Living in Brooklyn, I often forget how close I am to the Atlantic Ocean: salt water, sand, boardwalks, seafood. Having only been to Coney Island once a couple years back, my knowledge of Brooklyn beaches is regrettably limited (and a bit tainted having seen the aftermath of the Mermaid Parade). Since moving to the borough in November, I’ve overheard fascinating tales of Dead Horse Bay. The history of what was once known as Barren Island is dark and intriguing: soap factories, fertilizer production, child labor, destitution. But my interests were peaked after discovering images of now littered beaches, a result of a landfill explosion in the 1950s. There are tiny glass treasures, machine scraps, unwanted toys and horse bones decomposing and waiting for a curious eye and an empty pocket. The adventurer in me had long since decided it was time to visit this extraordinary site.
My Mondays are usually designated for getting a head start on my week, but today the sun was intermittently warming Brooklyn—a rare occurrence in February. I made a few phone calls and was able to embark on my adventure with some worthy accomplices. After a quiet drive through South Brooklyn, we arrived at Floyd Bennett Field, a recreational park still hosting the remains of what was once an airfield. Parking just past a run-down hanger, we gathered our equipment (cameras, plastic totes, rain boots, Orange Slice) and embarked on the short walk through bustling traffic and then across quiet dunes.
A lover of consignment and thrift shops, I’ve always been an advocate of the idiom, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” But this was unlike any Goodwill or rural mom n’ pop second-hand store. This was literal garbage. Immigrant workers that had once inhabited Barren Island and paid to find worthy items sifted through these piles long ago, followed by tens-of-thousands of New Yorkers and tourists who filled buckets and bags with prizes for their shelves. We set our discouragement aside, and convinced ourselves that a worthwhile hunt awaited us. And we were right: with anticipation in our gait, we emerged onto “Bottle Beach,” and jaws dropped. I had braced for a small beach with a few glass bottles and scattered metal scraps. But, stretching for at least a half-mile in each direction, the refuse was vast and layered, sand filling the tiny gaps between curves of aluminum and barnacle-crusted glass. It was like a giant Shepherd’s Pie of waste.
After the initial shared bewilderment—passing milk glass dishes to our nearest companion, pointing out unreachable metal trinkets—we began our unaccompanied explorations. I immediately allowed myself to collect overzealously, filling my tote with any glass item that had not been shattered or broken on its journey to where I stood. There is so much history in these possessions and it was hard to ignore that, at some point, every object had an owner and that owner a story: a small child outgrowing his Jacks, the pharmacist with a bankrupt apothecary, a privileged Manhattan wife with the last drops of a favorite musk on her nape. I could see them with every bottle I rinsed, every broken teacup I returned to the waves.
In my solitude I began listening. There were faint cries of gulls in the distance, a low hum of cars—familiar sounds in an unfamiliar landscape. But there was also unusual music at my feet. The now receding tide was gently washing empty bottles ashore, introducing them to the already beached glassware with a gentle clink. All along the beach varying circumstances created an endemic melody like that of a wind chime. Shards of ceramic plates and crystal stemware crunched in rhythm under my boots.
After nearly two hours, with bags and pockets full, we took a seat on a bench near the trail. We were exhausted from the experience but excited to share and trade our finds. Among the rows and rows of treasures were a tiny metal baby (a child’s toy), miniature perfume bottles crafted of colorful glass, large hexagonal tiles and peculiar minerals dotted with rust.
Hungry and winded after our exploration, we celebrated our experience over guacamole at a South Brooklyn Mexican eatery. We ate and laughed at our fascination with trash and animal remains (no weak stomachs at that table). We planned future Monday adventures: Roosevelt Island, Plum Beach, Jamaica Bay, but not before clinking glass-bottled cokes in a toast to “Bottle Beach.”
Edited by Adam Risman