Illustration by Jason Arias.
So you’re the hotshot diver, he said, if you won’t take any money, let me buy you a hot dog.
Aquatropolis was a small diving school where I took rescue classes. I already had my first responder’s certificate, but I wanted to specialize. My plan was to join a rescue unit affiliated with the Coast Guard but under the aegis of the city. Instead of a dress and heels, I would go to work in a wetsuit, snorkel, mask, flippers, and oxygen tank. It was a job that would involve a fair amount of waiting around until there was a disaster or what’s known as an “event” in the city’s waters: ferry collision, pleasure craft in distress, weather copter down in the East River, out of town frat boys marooned on Plumb Island, hysterical they would be exposed to an early twentieth century strain of influenza virus still viable and airborne launched from long dead quarantinees. During downtime I planned to put up my flippers and relax.
But even if you could excavate doubloons, square cut emeralds, rhinestone and barnacle encrusted opera glasses, these things are very difficult to sell.
My interest in working underwater began when I was laying on my stomach National Geographic specials about the evidence we leave on the ocean floor. If the earth were to stop spinning, the oceans would recede to the poles, and walking tours, provided humans could survive the cessation of rotation, would reveal all kinds of ruins and relics. In the meantime, with oceans in place, underwater robots and cameras investigate shells of nuclear-powered subs leaking radioactive residue that, over time, produce fluorescent squid and jellyfish the size of asteroids. Best of all were remains of boats like the Atocha and the Titanic: the movie stars of shipwrecks, cold and untouchable. But even if you could excavate doubloons, square cut emeralds, rhinestone and barnacle encrusted opera glasses, these things are very difficult to sell. No money there, my older brother said, as he opened a Corona, and pointed at the screen. These things are considered, in some cases, historic patrimony, still belonging to the Spanish Crown or the Smithsonian Institution. Even ordinary but valuable booty, corroded and waterlogged, remains property of the heirs of the swells who made the crossing in whatever distant century. It’s still their stuff. With swimming and diving skills honed in city pools, I wasn’t destined for treasure hunting, saving mutineers on the Pitcairn Islands, or Norwegian explorers on Aku Aku.
Aquatropolis’ offices were a block from Jamaica Bay, and it was here we performed most of our diving exercises. My teacher Leo Rybak, late of Odessa, more recently of Mill Basin, had trained in the Crimea. A short compact man, Leo had seen things under water that spoke of the need for safety first and exercising caution. Always triple check your equipment. Actually, in those situations he alluded to, of former KGB agents and extremist separatists who used the Caspian as a torture station dumping ground, nothing will save you, and there is no hope whatsoever.
“In such cases screw safety,” he said out of earshot of the other student divers, “but you didn’t hear that from me.”
From Mr. Rybak, I learned how to monitor my air gauge as I descended and how to measure for decompression stops. In deep-water diving, many elements can go fatally awry and complete calm and focus are essential. Leo recommended morning meditation and in this was guru-like, saying, for example, “To defang a viper, you must first enter the serpent’s mouth.” Or: “The burrowing mole encounters a rock but does not register frustration, only that it is an obstacle. One thousand meters down you must be like the mole. No time for emotional reaction or you will die.”
Needless to say, Leo had a small devoted following who tried to adhere to his maxims about diving and life and stayed in touch with him long after his classes had ended.
Though our instructor had been down many times, neither he nor any of my fellow diver trainees expected to find anything of value among the sunken water taxis, sail boats, and general garbage of the bay.
We sailed into the bay on a boat named Whaddup? past Mill Island with its ruins of a former asphalt factory and lead smeltery, past Barren Island, between Big Egg and Little Egg, past Dead Horse and Rockaway Inlet. The Bay was a data rich environment, home to snapping turtles in the marshy areas, egrets, osprey, a colony of seals way further out. We came to a stop when land was no longer visible. Though our instructor had been down many times, neither he nor any of my fellow diver trainees expected to find anything of value among the sunken water taxis, sail boats, and general garbage of the bay. Hulks covered in coral, sponges, rubbery stalks of seaweed growing through hulls, a reef of subway cars meant to be seeded with oysters and mussels and to serve as a sea break in times of hurricanes and fierce squalls. An idea born out of nostalgia for a time when oysters the size of dinner plates were harvested in the Gowanus.
We laid anchor and prepared to dive. It was the last class of the series, a routine dive, and then Leo would sign my certificate and I would be employable. We were to descend into the Atlantic to find the remains of a speedboat. How Leo knew it would be there, I have no idea. Radar or no radar, the post-Soviet imp seemed to know where to send us. He lectured on the deck.
“There are three people trapped inside. You have, approximately, no minutes to get them out and to the surface. The situation is hopeless, but maybe you will be heroes. Who knows? Try.”
The boat we found directly below the Whaddup? had probably been in the water a few years, not decades. It was broken in half; silt-caked on the railings, streamers of eels wiggled away from human intruders. My fellow student divers looked into the area below deck, shrugged, saving imaginary crew and passengers with miming gestures. One guy found a Coney Island white fish. Yuck. In between a fire extinguisher and a bait box, I discovered a red Lumix, barely visible. I brushed away silt, pried the camera loose and bagged it. No human remains, no useful salvage, no sea chest brimming with pieces of eight. We’re done here, I thumbed upwards, and we returned to the surface. Though we were ungainly in our theoretical rescue attempts, we all passed this final test.
