words & images sonya c. patel
The SeaStreak, a broad and commanding vessel, looks like it’s coming in too fast as we wait to board at Slip B on Pier 11, the Wall Street ferry terminal. The surrounding neighborhood is near-deserted, near-post-apocalyptic, but the port is teeming with hatted and fanny-packed tourists. They form a long and sweaty line, curving like a J from the Slip A entrance all the way to F.D.R. Drive to wait for the East River Ferry. We are heading to Sandy Hook Beach in New Jersey.
The previous night, a Friday, the three of us sat drinking Manhattans at the southern French bistro Fada’s in Williamsburg. It had been warm and clear with a mild breeze, so when Stanley asked if we wanted to go to the beach the next day, it was easy for Vik and me to say yes. None of us had seen sand, ocean, or bay all summer, nor had we ever been to Sandy Hook. We made plans to meet at 1 PM the next day.
But, the next morning, I stared out of the open window in my living room. The rain steadily fell from silvery clouds, and I could hear the birds gossiping through the hush. I imagined that the sand would be caked and goopy, and I considered staying in my pajamas all day, placing a coffee delivery order, and writing on my couch. Suddenly, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Stanley: “Supposed to stop by 1. I say we go for it.”
We board the SeaStreak at 1:30 PM and climb the two flights up to the top deck. The seats at the front are taken, so we settle for standing at the back to watch the New York City skyline diminish as we pick up speed. My geographic bearings in open waters are appalling, so Stanley points out the sights: to my right, Staten Island, which could pass for an exotic seaside city from our hazy distance; and to my left, the Redhook Ikea, accessible by the Ikea Express Shuttle Water Taxi.
Traveling at 42 knots, the wind is magnanimous in the open air. It presses me against the bars of the hull and whips my black hair into tangled knots of disarray, while still allowing me to stand upright and raise my voice above the din so I can be heard. Mostly, though, I stay silent, breathing in the thrill of speeding fresh air, which seems to dissipate some of the smog that has layered itself around my frenetic city brain.
Forty-five minutes later, we decelerate into the Sandy Hook Beach pier of the seven-mile peninsula, which is operated by the National Park Service. I take in the identical, yellow-bricked and forest green-trimmed barracks of historic Fort Hancock. A defunct cannon points out to the water, and school buses shuttle SeaStreak passengers to the various beaches. A uniformed ranger directs us to Beach D, which plays host to several food trucks.
Two-lanes, freshly paved and well-kept in each direction, lead from the pier to the beaches and back again. We pass model rockets and 'No Trespassing' signs. When we aren’t being reminded of war, I imagine that the greenery calls for coconut vendors with machetes pushing wheeled carts toppling with the refreshment. Instead, the roadside is empty like the Financial District from whence we came.
We step out of our footwear to walk through the rock and pebble sand towards the water. From where we enter, the beach looks only a quarter full and the water deserted, but the sun's bright rays intermittently break the cloud barrier. The area where sunbathers and sandcastle craftsmen assemble deceptively sits atop a slope. When we reach the edge, we look down on people from every kind of background reveling in the waves and lay out our towels.
After an hour’s nap in the sun, we set about to find something to eat. The hatch is closed for the only food truck we find, JB Woodfire Pizza, but a large Italian with an overgrown belly and tomato stained apron jovially hangs out in the doorway. He is catering to a mother purchasing chips, water, and soda. We join the desperate line.
“I’m sorry, we ran out of pizza,” he says when we are up. He looks around the parking lot and glances at the sky. “There’s nobody else here and we didn’t make as much as we usually do ‘cause of the rain. I got one slice I can give you. Won’t charge you for it.”
“We’ll take it,” Vik says, “and these chips.”
The food truck looks dark and empty but Stanley eyes a bag of pretzels lying on top of a cooler. “Do you have pretzels? Can we get pretzels, too?”
“Yeah, sure. How many you want?”
“Three. And these chips,” Vik repeats, then adds, “and lemonade.”
“Can we get five?” I chime in. It isn’t clear how long we will linger in Sandy Hook, but however long, there would be no inexpensive, easy access to a meal. On my phone, it looks like the closest Uber is twenty-two minutes away.
Generously, the Italian opens the hatch back up, gets the woodfire oven going, and delivers five pretzels.
We eat at a picnic bench under a pavilion that looks like it should have food and stores selling beach gear, but the metal doors are shut for all of them. We look for a trashcan and spot a sign that says, “Take your trash with you.” Reluctantly bagging our refuse, we walk back to our beach towels, grimacing as our feet encounter rock shards and pebbles with every step.
With a bloated belly, I go for a swim. The water is shallow and the waves steady. There is no chance of floating on my back. After thirty minutes, I abandon the water and return to sunbathe. We’ve only been at the beach for a little over two hours, but lacking sustenance, we opt to head back to the city early to get some Jamaican food.
The SeaStreak has pizza and a fully stocked bar. There are seats open at the front of the top deck this time, but we find the ride less exhilarating when sitting and resume our standing positions at the back of the boat. With beers in-hand, we silently watch as the sun begins to set. The trip, like all return trips, feels like it’s shorter on the way back. When we arrive at Pier 11, we’re not ready to disembark. We grab another round and stay until the ferry sails up to 35th Street, finding the ride itself to be worth the excursion.