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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.

West Side Highway by Erin Baer

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


OBJECTTunnels

BODY OF WATERHudson River


I heard a story on NPR recently about a family living aboard a boat in the Pacific Ocean, in waters so unpredictable that they literally tied themselves to the boat in case it capsized. Though experienced sailors, eventually a health emergency forced them to send out an SOS signal. When the rescuers came, the mother explained that the hardest part wasn’t the decision to get help, it was leaving their boat: “having to say goodbye to our home.”

***

Moving to New York City from a suburban nest of quiet creature comforts is a lot like leaving that boat behind. We find refuge for our lost selves on this dry island.

During my childhood across the Hudson, I often wondered what it was, exactly, about New York that necessitated so many bridges and tunnels. From the backseat of my family’s Ford station wagon, the lanes of traffic reminded me of tiny metal specks being sucked toward the giant magnet across the river. If we opted for a bridge, I’d lean my head against the backseat window to marvel at the height. I wondered who had the audacity to build something so tall from so deep. I imagined a scuba diver boldly laying cement at the bottom of the river, flippers counterbalancing slabs of sheet rock.  On the long car ride home, we’d go under the river, my parents braving the Holland Tunnel. If I dared to doze off, the fluorescent lights would wake me up with a flickering shock. Once I learned to read, the New York/ New Jersey sign was the pivotal moment where we left behind the echo and abuse of the city, toward the quiet, frosted lawns of my suburb. I was grateful to be home.

Years later, I moved to New York for college. After my first semester, things were different. I felt adrift.

I made plans with some friends to head back into the city for a New Year’s Eve party.  In my parents’ New Jersey bathroom earlier that night, a friend tried to convince me that glasses don’t go with formal wear. The air was full of that post-Christmas pre-New Year’s sense that we must enjoy this freedom from academic obligation.  Our bellies were full of family traditions, lazy winter days of sleeping late and nights of watching films—not movies—while smoking joints in the basements of our childhood homes. We donned the costumes of our adult life, readying ourselves for one of those alcohol-addled, aimless nights in New York.

At the train station, my friend Mitchell was uncharacteristically dressed up—tie, button down, blazer, the whole works. A semester away at college and he’d shed a layer of awkwardness and was feeling brazen enough to show it.  He’d already picked up train tickets the way men find things to do with their idle hands while waiting for the women folk to prepare.

I knew I had too much make-up on when I saw his face. 

Mitchell looked around nervously bending his paper ticket in his hand so it made a u, then a lower case n. u, n, u, n.

We sputtered on and so did the Raritan Valley Line, traversing the swamplands and entering the tunnel under the river. My ears popped at the exact moment that the car went dark, as the water pressure closed in on all sides of the train. I always pictured the tunnel springing a leak, water rushing in like an open fire hydrant on a hot city street. Somehow, imagined catastrophes kept me centered, soothed me. It was the only kind of optimism that felt natural: assuring myself things could be worse.

My friend’s West Village apartment had a tiny, porthole-like window in the exposed brick of the living room. As the party raged on, I stared out at the sparkling river while I slowly sipped a rum and Coke. Known and unknown partygoers promenaded around me, one stopping to marvel the view. He said a condo would be erected before long, co-opting the waterfront bragging rights.

At some point I lost track of Mitchell.

If he felt anything for me, I didn’t know it. I was foreign to myself, unrecognizable like my own voice on a tape recording. One night between high school and college, we held hands like children and walked around my quiet, artificial neighborhood. Earlier that summer, we’d hiked through the reservation near his house to a clearing where we could see the city skyline across the river, hazy in the day, covered in smog and lazy afternoon sun. On the walk home I complained of blisters. He bandaged my foot and glanced up at me with a question in his eyes.

Mitchell confidently circled through the party that night while draining his beer. His college metamorphosis was obvious. And I wasn’t the only one seeing this version of him.  I knew what was coming, and it was wholly preventable if I could only work up the nerve.

I passively stared at him, then the patio, silently willing him out there, with my big city magnet eyes. Maybe he’d put his coat around my shoulders. We’d stare up into the night sky, and do the damn thing already.

In the moments before the ball drop, we all squeezed into the bedroom. Our party and Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve were happening simultaneously, thirty blocks apart. If I closed my eyes, the TV screen provided no boundary between the revelry of Times Square and this tiny bedroom in the West Village.

I watched an unrecognizable version of Mitchell as he slung his hand around the neck of a high-pitched, negligee-clad girl, with a lop-sided Happy New Year tiara.

I pet the cat in the corner, watching.

