By Nora Bosworth
It was hard to imagine a more fitting venue as visitors of the South Street Seaport Museum sat huddled on a recent Thursday evening in a cool, brick-lined room, awaiting Underwater New York’s reading. Underwater New York is an online journal of writing, art and music inspired by real-life objects found in New York waterways—such objects, it turns out, range from a grand piano to a dead giraffe. The event, featuring the journal’s founding editor Nicki Berger and contributors Myla Goldberg and Jenny Offill, was held on a tip of Manhattan that was once one of the country’s busiest ports.
The reading was held in conjunction with the South Street Seaport Museum’s current exhibition, Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions, organized by the American Folk Art Museum. The exhibit features work “that speaks to both the romanticism and gritty realism of the seaport district,” according to the museum’s website.
For the event, authors were asked to view the Compass exhibit beforehand, so that they could either draw on the material for their writing, or choose from a list on Underwater New York’s website of actual things that have been found beneath the city’s water. As the writers read, a slideshow displaying the objects they had chosen was projected behind them.
Berger opened with “Crack and Break and Heal,” explaining that some of her selected items appeared literally in her story, while others only lent their essence to the story’s tone. Among her various objects was a 19th century tin bonnet— commonly used as a 10-year anniversary gift for married couples—two wooden prosthetic legs and a journal with intricate anchor tattoos drawn in.
For Berger, the underwater realm is an enormous toy chest, where things like “white goo” float up the Gowanus Canal and Good Humor ice cream trucks are submerged off the coast of Far Rockaway.
Goldberg’s mischievous piece “Smile” is written from the perspective of a teenage girl, stuck living with her mom in her uncle’s house because her father has split. Goldberg said that she did not envision a particular part of New York as she wrote, but one imagines a Jewish family somewhere out in Brooklyn. She chose only one found object to base her piece on: a pair of dentures. The girl’s uncle is a dentist, and she feels he takes a sadistic pleasure in his dentistry, so one night when she is watching TV and suddenly realizes something is a little funny about his perfect smile, she creeps into his bedroom while he’s sleeping, to examine his dentures. We are laughing the whole way through, as Goldberg effortlessly captures the frustrated voice of a bored 13-year-old. She said Underwater New York’s assignment brought her places creatively that she wouldn’t have gone otherwise. When asked what made her choose the dentures of all things, she replied quickly, “They chose me.” Goldberg lives and teaches in Brooklyn, and has published three novels, one of which was a New York Times Notable Book in 2000.
Offill said that what caught her attention at the exhibit was “how many paintings were made to memorialize someone or something.” Not surprisingly, one of her chosen objects was a painting of a baby girl who died of unknown causes. As she read “The Invention of the Ship,” the baby’s chubby, piercing face stared out at her audience. Offill wove an eerie portrayal of a mother living with her doting husband in the city, and the loss of their only child. The piece is as much about New York as it is about grief, with a character narrating at one point: “To live in a city is to be forever flinching.” In fact, after 15 years of city-dwelling, Offill very recently moved upstate, where she finds the relative lack of stress shocking.
Keep an eye on the journal and upcoming events at underwaternewyork.com. Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions will be on view at the South Street Seaport Museum through February 2013.
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