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On Staten Island in search of pelagic experiences, Susan and I drive along Arthur Kill Road, a meandering marineside motor access leading to the Outerbridge Crossing to New Jersey. We had heard aboout a mysterious ship graveyard in the area and were intent to find it. We ask three bewildered Staten Island natives – on the street, in a diner, at a marina – where we might find this seemingly fascinating urban archeological wonder. Eventually, we find the rusty, decomposing, dinosaurs in the water next to a very active scrap metal depository, across the street from a hot pink tourist motel. These enormous, industrial carcasses jut forcefully up from the serene, yet polluted waterway of the Arthur Kill. We both stand in awe with our cameras poised and are immediately thrown off the grounds of the scrap metal yard. We are threatened with arrest and finally agree to leave the premises. Just a normal day in the production of Abecedarium NYC.
A few nights ago, I drove to Staten Island to look for one of our city’s most dynamic ethnic communities. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Sri Lankans live on the island, and they have worked hard to preserve as much of their culture as possible. While I sat eating fish, lentil cookies and vegetable pastries, I noticed that this small, steam table restaurant is far more than a place to buy a meal. Over the course of our one-hour meal, at least 20 people popped in to pick up some much needed snacks from the restaurant’s owner, a much loved, utterly charismatic woman who stands like a gracious queen behind her counter. The neighboring grocery store is equally friendly, functioning as a Sri Lankan sundry for most of its customers and a sort-of anthropological museum for the few other people who happen to stop by. If you listen to our audile recording, you will hear the owner of the grocery welcoming his customers.
Susan and I ascend by car and then by foot to the top of Staten Island today, over 400 feet above sea level! We are not far from the comfortable, Italianate homes of Staten Island. The trees are looming, and we feel exhilarated by the sense of accomplishment that comes from reaching this burrough’s culminant point! To our surprise and joy there is actually a small, wood sign designating Todt Hill as the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard below Maine. In pursuit of a NYC-specific visualization of this word, I am becoming much more aware of the topography of our city. Now when I am looking from the Brooklyn Bridge across the harbor to the telephone tower on Todt Hill, I am able to imagine the lush, verdant hilltop woods below.