As Seen From Without

I pass many of my days walking the streets and exploring the parks. The weather is capricious, oscillating between sunny warm day when the only hint of winter is manifest in the long Southern light that disappears behind the buildings far too early and grey days with a humid chill that cuts through my greasy down jacket. The squirrels are fat and indolently ascend the skeletal, naked trees. It is as if the air is different here, as if there is something constantly pending, something waiting, a chill that doesn’t subside indoors. It could drive me mad.

The city seems surreal to me, the style and structure unintelligible, yet intriguing. Everything here comes from somewhere else and exudes an overall feeling of impermanence to me, it seem precariously poised. Maybe this explains the desire to create permanence through impressive structures and the constant search for authenticity. I walk through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see the works of hundreds of civilizations whose course could be represented by the shape of a parabola.

Anyways, Lauren and I meet a friend of hers from school at a restaurant in Williamsburg for brunch. She greets us with her boyfriend, Doug, and his son, Mitchell. Lauren and Caitlin catch up, while Doug and I talk about bicycle touring and sailing. Not more than ten minutes pass before Doug casually offers what amounts to a break from the omniscient pressure:

‘I am going to sail a schooner that the owner of this place just rented down from Maine to New York. If you have any interest in coming, I could use a hand.’

We quickly made plans and exchanged numbers. Doug anticipates that it will take us roughly three or four days to make the journey. After years of writing my present location in my journal, I was so certain that I would be in New York for a lengthy, continuous period of time that I debated giving up the practice. I am not sure why writing three letters would have been too much for me at the moment; I think of it as an amusing manifestation of my level of resignation to this place.

We go shopping the following day with the restaurant owner, who ranges the grocery store in defiance of the shopping list. I chortle as he argues contractual semantics with a thick accent while frantically loading the cart with cookies, mini muffins, brie cheese, olives, pickles, butter, hummus…. He is on an inspired spree, something that seems inappropriate to interrupt.

I wheel my bike out the door the following morning and am greeted by a flurry of white lashing my face. I haven’t seen snow in two years. I pedal hard across the Pulaski Bridge as cars howl past. I stand under the outcropping of a loading dock jumping up and down as my hands thaw. Manhattan lays across the East River, its phallic phalanx ejaculating steam skyward. Everyone else slowly begins trickling in. The restaurant owner, who seems perplexing and curious in the way that I always find wealthy people to be, plies us insistently with an armload of pita bread, a gallon of ketchup, a garbage bag of indiscriminately intermingled beef and veggie burger patties, five pounds of salt, and a pound of exquisitely marbled pork belly before we set out.

We begin unknotting ourselves from the turnpike tangles. So far we are five, but we will pick up four more along the way. In the 15 passenger van, the talk centers around the only perceptible common ground that we share at this moment: sailing. I cannot blame them for assuming that this was somehow a shared passion or skill amongst all of us. I furtively downplay my scant experience on sail boats; I am not sure how frank I should be. I have been on a sailboat once before, albeit I was working as crew for five days on a crossing. I have never seen the Atlantic Ocean before. I have never been to any of the other states that we will be passing through/along. I have known Doug only three days. I don’t even know where we are going, having neglected to look up Eastport, Maine on a map. I really just want to start talking about Moby-Dick and whales, but I suppress this urge.

I imagine New Jersey to be full of overweight teamsters. I imagine Connecticut to be a bastion of snobbish dilettantes. I imagine Massachusetts to be full of pugnacious drunkards and pale pedants.  New Hampshire brings forth neither negative nor positive, aside from their respectable state motto. Maine could simply be a gigantic Red Lobster. We drive past Kennebunkport, Harvard, turns for Boston, for Cape Cod… All are loaded with strange literary and pop cultural associations.

Greg sits in front, occasionally turning around to squint through his glasses and rant in short overwhelming torrents about his work in IT marketing.  His bodily movements are evocative of a terrier. Stephen thankfully keeps the conversation in the realm of sailing and living in New York.

We pick up Carlton, Joan, and Bill. They graciously feed us before setting about finishing their pack. Stephen and I are looking at old maps of New York State in the living room when Joan interrupts.

‘Is the van loaded?’ She sternly asks.

