It’s been a while since I threw up that first jernt. I’ll chalk up my radio silence here on the Internets blogpiece to a long-delayed return to the 9-to-5 grind this past month (really a 9-to-9 slog some nights), and writing such a long follow-up on late nights when I wasn’t dog-tired that it left me feeling as blocked up as Labor Day traffic back home on the Belt Parkway. So I decided to file away that piece, badly in need of editing, and write about the water.
My muses in this endeavor are a couple of dukes with rods and reels who I’ve known for mad years. I can’t say I’ve gotten into fishing because of them. I’m not even sure I’ll even really try. But since last month, I’ve badly wanted to tag along with them. Since I left college, the water has increasingly dug its claws into me. I even learned (and quickly forgot) how to sail, most recently at Croton-on-Hudson about 10 years ago. I even went to sailing camp in Poland (save your jokes) the summer before senior year of high school.
Nowadays, the mysteries of the deep, with its tendrils creeping into every one of the five boroughs, seem the perfect corrective for feeling eerily like a mole-skinned cube dweller pushing papers on a computer screen so you can eat and have an apartment. Time to escape, and not the escapism of your little handheld device, but real escape, only a short ride on the train, drive, or walk away.
As residents in the one of world’s most natural port cities, us landlubber New Yorkers often forget about the water. I know plenty of folks who’ll make it to the beach once a season or never, but I was blessed this summer, my first real one back in NYC since 2003, to get down with some beachtime, and see some other waterside curiosities. Houseboats on the Gowanus, some unidentified, impossibly large rodent scurrying into the water from the shore of Astoria Park, a balmy, beer-buzzed ride on the S.I. Ferry. It’s a shame I haven’t seen more of them, and even now the temperature’s dropping, making missions like that fewer and farther between. But the weather never stopped the Polar Bears, and it’s no impediment if you’re a little curious, and a bit hardcore.
These are places minimally touched by the craziness that runs most of our lives—little atolls sitting snugly in Jamaica Bay, with the Empire State a tiny spire in the distance; fishing spots where old-timers and young bucks cross paths, drawn back by the joy of fishing, and the peace of mind that only solitude can bring. You might stumble on the relics and wrecks of yesteryear, an ancient fort or abandoned shack, cars rusted straight through, crumbling to the touch.
Even some of the more well-traveled spots are eerie. If you get off on this feeling—especially on one of those damp, foggy nights when the million bits of light are dampened, and the shores of the East River are gone, like twin mysteries—the lighthouse that crowns the very top of Roosevelt Island is a must. Roosevelt Isle, drifting and dreaming its way between the Q-boro and Manhattan, is known especially for its awe-inspiring views of Manhattan across the way, as well as the futuristic power station on the Queens side. Its own architecture is like a giant space station, too.
With years of bad reputation to scrub off like so much Exxon oil from poor Gully, Gotham’s waterways remain as unfathomable as the real spirit of the city itself. They’re a mystery that lies at the intersection of salty sea dog chanteys, the rock ‘n’ roll romance of the Ramones’ Rockaway beach, the patient dedication of the rod and reelers, and the illicit allure of our deep, gangster past.
Avoid the cement shoes is my advice (they’re so John Varvatos) and make your way down to the shore. If hipsters “discover” fishing, my only consolation is that they’ll likely slip on the moss, crack their carefully dishevelled haircuts on a submerged rock, and slip into the briney depths, to be consumed by the sea zombies born from the bodies of long-dead, doublecrossed bootleggers. The water is the perfect metaphor for New York itself—it’s a life-giving force, but merciless and unstoppable. Especially when you underestimate it. Maritime murder haunts the waves, and there’s a reason Rikers is an island.
But thoughts of the sea tug me away from my default setting of hateration, and back to adoration—of this big, unique treasure we have available to us. I had a belated, joint-b-day jam a few weeks back with Mizz Bee and a nice-sized cast of characters at Fort Tilden, just a couple of miles but seemingly worlds away from Beach 116. It was one of the best days ever, I can say without hyperbole. But it was tinged with the spirit of goodbyes. The waning sun dragged down to the horizon behind the dunes, its rays casting a radiant crown around the heads of Bee’s friends.
The boys cast their reels in the water, and Dre caught a fluke. It looked simultaneously pathetic and alien. So familiar, but missing the customary packed ice from the fish market, very much alive, slowly suffocating in the open air before Dre threw it back. I thought of those late-night sea nature shows on cable, where you see those monstrous, never-seen-the-light-of-day beings, those creepy denizens ofNeptune’s dominions.
We played some football (of the soccer variety), and Mizz Bee collected pieces of sea-smoothed glass washed ashore from God knows where. While we looked at one and mused about how it was probably the remains of a Bud bottle thrown from a car window (somehow we intuited that the sea glass never really travels that far), we clung to the hope that it hailed from distant shores.
At night, offshore ships lit up in the distance, and a slightly menacing light hovered a while in the blackness. It was a night-mirage, approaching but never getting any closer, casting its light-saber glow over the water like a little cousin of the moon. Someone finally realized it was a small plane facing us head-on.
