A clean cut of bone the size of a fist, hollow in the middle. A small blue glass jar with a smear of Vick’s in it, smelling of camphor. The leather insert of a shoe, orange and black like a mussel without its shell. This is the sea life that washes up in Dead Horse Bay, an inlet of beach just before the bridge to the Rockaways and across the road from Floyd Bennett Field, New York’s first municipal airport. Hidden from the highway by an overgrown trail, and with no signs to mark the way, there are only a few of us along Glass Bottle Beach, walking through the refuse of a New York that no longer exists. The summer air is still and the bay is quiet, the only sound the tinkle of broken glass as the tide breaks onto the dirty shore.
My friend S. and I have been talking about coming here for a few years, but on the rare days we both aren’t busy, the allure of a real beach, one where you can tan and swim, has always won out. Trash beach, as we have been affectionately calling it in our texts, is not a place you take just anyone. They have to be into the purposelessness of a shore covered in humps of soft, dank dirt, making it impossible to lay a towel down. They have to accept the prospect of walking a long while with shards of antique glass crunching underfoot like dead leaves. They have to be a little greedy too, wanting to be the first to find the treasure of a perfect whole bottle, a fleck of painted tile, a piece of horse bone from when nearby Barren Island was home to a processing plant that turned the animals into fertilizer and glue. They have to be a little fascinated by things long dead. Which is why I called her over when I found a group of desiccated baby sharks in the rocks, shrunken and perfect, with all their terrible little teeth. As we stood together on a pile of trash, Brighton Beach hazy in the distance, we were glad we had made it together.
Dead Horse Bay got its name in the 1850s, when horse-rendering plants, fish oil factories, and garbage incinerators populated the area. The waste of industry was dumped into the water. Around the turn of the century the marsh was turned into a landfill and fifty years later, long after it was full—it burst and began to leak onto the shore and into the ocean. A strange, darkly magical terminus where no one lives, forced out by bad water, sickening smells, and finally, the construction of the Gil Hodges-Marine Parkway Bridge, it melds together my tenderness for shorelines and junkyard relics. I never feel more myself than on a beach, looking out. I’ll take a Jersey boardwalk or a national park, a stretch of salty bay or a strip of sand on the edge of a forest. It puts a calm in me that exists no place else. My aunt won’t sit with her back to the sea, instinctively aware that large bodies of water can be quick to betray. But by the ocean is the one place I feel at peace with things beyond my control. I hand a part of myself off and dive in.
There is no bathing in Dead Horse Bay. I imagine it as more of a soup than a swimming hole, with a hundred years of industrial refuse seasoning the broth. Mazola refined corn oil. Pond’s cream. Clorox. Clariol. Lavoris. Liberty Vitrified China. Montrose. Bristol Meyer. Jugs of wine. Caked cream. Grease paint. Gulden’s Mustard. West Disinfecting Co. Pepsi.
S. and I collect bottles filled with sand and scum. We coo over the remains of a tall lamp, laid down in the sand like a long necked animal. There are butter dishes, boat parts, metal scraps, a downed tree, and over everything a fine froth of seaweed like foam on a beer. We walk the whole stretch of beach until it becomes a marina and then sit on a bench half buried with sand, looking at our treasures. We’ve each collected a bucketful of bottles, squat opaque jars for cold cream, bottles for soda, and a tiny perfume called L’Amant. Not all of them hold the same charm once picked free from their glistening bulk on the shore. They start oddly to seem more like what they are—trash. We set them out in front of us and narrow it down. Nothing chipped. Nothing smelly. Nothing filled with black sludge.
Later, when ones I brought home are floating in a washbasin, the smell of Dead Horse Bay fills my bathroom, and I warn my roommate about the grit I left in the tub. It seems like I could soak those old, dredged up things for weeks and never get rid of the grime. I’ll want to explain the impulse to collect them, how I grew up in a house full old pharmacy bottles and copper pots hung on the wall like good china, and how S. grew up in a house full of antique furniture and oriental rugs. And how our friendship is built on trips to the Goodwill, junk shops, and garage sales, how knowing one another is picking out the perfect sweater for the other, judging by sight if a small leather shoe will fit. And while time seemed immeasurable when we were picking through a hundred years of stuff on the beach, summer is actually dwindling, and in the fall she will go to Chicago and I will stay in New York and by the time the beachgoers pack up for the season we will both have started graduate school many miles apart, while the bay stays the same, full of bright, stinking treasure.
We walk back along in the dunes, where newer refuse hides in the grass, plastics and Styrofoam, reminders that Dead Horse Bay is part of an ongoing history: how we get rid of trash, and how it returns to us, sometimes reanimated with a certain nostalgic charm, but mostly just refusing to disappear, so that eventually—those who can—will escape to a shrinking number of cleaner places, where the air is easier to breathe.