To celebrate our successful completion of the course, Leo bought us fried clam and soft shell crab sandwiches which he himself did not eat, but we all sat on the deck of Bayside Fish watching the sunset as if all was right with the world. I showed Leo the camera and, as a polite formality, asked if I could keep it.
“Yes, it’s yours. Do what you want with it. Why even ask such a trivial thing?” Leo seemed annoyed.
I’d cast the camera as a rare find, and hoped Rybak would play along, but the ruse was lost on him. Another class would follow ours, some students would give him a hard time, some would become acolytes, he would pay his boat insurance, file more certificates, and after six weeks the cycle would start again—lasting until the water became too cold and he decamped for Miami. The fact that I was pretending to find treasure was, as far as Mr. Rybak was concerned, my own private Idaho.
What was I looking for? The lamp that you rub to release a genie who grants you X number of wishes. Not to be greedy, but I need more than three, sorry.
The pictures were black and white. The first was of a very tall man standing next to his parents who looked like concerned dwarves beside him.
The camera looked like a version of a camera; every part of it had become home to a broad spectrum of marine life. A lens was no longer a lens, a USB port was no longer a hole but corroded and coated with orange, white, and grey creatures, spongiform, torpedo- and wreath-shaped. I cleaned off the barnacles and other excrescences of marine life, then opened the camera to find a flattened baby star fish who wiggled an arm at me. Still I was able to remove the memory card which I cleaned and tried out in my computer.
My brother laughed at me: of course, it won’t work. But it did.
This is what I saw. The pictures were black and white. The first was of a very tall man standing next to his parents who looked like concerned dwarves beside him. The giant, unshaven, shirt untucked, was holding the camera, taking a picture of all three; his long arm provided quite a distance, you could tell. With his other hand, he leaned on a cane. Though he was young, he was bent over because the ceiling of his parent’s apartment was too low for him to stand up straight. His mother looked up at him with what seemed to be amazement and concern, worried about her vulnerable son, so out of proportion with the city spinning around him. His father, hands in pockets, stared straight ahead with an expression that was hard to read. Perhaps he was unhappy with his son, who caused so much trouble just by being. It isn’t the giant’s fault, but he causes problems, people stare, his father is uncomfortable with the attention. Their lampshades were covered in plastic, the furniture covered, the curtains drawn. The ceiling that grazed the giant’s head was cracked.
The next pictures wrested from the memory card were images of women in apartment windows, taken, I would guess, from across an airshaft or across the street. These were followed by what looked like screen shots of soft core porn, though it was harder to make these out, as if the baby starfish had examined the pictures and excreted over the naked bodies frozen mid whatever. My brother looked over my shoulder and smirked that weird smile guys get when they see someone else’s porn preferences.
“Well, you can forget about trying to find the photographer. No one’s going to want that shit back.”
“You can’t blame him for watching out his window. He probably doesn’t have a girlfriend.”
“You don’t think there are plenty of giantesses out there?”
But I wasn’t sure. Not only ix-nay on the giantesses, but the giant might want his family photo. It might be worth something to him.
I posted the picture online with the caption: “Is this you? Camera found off Rockaway Beach. Name of boat, unknown.”
A few weeks later a message arrived in my firstname.lastname@example.org inbox. The message was terse. The giant wanted to know: did all the pictures survive? If so, he took it for granted I wanted money, and he would pay cash. He used the word roll without quotation marks, as if it was 1970, and the pictures had been taken with film. I wasn’t asking for anything; I just thought you’d want that picture of you and your parents, I wrote back.
Yes, he answered, it was a miracle the pictures survived. He never thought he’d see them again. Two years ago he had gone out on the boat, The Sweet Pea II, a small sightseeing craft, an old but okay boat, until a typhoon hit.
A typhoon? Just off Long Island? Almost within sight of Aqueduct Raceway? Yes, he wrote back, but the Coast Guard rescued them. There were only six on board. He did want the picture of his parents. His father had died last year. I offered to mail the memory card to him, but he proposed we meet. Convenient to both of us was the Coney Island boardwalk. The man in the photograph was intimidating because of his size and his baffled face in profile—or what I interpreted as bafflement as he looked down at his parents—all of which hinted at a sea of unhappiness. Gawkery voices whispered: it’s not every day you can meet a famous giant. What are you waiting for?
Don’t do it, my brother said, he’s a freak show. He didn’t offer to accompany me, though, and in truth, I didn’t want him along. The boardwalk is full of people, even at midnight, which was the hour the giant got off work.
