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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.

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60 Comments »

  • Julie says:

    Almost forgot to check. But didn't. Thanks, Sars. And, of course, Happy Birthday to Don.

  • Jenistar says:

    In the aftermath of that horrible day, it was my Mediaramans that kept me on course. It's only fitting, then, that this year, as every other year, my September 11 started with reading your original account of that day (when, in the midst of our trying trying to get out of Disney, I thought, "Is Sarah okay?), Followed by your subsequent September postings, shortly after the clock struck Midnight, and that I ended the same day, just before midnight, reading your latest posting.

    In my head, I imagine that somewhere out there, Don is reading all our birthday wishes with a knowing smile. So happy birthday, Don. Thanks for taking care of our friend Sarah that day. ?

  • Matt says:

    Read your 9/11 piece before I ever met you. Glad you didn't just shut the door on a pretty Joe College looking mofo that rainy night in Brooklyn. Glad you came here, too. Putting a period on my day as I reread your piece in the waning minutes of 9/11. Maybe it'll be a while before we hang out again, but I'm always glad we got the chance. Looking forward to the pool.

    Matt
    St Paul

  • Biancaboo says:

    This is an annual ritual for me, too. Good to see all of you.

  • lsn says:

    Happy birthday Don. May your paths cross again so we know you are safe.

  • Bitts says:

    Still here.

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • Lisa says:

    Lovely, Sars, as always.
    Happy Birthday, Don.
    I have to admit, yesterday was much taken up with thoughts of Irma (will we lose power? Will a tree smash through our roof or on our car?) but first thing this morning, with all clear here, I come to read your elegy to a day that feels like it, too, was yesterday, and to wish Don a happy birthday.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone, as always. I hope all y'all affected by Harvey and Irma have had Dons to get you through (when you weren't too busy being the Dons, of course).

  • Dukebdc says:

    Thank you Sars for trying to put into words what this anniversary feels like. I was in DC that day, saw the Pentagon burning as one of thousands walking out of the city over the Key Bridge, and it's the only day out of 17 years I've been scared to live here.

    And I thank my co-worker who introduced me to Tomato Nation way back in 2000. I lost touch with her years ago but still come here.

  • Cheryl says:

    Was on a flight to Prague on 9/11 this year. It felt brave to me at the time, but mundane after we arrived.

    I checked Tomato Nation before I left but missed your post. Now, days later on my sister's bday trip, am drinking wine in Vienna (end of our trip) and decided to check again.

    Thanks Sars and happy bday Don! Better late than never.

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