Photo by John Schneider
The day before hurricane Sandy hits New York I go to the beach. The subways are shut down. The mayor has recommended evacuation of coastal areas. The news warns of widespread blackouts and flooding. The wind pulls garbage from gutters and tosses it against the legs coming out of the grocery store, shuffling under the weight of too many provisions.
I’m already feeling claustrophobic at the idea of days stuck inside, in the dark, the dog howling to go out, the man I live with steadily drinking through bottles of whiskey and gin.
The beach I go to is an hour away, on the opposite end of Brooklyn from our Bushwick apartment. Most of the drive is down Utica Avenue through the deteriorating finery of Bedstuy: iron grates and neon effacing ornate brick facades. Then I enter East New York: cheap vinyl siding and tall brown public housing units.
With relief I turn onto Flatbush Avenue and enter the green expanse of overgrown runways and ivy covered airplane hangers that was once Floyd Bennett Field. The land I’m driving over was dredged up from the basin of nearby Jamaica Bay and used to fill in the channels separating Barren Island from the surrounding archipelago. Eighty years ago it was naked sand, smoothed into a runway for municipal aircraft. Most of it is still government property. Just past the lot where I park a black lettered sign warns against trespassing. Buses, limos with tinted windows, and jeeps speed past, on their way to rescue stranded families and prepare for the coming assault.
I wait for a gap in the traffic and cross the slick street, glossy with oil and rain, to the dirt path, unmarked but well worn. The traffic sounds fade, replaced by dry rustling and then a thrumming motor. A helicopter curves toward me in a wide arc, hovering directly above the path. I picture the pilot shining a big light in my eyes, his voice, projected over the engine through a megaphone, asking what I’m doing there, telling me to leave. Instead, after hovering a few moments, he moves on.
I step out of the trees and onto the rocky edge of the bay. The wide, flat line of the horizon curves against the smoke and silver hues of the sky: a spectrum of colorless ash. The beach is to my left. There is garbage everywhere. The waves crash over it scraping glass on bone, plastic against china. I step carefully over the rocks toward the sand. Underfoot, shards snap and crunch.
On the sand the debris is denser. I look for something undamaged. I find things that are close: a plate split cleanly in two, a perfume bottle that is unbroken but clogged with sand, shells, and rotting seaweed. The refuse is mostly from the thirties and forties, erupted from a broken landfill and carried, layer by layer, back to the shore.
Before the landfill, the area contained dozens of rendering plants where old horses were sent after they could no longer function as a means of transportation. Unable to carry passengers or pull carts full of goods, they were stripped and boiled, their remains processed into glue and fertilizer, their used up skeletons thrown into the bay.
Piles of dismembered bones settled into the muck. Pieces still wash ashore along with the garbage, ribs and thick femurs.
The wind smells of mildew and old leather and dead fish.
There are hundreds of broken bottles. Perfume bottles, soda bottles, brown jugs that held moonshine and whiskey. In the dull light everything looks brown and gray. I squat down to make out the blues and greens. I look for bottles with something left inside of them, a trace of soured whiskey, a drop of spoiled perfume, or messages—maybe not even an old message, maybe a note left by another beach goer. But I don’t find anything.
Between the bottles a doll’s head, smashed in on one side, and the sole of a shoe are trapped, tangled in seaweed and shreds of unraveling heavy fabric that may once have been a tablecloth. It smells rotten and salty.
The most interesting objects are deeply corroded: half an old license plate, orange and flaking, bearing the numbers 903 and the words “NY The Empire,” a turquoise ceramic dog bowl missing one side that reads “Man’s Best,” a hunk of china with a delicate handle stamped “made in occupied Japan.”
I salvage a few small glass bottles, brown and green, a clear one with ridges that remind me of the Empire State Building, once the tallest structure in the world. They are weather worn with damaged mouths.