One thing that appealed to me about that night was the sense that anything could happen. It’s a feeling I’ve tried to hold on to when it comes to the city at large, even if that prospect feels more untenable with each new pastel-colored bank branch or cupcakerie that pops up. Thankfully, there are still a bunch of places left for you to feel completely isolated, and not a little bit creeped out, especially at night on a full moon, a prime time for reelin’ in the bounty of the sea, according to my man Dre.
These are spots of refuge, free of forwarded emails, Facebook beef, and “frenemies,” oases of tranquility that give pause to the normal overdrive of urban life. And while there are plenty of miles developed and admittedly very inviting waterfront with lots of public space—think the West Side from Battery Park up to Chelsea, or Governors Island—cropping up in the last decade, it’s those places that appeal to the sense of mystery and simplicity that seems so hard to harness these days.
But blast off in your whip, or hoof it on PT to Cross Bay Boulevard, going over Broad Channel, the sliver of land that keeps Rockaway from being sucked violently into the Atlantic. Jamaica Bay, and the Gateway National Recreation Area, are the big payoff (plus lack of hipsterati) for nearby residents who live in the bus-to-the-train hinterlands.
I lived on and off in this very eastern reach of Brooklyn for years, and even on a regular day’s commute, I’d sometimes catch the salty tang of the air as I disembarked from the last stop on the L. Keep going straight from the L, and you’ll reach Canarsie Pier, tucked at the end of Rockaway Parkway. They’ve made miles of bike paths grafted onto this underbelly of Bucktown (“Home of the Crawfish!”), and you can mosey on over to Floyd Bennett Field, still a working air strip and aviation museum. Maybe the Brooklyn version of the crazy pilot from the Road Warrior will give you a spin in his air-jalopy (“Good ole ‘Copter Pete!”).
Ultimately, it’s off the beaten path that you’ll really and blessedly lose yourself. Strike out in any direction from Floyd Bennett and you’re in another world. Now that Guliani’s black helicopters aren’t dousing people with Malathion, and mosquitos aren’t an issue as the weather gets nippy, you can rough it in the reeds in relative comfort.
If you’ve ever crawled down the Belt Parkway in bumper-to-bumper on a languid August day, you’ve probably seen little pockets of folk along the stone outcroppings jutting out from the marshy headlands. Just like when you trek out to the American desert, you’re bound to encounter plenty of loners and other eccentrics. Rugged individualists and plenty of loopy characters are drawn to the shores, and if you’re like me, you yearn for contact with such old-school heads. You might even learn a thing or two.
Extra heads are optional, though, as the kind of deep bonding that goes down when men and women are thrust into nature is the kind you cannot replicate watching sports, having dinner, or drinking at bars (See James Dickey’s Deliverancefor details).
But if you’re having what Wu associate/member Cappadonna would call a “by-myself meeting,” remember to use extra caution. (Again, see Dickey,Deliverance). As much as we all thrived on meeting or observing bugged-out characters randomly downtown back in high school (“Crackhead Rog,” “Donation Man,” “Tree man,” “Papa,” “Metal Mike”), mostly homeless or semi-transient men, keep your eyes peeled and your wits sharp, because these are the stretches of the urban jungle where the dead tell no tales, and swabs get keelhauled on the day. You're as likely to make friends as get skewered by a hooked hand. The plank may be the rotting remains of an an old seesaw, and you may be more likely to step on the discarded works left by coastal-dwelling junkies than buried treasure, but who knows? There’s just something about rusting hulks lying half-submerged in water that gets my juices flowing. There are little ghost towns all over the tri-state area, bunched up at the water’s side.
We see each other all the time, even if we’re far away. A million cameras watch us, and a million people seem to make demands of our time. In some ways, there’s no going back to how it was. But in these bits of urban wilderness, you can breathe a little freer. Maybe it’s a grown-up version of that breathless excitement of exploring the uncharted corners of one’s own neighborhood, going past the safe zones. It’s the grown-up version of a staging ground for marathon, six- or seven-hour games of Manhunt.
I thought about that, when, about a week after the October beach jam, I reached into my bag and found a few pieces of sea glass. It sits on top of my chest of drawers, seeming to catch the lamplight, a reminder of the summer, and so many summers, now gone like yesteryear. I thought about how it was such a pure pursuit, simplicity itself, collecting that glass. And how much pleasure you could gain from it, at age 30, or 13, or age 3.
Before “constructive play” and every other thing we’ve done to sap every bit of danger or unpredictability from our own lives, and especially the lives of the kids out there (some of them yours), these were the places where you might have spent a long, boring-ass summer of nothing much. It was pure bliss, filling that landscape with your imagination.
And it’s still here.
“Everyone knows that where the water has been it will be again…”
— Malathini “Emthonjeni Womculo” (from The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, 1985)
The Who “Water” (Live at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970)
PJ Harvey “Water” (Live in Paris, 2007)
June of 44 “Sharks and Sailors” (from The Anatomy of Sharks EP, 1997)
Vanishing New York