LUCY K SHAW
Waiting for the ferry on North 6th Street in Williamsburg, we make conversation about things we’re working on. We talk about other people we know and what they’re working on too. I say something about how I can remember feeling ambitious, and how that seems very distant now. Writing doesn’t feel very urgent. I don’t feel like I have to prove anything, don’t have much to add.
We talk about poetry and Kristen says, ‘I think it’s okay for other people to write poems... but if I try to imagine myself doing that... it just seems ridiculous.’
I say, okay, same... but what about an.... Epic Poem? Maybe I’ll just start with an Epic Poem.
What is an Epic Poem?
We don’t really know...
I make a note to check wikipedia later.
An epic poem, epic, epos, or epopee is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily involving a time beyond living memory in which occurred the extraordinary doings of the extraordinary men and women who, in dealings with the gods or other superhuman forces, gave shape to the moral universe that their descendants, the poet and his audience, must understand to understand themselves as a people or nation.
Okay, sounds easy.
The East River Ferry approaches and we walk slowly, at first... before running down the pier when we realise the boat is advancing much more quickly than initially expected. Then it slows down to moor at the station... and it takes a really long time, and we just ran down the pier for no reason, which is humbling.
We hand over our tickets ($2.75 per person) and walk through the ferry, out the back door, up the stairs and onto the top deck. It’s early February but it’s a sunny day and the sky is bright blue. None of us have any plans on this Monday. It’s my Chinese New Year vacation… because I work for a Chinese company and it’s a new year in China. We say we’ll just keep riding the ferry until we don’t want to anymore. Maybe we’ll walk over to the Staten Island Ferry. Maybe we’ll get off in Red Hook. Maybe we’ll go all the way up to the Bronx. There’s a stop called Soundview which sounds, at least, as though it must be very pleasant. Every time the ferry is in transit, it moves surprisingly fast down the river, and every time it stops at one of its terminals, it fades into slow motion for at least five minutes. We love this part. By the time we’ve sailed under the Brooklyn Bridge and arrived at the Wall Street stop, we’re only ready for more. We request three free transfers and check the schedules for further destinations along the route.
There’s another ferry that could take us as far as Sunset Park in South Brooklyn arriving in two minutes. We hop on board this other boat and take the exact same seats on the top deck that we had on the first boat. Having walked through the inside of the boat twice by now, and having reviewed their cafe bar selections as we passed by, Chris and I turn to each other and remark in unison that... they have sangria... on draft.... Our eyes go big.
As the new ferry heads south and across the bay towards South Brooklyn, past the Statue of Liberty in the distance and Governors Island in the foreground, Chris goes to ask for more transfers.... why stop in Sunset Park?
While he’s gone, Kristen and I lean forward and excitedly discuss the details of his surprise birthday party which is happening in two days time. She asks what he does and doesn’t know and offers to bring balloons. I say, oh yeah I should buy some balloons. She says... we need helium balloons. She says her brother works at Party City. Not the one in New York, actually... but anyway she’ll get the balloons.
When he comes back we pretend to be talking about poetry again.
I simply would love to write an epic poem, I say. Where to find my inspiration?
If I only knew of some extraordinary people who had to deal with some superhuman forces and came out of it acting all morally superior and smug.
I don’t understand what it means by superhuman forces.
I guess it says Gods... or... superhuman forces.
I really don’t have what it takes to write an epic poem. I’m just an ordinary woman taking a ferry for fun.
I can’t give shape to a moral universe that will help my descendants understand themselves. I was just being flippant. I honestly don’t even want to write a story that much, let alone a poem, let alone a lengthy narrative epic poem involving a time beyond living memory.
I mean I kind of do, I guess. But also, I’m rolling my eyes, in bed, drinking wine, considering the prospect.
So we kept on taking ferries and switched at Sunset Park to a third one. By the time we got on board this baby, though, it was too cold and we had to go sit downstairs because out in the ~open seas, it was still very much so February. After an hour or so, we arrived at Rockaway Beach ferry terminal and it was.... amazing.
A connecting shuttle bus was waiting to take us to our final destination, which for a moment made me feel like a celebrity getting into a limousine. We nodded to the two other people already on board, strangers discussing how they couldn’t get enough hours at their jobs to pay their rent. The reality of them contrasted distinctly with the abstraction of everything else. A reminder that we hadn’t traveled as far as it might have felt. We got off the mini-bus five minutes later at 98th Street and stood outside that taco place, which was closed of course, because it was February. We walked along the beach and picked up shells and threw back the ugly ones and kept a few almost beautiful ones to give to friends. I imagined the beach as it had been every other time I had seen it. Littered with people and their litter. We marveled at the simplicity of the scene. The sand, the sea, the sky. We took photos from every angle.
Were we extraordinary men and women?
Were we doing extraordinary... doings?
Were we dealing with superhuman forces?
I suppose I will have to let you be the judge.
I suppose I will have to let time be the judge!!
We got back onto the ferry an hour later and sailed back towards Manhattan as the sky turned peach. This time we sampled the sangria, which was really more of... a plastic cup of red wine from a tap... served with a plastic cup of ice? Well, it was lovely. We stood out on the windy deck as the boat glided past Coney Island and I thought about the history of the place, and the history of us and I told Kristen, ‘You know that’s where Chris and I had our first... date,’ extending an arm towards the empty amusement park fading into the distance, and she said, ‘Yes, I know, both of you have written about it.’
We rushed downstairs into the warmth and the conversation turned back to our writing, to all of our unpublished books and how we should probably ‘just’ start a press and publish them ourselves. How we should take control of things, support each other. Why would we expect anyone else to do it? The sangria was kicking in.
I started to think about the pleasure of writing for the sake of pleasure, like riding a ferry on a February afternoon. Maybe it was something that I could just do. It might not even need to be epic.