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Home » Featured, Stories, True and Otherwise

In The Presence Of This Continent

Submitted by on September 11, 2017 – 8:46 AM60 Comments

Years ago, my parents won a day trip in some sort of silent auction, a boat trip that would take us all around the island of Manhattan.

We are not so much a clan designed for boating, long-footed people with bad inner ears, but it was free and there would be lunch, so we went, my parents and I and Mr. S and Gen, and we kept our eyes on the horizons.

I have thought about that day many times, because man did they get some good provolone. …Just kidding. …Partly kidding; it’s the best tomato-and-cheese on rye with yellow mustard I ever had, that sammich, sitting cross-legged in the back of a small craft as we went up the Hudson and over along Spuyten Duyvil Creek (one day I’ll spell that in one shot without having to Google; it’s not today) and back down the Harlem River, looking at the shape of the city, the actual land of it, the hills and dales that once formed it, and at the same time the people of the city as they jogged along the water, tried to fish, threw and lost Frisbees, smoked pot under overpasses and happily waved back at us.

Purring past Highbridge Park, I was thinking of the last pages of The Great Gatsby, as I suppose every Princeton English major (ret.) is required to once a week at a minimum, “the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.” What must it have looked like to them, before it looked like home to us?

Dirk and I have recently become ensorcelled by the NYC Ferry, which we can step onto after a 15-minute walk from our house and take almost anywhere in the city. Which anywhere doesn’t matter, because it’s the riding-around part we like, how much we can see of the city’s great buildings and little islands while one of us is drinking rosé through a sippy straw. Last Friday we took the Rockaway line, under the Verrazano, past an anchored container ship so huge we felt like Voyager passing Jupiter, to visit Floyd Bennett Field. Once upon a time not long ago, you could just walk into the old barracks beside the hangars and see everything just left there, tidy enough still but increasingly slumped by disuse. I’d hoped you still could.

And maybe you can, if you dress in a tick-proof outfit and pack a pair of clippers. Stern signs from NYPD say no, but even those have rusted, and the sapling-height weeds tell a different story, namely that nobody’s even looked back there since Daylight Saving started. I didn’t go in last week, but I did think again of the end of Gatsby and the way Nick describes Gatsby’s “incoherent failure” of a house, still standing empty when Nick leaves town, the grass grown long. A neighbor kid has left a graffito on the steps. From there Nick goes into his final musings about the Dutch explorers, holding their breath “in the presence of this continent,” and Gatsby’s dreams and the green light, and of course those boats against the current.

“Steeped in rue, steeped in rue,” our high-school English teacher used to murmur when we reached the end of the novel. And it is, one of the great deep-sigh endings in literature, but as the years go by I’m more taken by that image, barely a half-strike, of the land beginning to take Gatsby’s house back. That idea is an obsession of mine both in theory (I don’t think I slept for three days after seeing Life After People), and in practice as a homeowner. Outside wants in, badly, and it won’t take long to get there if you let a building alone for a month or two. Homes left empty, died in or walked away from, have a spooky grandeur. Documents are made nests, seedlings sprout on roofs. Rotting beams give way without fanfare to create a skylight. Maybe this is the fate of Gatsby’s misbegotten McMansion — that after the story ended, the trees reached in through the windows and made it something else.

What you forget about Gatsby, or what I’d forgotten, is that it takes Nick a while to get out of the story. First he has to try, and mostly fail, to fix Gatsby in someone’s mind besides his own, pages and pages of Wolfsheim and the rest all too willing to let the grass grow up and obscure him in their minds. But then of course we know right where to part the leaves and find him.

Happy birthday, Don.




  • SorchaRei says:

    Thanks, Sarah. And happy birthday, Don.

  • Julia says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

    Every year, Sarah. Thank you.

  • Rachel says:

    Every. Year.

    Every year. Last year it was on a Sunday. This year, it’s a Monday and just like that Tuesday in 2001, I am headed to school. It’s taken quite a bit of map to get me from there to here, but I’m looking up at the sky this morning, which feels so similar to that 2001 morning when I watched the sky fall on the Today show and headed to school anyway, because Rutgers doesn’t cancel classes for anything – not snow, not hurricanes, not the end of the world.

