A beach can be made up of rocks, pebbles, gravel, sand, mud, seaweed, shells; all natural things, this wasn’t. Beneath my feet and all along as far as I could see it was made up of objects. So densely packed together that it made a kind of causeway that the tide comes in and covers twice a day.
“Chris,” I said when I got my jaw to form words again, “where did all this stuff come from?”
“It’s all domestic material, trash that was dumped here over years from New York. There, see at the top of the beach where the reeds are growing? That’s the old dump covered in sand. It’s a land fill probably from the 1920’s, but the sea has been slowly nibbling at its’ edges and uncovering what was dumped.”
“Where’s the plastic, I can’t see any?” I asked noticing that there wasn’t any.
“It’s from an era before plastic,” he said as he picked something up, turning it over in his fingers.
“Wow,” I said, “it’s hard to think of an America without plastic.” He laughed.
“Well here it is.” He stretched out his arms. “A non-plastic America.”
I walked on a little; it was the same all along and down to the water’s edge. It was astonishing and curious. Hundreds of thousands of objects made of leather, pottery, glass, wood, few metal objects, as Chris explained most made of iron and steel would have rusted away, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t find a gold ring or an old gold watch as he had. But in the main the beach was made of more ordinary everyday things, from a a day a long time ago. There were bottles of every shape, in blue and green and brown and clear glass. I picked one up and out scurried a little green crab.
“Hey, there’s a little world in there,” I said holding it up to the light and peering through the glass.
“Yep, most of the bottles have little micro-worlds inside, with sediment and little plants and creatures. Just think of it, every day through the opening of the bottle comes a new mini tidal wave of sea-water.”
It amazed me that like the little porcelain lady he’d brought to the bar, that there were so many things intact. I asked Chris about that.
“Well, I guess that when all this stuff was first deposited they were all packed so tight that they must have protected each other. See how it’s like a jigsaw all compacted and locked in?” He said.
I picked up the remains of a shoe. It was a woman’s or a girls’ maybe. Worn at the heal
yet with the nails still pretty much in place.
“So how come this leather shoe hasn’t rotted?” I asked.
“That’s probably been under the surface in the mud where there’s no oxygen. That preserves things like leather.”
The shoe was of a design that spoke of an earlier age with a low heel and a strap with a little black button still attached, the style made us think of the girl in the swimsuit, she’d wear a shoe just like this when she went her job at the bank.
I was walking on a causeway of fragments of thousands of lives of New Yorkers from the nineteen twenties. As I focused and walked slowly on head-down I saw intimate things from households; pieces of plates from dinner tables, shards of sand-blasted glass from gas lamps, milk bottles with the name of the dairy molded in the glass,
a smokers pipe with teeth marks and charred bowl, buttons from dresses and camisoles, shirts, jackets, and a leather glove though not in such great condition. Then I chanced on the small arm of a porcelain doll that was sticking up from the rest as though to get my attention. I reached down.
“Look at this,” I shouted to Chris behind me. He came over.
“She’s been waiting for you,” he said. I felt a shiver run up my spine. Maybe she had.
I put the little arm, detached from the rest of its’ body in my pocket and walked on. Every now and then something would crunch beneath my boots. It was strange; I was walking on the detritus of lives, a whole population from some part of the city. I felt like I was dancing on their graves; it wasn’t a good feeling.
“Don’t you ever feel like a grave robber?” I asked Chris.
“No,” he said, “this was all trash, discarded. I don’t let my imagination come into play when I’m here.”
I looked up and down the beach; there were no others, just us. Normally he would be alone on his secret beach of glass, and maybe ghosts, looking for lost pieces of their lives.
“I think it would get to me.” Even with him there, it was getting to me. I half expected to start seeing bones and skulls, arms and fingers white and barnacled, bodies thrown into the trash along with all the rest. I went over to him.
“Another shot glass,” he said triumphantly, rubbing the mud from it’s broken rim.
“What number?” I asked.
“Eleven hundred and twenty three,” he said as though this was as special and unique as the first he’d found.
“So why are they always broken?” There were so many other things that were complete, why not these I wondered.
“Don’t know,” he said.
“Maybe they threw them in the fireplace, after a toast,” I said, skimming a piece of pottery off the brown lifeless water.
“Could be, who knows.”
“It’s like a time-machine but unfortunately we can’t find the key.” I said.
“It’s here somewhere.” Said Chris.
Then I spotted something different lying on the sandy rim at the top of the beach and went over for a closer look. He shouted after me.
“Now those are creepy,” h said. “There’s a few of them along the top, look.” He pointed.
I scanned along the beach; there were more of these strange things, as he said, some caught up on the broken branches of trees and bushes that grew by the edge of the beach. They were very odd, familiar and human somehow but weird and alien at the same time; huge plump knotty bundles, brownish in colour. My first instinct had been that this was indeed a body washed in by the tide.