‘Uhm… I am not sure.’ I stumble in response.

‘Well, we are all waiting on you guys.’

I stifle an impudent laugh.

In the van she continues:

‘Stop at exit two, I need to use the restroom.’

‘Okay. How about this reststop?’

‘No. I want to go to a gas station.’

I am pulling off at exit one after I see a sign advertising two gas stations when she cuts in again.

‘Where are you going? I said exit two. There are better gas stations there. It is a more developed exit.’

Nobody says anything. A more developed highway exit?

‘I guess this will be fine.’ She capitulates.

We pick up Simon on the dark roadside in Maine in front of a sign for a farm that produces Maine wildflowers.

I warm to Joan as she tells me a story about a juvenile delinquent rehabilitation program where she worked many years ago. The program ran authentic horsedrawn wagon trains, pioneer style, down the East Coast to Georgia. The troubled youths would walk alongside. Tepees were set up and broken down in roadside fields each day. In typical wagoneering fashion, many teenagers got pregnant during the voyage. Life did not stop. There was a wagonmaster who would regularly beat the children, hospitalizing several of them during the course of her time working there. The wagon train rehab approach was lauded by popular media and received widespread accolades, although this faded as the sanctions for neglect and abuse mounted. Individual kids could spend over a year on various different wagon trains that bizarrely ranged the East.

The schooner in Greenport, Long Island.
The schooner in Greenport, Long Island.

The wind carries a stiff chill with a breeze off the Bay of Fundy as we unload at the pier in Eastport. I look out upon the brilliant stars and savor the redolent stink of cod and salt water. We arrive at low tide and the twin masts of the schooner are all that are visible from behind the pier that towers out of the water. The Bay of Fundy holds the impressive distinction of having the highest tidal range in the world with an over 40 foot differential. We lower our gear on ropes and quickly find a place below deck to get out of the cold.

Our challenge becomes apparent as we check out the galley. The ship is in disarray with many projects left unfinished, despite assurances to the contrary. Pat, the engineer for the ship over the past few years, stands holding his beagle in his arms while discussing the condition of the ship. I overhear phrases like the following:

‘If there is a fire, don’t stand there as you will get sprayed with water that will electrocute you.’

‘The radar is not installed. We will try to get to it tomorrow.’

‘The screen on the chart plotter isn’t really working, it is scrolling and flickering.’

‘The generator is currently being run out of a five gallon bucket, so we can’t run it long.’

I put on all of my clothes and jackets before crawling into my sleeping bag.

Eastport, Maine
Eastport, Maine

The following morning I get up at sunrise. It is too cold to do anything but go back to sleep or start moving. I set out into town, the ship having risen enough at night to allow me to step right off the hundred plus feet of fiberglass onto the dock. Nobody is about; this is why it is the best time of the day. I wander through streets and homes built with pride with an eye towards longevity. Winter has crept in here.

The morning is strange. Joan, Carlton, and Simon seem to be on the verge of mutiny. They are all genuinely vexed by the lack of communication and the general disorganization. I sit equanimously weighing their remarks, not feeling the same level of concern for some reason, possibly out of sheer ignorance. Their concerns and criticisms words do not amount to anything later on.

We fill the boat with 800 gallons of diesel fuel. It takes a fuel truck an hour at least to fill the boat. Think about that for a moment. I organize all of the food; Joan comes through later and undoes everything that I have done. I snicker when I notice.

Burton and me.
Burton and me.

We divide the rest of the tasks. Bill and I undertake the job of attaching the stay sail in front. This simply involves wrestling unwieldy canvas and tying knots with frozen hands while precariously balancing on the bowsprit above the icy water of the Atlantic. Bill seems elsewhere; he handrolls cigarettes and carries on a curious conversation that seems to be altogether independent of me.

Dinner is an affair. The crew is already divided along strange lines with me in the typical position of not knowing where I fit in. I am generally indifferent though. We have fresh live lobsters, twelve of them. Stephen balances one into a headstand with its claws outstretched, a position it unwaveringly holds. The lobsters are lowered into boiling water head first, a death that I watch with horrified intrigue. It is definitely not ‘painless’ or ‘instant.’ I assuage my guilt by acknowledging that this is what grows here, what is fresh and readily available.