And then, of course, it came. Three, two, one, and all of that. Mitchell leaned in head first. He kissed her like he meant it.  Like he liked her, or her body, or thought this was the way to find someone.

Amid the confetti and noisemakers, I saw red. I left without my coat and walked the half-block to the West Side Highway, a location I’d loved since moving to Manhattan. I spent a lot of lazy afternoons weaving my way through the maddening confusion of the village, comforted when I finally saw Christopher Street spill out onto the highway, then the piers. From here I could look across the river at my hometown, making sure it saw how far I’d come.

That night I needed the piercing cold in my face, the lapping water angry at the air and resisting freezing. As I breathed in the putrid smell of the city river I felt my toes begin to numb in their silly high heels. A couple to my right leaned against the railing, clawing at each other.

I began to shiver, my shoulders hunched against my ears. I turned away from the water, back toward the city, felt the chill of dashed expectations mixed with the New Year’s first cold breezes coming off of the Hudson. Across the many-laned highway, I saw the shadow of my friend Meg. She was carrying my jacket, slung across her arms like Jesus in the Pieta.

I collapsed into a hug and, as she rubbed my back, I thought I’d try to harder to be a grown-up that year.


Erin Baer is a writer and social worker. She is involved with the organization Girls Write Now and has participated in the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband.

 

 

Two Red Things by Steve Mentz

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


 

The ocean has many colors. Whenever I look into its blue or green or gray or foaming white face, I think it’s telling a story. It’s remembering something, splashing together lost histories. What does froth murmur?

The Atlantic is childhood.

The Pacific is youth.

I grew up near the Jersey shore and spent many hours walking its uneven sands. That beach is still the landscape through which I read all waterfronts: a gently sloping expanse of gritty beige sand, punctuated by tar-stained wooden jetties that may or may not contain beach erosion. The water is warm in the summer, and the surf rolls on a human scale. Lots of kids start with boogie boards and graduate to surfing, but not me. I never rode the waves any way but on my belly, head down, hands knifing the water in front of me like the prow of a blind boat. If you catch the wave right, it carries you all the way up the beach and leaves you high and dry, face down, eating sand.

In my early 20s I lived for one year in Venice Beach, California, in an apartment on Westminster Avenue, two blocks from the Pacific. I needed to move suddenly in early September, and a guy I barely knew who played rugby with me said he had an apartment I could move into right away. It was a basement unit in the back of the building. Wind off the ocean blasted sand across the parking lot through my ground-level kitchen window above the sink. Everything tasted crunchy that winter, but I had a place. The building super lived upstairs, with a bumper sticker on her apartment door that read, “Skateboarding is not a crime.”

My Atlantic talisman is a red beach towel that I lost on a Sunday afternoon in May or early June of 1991.

My Pacific touchstone is the chorizo omelet that I ate for breakfast on Martin Luther King Day, 1994.

These red things aren’t wet. I am a swimmer, but these objects hold my past selves at a slight distance from the water. Towels dry you off. After breakfast, you’re supposed to stay out of the water for half an hour. I’m not sure why I remember these things, but I do.

 

1. Red towel. Bay Head, New Jersey, 1991

The red towel left me on a grey afternoon in spring, a few months before I left the East coast. It happened in Bay Head, between Karge and Harris Streets, where family history mixes with silica. I had come out for a swim after dinner with two friends, but we ended up not going in. We carried beach towels, including the red one that I lost that afternoon but whose exact terrycloth match sits today in my swim bag. Both of the towels used to sit folded in the bathroom closet of my family’s house at the shore. I must have taken the one I still have with me when I moved to California later that year.

The boy wasn’t that much younger than I was. The papers later told us he was a senior in Point Pleasant Beach High School, ready to graduate that spring. I was then maybe a half-dozen years older. He was frantic, soaking wet in jeans and no shirt, running in circles and gesturing with outstretched hands.

He didn’t look at us, didn’t notice we were there. He splashed back into the water as we watched. He fell awkwardly in the surf, then thrashed his way back up onto the beach.

The story as we later learned it was that he’d been at an afternoon concert at the Garden State Arts Center up the parkway with his buddy. They’d gone for a quick dip in the surf after driving back from the show. Only one had surfaced.

He ran back into the water when the police arrived, but pretty soon he came out and listened to them.

We stood there watching as the police diver slowly and deliberately poured himself into his wetsuit and assembled his diving gear. The solitary boy now sat on the sand, staring at the surf. My friend Maryam walked up behind him and draped the red towel over his shivering shoulders. He didn’t notice.

