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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.

Because Water is Dutch for Water by Nicole Haroutunian

OBJECTS: Horse bones, Bottles, Shoes

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


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


 

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

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

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

“Does that mean no?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I squint. “Do you?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

Bennett nods. “I’m from Maine, so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodnacht,” we say.

                                            


Nicole Haroutunian is an editor of Underwater New York. 

Cold by Nicki Pombier Berger

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


OBJECT: Green teacup with internal scene of house and people

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay


I remember when the cold hit Barren Island. It came from the east, across the open sea, and pressed like a hand at my back as I rode the Friday ferry, hurrying me home for the weekend. It seemed to still the smell, the cold, and hold it in one place. I could have drawn a line around it, or marked where it started and stopped. I suppose that’s what I do when I remember you, too.

How strange, that my world before was blank of you – no you to even lack. I think about that, sometimes idly yearning the world into symbols – trees with their vanishing leaves, the sudden mourning bay of a steamer receding – or else it hits me stripped bare, as when I watch my girls take their tea.  Is there any pain as sharp as what it costs a mother to bring, from a blank, life for another?   

There you were, half a cantaloupe in each hand, their sherbet fleshy insides flashing, stepping up the gangway like a poem. Where had you come from? You found me, wrapped to my chin in a flannel scarf from the island, breathing in its taste of the homes of my students, bacon and cabbage and brine. “I come bearing summer,” you said, and slipped. One half plunked over and floated there, gaping like a mouth around an “Oh!” In my memory, I’ve burrowed further into my scarf to laugh there in secret, but you see me – right away, you see me – and then you draw me out.

You were a journalist, trained to pin a story, hold it still – a fish caught and mounted, glazed to look life-like and whole. I was a teacher, a mother-in-training I suppose. A fish on a wall just a fiction.     

You had a hunger that spread the more you fed it. On our first ferry ride, you made me name the islands, Duck Point, Fish Kill, Bergen, and then you were there again the next week, ready with their legends and lore. On one, a whole meal once washed ashore, course by course, cheeses and linens, a fat roast and a full head of lettuce, a jar of soup screwed shut. Off one, the pirates Gibbs and Wansley scuttled a brig and waded in, laden with Mexican dollars. A local barkeep fed them, keeping his life, and after each bite Gibbs licked his fingers, pulled out a coin, shined it bright and swallowed it whole. On another you could hear nothing but the breathing of the sea.

You had a journalist’s insistence on fact, but in truth you were a believer. Of myths and wishes, of this and that. Your laugh. In this way you were like the fishermen we passed each week that fall, thigh high in the frigid marshland or rocked by our wake in their little boats, patient in some faith sometimes rewarded, or straining against its sudden proof. I can still summon them so clearly, in this my mainland life, with no view to the sea.

“You don’t need to have seen it to see it,” you would say.

“Is that what you tell your editor?” I would play along, and you would bring me books to prove me wrong: “Read these and you’ll see.”  

We sometimes have these talks. This one while I thumb the empty spines in my library. I can’t remember when I lost your voice, just the ache of the search for it since, and the drone of my own, thrown back and back to me, like a tide.   

All fall we rode the Friday ferry back to the mainland, finding each other at the Canarsie dock again on Monday to return to Barren Island, after our weekends at the homes we never mentioned. You with your notepad and a deadline like the horizon, always out there, never closer. I was the one whose life loomed. In December I would stop for the winter and the mainland would reclaim me. I would step off the ferry with my jelly legs and climb up for one last carriage ride to the Brooklyn Flatbush station, board the Brighton Line and watch the windows slowly fill with noise until, at Fulton and Franklin, there he would be, waiting, and you were a dream or invention, a tale of your own telling, and the whole of Barren Island would be erased with one wave of his hand, as a name etched in sand.

What’s there to remember? The stink, of course, though I can’t describe it. That was all they wanted to know, back home, about the smell. What could I tell them? The impatient captain rush rushing us aboard and then swaying there, starboard, staring at the sky. The sea oats weaving to some music we can’t hear. The bark of the immigrant mothers, calling their boys by their given names, not the ones we gave – Peter was Piotr, like a dishrag whipped, and more than once I saw her pull him in sweetly, lose her face in his hair. Yes they took our trash, but they had their own treasures. One man hammered stolen glass with brutal swings into shards he shaped to Celtic crosses, which he gave away grinning to any who asked. I left mine in the window of my boarding room the day I left, with no time to go back and get it. Every now and then I flush with shame that he thought me too haughty to take it ashore, and then the final sadness, that he does not think of me at all. None do, I am certain, or ever did. Another girl took my place the next spring, and another, and another, until it’s been ten years. Today my own little girl broke a teacup – the green one painted with a family on a hillside, all that space to breathe – and I sent it like a missive to the trash. Tomorrow a team of horses will cart it off to the island with the rest, and soon enough the horses themselves will be worn by life into bodies, borne to Barren Island, boiled into bone.   

The small grey space of my boarding room there, its bare walls and one little window, the angled square of sunlight that arced across the room, true as a clock. My simple desk with a sprig of some beach flower dying there, my thin, firm bed, the constant brush of sand on the floor, the twilit daytime indoor dark where you once appeared, still and grey and unreal as a photograph, silent while the room between us roared. I moved toward you and you moved away, as if we were locked those two yards apart, until – did this happen? – you slipped out the door and ran.    

For years I looked for your bylines, but they slowed to a trickle and stopped. Sometimes still I search the faces on the Fifth Avenue El, looking for you, perhaps, or more likely that old promise – that in a blink, from a blank, things can change. But I rattle along up there inside the train car, one errand to the next, the world the thing passing through the panes, sometimes nearly believing in the girl there beside you on the ferry, with her back to Canarsie, her face to the open ocean, the coming cold a kind of life she could not see.     

1899


Nicki Pombier Berger is the founding editor of Underwater New York.