I crack and crunch. A torrent of green pours forth and mixes with the butter on my plate to create a delicious soup. The toilet in my cabin won’t flush. I lie in bed as Pat’s radio plays strange music on one side and Carlton and Joan moan on the other.

Leaving the Bay of Fundy.
Leaving the Bay of Fundy.

We ease out late in the morning, catching the last of the ebb tide that we hope to convey us down the coast. I watch the mysterious currents swirl and surge as the glide across the Bay. We discuss the watches: I will work with Bill and Pat from 8pm until 12am and 8am until 12pm. We will have three watches of three people, each working two, four hour shifts each day. Everyone disperses across the deck and into the cabins once this is determined; we only see each other in passing for the rest of the voyage.

I sit on a bench midship pondering the pitching and rolling that are building in my stomach as the waves build. I am utterly silent as I try to ignore the rising pitch of the complaints from my body; it is like trying to ignore a fire in the corner of a room. My hands begin to strangely tingle as time goes on; I can focus on nothing other than the sensations that are assailing my body. It is unlike anything that I have ever felt before. Burps arise that promise to ameliorate the discomfort, but they always fall short with great risk of unanticipated projection. Hold it together, with enough focus you can stay in control.

‘If you need to feed the fishes, go port side since it is downwind.’

Someone says this and I am involuntarily running with the phrase ‘feed the fishes’ echoing in my head. I brace myself against the railings and let loose thick, viscous streams of particoloured organic matter. The stream twists and moprhs as it falls towards the churning water.

Pat grins at me and tells me, ‘You look a lot less green.’

Off the Maine Coast

All of the tingling is gone out of my limbs. I vomit another time, curl up in a ball, vomit some more, shiver on the floor in the fetal position, go to my cabin, get up, vomit in the toilet that doesn’t flush and is already filled with smelly urine, eat some saltines, drink some water, vomit, I dry heave, I have completely vacated my stomach, irrational fears and nightmares taunt me in my delirium. My body is revolting.

I get up for my watch and am greeted by a clear sky, the waxing moon painting a chrome stream across the water’s surface. We navigate by the stars, using them as fixed reference points. I steer the boat, initially cutting sloppy zigzags across our source as I get a feel for the rudder, the sails, and the motor in the rolling sea. Steering helps to take my attention off of the sickness.

Bill says virtually nothing during our hours on watch. I am relatively confident that he is drunk.

The radar on the boat failed to work, so we brought a second radar system, which subsequently failed to work. The boat’s primary steering compass has failed. Nobody knows how to operate the chart plotter properly and I vomit whenever I stare at the screen.

I eat an apple and a pear, which counterintuitively make me feel better. I again fall asleep in all of my clothes. My cabin smells like a truck stop men’s room. I pity myself and laugh as I lay a seaman stained blanket that I found in the cabin over myself. I roll with the boat.

Me at the helm.
Me at the helm.

I wake up in time for sunrise and sit on deck, the cold seemingly in my bones and my brain nonfunctional from privation. The coastline is out of sight and the sea remains vibrant. The wind has shifted though, despite forecasts to the contrary. It comes straight over the bow from the Southwest, stilling progress. I repress an urge that I have to talk about sailing disasters stories. We could easily be drinking our own urine and be admiring the flesh of each other inside of a week if we let ourselves get blown off course.

After my daytime watch ends, I lie in bed unable to sleep, hallucinating strange shifting shapes and cityscapes. The organic melding with the linear, with the artificial, throbbing with life, expanding, wilting. Night watch is tough; it drags on as I sit huddled against the breeze.

In the morning I struggle out of the windowless cabin to a beautiful day. Pat and I pass our watches telling rambling, loosely connected stories. One summer day I looked out into the yard with my sister, climbing up on the counter to see what was going on outside as our dog Belle ran in front of the kitchen window tossing what looked like a black ragdoll up and down. Our foray into rabbit raising ended the moment that my sister screams resounded through the kitchen upon realizing that it was her rabbit Poco Diablo.

