The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Adventure on Barren Island

March 23rd, 2010 · 2 Comments

Ancient coral or ancient ladies’ swimming cap?

On the first day of spring, which in New York City was particularly welcome and unseasonably warm, I took a long walk on the sands of Dead Horse Bay, a quiet inlet tucked away not far from Floyd Bennett Field (the City’s very first airport), now abandoned to wildlife, model airplane enthusiasts, nature trails, and a massive recreational complex. My excursion wasn’t solo – the trip was organized by Underwater New York, one of hundreds of events organized worldwide under the auspices of Atlas Obscura, to inaugurate the first international Obscura Day.

New York is so all-encompassing that, even while it broadens my mental horizons, it tends to insulate my geographical imagination. Like the Saul Steinberg cartoon The world as seen from New York’s 9th Avenue: there’s New York City, and then the rest of the continent sort of drops off across the Hudson, condensed into a single, nearly blank parcel of land. With the decline of the shipping industry and scaled-back working harbors it’s easy to forget that New York is a city of rivers: every borough is surrounded by water on at least three sides, and two of those are islands (in more ways than one).

So being out on the edge where the city meets the sea, the bay, or the river refreshes the cliché that the enormity of the ocean dwarfs all else. It changes my experience of time and space, if only briefly, before I have to wince again as teenage gymnasts somersault down the aisle of a cramped subway car or flip each other against the ceiling, threatening passengers with the proximity of flying limbs in the hopes of earning more ‘donations.’

Dead Horse Bay is a little different though. It is not a timeless abyss. It’s a stretch of dirty sand strewn with garbage, thousands of bottles, bones, and sea grass – the remains of a 1926 landfill that burst in the 1950s.

An awareness of time is inescapable here. From its name, to what you might almost step on, the history of New York is evident all around. Some of what I gleaned: Log Cabin was the locally-preferred brand of pancake syrup in the first half of the 20th century; New Yorkers drank a lot of Pepsi-Cola; squirt guns were popular weapons in childhood turf wars, and pink nail polish is nearly incorruptible.


If you’re the sort of person that enjoys sifting through flotsam, shoe leather, and horse bones for bits of broken toys, unidentifiable artifacts, antiquated household objects, and patent-medicine bottles, Dead Horse Bay is the gift that keeps on giving, especially after a storm.
Half a toy banjo ukulele and a grounded fighter plane.

Like me, you may obsessively scour the sand for hours. And then, you’ll look up from your pursuit of another Sloan’s Liniment bottle and glance out past the hook of Far Rockaway, where the sun will be setting over an ocean that stretches into forever. The chemical wind ruffling your hair, you might feel the smallness of your own presence, understand the frailty of the ground beneath your feet, and remember the transience of a city defined and redefined over time by water. It’s the age-old clash of the eternal and trash – the romance of human experience.


A few more of my finds:

Bakelite outlet extenders

U.S. Navy Correspondence Course Center Stamp (reversed).

Soles: a baby’s or doll’s shoe, and the ghost of a child’s foot.

* * *

You can read and see more about Dead Horse Bay at these sites:
Brooklyn Rail
Kingston Lounge
Toxi City
Indian Summer Vintage

(Posted by Lisa Hirschfield)

Tags: Ancient History · Clubs and Associations · Diversions · Ephemera · Memories · Places · The Ineffable · Ukulele

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 angela // Apr 2, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    creepy but cool. nice post Lisa!

  • 2 Gail // Apr 2, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Thanks, I enjoyed reading this very much. Trash can be very magical and it also attracts wildlife.

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