I saw him first, naturally, and he seemed very pleased to meet me, if a bit embarrassed. I handed him a sealed envelope containing the treasured memory card. He didn’t smile but folded the envelope and put it in a jacket pocket. So you’re the hotshot diver, he said, if you won’t take any money, let me buy you a hot dog. The hot dog vendors weren’t easy to find. Coney Island had sprouted taquerias and kimchi trucks, shack-like beach bars that served tamarind flavored gin and beers brewed in basements from hops grown on fire escapes. I’m far from a hot shot, I blushed, though newly licensed.
I told him about putting applications in with the city but still living with my brother. Without going into it, I intuited that the mention of a brother made the giant nervous. This was a twist he hadn’t counted on.
Though he studied statistics at City College, no one would hire him, and so he worked at the Freak Show. He felt lucky to be employed but bewildered by my chosen profession.
You’re not a mermaid, he said. Do you have an affinity for things that swim? I didn’t ask him if he felt kinship with giraffes.
It’s part of EMT, I explained. The giant seemed to have been asleep for fifty plus years. He didn’t have a firm grip on the nature of emergency rescue personnel.
No one, he said, had ever rescued him when he had been badly in need of resuscitation.
I believe he meant this as an abstraction.
He fell silent as we walked past the Hot Rod Shooting Gallery, then as we walked along the beach he gave me rescue hypotheticals. Someone falls into the shark tank at the Aquarium. The animal keepers have gone out on strike, and the sharks are hungry, having gone without food for quite awhile. You have zero minutes. Do you dive in? What if the Roosevelt Island tram uncouples from its cable system, hangs on by a fraying thread, then boom, falls into the East River? No Spiderman available. Even if the cars are airtight, the currents in this part of the river are strong. Passengers are thrown from one side of the car to another. Underwater visibility is low. He offered a solution before I could answer: you can’t get them out, but cables are hitched to the Swiss-made funicular, and it’s slowly lifted to the surface. Barges have such systems of winches and pulleys, he believed. Then he asked me about Houdini escaping the Water Torture Cell. Any idea how he broke out of his shackles in the time it takes to hold your breath underwater which isn’t much? One breath is finite, you have so little time to hold it, to do what you need to do. The giant’s colleagues—Escape Artists, Aerialists, Swallowers of Swords and Fire going back several generations—don’t know how Houdini did this. Neither do I.
The giant looked at me with disappointment, a look I’m familiar with from men, that sidelong glance that signals despite the swimmer’s body, you’re not very romantic, are you?
For my money, I say, never descend with encumbrances, especially chains and locks, and make sure your oxygen tank is in working order.
The giant looked at me with disappointment, a look I’m familiar with from men, that sidelong glance that says, despite the swimmer’s body, you’re not very romantic, are you? He feels I have no imagination, I can tell. I explain that can be a good thing.
When I’m on the subway going under the East River, for example, I can’t visualize the miles of earth and deep river with treacherous currents separated by a thin layer of F train metal in a tube that might actually be very vulnerable to collapse for all I know. I’ve seen scale diagrams, but still when I’m on the train, it’s not something I think about, and when I try, it’s like struggling to imagine infinity. Like when you’re on a plane and you can’t visualize the scale of tiny assemblage of metal scraps in relation to amount of atmosphere. I find this very calming and calmness is key to rescue diving.
Without warning, the giant bent down to kiss me, so far down maybe he should have checked for decompression. It was an odd moment to remember one of Leo’s maxims: don’t overreact, a thing is just a thing, and the world is full of things that will someday be nothing. There are artifacts that take on a life of their own: a chip of stucco from the Alamo, a length of rebar from the Berlin Wall, a piece of melted glass from the World Trade Center. Without the plaques, without their identity papers, these bits and pieces are anonymous and ordinary, but they do have comet tails of facts and rumor trailing behind them, and so sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar.
I could get you a job in the show, the giant said. You could work underwater. We could figure out how Houdini escaped, upside down, chained in a tank. We could live in a houseboat on Jamaica Bay. Every day and twice when there are matinees, the only person you would ever have to rescue is yourself.
I’d heard about the unrescued: children whose boat tipped while they watched Fourth of July fireworks, passengers from a small downed plane. I thought, optimistically, these catastrophes would never happen to me, I’ll be there to pry open the window to get people out, but every first responder finds situations where the rope that’s thrown falls short. In this version of events, faces are pressed against unbreakable glass, their possessions become the dream fuel of treasure hunters. Maybe the giant’s offer was reasonable. Trauma is something I know about on a daily basis, he shouted. People stared. Why do you have to go looking for it? Partly, I did want to go with him, to only have to rescue myself day after day, but on the other hand, if I accepted the Houdini tank, I might develop the skill to imagine the ceiling caving in, the oxygen running out, and then there’s the risk that one day I’d fail even at rescuing myself.
I have to be going, I told him, but thanks for your offer.
I’m a giant, he said, not a vampire. Even if I bite you, you won’t become like me.
Imagine the city is completely underwater. This is not so farfetched. Before streets buckle and dissolve, before buildings crumble, some swim in and out of windows on the forty-second or ninety-sixth whatever floors looking for survivors. Sometimes, I think this has already happened. We just don’t know it yet.
Susan Daitch is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories. She has one novel, The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, forthcoming from City Lights, and another, White Lead, forthcoming from Random House.