Most of Pat’s stories begin with ‘We just went out for a few beers…’ Getting woken up to a cop toeing him with his boots in a public park, waking up cuddling a napkin dispenser, getting offered to buy crack and guns, beating his friend with a tire iron after an argument erupted as they were stealing hubcaps off a VW bus, doing whippets with Mormons as cases of whipped cream were on sale for $10, He talks extensively about his friend ‘Gay Norm’ who has at least three stories that end with ‘…and then they beat me and left me naked under an overpass.’ Pat shakes and doubles over in laughter as he tells these stories. He is frank and brash in a way that is both repugnant and refreshing.

The chart plotter fails. We are now navigating via handheld GPS and paper charts. I look over the starboard side of the boat and see a spray emerge from the water, a whale repeatedly vents into the air before turning its tail and diving. Porpoises jump in unison alongside. We quickly arrive at the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal, just in time to catch the strong current of the ebb tide.

I am at the helm as we enter the canal. We radio the canal authorities who give us permission to proceed with the warning that there is a large barge coming our direction. Half of the crew is on deck. The banks are lined with serene trails peopled by pedestrians and cyclists enjoying a lovely day. Many stop to take our picture as we pass by and admire our good fortune.

Everything suddenly goes quiet; the motor cut out. I continue steering while we get the motor restarted. I can feel the tension start to build as the starter turns for a two, five, ten, twenty seconds to no avail. Our momentum begins to die and the rudder becomes useless; the current begins to direct us.

Doug calls the canal authority to advise them that we have lost power and to ask for assistance. The Coast Guard hears our distress call and scrambles a boat. We begin to spin in the canal and move rapidly portward with the force of the current that was a boon only moments earlier. It is not difficult for all of the people who line the banks to realize that something is very wrong; they begin taking pictures for a different reason. Everyone runs around the deck, a flurry of ineffective motion.

We drop the dingy and Stephen begins attempting to push us away from the portside –although it is no longer portside as we are spinning- steel bulkheads and pylons. I am giddily terrified as there is really not much that we can do and it seems like a collision with either the bank or the barge that is bearing down on us is inevitable. The Coast Guard arrives with a small boat, realizes the sheer size of our predicament and returns with a large boat just as we are nearing the steel I-beams. I grapple with a strong desire emerging from nowhere in particular for the ship to crash, wreck, catch on fire, sink. Some part of me secretly craves destruction and disaster. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard comes in fast, forcefully ramming us on the stern starboard side to straighten us out; a move that buys us a few seconds.

Being inspected.
Being inspected.

Commands are quickly shouted and a rope is tossed onto our deck. We scramble to secure it and then yell for them to hit the throttle as we are nearly broadsiding the canal. I stand in wonder at how quickly this has spun completely out of control. We manage to get the motor restarted at this moment, but we are now in tow and at the Coast Guard’s mercy. The problem was a bubble in the fuel line from switching over the fuel filter just before we entered the canal. Pat remedied the situation by bleeding the injectors. We are ordered to put on life jackets and stand by as we are hauled an hour out to sea. We are boarded, inspected, and quickly sent on our way.

Cape Cod Canal
Cape Cod Canal

We miss the ebb tide and find ourselves fighting our way through the canal as the light wanes on the vacation homes and trees that line the banks. As we exit in the darkness we are taxingly navigating by buoy, getting close enough to each one to see the number and verify it on our charts. The fixed lights of shore seem to never move. I stare at the Newport

Cape Cod Canal
Cape Cod Canal

Bridge for hours. The sea has calmed, although the dancing inky surface still seems equally menacing. The dark, cold sky and the gaping maw of the sea leave me feeling lonely as I steer. I wonder about the people in the warm, comfortable houses in Newport. I imagine pastoral simplicity and tranquility. A nostalgic desire for home, for warmth, for family rises.

Greenport, Long Island
Greenport, Long Island

I wake up with land in sight the following day. The leaves of Oak trees float below the surface and the air smells of fall. Greenport, Long Island. The 800 gallons of diesel turned out to be insufficient. We begin our initial approach on the dock, with the dingy serving to assist. We nearly hit one dock before realizing it is the wrong one. We reposition and make another attempt with 95 tons of boat moving directly at the dock. The harbormaster is screaming as we approach with the boat in full reverse. I once again find myself consciously striving to repress a desire for the boat to smash through the dock, toss the harbormaster in the water, catch on fire, lay over on its side, spread its flames to the kitschy crab shack restaurants and explode.