There is only one other person on the beach, a man at the far end, his face indistinguishable in the distance. Even so, I wish he wasn’t there. I want the space to myself. His presence inhibits me. I keep my movements small. I do not scream into the wind. I have never done this, but I imagine it would help somehow, being able to scream. Instead I take small, crunching steps.
The breakage here is impersonal, an act of nature, not anger. On the beach, with space all around, I allow myself to remember the man I live with cleaning glass out of the sink: “I didn’t throw it at you. If I’d wanted to hit you I would have.”
I collect bits of china with interesting patterns, the preserved cover of an out of print novel, Enchantment by Jane Parker, whose story I search for but never find. I don’t know why I take the things I do. It’s illegal to remove anything from the beach even though everything there has already been thrown away.
I find dozens of unbroken bottles and lose my desire to have them. Someone has set up a line of them on a piece of driftwood, a variety of shapes, artfully arranged and evenly spaced.
The trash comes in all sizes. I encounter a large rotted-out safe, the metal corroded and fragile looking, holes worn away, but the lock still intact, protected by an unguessable combination of numbers. It’s taller, turned on its side, than I am. Pondering the sealed contents, I recall a restaurant in Georgia that had once been a bank. The bank went under and abandoned the space. A decade later a chef bought the space. He hired a metal worker to cut open the sealed vault. Inside were dozens of safety deposit boxes. There was nothing salable. The boxes contained love letters, cards, keys, and photographs, objects that were once treasured and then forgotten.
As a child I kept my treasures in a secret space under a floorboard behind an armchair in the living room. Now I have no secrets. The man I live with knows all my passwords, has access to every journal and notebook. Not that he reads any of it, he’s not interested, but just knowing that he could changes the words I chose.
I am so tired of being careful.
A motorboat rumbles toward the coast where I stand, dark like the sky and the water, hitched with one small light, steered by a man concealed in a gray parka. It pulls in close and follows the line of the coast. I expect the man to shine the light at me, to ask me why I am there, but again nothing happens.
Ahead a narrow sandbar creates a bridge to a small island covered in gulls. Near it, a dull white speedboat is sunken into the silt, only the cabin and a bit of the nose exposed. I want to walk out along the narrow peninsula but I’m afraid of getting trapped by the tide. If I was distracted by the undulating waves or a sparkle of debris, a moment of inattention, the storm could sweep away the small bridge. It’s too much to risk.
I leave the sandbar and drift toward the broken husks of two horseshoe crabs, their prehistoric bodies punched in by something trying to get at their meat. I pick one up, touch its long pointed tail and helmet-shaped body. Turning it over carefully, I look at its primitive dead eyes and I set it back on the sand.
Toward the smudgy skyline of Brighton Beach the trash thins and I turn back. The helicopter returns, hovering over me, out in the open, exposed against the flat plain of the beach. Again it moves off. As the sound of the motor dissipates I notice the clinking of a hundred tiny collisions as the waves move in and out. The sound is surprisingly soft.
I scan the shore, trying to focus, looking for anything unusual, a different texture or hue. I see a bit of baby blue and reach down, pulling up a plastic spoon with a cameo on the handle.
I collect spoons, a habit I inherited from my great-grandmother. Their ornate silver bodies hang by their heads from a wooden rack in my kitchen. The face on a cameo is supposed to represent a Greek or Roman deity, but who knows what the face of a god looks like. Not, I imagine, like the delicate profile attached to this spoon.
The cameo reminds me of my favorite porcelain doll, who had a brooch with a woman’s profile at the ruffled neckline of her dress. I carried her everywhere until my brother took her and smashed her head open on the sidewalk.
Part of the spoon’s scoop is roughed up on one side and the plastic cameo is eroded with something that looks like rust. I run my finger over the rough edge. It probably came from a box, one in a dozen identical spoons, but it is the only one here, now. I tuck it into the pocket in my sweatshirt. I hold it there, inside my pocket, feeling it’s plastic smoothness, and small imperfections, and walk back to the trail, moving slowly, despite the rain and the chill, not wanting to go home.