Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

We Cross by Tobias Carroll

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

[excerpt from We Cross]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are all of you doing?” I asked.

“Haven’t you done this route before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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