They found the body an hour later, after the three of us had gone back inside.

 

2. Chorizo omelet. Venice Beach, 1994

My Pacific story is happier. It begins with disaster. At 4:31 am on the morning of Martin Luther King Day in 1994, a massive earthquake hit the Los Angeles basin. Its epicenter was in Northridge, and it topped 6.7 on the Richter scale. Between the pre-dawn quiet and the holiday and some luck, casualties were low.

I woke up in my basement apartment with thirteen stories of concrete dancing above my bed. Not a Californian, I didn’t know to duck under the doorframe. I sat in the dark and shook along with everything else for what the seismologists measured as twenty seconds. I didn’t understand what was happening.

Along with most of the other residents of my neighborhood, including my skateboarding landlord and the two rugby players from New Zealand who were living next door in a converted closet rent-free so that they could play for the Santa Monica team, I wandered outside after the earthquake. The sun didn’t come up for a couple hours, and the street lights were all out, but we could see by moonlight, and besides we knew where we were going.

I walked across the concrete path where I used to roller blade onto the flat gray beach. There was nothing to see. The surf churned invisibly in front of me. I stared for a while, listening.

When I came back from the beach I sat under the red and white awning of The Sidewalk Café, where I often ate Sunday brunch by myself. I ordered a chorizo omelet, as usual. The power was still out, but the gas was working so they could cook, and nobody bothered about the bills that morning. We were all glad to be out from under concrete. I talked to people I’d seen before, but whose names I didn’t know. As the sun came up, we peered together across the expanse of beach until we could glimpse a shimmer of Pacific.

 

What do these stories mean? Are they symbols of mortality and failed rescue, of solitude eased and community almost-restored? Twin parables of human fragments scattered amid harder substances on disparate beaches? The stories tell me that I remember red, the warm color of a towel laundered in my parents’ house, the darker shade of Mexican sausage peeking out between layers of eggs. For years I asked questions of the ocean and received no clear replies.

My final answer, it turned out, would be conventional: marriage, and a coast unlike either New Jersey or California, the south-facing Connecticut shoreline on Long Island Sound. But that’s another story.

 


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

Registering Motion by Nicole Haroutunian

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



I’ve worked on ships.

I can talk about ballast and ratlines and know that, dreamy as it sounds, starboard just means “right” like “port” means left, like “bow” means front and “stern” means back. If I imagine my body as a mast, my outstretched arms are a yard, a horizontal beam where a sail would hang. I’ve walked on decks, not floors, stepped over knee knockers rather than through doors. I can identify the correct tool for splicing rope, which isn’t called rope on a ship—it’s called a line. I’ve never called a ship a “she.” 

I’ve worked on ships, but I’m not a sailor. My motion sickness is debilitating. Hurtling forward is fine, but up and down is not; side-to-side is worst of all. And once the nausea hits, it can last for days. Nothing is curative—not salt air, not a stick of gum. Not standing still.

As a writer, editor and museum educator, I could have steered clear of a nautical life altogether. But as a New Yorker, avoiding the water isn’t so easy. Freelancers in this city take work where they can get it and that’s how I make my living—how could I close myself off to our sixth borough?

In 2009, I accepted a part-time position on the Hudson River. The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, is docked there near 46th Street. During my interview, I was assured that the ship was too big for me to register motion. It seemed true—the Intrepid is as long as the Chrysler Building is tall and while the Hudson’s tides lapped at its hull, they didn’t push or pull it as far as I could tell. But occasionally, trapped on the indoor hangar deck over a beautiful weekend day, I would hope to feel the ship sway, to be able to say, “Actually I do feel a little sick.” The only time the Hudson shook me for real was during a training in the Museum’s submarine. It was as if my colleagues and I were trying to balance in a bobbing tin can, and after a few minutes, as the curator spoke, I edged out, hands over my mouth. I lasted on the Intrepid for a year which, if I remember correctly, is three months longer than its sailors were typically deployed.

The Hudson has been called New York’s first highway; the East River, down by the Seaport, was once known as the Street of Ships. By the time I worked at the South Street Seaport Museum, what used to be a forest of masts had been whittled down to just a few. The Peking is a tall ship made famous for a treacherous journey it took around Cape Horn. It remained docked just outside the Museum, but unlike the unmovable Intrepid, pitched and rolled on the East River waves. I’d teach students right up to the edge of the pier, but a coworker would have to take over as they stepped onto the ship. The Pioneer, a schooner, took crews of kids out into New York Harbor and hosted our staff happy hours and holiday parties. My colleagues sailed, glasses of wine in hand, while I remained on shore.

