She saw it, that familiar space with Coney Island’s midway in the distance; a series of moorings and ladders and piers, and she recognized the space where her craft would go. She let it drift in, momentum bringing it to the dock; her hands found ropes and tied the boat loosely, foregoing familiar knots, and left it there to rest or to drift. She walked on the pier and she took the piers onto paved-over soil and she stood there in New York, feeling at home; she glimpsed her building not far away and walked towards it; and if someone had called out to her the name Vera Schiele Obek, she would have paid no attention. The day’s journey was over and the sea’s pull on her faded, ebbed, had never been. 


Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His fiction and criticism has recently appeared in The Collagist, Hair Lit, Vol.1, The Fanzine, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.