An Unexpected Turn

I forget where I heard about it but I told the youngest son about the remains of the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company out on the very southern edge of Staten Island. The company manufactured architectural decorations for many of the buildings constructed in New York City in the early 20th century. Tastes changed, architecture styles turned slicker, and by the late 1940s the company closed and abandoned its facilities. Tell us about a ruin, an old cemetery, a forgotten splat of land and the son and I (and Tom when he’s around with his drone) suit up and go. An additional draw for the Atlantic Terra Cotta ruin was the rumor that you could find bits and pieces of broken decorations scattered around in the muck at low tide.

The week’s rain let up on Thursday, though we’re fine with getting wet so it didn’t bother us that, once on the road, the forecast mentioned the possibility of intermit downpours. Half way across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge a storm broke over the road which had the additional effect of making steering down the western spine of the island tricky. The topography is low, with overgrown patches leaning into woodlands and marsh. Some say that there’s quite a few mob hit bodies strew around the area which lends a sense of foreboding to the landscape. But he was driving and knew the area well.

The directions to the ruins consisted of going to the end of Ellis Street and then find a way to the shoreline. The only real map we had was an old photograph showing a lazy curve of beach south of the Outerbridge Crossing, a marina that may or not still exist, and the skyline of factories in Perth Amboy, New Jersey across the Arthur Kill. If the tide was low enough, the pilings of the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company would be sticking out of the water.

We parked, grabbed cameras, zipped up coats and headed out. Across the street, into a parking lot of a wedding hall and the discovery of about a three foot wide cut through brush and reeds to the water’s edge.

We retraced our steps back to the car. I got in while he patted down his pockets looking for the keys.

“You have the keys?”

I did not have the keys.

He patted down some more, took off his jacket, turned it and the pockets–one with a hole–inside out. I crawled around in the back seat, under the front seat, looked on top of the car, beneath the car. Retreated to the beach where we kicked through seaweed slicked stones and tires, beer bottles, several bullet pierced cans, and oil covered plastic. He remembered he had climbed over a concrete drainage pipe and decided that was the probable spot where the keys dropped. The ground around the pipe was now invisible beneath the rising water. He cursed all the way back to the car where we repeated the search three more times.

It began to pour. Sheltered in the car, I pointed out the good points: These things happen, especially to me, and at least he hadn’t locked the car. He didn’t see the situation that way and continued to beat himself up. Solutions consisted of taking the nearby train to Brooklyn–a good hour and half ride. Or an Uber to my house for the spare keys and then back–probably about a $200 fare. Smarter than me, he called his brother and asked him to pick up the keys from their hopefully not annoyed father, then drive forty minutes in the rain to the southern tip of Staten Island.

The windshield grew opaque with our breath, the car’s interior coldness seeped through our wet clothes. At the end of the street stood a fancy restaurant attached to a fancier wedding hall.

“Let’s go eat,” I said. The fashionably dressed hostess with an engagement diamond the size of an olive smiled at the bedraggled mother and son before her and said of course we could come in. She took our temperatures and our phone numbers for contact tracing and then led us through the spaciously empty dining room to an enclosed porch in the back. Our waiter lighted a nearby gas fireplace, took our orders and quickly returned with a basket of warm bread and our drinks. And there we sat, telling stories, grateful for this retreat and the plates of calamari and carpaccio, the view of the Arthur Kill and the softening blue mist veiling the shoreline until his brother texted that he had arrived.