The bowsprit hits a streetlight that lines the dock, bending it over sideways as the old man runs around yelling irately. Doug calmly mans the controls, making everything seem fine. We toss dock lines and pull her in.

I get off the boat on sea legs; everything seems slightly askew like in a funhouse. An old man stops me wearing similar garb to what Colonel Sanders would wear on a Sunday; I just dismiss him as another East Coast relic from a bygone era. I think it is supposed to convey affluence and evoke respect. He talks about the massive schooner that he owns and the various ‘tall ship events’ that he has attended. I feign interest until he parts with the following words that seem incongruous with his appearance:

‘Be careful here, there are a lot of guns and drugs. This place is fucked up!’

Joan, Carlton, Bill and Simon all depart as our arrival in New York is now uncertain. We need more fuel and the weather looks questionable. Stephen cracks me up with stories of accepting jobs for which he is woefully underqualified. He accepted the job of head chef on an Atlantic crossing, only to be flown home before the long leg after oversalting meat and undercooking pasta. He was the general manager of a 200 million dollar bar in Manhattan for three weeks. He has been a sommelier in Nantucket with no real knowledge of wine other than having watched a movie about it. He has been a bartender, jet ski guide, model, bouncer…..

It begins to spit on us and a thick fog settles in. There seems to be a 65% chance of stabbings.

The winds howl over the boat and gently rock us against the dock. I lie in my windowless room in the early morning listening to the cacophony of clanking, whipping, rubbing, battering, jostling, tapping, lapping..

The fuel truck arrives in the afternoon and I walk out to meet it. I see the old man who looked like Colonel Sanders the previous day walking towards me. He is wearing another stunning outfit: a woman’s widebrimmed gardening hat, boating loafers, and a white knit sweater with an American flag boldly placed in the center. He grabs my arm as I try to greet him in passing.

‘Is that truck for your boat?’


He draws in close to me, giving me a weird conspiratorial head tilt.

‘The DEC is watching that truck right now. They are watching you.’

I receive this deadpan as I don’t know who the DEC is. I assume that this is not a good thing from the manner in which I am being informed.


‘Do you have a fuel skirt?’

‘I am not sure.’

‘Are you the commanding officer of this vessel?’

‘No.’ I laugh as this comes out. Doug is walking past.

‘Hey Doug! This guy wants to talk.’

‘Gimme a minute. The fuel truck is here.’

‘It is about that.’ I am taking on the weird, furtive tone of this old man for no clear reason. Do they have one of those long distance satellite dish headphone setups? I almost want to cover my lips. Can these people from the DEC read my lips? What does the DEC want? What should I be saying to please them and throw them off my tail?

‘I need to go get this going.’ He responds sharply.

‘Sir, it wouldn’t be in your best interest to disregard me.’ The old man angrily barks.

Doug seems slightly taken aback. ‘Oh..umm… What can I help you with?’

He draws Doug in and I huddle near, intrigued by all of this.

‘The DEC is watching you. You cannot fuel here; the Coast Guard will confiscate your boat.’

‘We have permission from the harbormaster to fuel here.’

‘You can’t. Look, why don’t you just come over to my dock at Claudio’s and fuel there?’’

‘Oh I see. We pay you to use your dock or you call the Coast Guard?’

‘No! Sir, I am trying to keep your boat from being confiscated! I am your friend.’

‘You are not my friend. I don’t even know you.’

‘Yes you do. I am the owner of the ship Lynx.’

The entire thing is surreal; I am riveted in amusement. This dialogue seems strange because it genuinely was. The fuel truck driver hears all of this.

‘I ain’t fuckin’ fueling nothing if there’s gunna be any fuckin’ problems with the DEC.’

Doug calmly addresses him, ‘We have permission to fuel here. I am going to call the harbormaster right now.’ He places his phone to his ear and then turns to the old man.

‘What is your name?’

‘Mayor Nice.’

The fuel truck driver stands on the periphery and sprays chewing tobacco out of his lower lip as he shouts to no one in particular. ‘I’ve lived here my whole life an’ der ain’t no fucking Mayor Nice. Ain’t no fuckin’ Mayor Nice! That guy ain’t no fuckin’ mayor!’

