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Dead Horse Bay

August 30, 2011

Archaeology does not interest me—a surprise. When I travel to a new place, I undertake a pilgrimage to its oldest sites. In Paris I made sure to visit the catacombs and even the city’s longest-living tree, in Barcelona the Barri Gòtic was my base and la Seu my first stop. Berlin and Amsterdam bored me in this regard; Rome overwhelmed me and nearly (no, not nearly, really) broke me of the habit.

But that fascination is part of enjoying history, landscape, not archeology. There are people for whom excavation illuminates lives, civilizations. There are people who would happily sift through the trash of Dead Horse Bay. I am not one of them.

Dead Horse Bay is a New York wonder, perhaps more interesting as a rumor than as an experience.

This bay is tucked away near the end of Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue, just before the bridge leading into Queens to Breezy Point, to Fort Tilden, to Jacob Riis Park and the Rockaways. East of Coney Island and Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, it’s just across Flatbush from the parking lot at Floyd Bennett Memorial Field. The area was used as a dump through the 1920s or ‘30s.  The dump was then capped—but the cap blew. Now the bay and its beach are full of a lost era’s trash: stray shoes with the leather worn away, just the rubber remaining; the trucks and dolls of children now grown and likely dead; massive rusted equipment; parts of ceramic sinks and toilets; cosmetics still in their jars; the crockery of forgotten daily meals; bleach bottle after bleach bottle.

Things came in glass back then rather than plastic, so glass makes up most of the beach, some pieces polished by the waves, more still sharp. It’s a dangerous terrain, the whole beach covered in broken glass, jagged hazards at every step. Boat shoes might have led me to a bloody end; desert boots protected my ankles but left me worrying that a wrong step would send an accidental weapon through those crepe soles. After a summer that seemed to be full of shattered glass and sore feet—when a Fire Island deck left me with a few splinters, I realized I had half a dozen sets of accumulated wounds—navigating this beach unscathed felt like a victory, a safe passage that promises more.

All that glass makes for a pretty sound here. The tumbling glass twinkles and softly sings beneath the bay’s waves. The delicate fairy music contrasts with the remnants of industry and death: Scattered among the glass are horse bones, left over from the days when this place was home to a few rendering plants. The bones were cut into one-inch pieces, now stained red and brown by sea water and weather and the passage of time.  They’re reminiscent of petrified redwood, and of the Milk Bone dog treats I gave my German shepherd when I was a kid.

Amid the trash and the horse bones and this magical noise were a snowy egret, three white swans, a dozen cormorants, and even a little blue heron.

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