Over the weekend, Shelley and I rode our bikes to the beach. As in, an actual ocean beach. One not surrounded by Ferris wheels and fairways. This is not something I will be able to do in Oregon. This was our route.
It’s hard for me to admit that, aside from the first summer and last summer (2010), summers in New York have been fairly unexceptional. Like, I really can’t remember anything of substance about the summers of 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. It’s my own fault of course. But because this is my last summer in New York City, I have resolved to make sure that it is
This business of being open to new experiences doesn’t come without risk. Even the most
wonderful days at the beach can be riddled with dark postmodern undertones. Not unlike my favorite television shows.
Fort Tilden is on one of the islands comprising The Rockaways in Queens. It’s a decommissioned U.S. Army base and the takeoff point of the first transatlantic flight. We actually saw a biplane in the air. That’s some good technology.
On Sunday, it was the site of a surprising number of gorgeously tattooed Billysburgers and also dead things.
The first dead thing was this shark:
So that’s interesting. Plus: No being able to pretend that these waters are sharkless. But the most dangerous thing about The Rockaways is far more scary than the vast majority of sharks (certainly than this one). Rip currents.
I have never lived in a landlocked state and I can’t imagine doing so. Still, I grew up a really long car ride from the Pacific Ocean. We didn’t get to go very often, I think because my dad dislikes it so much. We usually headed for the desert. This caused the ocean to take on a serious mystique for my young self. It was so tantalizing. I always wanted to go there. But, being Oregon, when we did go, it was usually cold, windy, rainy. I was too small to fight the waves, I sucked at sandcastles. Pretty much the only thing for a little kid to do on the Oregon coast is to dig for clams, poke things with sticks and fly kites.
Beaches in Oregon are very clean. Like, I’ve never found anything there that could be a dead human body part. Now that I think about it, that might be a good gauge of beach wholesomeness: On a scale of 1-10, how likely is it that a casual visitor would stumble upon a corpse?
If you are on the south shore of Long Island, the odds for the casual visitor aren’t great.
The Pacific Northwest is known for its long and storied history of serial killers. For example, the most prolific American serial killer is from Seattle, and Ted Bundy spent a lot of time there too. But Long Island has its own (current, uncaptured) serial killer, a sick fuck who preys on young sex workers. And, you know, the Mafia. (Dad? Please don’t let Mom read this post, k?)
So when we saw the bag and smelled The Smell, well, we kept our distance. Which was more than could be said of the flies and a glorious monarch butterfly that landed gracefully on the crumpled plastic and stayed there for a good ten minutes.
If you’ve ever smelled a dead mammal, you know The Smell. From experience, I know that mice, rats and kittens all have the same odor after a few days of decomposition. So do humans. (I know this because I live near a number of funeral homes whose ventilation systems aren’t always up to the challenge of a New York summer.) Only the day before, I had been talking about this with my childhood friend Colin and his friend Grace who were visiting from Connecticut and Ireland, respectively. Grace had never smelled The Smell before and Colin and I told her that once you do, you can never purge it from your smell memory.
Anyway, that was the smell coming from the bag. Many people on the beach took pictures of it and talked about it. We all knew that there was something horrible in there, but none of us wanted to look. Not one person opened that bag. A woman said that she was certain that she had seen part of a finger, but…it also could have been a snout or a paw. Sad, absolutely, but we are talking about drastically different levels of disturbing.
And somehow, the anticipated sight of seeing anything dead was worse than the possibility that it could be something human. This is amazing to me. Our collective sense of psychological self-preservation was greater than curiosity, civic responsibility, even empathy.
Is this generational? Everyone on that beach was of the same age group and ethnicity as me — which only made it more surreal.
Eventually, some rangers came by and we flagged them down. The man ranger wanted nothing to do with it: “I just hope it’s not a fuckin’ dog,” he said. He made his stoic colleague with latex gloves do the dirty work, but not even she opened the bag. They thanked us, we thanked them; they drove away, the black plastic bundle bouncing on the back of their ATV.
We still don’t know.
But we had a lovely time.