“What the hell are they?” I asked. He walked up before he spoke.
“Nylons,” he said.
“Nylons! What, how come they’re in such bundles like this and when are they from?”
“Same time is my guess, or maybe later. But see the nylon fabric has basically stayed the same.” He pulled at one, it had a seam down the back, like in the movies. “Hasn’t rotted over time, never will Over the years as one nylon met another the sea has tied them and rolled them up forever.”
I looked down. This was decidedly disturbing, so much closer to being human than an old bottle. Some girl long dead wore these, before the war, out on a date, shopping with friends, at her marriage, at the office.
“No tights then?” I asked.
“Don’t go there,” he said, “no they weren’t invented.” I understood why he left his imagination at home when he came on these lonely sorties.
“So there must be hundreds and thousands of nylons all rolled up, in a kind of eternal leggy limbo. A sort of girl’s only club.”
“Yes, or until a nuclear blast. That would melt them,” he said matter-of-factly.
“That’s a nice thought,” I said.
I left the girls and walked on. I was actually feeling a kind of sensory overload. There was so much stuff and it all meant something; it was just too much to take in, in one go.
“I’m going to the end of the beach,” I called to Chris.
“Okay,” he said, preoccupied again and crouching head down.
I lifted my eyes up from the beach and over the still water of the bay. It was quiet apart from occasional seagull calls and the sound of distant traffic, it was a lonely place though not many miles from the city.
Walking on the sand on the top of the beach I got to the end where there was an inlet. There I sat on a rock looking at some old rotten and blackened posts, all that remained of a dock or harbour where I imagined the barges that had ferried all this stuff out to its’ last resting place had tied up.
I don’t know why I looked down just at that moment, I was really tired of all the stuff; my brain wanted a change. Something different in the jigsaw collage of shapes caught my eye. I bent down and pulled it out from the rest; it was an interesting shape, different from everything else. I took it to the water’s edge to wash off the muck. Then took it back to my perch on the rock. It was made of pinkish glass, a five-pointed star shape, with a raised edge around each of the points and a circular raised squat tube in the centre.
“A candlestick holder,” I shouted. “Hey Chris I’ve found a candleholder!” He looked up and waved as he cupped his ear to indicate he was too far away to hear.
“Oh never mind,” I said to myself. I looked at it again more closely, it was intact, not a chip out of it and the glass was a perfect salmon pink. I thought I’d made quite a find, not exactly a little sexy fairy figurine but sort of special. I felt like a kid who wanted to show his dad something.
“Look what I found,” I said when I got back to Chris, who’s pockets were by now bulging with stuff.
“That’s pretty good,” he said.
“Only pretty good”? I said. “I think it’s great! Wait till the wife see this; she’ll be
delighted. I said I’d bring her something back.” She had in fact said, “No more junk.” But this wasn’t junk it was a piece of nineteen twenties decorative glass that no doubt graced a boudoir in the Upper West Side.
“They normally come in pairs,” said Chris.
“Fat chance finding another in this place,” I said looking. “The other one’s probably been lost or smashed long ago. Do you ever find things in pairs?”
“Never, the chances are in the billions,” he said.
“Well never mind. This’ll be my find of the day.” Saying that, I took all the other bits and pieces, the salt-seller, bottlenecks that made good rings so Chris said, and a blackened wooden spoon and put them back on the beach. But kept the porcelain dolls arm.
I felt curiously satisfied with myself and found a place up on the dry sand beyond the high tide mark, not far away from a nylons bundle caught in with rope and fishing gear anchored to a fallen tree stump. I said out loud,
“I wonder if any of you ladies had pink candlesticks in you boudoir? Maybe you lit them when you weren’t alone.” Just then the sun came out from behind a cloud near the western edge of the bay. A soft pink-lilac light, the warm first light of sunset suffused the sky illuminating the other clouds.
“Time for a pint,” said Chris who’d come over, “don’t you think?”
“Yeah, makes you thirsty this kind of work! Listen, thanks, it’s been fascinating, the drinks are on me,” I said.
We walked slowly back along the sandy top edge down the quarter of a mile or so left of the beach towards the point where we came in between the tall reeds. There were several broken trees and fallen boughs along our way. As we got close to the paths’ exit to the beach something else caught my eye. I walked over, I could not believe my eyes.
There on the point of a broken branch sticking up from the sand was an identical candlestick holder.
“Bloody hell,” I said, “I don’t believe it.” I lifted it carefully off the branch and took the other out of my pocket. They were identical, a pair, half a mile apart on a beach made of millions of objects; they had found each other again.
“Wow,” said Chris, “that’s something! Guess they’ve been waiting to get back together again.”
“Maybe once a pair always a pair,” I said.
A true story, about a hidden history of New York, an obsession and a result beyond calculation.