A Writer Writes
Gerald Karey taught English in a middle school in a Turkish village from 1965 to 1967. After the Peace Corps, Karey worked as a general assignment reporter for two newspapers in New Jersey, and for a McGraw-Hill newsletter in Washington, D.C., where he covered energy and environmental issues. A collection of his essays entitled Unhinged, was published in October, 2014.
Look About You, There is So Much to See
by Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965–67)
Ride the Staten Island Ferry across New York’s Upper Bay and look about you. It is one of the world’s most magnificent urban/sea-scapes.
The Atlantic Ocean lies just beyond a suspension bridge spanning the Narrows between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island; the great hundred square mile Lower Bay protecting the Upper Bay from the Atlantic; 770 miles of waterfront; on land, towers of commerce and finance scrape the sky; restless human activity everywhere; millions of people moving about, more sensed than actually seen, on the streets, in vehicles of every kind jamming the roads, on elevators climbing to the top of topless towers or riding underground on the subway.
Important people in corner offices perhaps gazing from their windows looking at your ferry; or office drones in windowless cubicles watching the clock tick towards quitting time; planes climbing into the sky and descending into unseen airports; ocean-going vessels approaching or leaving port burdened with the world’s trade; the ceaseless thrum of modern civilization.
Day after day it is one of the great spectacles of our time, although chances are many of your fellow passengers on the ferry, who may have seen this hundreds if not a thousand times, barely notice. Instead, they may be snoozing, reading a book or newspaper, checking their e-mail or texting on their cell phones or iPads.
That’s unfortunate, because it is an incredible show that one day will be no more:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.*
Okay, that’s a stretch. It’s not going to disappear in our lifetime, or for many lifetimes to come. But how can you not marvel at these works, regardless of how often you see them?
Nothing is forever. And I don’t know what the future city will look like, anymore than the Dutch who sailed into the bay 400 years ago could conceive how what they were seeing would be so utterly transformed over the next four centuries.
Or that anyone living in ancient Rome or Medieval Europe could possibly conceive of a world 1,000 or 2,000 years in the future. Or that anyone alive today can foresee world in 3015.
Which is why if you ride the Staten Island ferry, no matter how often, you should occasionally lift your eyes and look upon these works.
We can’t peer very far into the future with any certainty, but we can glance back and marvel at what once was.
Consider what Dutch seamen saw when they stumbled into the bay four centuries ago. It was as extraordinary, in its own marvelous way, as what we see today.
“O this Eden,” the Dutch poet Jacob Steendam exulted. “A terrestrial Canaan. The Land floweth with milk and honey,” wrote English essayist Daniel Denton, and quoted by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in their magisterial, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.**
The very air was lauded as “dry, sweet and healthy.” Keep in mind it was a very long time ago.
“Travelers spoke of vast meadows of grass and forests with towering stands of walnut, cedar, chestnut, maple and oak. Orchards bore apples of incomparable sweetness,” Burrows and Wallace wrote. “Every spring the hills and fields were dyed red with ripening strawberries and so many birds filled the woods that men can scarcely go through them for the whistling, noise and the chattering.’’
“Boats crossing the bay were escorted by playful whales, seals and dolphins. Twelve inch oysters and six foot lobsters crowded offshore waters, and so many fish thrived in streams and ponds they could be taken by hand. Woods and tidal marshes teemed with bears, wolves, foxes, raccoons, otters, beavers, quail, partridge, forty pound wild turkeys, doves and countless deer . . .. There are some persons who imagine that the animals of the country will be destroyed in time,” mused Van der Donck,*** “but ’tis an unnecessary anxiety.” Which both proves and disproves my point that we can’t peer very far into the future.
Still, what a spectacular scene. Although I’m not persuaded I would have liked life in 1650, what I wouldn’t give to be able to experience the bay and the surrounding land the way it was.
Sometimes, when I am on the Staten Island Ferry and looking about, I squint very hard and try to see “this Eden . . . a terrestrial Canaan.”
It’s close to impossible, as the modern metropolis churns all around me and my reverie is usually disturbed by an automobile horn or an ambulance siren on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which hugs the Brooklyn coast line just across the water.
For a fleeting moment I can almost imagine it, but it is fleeting.
It’s easier in many places around the world where the ruins of ancient buildings, castles and stadia are still standing or have been unearthed by archeologists. I was fascinated when two years ago a skeleton with a cleaved skull and a curved spine that proved to be the remains of King Richard III, was dug up under a car park in the city of Leicester.
Richard’s naked body was taken from the Bosworth Field battle-ground, thrown across the back of a horse and carried to Leicester, where it was buried on the grounds of Greyfriars, a Franciscan friary.
Richard’s death in 1485 marked the end of the War of the Roses, a 30-year civil conflict between Houses of Lancaster and York. Richard was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet Dynasty.
Imagine the stories buried for 500 years just few feet beneath of what became a humble car park. On a far less grand scale, consider your own neighborhood. You will not find Plantagenet bones, but each has stories to tell.
My house, in Silver Spring, Md., was among the first built in the 1930s in my suburban neighborhood, which had been farm land and woods just outside of Washington D.C.
Without question it was home for centuries to Native American tribes. In the 1930s, most of the land around my street was “wild,” according to a local historian — “an open field containing blackberry, foxgrape and poke greens.” A stream ran down the street, now confined in a storm sewer.
Montgomery Blair, who was President Lincoln’s Postmaster General, had a 600-acre estate in Silver Spring that Lincoln often visited. In 1864, Confederate Army General Jubal Early occupied Silver Spring, prior to the Battle of Fort Stevens, five miles north of Washington.
When President Lincoln rode out to witness the battle he repeatedly stood up to peer over the parapet. A Union captain, not knowing it was Lincoln, yelled, “Get down you damn fool before you get shot.” Lincoln got down and is said to have taken the good advice with good humor.
The captain was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would go on to serve with great distinction on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932.
After the engagement, retreating Confederate soldiers burned Blair’s residence. A high school in the neighborhood is named for Blair.
There is much more for local historians to chew on. No Kings or Queens, no dynastic battles, no events of great historic moment, no headline news — mostly inside the paper stuff. Perhaps it’s a personal quirk, but I often find myself, regardless of where I am, wondering who and what came before.
In other words, what are the stories of the place?