May 13, 2007

Compound Eye

The Surface of the Water

My collection of Newtown Creek photos has gotten so extensive that I decided to map them. This is for my benefit as well as yours-- it's getting hard for me to keep track of where I've been and where I've yet to go. Click on the oil-slick above to check out the map!

I don't exactly understand the magnetic yank that's pulling me toward the creek these days; I'm sure most people are already sick of hearing about it. Perhaps my desert upbringing has imbued me with a natural craving for bodies of water; perhaps it's my fascination with disaster and wreckage; or maybe it's just my simple tendency to drift toward places that afford the most privacy-- and for solitude, nothing beats these creekside trashscapes. It's all of these reasons, I suppose, plus the one that I'm not allowed to tell you, the one that fades like a dream unless I'm actually there, sitting on a shelf carved out of rock by centuries of failed optimism. You know that reason well, it has a footprint in all of us, deep enough to fill with water when it rains. So it has been during these wet months; I am overfilled and underfed, and I can't see the bottom of the moments I'm stepping over.

When I was young and first began my search for someone to love, I sought out places where only someone like me would go; my logic was that if one spent enough time in such a place, sooner or later someone else would arrive who would be instantly recognizable as the answer to my silent question. This led to my spending lots of time in lots of really questionable places, as well as lots of disillusionizing false positives-- it turns out my own tastes weren't so esoteric after all, and there were always plenty of creatures there doing the same thing I was, looking around at each other in unhealthy anticipation and whipping their heads around each time someone new entered the room. And at the end of the night everyone winds up compromising their vision a little bit, with chemical assistance if necessary, in order to go home feeling like they got just what they wanted, whether or not they actually get anything at all.

You can learn to stop using solitude as a lure to capture company, but you have to hunt something or you'll starve. I suggest you go out in search of imaginary creatures. There are many: the famous cryptids such as the Basilisk and the Hoop-Snake, the Skunk Ape and the Jersey Devil, with their historical sightings and campfire tales. Stories are meant to be shared, but they are born in isolation-- the howl in the woods that no one else was there to hear, that inexplicable footprint. And belief in them, or in anything, is something that never happens to you when there are people around to share it. You return to the world with your hackles raised, or with your heart drenched with awe, and you can infect people with your vision, but you can't give them the piece of yourself that was there, that knows.

Suffice to say, when I meet other humans on my trips to the city's bare edges, I no longer wonder whether it's a fateful encounter. I'm hunting larger game, so I assume they are too. Sometimes it's me they're hunting, as security guards are pretty touchy about people snooping around these areas taking pictures of bridges and waterworks and the like. And when I'm in that state, reduced to an eye zipping around at the speed of bicycle, I don't always have the capacity to remember the right answers a citizen ought to provide when asked questions about touchy subjects. I have no name, I have no business, and I have no excuses. Good day, gentlemen. The other hunters are usually can-pickers, committed industrialists, immigrant laborers, and their children. The occasional Greek chorus of testy grey gulls. Butterflies. Cats make up a significant number of the non-cryptozoological creatures that these out-of-bounds areas have to offer. New York City is home to tens of thousands of feral cats, and I run into them everywhere.

Today as I leaned over the guardrail of a lesser bridge crossing Dutch Kills to take this photo, I suddenly found myself face to face with a coot and a Great Egret preening together in the muck below. Whoever capitalized one of these birds and not the other certainly knew what they were doing; the Egret looked like music pressed into flesh and its body moved like a pennant, over three feet long but weightless and unpretentious. It was twenty feet away, but through my camera you could barely tell what it was. Almost unconsciously I climbed over the guardrail and scanned the embankment for a place to scramble down to get a closer shot. I was just letting go of the railing when two things happened: first, the bird shook its wings and flew away like the details of a dream, and second, a NYFD patrol SUV pulled up to the curb behind me. I admit, it looked bad. To his credit, the officer didn't outright ask me whether I was thinking of jumping. "What are you looking at?" he asked me. "There was... a bird," I said lamely. "A really big bird, a crane or something. I wanted to take a picture." He and the fellow in the passenger seat glanced beyond me just enough to see that there was clearly no such bird in sight, and exchanged a look. "Just try not to fall in, okay?" Having served and protected me to the extent they could, they left. I could see the Egret bathing further down the creek, mythologically out of reach. I don't believe in every experience being mediated through photographs, but I felt genuine loss knowing that without having gotten the picture, I'd never be able to prove what I'd seen to anyone, not even myself. Those few seconds hadn't been enough, the great bird was already fading from my vision like the spots you see after you look at the sun.

I'm hunting that myth. Not the Egret, not the sudden love of familiar strangers. Not the Roc or the Mngwa, or at least not exactly. It's the impossible reality of a populated privacy that I'm after, a skin stretched over the known world that gives thoughts a safe place to manifest unchecked. The deeper I reach into it, the harder it is to come back with anything but photographs; everything that happens to me there is somehow more real than the scrapes I have on my elbows and back when I get home. If you want to know what fastens this world together, and how to dismantle it if necessary, you'll either have to search for fault lines of your own, or else meet me at the middle of the Pulaski Bridge, where Abby's goblins have laid out their trash-bag traps so they can feed on human garbage, and we can roam the shore together, alone.

End of the Line

1 comment:

Zuzu Petals said...

We need to get you a better camera, so when you say things like "There was a really big bird and I wanted to take a picture" people look at you a little less like a jumper...