I always made a point of talking about how the Seaport district was built on landfill, how it wasn’t just by the water or about the water, but of the water, as well. In October 2012, during Hurricane Sandy, the East River rushed forth to reclaim its former territory, flooding the Museum’s basement completely and filling its lobby by more than six feet. The art and artifacts on higher floors were spared, but enough damage was done that now, more than two and a half years later, the Museum galleries remain shuttered. Who would have expected—although of course it makes sense—that it was the ships that fared the best. Built for water, they rose with it, rather than succumbed to its force. In the days after the Hurricane, subways still down, I took the East River Ferry across the water to volunteer in the recovery efforts. Ferry trips, stable and brief, are the only boat rides I can abide.

Besides the Intrepid and those ferry trips, the last time I remember being on a ship was for the Underwater New York launch party. I was newly a co-editor of this fledgling venture—a digital journal of writing, art and music inspired by real-life objects found in New York City’s waterways—and the prospect of having a party to celebrate its inception on a once sunken ship, the Lightship Frying Pan, was too perfect to pass up. When we first visited the venue to plan the event, it was a very still day. The Hudson was placid. I swear I didn’t feel so much as a pitch, so much as a roll. At the launch, as the rocking ship felled other, hardier party-goers, it must have been adrenaline that carried me through. The night was magical, right down to the end, when I started to feel the waves, a slow roil in my stomach.

Thankfully, though, it isn’t forward motion that gets me: Underwater New York is still sailing and I am still aboard.


Nicole Haroutunian's work has appeared in Two Serious Ladies, the Literarian, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Day One, and online at Tin House. Her story collection, Speed Dreaming, will be published by Little A in spring 2015. She works as a museum educator and is a co-editor of Underwater New York. 

Beach Days: A Cost-Benefit Analysis by Steph Cha

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


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

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

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

 _________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Canals by Amanda Montell

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At dusk, Ben was out of ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"See?" he whispered.

I squinted.

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

"There are more."

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

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

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

"Wow," I whispered.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hypos in the Upper Bay by Elizabeth Bradley

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


OBJECT: Currents

BODY OF WATER: Upper New York Bay


 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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


Sand in My Joints by Antoine Wilson

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

On Sand by Lisa Kunik

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


 

I grew up in a 1950s ranch house cradled among the pine trees towering over Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills. We were only thirty minutes from the ocean, yet to my recollection my mother took me to the beach only twice. One time we built lopsided sand castles on the public beach just north of the Santa Monica Pier and the other we were guests of family friends at the Surf and Sand Beach Club. From both occasions I remember little except the checkerboard of light glittering across the waves. The mental snapshot is so iconic I suspect it’s been influenced by TV and picture postcards, or perhaps falsely generated altogether.

We rarely spent time at the beach because my father said so. He detested the sand. As a boy he’d summered at a cabin in Michigan near the lake, where he preferred to stand gloomily beside his mother with his hand resting on the kerchief protecting her freshly set curls rather than swim and skip rocks with the other children his age. Stories of muggings along the Venice-Santa Monica boardwalk in the 1980s only compounded his aversion, resigning our family to admire the sea only from the safe and civilized distance of the occasional Ocean Drive restaurant patio.

It’s hard to say whether I inherited a wariness of the sand or my lack of exposure exacerbated a genetic predisposition. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when my parents separated and also when I got my driver’s license that I drove to Venice Beach on weekends simply because I could. The colorful beachfront community wasn’t defined by the beach so much as by its eclectic residents—artists, screenwriters, bodybuilders, surfers, and dreadlocked tweakers—and that bohemia resonated with me, or at least I wanted it to. I walked Abbott Kinney without traversing the sand. A handful of times I rollerbladed along the boardwalk and lunched at the beachfront Fig Tree Café. Yet I never took a post-rollerblading dip in the ocean or stripped down to a bathing suit to lie out in the sun. In fact, I don’t recall ever stepping out onto the sand. Still I thoroughly dusted myself off every time before getting back in my car. I cringed at the thought of sand trapped in the grooves of the floor mats or the crevices of the cup holder. Driving home on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Pacific receding to a butter knife sliver of blue at my back, I always felt satisfied with my ocean-side exercise, accomplished without contact with the beach itself.