    They did, that day. I got there and found myself huddled ’round a giant TV (before flatscreens, even), with about 50 other people, silently watching the world end, not 20 miles away. The campus police came in and said that if we didn’t live on campus, we should go home. We were so close to things, and nobody knew what was happening.

    I went home. I stared in disbelief at the television for three straight days, sometimes fielding calls from my Midwestern friends and family, assuring them that yes, we’re fine, we’re fine, we’re fine. But we could see the plumes from our apartment. At least we were upwind.

    Eventually, things went back to something like normal. The few dusty cars that sat in the commuter parking lot at the train station were eventually claimed or moved or… something. Life carried on.

    Every year, I stop for a moment of silence at the impact times. Every year, I have the Reading Of The Names on TV in the background of my morning. Every year, I come here and read what Sarah has to say. And every year, I think of Don, whomever and wherever he may be, and I wish him a Happy Birthday.

  • mctwin says:

    Dearest Sars,

    While I have never read The Great Gatsby, or even seen film representations, I still got your point and it is perfectly beautiful. Something we know is there but it is no longer an intregal part of our lives. Thank you so much.

    Happy birthday, Don. Hey! Maybe you’ll bump into him on the Ferry someday!

  • Jasina says:

    Happy birthday, Don.
    Thinking of all the NYCers today, especially you.

  • Sara J says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

    And thank you, Sarah, as every year. First stop.

  • Sean Driscoll says:

    I have a proscribed set of actions I take every year on this day: I watch the rebroadcast of the news, then turn it off when it becomes too much. I touch base with the friends I had in New York at that time, reflexively, to make sure they’re OK. And I come here to read you. Thanks for 16 years. And happy birthday, Don.

  • Sean Driscoll says:

    Not “proscribed.” Goddammit, I hate it when I forget to check a word before I leave a comment.

  • mnye says:

    Thank you Sarah, for holding this space for all of us. And happy birthday Don, wherever you are.

  • Alison says:

    Thank you, Sarah. I lived in the East Village 16 years ago and am now in Atlanta. I come back here every year. Happy bday, Don.

  • Jane Fowler says:

    Another year goes by. There are now kids in high school whose only recollection of the twin towers comes from our modern version of newsreels. A whole generation of young children who see 9/11 a lot like we did Armistice Day – we knew it was important to the old people, but we were not exactly sure why.

    As our country starts down the slippery slope of revisionist history, attempting to eradicate the parts of our past that no longer appeal, I hope that we do not forget 9/11. It was dually a loss of innocence, and like the worst tragedies, a reminder of the good our people are capable of as well.

    And happy birthday Don wherever you are!

  • Jennifer says:

    Every year I come to read. And every year, I’m just fine until I get to the birthday wish for Don and that is when I start to cry.

  • Kat From Jersey says:

    Thanks as always for the gorgeous words.

  • Jill says:

    Happy birthday, Don. And thank you.

  • Sandman says:

    As Sean Driscoll says above, thank you, Sarah, for 16 years. Happy birthday, Don.

  • Heather says:

    Happy Birthday, Don.

    Thank you, Sarah.

  • DriverB says:

    Like so many others, checking in, remembering, feeling. Thanks. Happy birthday, Don.

  • Lis says:

    Every year.

    Thank you, Sarah.

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • Julia says:

    Happy Birthday, Don. Thank you again. XO – Julia

  • Julia says:

    Another year of ups and downs, marriages and divorces, births and deaths of family and friends new and old, but as always I know the first thing I will do on this day is come here to remember with people I’ve never met but who feel like family to me bound by this ritual. Thank you again.
    Happy Birthday, Don.
    XO – Julia

  • Rose says:

    This was a strange anniversary for me- not much media, the news and my attention filled with Irma and worry for Florida relatives, but still I checked here when I first woke up and again just now. This is my ritual of mourning, and your words are always haunting and lyrical.

  • Reader Gretchen says:

    Thank you, Sars. Beautifully written.

    And well said Julia, Rachel, et al.

    It’s been a rough year.

    Much love to you all.

    Happy Birthday Don.

