Canarsie, 1997

When I was in college, I’d take myself on trips to random neighborhoods. Pick a spot on the subway map, ride the train there, and wander around. I wanted to see the entire city, not just a tiny patch between 14th and Houston. When I went on these trips, I invariably went by myself.

This may have been a genetic affliction. My grandfather told me he used to work as a messenger, and when he’d be given a nickel for the subway, he’d pocket it so he could walk the distance. He preferred to take the messages above ground, where he could wander, explore, people-watch.

So this is why I’ve taken the L train to its end, to wander around Canarsie. A few years from now, I’ll spend a few Christmas Eves in the neighborhood, but at the moment there is no particular reason for me to be here, no landmark or great restaurant I must see in person. The idea to come here was first planted in my head by a sociology book about the neighborhood, which studied the flight of the white working class from places like Williamsburg and Brownsville out to Canarsie and points east. But more than anything, I want to check off this plot of the city in the mental ledger of places I’ve been. The sooner I check one off, the sooner I can travel to another one.

I stroll down Rockaway Parkway. It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in the early fall, the sun low and orange. Every little glimpse I get of the neighborhood seems important to me because I’m here to witness it. A little old lady shuffles out of an ancient Italian pasticceria with flamingo-colored lettering. At the local high school, a football coach chews out his players for a lack of hustle. A strip mall appears charmless except for the large Burger King at its northern extremity, which never received a rebranding and still looks like the Burger Kings of my youth.

I keep wandering down Rockaway, under the Belt Parkway, and into Canarsie Pier. It has an arched welcoming sign that suggests amusement, but there are no rides or attractions here. Just a pier, really, where a few lone fisherman have cast out lines. There are also a few running paths carved out of the grass. I follow one.

Fifty feet down the path, the grass becomes wild, uncontrollable, taller than me. Then weeds emerge among the blades, huge cattails and snarling jagged things, and soon there are more of these monsters than the grass. The path seems to narrow with each step. The noise of the highway recedes into nothingness. I feel the vague unease that only surfaces in October, just when the leaves begin to change and the chill in the air first stings you. But I don’t dare turn back. I want to see all of New York.

The weeds give way, and I find myself on a dune tumbling away from me into Paedergat Basin, which separates Canarsie from Bergen Beach and Mill Basin. Across the basin, another dune, and more weeds beyond that. There are no waves here. The water tugs weakly at the sand, recedes, and tries again. The Belt Parkway is visible in the distance but only as an outline against the sun.

I am alone. But the array of trash in the sand—beer cans, Coke bottles—suggests this is a destination for somebody. So do the remnants of a badly constructed campfire, planks of mealy wood laid across each other and burnt to char, still smoldering, maybe. At times I swear I can hear music, faintly, as if it were trailing from a radio on someone’s windowsill a block away.

It suddenly occurred to me that I told no one where I was going before I left for Canarsie. I could be killed right at this moment by these campfire setters, who were surely lying in wait for saps like me to wander along, and I might never be found again. No one would know what became of me.

This is the most basic fear humans have. Not the fear of dying, but the fear of leaving no trace. We can deal, abstractly, with the thought of not existing. What terrifies us is the thought of a day when no one knows we ever existed.

I was not dressed for jogging, but I ran back on that path, past the weeds, past the grass, back onto the pier. I slowed myself down once I hit Rockaway again just so I wouldn’t look like a maniac, but I still wanted to run, past the high school and the old timey Burger King and the pasticceria, back to the L train, back to my school where I had to show my ID to enter every building and there was no doubt people were recording my existence.