After college I moved to New York. Manhattan was surrounded by water but you wouldn’t have known that from my 13th Street apartment, which faced an airshaft, or my desk in an art gallery in the Fuller Building on 57th Street and Madison. I craved high rises, dive bars, and ethnic cuisine. The pavement embraced me, and I liked it. When each summer nearly all of Manhattan made a mass exodus to the beach, I was more interested in landlocked outdoor summer concerts, easily-snagged restaurant reservations, and air-conditioned museums.

I first met my husband in an elevator in the Fuller Building, and then again several months later in the hot tub of the Loews Miami Beach Hotel during Art Basel Miami. (That night he skinny-dipped in the ocean. Needless to say, I didn’t participate.) August 2005 we drove Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, stopping for several nights at Deetjen’s Inn in Big Sur. We hiked a crumbling cliff-side path with mythic views. It was foggy and fifty degrees, the kind of sleepy and still day best for curling up in the hotel rocker and browsing the Inn’s in-room journals, which later that day we did. But that morning we were out on the trail, hazy and undisturbed, digesting impossible views. We had sex overlooking the Pacific. We weren’t lying in the sand with waves tickling our feet. We weren’t sprawled on a Mexican serape working off a picnic lunch. We weren’t liquored up and laughing our way through our irreverence. We had most of our clothes on. We were awkward and shaking, half hidden behind a rock and praying a couple of unsuspecting hikers didn’t happen upon us.

I went into labor with my son at 32 weeks. In the 44 hours I was hospitalized before delivering I often found myself imagining the placidity of a Sugimoto seascape. Why I sought solace in a mental image of the ocean I can’t explain since I had no personal association with the sea and serenity. I met my son in the NICU at Mount Sinai. I was instructed to wash my hands. Everyone who touched my son needed to wash his or her hands or use hand sanitizer. My son spent 18 days in the NICU and the next 4 months confined to our apartment to assure he didn’t contract RSV, respiratory syncytial virus. I don’t recall the delicious baby smell of his hair. Life was Purell. Once, at around 9 months, I was helping him stand near a slide in the playground when a nanny told me, He is not an egg. Her 10-month-old charge was crawling on the rubber playground flooring, hands and knees covered in sand and broken leaves. I couldn’t imagine my son ever getting that dirty.

Our worry in his first twelve months was not just about germs, and when he was cleared at his 12 month well-child visit of any developmental delay, we marked our relief with a trip to Los Angeles. On Christmas Eve day we drove to Venice for lunch. Naturally my husband suggested showing our boy the waves. 

I recalled a walk on the beach I’d taken with my father in Montecito the summer before last when I was still pregnant—yes, somehow I’d cajoled my father into a waterfront stroll. The entire walk he’d commented on the trash, the occasional splotch of oily residue from the offshore oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel, and how generally “awful” and “filthy” the beach was. Meanwhile, my husband was already standing barefoot in the Venice Beach sand with our son on his hip. He was smiling at me in the buoyant way he does only when we’re in LA. Everything will get wet and sandy, is what I was thinking. “I’ll stay here with the stroller.”

I watched my husband and son recede toward the shore. For a moment I grieved the missed opportunity. I should be taking my son to experience the Pacific for the first time. I am, after all, the one from California. Soon they were fiery flecks backlit by the afternoon sun and a brilliant watercolor splash of sky. My husband was pointing, first at a surfer, then at a passing seagull. I looked through the viewfinder of our camera but even with the zoom lens I couldn’t see their faces. I clutched the handles of the stroller.

My husband returned to the boardwalk, squatted, and plopped our son down in the sand. Intuitively our boy raked his fingers, fast and furious, through the tiny grains. Sand flew everywhere. My husband kept pointing at our son as if raking sand were the most novel thing he’d ever seen. Then the obvious but unforeseen happened—our son tipped over, face first. My husband righted him, lifted the bill of his sunhat and brushed the sand from his cheek. No sand had gotten into his eyes or mouth, but that wasn’t what I was thinking about. My son had, for a moment, engaged me with a patch of beach.

I happened to be taking a video, which I’ve since watched probably a hundred times, smiling every time. My son’s lips are furled in elated concentration. Sand is stuck to his pants and the damp and dangling straps of his sunhat. He is a propeller of sand, and a propeller of life. He is reckless and vital. He is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.



Lisa Kunik is a Brooklyn-based writer and gallery director originally from Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared on Anderbo.com and LostWriters.net and her author interviews in the Brooklyn Rail and Small Spiral Notebook. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

The Quiet Edge by Lauren Dockett

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?” my dad asked.

 “It’s OK, just a slip.”

“Jesus kid,” he said. “Hold on.”

 


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

 

Open Water by Julie Sarkissian

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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