  • Beverly says:

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • StallAnotherKate says:

    I had the reading of the names on all morning as I worked. Or tried to work. And then I came here, as I do every year.

    Thank you Sars. And Happy Birthday Don.

  • cayenne says:

    One of my first checks every year. Thanks, Sarah, and Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Jill says:

    Every year, a new perspective. Thank you Sars.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Jill Aldred says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

    Every year, without fail, I come here. Thanks Sars.

  • Melanie says:

    Every year. Thanks, as usual. Happy birthday, Don, wherever you are.

  • Beth C. says:

    Happy Birthday, Don.

    Thank you Sars, as always.

  • Kristina says:

    Every year. Happy Birthday, Don. Hope you are safe.

  • Ann_Margrock says:

    Every year I come back to take a deep breath with you.
    I was luckier than you; I was teaching uptown at Hunter while you were downtown in the showering debris with Don.
    My day was nothing like the day you had to survive, and nothing like the day 3,000 others didn’t survive.
    Still, I’m always, always shaken when I wake up on this day.
    And when I come here each year, I feel less alone.

    Thank you.
    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Sixteen years.

    Sixteen is a big deal in America. It’s driver’s licenses, it’s parties, it’s supposed to be sweet. It’s a cusp year, when all the promises burgeon before you and none of them have popped. You still have milestones ahead, like legal drinking and whatnot, but you don’t have to worry too much yet.

    It’s junior year, not senior. It’s feeling adult without the adult weight of the world on you, not quite yet. It’s innocence turning into experience, the poem Blake never wrote. It’s proms and first cars and finally starting to come together physically as the tidal wave of puberty begins to slacken and pool.

    And it’s an anniversary. All that potential, that green breast. That blue sky.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Clover says:

    One more for the annual roll call.

    Thanks for this, Sars.

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • jana says:

    Like others have said.

    Every year.

    Thank you, Sars.

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • frogprof says:

    Thank you as always, Sars, and happy birthday to Don, wherever he may be. I’m mostly grateful to him for being at your side on that horrible day.

  • Judy says:

    Pink wine? Pink bike.

    And also, Happy Birthday Don. I was on the other side of the country under an empty blue sky, but every year I return here, thinking of you, and of Don.

  • Valerie says:

    Hadn’t been here for awhile. Had to stop by today. It’s an annual pilgrimage.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

    Thank you, Sars, for giving us a place.

    Hugs all around.

  • Kari says:

    Happy birthday, Don. And thanks.

  • JessicaS says:

    Man, how did I lose touch with this site for so long? It’s good to come back, especially to this. Thank you.

    Every year I think “has Sars found Don”?

  • elembee123 says:

    Every year.

    Thank you, Sars.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • kategm says:

    Happy birthday, Don.
    Thank you, Sars <3

  • Hellcat13 says:

    Every year, I come here and read the words of a woman I’ve never met, and I wish a silent happy birthday to a man I’ve never met, and they both break my heart into pieces. I love this world because even with all the bad, for me, it circles back around to the connections we make and the common lives we lead and the peace we seek. Thanks, Sars. Happy birthday, Don.

  • Sasha says:

    I keep up with you more on social media than via TN now, but you (and Don) are so much a part of my memory of that day and the confused, heartbreaking days that followed, that today I had to visit the mothership. What a nice surprise to find a new essay, and of course it is lovely and thoughtful. Thanks, Sars.

  • Dayna says:

    Every year, as September 11 arrives, I spend the day doing my usual routine as memories of that other awful September 11 flicker in and out of my skull. And every year, I come here. This year, I almost forgot but here we all are, this community of strangers tied together by our past. Thank you, Sars, for providing this place that feels like a shelter from the storm. And thank you, everybody, for continuing to come together in remembrance.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Cathy says:

    Thank you, Sars.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Hollie says:

    Yep, every year. Happy birthday, Don. Thanks, Sars. <3

  • Kristen says:

    16 years. Glad you, and all the rest of you who have commented and join me in a yearly remembering, are here. Happy Birthday Don.

  • Beanie says:

    Me too, every year since *that* one.

    Thank you, Sars. Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Kathy says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • Shannon says:

    Happy Birthday Don. Every year.

    Thanks for sharing.

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