The Horseshoe Crab and the Rain Collector



Neighborhood: Brighton Beach

“If I had a dollar for every dead Subaru battery, I would be a millionaire”, the roadside assistance man tells me in a tone that is both wishful and annoyed. “Since Subaru started manufacturing their own batteries, people keep on calling. If it’s not recharged frequently, the battery will run out of juice, especially in the winter. Keep the engine running for half an hour and take your car out for a drive once a week,” he sleepily suggests after turning down the five-dollar tip.

I am taking my car to a car wash that’s to the right of a restaurant called “One Thousand and One Nights.” To the left of the restaurant there is a laundromat. “Come and have dinner like a sultan while we do your laundry and wash your car” says the sign on the restaurant.  Scheherazade herself would not be able to come up with a better slogan. The restaurant has stayed in business longer than its name suggests. 

It is still early, and I find out that the carwash will be closed for another hour.

So I keep on driving. Neptune Avenue becomes Emmons Avenue— a wide two-way street that on the bay side cuts between the fishing boats and sidewalk cafes that are reincarnated with different names and cuisines, every other summer. After one mile, I make a slight right onto Plumb Beach— a place popular with windsurfing enthusiasts. I step on sand. No windsurfers this morning, but there are plenty of horseshoe crabs, left behind by the outgoing tide. I spot a crab with a metal tag nailed to its shell. Beside the identification number, the tag has instructions. It says report the number and release the crab. I do that, but the crab is thrown by the waves back on to the beach. After several attempts, it’s finally gone. I think if I had just left it alone, the crab would have a better ETA. By the time I was done releasing, the others were already gone. Later on, I get a certificate from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services thanking me for participation in their tracking program that studies horseshoe crab migration patterns. Turns out, the horseshoe crab I released didn’t migrate to a far and exotic place— it was tagged again on the same beach where I had found it. It’s a Brooklyn crab and Brooklyn crabs, it seems, don’t migrate. They are happy just where they are.

The car starts without trouble this time and I drive back to the car wash, which is still closed. My Subaru now has company; I’m second in line after a grey Mercedes. The car wash crews are arriving. They go to the changing room, except for a lone man. He walks up to a plastic chair with a canvas seat and tilts it slightly. The water from last night’s rain, collected by the canvas, trickles onto his hand, which he rinses. He repeats the ritual, with the next chair, for his other hand. Why would he do this in Brooklyn, New York, not known for arid conditions and in a car wash of all places? With water he collects from the last chair, he washes his face. At that moment, I recognize him. I call him the rain collector, since I have never learned his proper name.

A long time ago, when “One Thousand and One Nights” was only a story, and Brooklyn streets were filled with wide Pontiacs whose batteries didn’t die as frequently, I brought mine to this very carwash. The car wash crews that day were hard at work wiping the cars dry with pieces of cloth. A supervisor stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. At the same time, the rain collector approached the supervisor with a cloth in hand.

They spoke in their native language, exchanging customary pleasantries. Neither of them would stop smiling, but the rain collector was tense— his anxiety betrayed by the way he held the fluttering cloth in his hand. He had every reason to be uneasy. He had left the Old World but was still looking for a place in the new one. Perhaps the rain collector was hoping that the supervisor, being a fellow expatriate, would find him a better position than that of the rest of the car wash workers. Like making him a junior supervisor, for example. His face shined with optimism, but as their talk went on, I could see that disappointment gradually squeezed out hope. Washing cars was the job he must accept to start. The fact didn’t sink in immediately, and he didn’t make peace with it right away. One could see this just by reading his facial expressions. I didn’t need to know their native language to understand what was happening. 

People think that to see something scenic one needs to drive far and climb high. But to observe the rain collector’s reaction on the verge of his life changing is no less fascinating than watching a sunrise from the mountaintop. Just like the sunrise is the same regardless of where you watch it, be it from the Ukrainian steppe or Cadillac Mountain, so are the human emotions. Appearances, language, culture, and even morals vary, but emotions are universal.

The cars on that long ago day didn’t care about any of this. They were in the capable hands of the drying crew. The supervisor, for his part, had himself lived through his own disappointments a long time ago. I bet he could, with his eyes closed, tell a car’s make and model just by sliding his hand over its exterior. The car wash was ready to take on the rain collector. Its large spinning brushes and the power springs of soapy foam had an imposing presence, but they would amount to little without the crew cleaning, wiping, and drying the shiny cars rolling out of the car wash’s rail line. The supervisor subtly ushered the reluctant rain collector towards the shorthanded crew. My car was cleaned before I saw the rain collector joining them. 

Fast forward twenty years, and I see that he did join them. He’s still here, and he is collecting drops of rain. I hope it has been worth his while.


Click here for bio of Stas Holodnak


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