Doug chats with the harbormaster and then hands the phone to the old man. He feigns an inability to hear and hangs up the phone. I start laughing in disbelief at this charade.

He pats Doug’s shoulder and ominously says, ‘Just fuel your boat sir. It will be alright.’  It seems like some sort of knowing blessing or curse. He steps into a beat up old cab and we put in another 350 gallons of diesel.

We sit around laughing later as a few locals explain that he is just the crazy old town drunk.

Doug has a friend come up to give us a hand; his name is Rand. As we walk around town he, without provocation, feels the need to make explicitly clear his disdain for all things organic or locally sourced. This is the mere sprout of something much deeper rooted. It slowly becomes apparent, as his vitriol becomes more targeted, that Stephen and I are gentrification personified. I head to bed early as the predominant form of discourse amongst Connecticutians and New Yorkers appears to be arguing and pontificating with special points awarded for shouting down the other person or not allowing them to speak at all.

Pat is stomping around the deck at 3am, waking all of us up. We sit in the cabin drinking coffee as an intimidating gale howls outside. We depart nonetheless into the darkness and begin our fight through the Long Island Sound. As the sun rises, the wind and waves do as well. The front of the boat rises and plunges, smashing and vaporizing the steep wind driven waves. The spray whips over the deck and dries into a blurry sheen on my glasses. We raise the jib and stay sails to catch a few more knots from the Northerly component of the stiff wind.

Long Island Sound
Long Island Sound

Everyone is tired and nobody has eaten as we sit braving the chill and stare at the horizon, conditions that are not exactly conducive to congenial conversation. Rand starts in again and it ramps up quickly.

‘You can take all of your locally sourced organic bullshit and shove it up your fuckin’ asses! All of you hipsters from flyoverthefucknowhere need to stop coming to Brooklyn because you heard it was cool and cheap! It isn’t fucking cheap and you are driving everyone else the fuck out with your parents paying your fucking rent!’

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel

I am not sure how this got so out of hand, but the stress that I have felt in recent weeks reaches a crescendo as well.

‘Well where the fuck are we supposed to live? Where do people like us who can’t afford to live in Manhattan go?’

‘I don’t fuckin’ care. Just stay the fuck out of my neighborhood.’

‘How is gentrification my fault? Why are we the ones to blame for all of this? Do you think that we want to pay all of our fucking income on rent? Who ever told you New York was going to be cheap? What in the world ever made you think that real estate separated be a couple of subway stops from the most expensive real estate in the world would ever be cheap?’

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel

‘No families can afford to live in their communities anymore. I have watched all of the black families on my block get pushed out by a bunch of fucking hipsters that don’t give a shit about the community. All the local stores are gone and converted to businesses to serve them that are too expensive. It’s fuckin’ out of hand!’

‘Look I am just tired of being made to feel unwanted here. It isn’t right for my girlfriend to come home nearly in tears because she was yelled at and made to feel as if she is the problem, as if she is the white oppressor. Why as individuals are we the problem?’

‘Because you guys are willing to pay these fuckin’ outrageous rents because it is hip!’

‘Once again: where the fuck are we supposed to go? What about the real estate investors, the businessmen, the crooked politicians, the broken system, the banks?’

There is no solution, although there may have been a slight catharsis through our venting. This is the cage: perpetual insecurity.

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel

The city appears on the horizon, emerging out of the mirage that shimmers where the sea meets the sky. It grows as the day fades; it swallows the sun. The city rises around us and similarly swallows us into its glow, into its concrete web, into its madness. We enter the Bronx on the pulse of one of the main arteries, flowing in through the back entrance to the city. The air smells of asphalt, of sewage, of acrid chemicals, of exhaust. Sirens wail in the distance.

At night you can feel it the best.

It is in the decaying buildings and in the trash swirling in the cold wind.

It is in the clatter of metal and rasp of tires on concrete.

It is in the barred, the locked, the shuttered.

We silently pass each other;

your face tired and eyes downcast in the artificial light.

It would be too terrifying to ask what you are doing here,

because of what it would say about myself.

I finger the keys in my pocket and quicken  my pace.