Tom and I went to the beach a long time ago. It was cold, the grassy path frost fringed. The holidays were coming on and the only thing on our minds was hoping we wouldn’t get lost on our way to the shoreline. Looking back, the how long ago is not as surprising as how much the world has changed since then. I kept meaning to write about this trip but the holidays slammed forward and then, right after that, everything we knew about our lives began to be whittled away in contemplating the risks inhered in pursuing once mundane tasks and routines. Unfurling a day at a beach marred with a strained past of its own might be a reminder that life is always a series of disasters and renewals.
The beach we were looking for that day was on Dead Horse Bay. If you don’t live in the New York metropolitan area you’ve probably never heard of this beach. It’s an inlet of Jamaica Bay and you can’t see the ocean from it. A mirage of the Brooklyn and Manhattan skyline marks its south east border. A tangle of marshland and gnarled trees are at its back.
To find it, you pull into a parking lot near the Marine Corp Base at Floyd Bennett Field then dodge among the cars speeding down Marine Parkway toward the ocean beaches along the Rockaways.
Arriving in one piece on the other side, search for a narrow path through the tangled bramble. Keep walking, keep walking, don’t think about turning at the fork. Keep to your right. About the time you give up, the sky spreads out and there it is. You’re not going to swim. You won’t be able to sun bath. At Dead Horse Bay you walk along the shore line and pick up interesting looking pieces of trash.
As the name implies, Dead Horse Bay was the place where sick and old horses were led to die and be turned into glue and fertilizer. Also buttons. I know that sounds harsh but this was in the 1850’s when the city was full of horses. ( Watch this fascinating video showing of what New York City was like in 1911, showing a vivid view of its horse traffic.) It was an island, then, and hardly anyone lived near enough on the mainland to complain about the factories’ wretched smell. As if that wasn’t enough, the marshes surrounding the island began to be filled with trash from the growing city and, by the time the last factory closed in the 1930’s, the marshes were filled and Dead Horse Bay had become attached to the mainland.
You can gauge how much trash was packed into the marshes by what each tide washes to shore. If it’s a fine day, warmer than the one when we were out, there’s competition to find the best, the most unusual or striking artifact. Tom said he found beautiful old medicine bottles. A friend told me she unearthed a fine porcelain doll’s head. That must have been creepy.
Tom launched the drone. As we all known by now, nothing much deters him from flying except the drone’s automatic shut off if it’s near one of the FCC no-fly zones. The threat of a whole battalion of Marines just on the other side of the road was judged negligible. (My son who was stationed there during the Iraq/Afganistan wars confirmed that the Marines would have been sent out to investigate. I won’t write any more about this period in his life. The husband and I are still shaky with our own PTSD.)
He lifted off!
I went looking for treasures. Mostly I found the soles of men’s shoes and some bones. Large bones. A jar that housed mollusks and driftwood.
Before we took to the beach, we met our friend, Stephen, for lunch. He was supposed to go back to work but it was too fine a day and he came up with some excuse about food poisoning to tell his boss. He’s been jealous of our droning, thinking it was filled with adventures and dazzling sites. When he discovered what it’s really like to slog after Tom and me, he didn’t complain, just stepped back from us. I never thought about it either but when you see your actions through the eyes of someone new you begin to realize that tramping around some God forsaken trash strew beach, haunted by dying horses and workers choking on the fumes, their families living near by, and the beauty of a wet land being destroyed so cavalierly by a growing city, you can’t help but take the measure of why you are doing what you are doing. Tom lives to photograph. I’m nothing if I can’t untangle lives that went before us. I think for us both, Dead Horse Beach is a portrait of brutal carelessness, giving up its ghosts with each low tide. That it draws so many to it–Tom and me, for instance–in wonder of its past and what it teaches us today is a reason to celebrate all the ugliness strewn across the sand. Stephen, our friend, said he had a very good time but he hasn’t asked to come out with us again.
One more image to leave you with. I escaped from the house last week and drove by myself out to Wolfe’s Pond Park on Staten Island. No one else was around, either in the park or the sliver of nearby beach. It made me appreciate how lucky I am that all my family and friends are safe for the moment, with necessary jobs and sheltering homes. I sat on the spring’s cold sand for a long time and took in the wider world before me, grateful for the pure serenity of this chosen isolation.