Staten Island may be the least bike-friendly borough of New York City. The roads are narrow and twisting or wide and shattered and it appears that no driver knows how to manage a fifteen-foot wide lane with a cyclist desperately clinging to the curb. Either making a wide enough arc to warrant a head-on collision with oncoming traffic or cutting too close to the handle bars of an adjacent cyclist, cars will zoom past nervously honking the whole way.
Google Maps did its best in outlining a connection between the St. George Ferry Terminal and the Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard. M and I checked it over a few times, using street view to familiarize ourselves with the terrain – avoiding obnoxiously steep hills, narrow passages and highways. Still, we ended up on a narrow sidewalk biking alongside a six-lane road through brush – catching swamp reeds, leaves and branches between spokes, gears and shoelaces. Despite some hazardous and unpleasant conditions, the ride was relatively smooth. We didn’t get lost but we did stop several times to check the map, making sure we hadn’t missed any turns that happened to be just a block away. We made a few obligatory stops at yard sales, joked about heaving a vase or two back home, and made plenty of conversation when the roads afforded us the chance to ride side by side.
Both of us had been to Staten Island before, even if it is the “forgotten borough”, but neither of us knew it well enough to get by without a map. Still, it’s exciting to be somewhere and have vague recollections and familiarity drift into your consciousness. We’re biking down Richmond Road and a grassy hill floats up over the trees into our field of vision. Fresh Kills Landfill comes into view and it stretches for miles as we make our way through the overgrown path. We stop at a bridge and look out onto the swampy flatness that is some portion of the Arthur Kill River. The tide must be low because streams trickle in in some places over the mud and reveal a few tires sinking into the sand. Looking out, it gets easier to ignore the traffic behind us and let the rolling-manmade hills fill up our peripheral vision. We’re both taken aback by how much nature is out there.
We’re still about halfway and the rest of the ride takes us through a relatively quiet two-way street that winds out of the interior of the island and along its south-western edge. We know we’re close when we start to see blips of steel and wood in between the breaks in the thick reeds that have been lining the road for several hundred feet. Aside from a barely distinguishable break in the wall of tall grass there was no indication that we had arrived. We locked our bikes up against a pole in front of a car wash, waved to the men sitting out front and ran into the bushes towards the liminal edge where land meets water. The first few steps were on firm, dry ground; it soon dissolved into mush below our feet.
We hopped from plank to plank, to grassy stumps to avoid sinking into the mud and before we knew it we were out in what would be a beach if there were any dry sand. About 100 yards away were remnants of ships in complete disarray well into their way through various stages of decay. What one could only assume to be ships, looked to be a heap of gnarled steel and chewed up wood – tossed aside and on top of one another as if by giants – sinking slowly into the earth and along what could have been a pier a few decades ago.
We approached with caution. The wood looked to be pretty far gone. It flaked off to the touch and looked barely to be hanging on. The steel nails, a bright auburn, once securing the vertical grid of posts and beams was eroded to the point that a simple twist split them into two jagged chunks. We pocketed them as souvenirs. Hand over hand, foot over foot we made our way along the pier to a more secure part where we could actually climb up to the top, where steel plates and a giant spool of frayed steel cable still stood relatively intact but covered in a brittle layer of corrosion. Sturdy materials crumbled beneath our feet – steel and wood disintegrated with little effort on our part. We climbed further into the discordant mess, from boat to boat to pier, to planks, traversing open air and pools of water ending up on a ledge somewhere that gave us a view of industrial New Jersey on the other side of the narrow passage of Arthur Kill.
There we sat, split an energy bar and talked. How far do you have to get away from everything and everyone to reflect on things? Why go searching for decay and desolation? Our conversation wasn’t unique – ambitions, relationships, places – to where we ended up having it but being in this strange, peripheral place was fitting. After fifteen miles of biking, a five-mile ferry and about an hour of climbing over and under some industrial trash we could surround ourselves with silence, once cut by the roaring blades of a helicopter. We emerged from the swamp into someone’s backyard, a house nestled between a heap of garbage and a wood chip storage maintenance facility, cut across their yard and made it back to our bikes. We waved good-bye to the men at the car wash and sped off to indulge in a Sri Lankan buffet about ten miles away.
When I talk about things being serendipitous, I’m not sure that I mean that exactly. We can say that things are fated, circumstantial, accidental, coincidental or we can say that they always meant to happen, were sure to happen, and you simply following the bread crumbs to get there. On the ride back we passed a place that looked familiar but not quite – like looking at something from the inside-out and being sure you’d seen it before. Staten Island is full of cemeteries and it wasn’t surprising to pass a few on the way. Ancient roadside cemeteries with withered tombstones barely planted in the ground followed by graveyards with ornate, steepled monuments and mausoleums lined major and minor roads.
Along the alternate route that took us away from Arthur Kill, we passed that hauntingly familiar place – United Hebrew Cemetery. My uncle is buried here. As it turns out, so is M’s grandfather. We decided to pay our respects. I’d been there just a month earlier, taking my parents on their ritualistic visit to passed relatives – leaving rocks on the tombstone, honoring their memory, consoling their own fears and regrets.
Cemeteries are strange places. The dead and buried, resting miles away from home, bookmarked and cataloged in rows and aisles by heavy granite stones. Some have their pictures carved in, all are dated. All say “we honor and memorialize…” – some in English and Hebrew, most in Russian. Everything is physical, nothing here honors the spirit or the memory; it’s all just approximate. This is a place-holder.
We make our way to the very back of the cemetery, M lays a stone near her grandfather’s grave and I lay one on my uncle’s. Then we move on to an adjacent cemetery where my grandfather, my grandmother and several of my parent’s friends are buried. So many people and the spaces are getting filled up so quickly. Workers are always digging. We talk about death in short spurts. It’s something that happens somewhere over there and never quite right here, so it’s easy to dodge the subject. We put it away, set it aside and visit it occasionally, turning a moment of introspection into a journey to a physical place that represents this total finality that is only true on one level.
I’ve never cried while looking at a headstone – but I’ve cried watching my mother talk about her father while staring at the dates of his life on one, saying it took forty-six hundred miles of travel to die on American soil. I’ve cried by my dad’s side when he stands shaking his head over his cousin’s grave, with whom he spent some of the most trying years of his life as he grasps to understand the loss still six years fresh. Cemeteries are for the living, for those that carry on with the absence of a loved one.
And everytime I leave the cemetery, whether in a car with my family or on bike with M, the weight of the memory starts to slip, sheds in layers as we speed away, putting more and more distance between our day to day lives and the memories contained within the bones beneath the ground, marked by stones, grown over with grass.
So it turns out, that soon after we pass a few lights, we focus on the road, on the next few miles to warmth and comfort and food.