Saturday was expected to be a hippie day. The hippie theme actually started the evening before, when I went to the Broadway play Hair, a lively production about hippies in the late sixties finding their way through the Vietnam war draft, free love, and inner space. What does that have to do with ocean conservation? Nothing.
But Saturday was Hands Across the Sands, a symbolic gesture of support for renewable energy and a ban on offshore oil drilling. The idea was to gather at a beach somewhere, anywhere, all over the US, and join hands for a few moments. This could be safely but gently placed in the hippie slash new age genre of political protest.
Ready to let the sun shine in, and join hands with a stranger, maybe even a Russian, on the smoking hot beaches of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, I arrived on Saturday at the pre-announced location and time. I stood on the boardwalk and looked across a large empty swath of sand toward the water. There were hundreds of beach goers closer to the water's edge but no obvious Hands Across the Sands people.
Some guys closest to the boardwalk were playing a sweltering game of volleyball while people of all shapes and sizes, many from the heart of urban Brooklyn, some from the local neighborhood where all the signs are in Russian, streamed toward the beach. Most of them began to trot once their feet came in contact with the hot sand, umbrellas jostling and beach balls bouncing free.
But there were no medium or even small groups of people looking to form a line and join hands. I found only a two person local ABC News crew with camera who had received the Hands Across the Sands press release and were ready to get the good shot, and another guy who had come all the way out from Manhattan only to be disappointed. There may have been other people like us in the crowd who had come out and expected to see the obvious gathering of people -- the web site even said go here and you can't miss us -- but, once dispersed, it was hard to tell the modern hippies from the wildly diverse Saturday crowd at the beach.
After waiting around a little longer for it to become clear the only one holding hands were the occasional couple strolling down the boardwalk, we went our separate ways. It felt like a missed opportunity for an interesting experience, perhaps even a chance to re-fresh my optimism reservoir, but alas, it did not happen. I was not terribly unhappy for I was still at the beach. A fully urban beach, for sure, but a beach nonetheless.
So I went back to a local grocery store a block away on Brighton Avenue and bought a canned beer with Russian writing all over it, and then walked across the no-man's land down to the water's edge, where the Atlantic Ocean looked like it too was lethargic from the midday heat. I sat as close as I could to the water and sat under my umbrella and sipped my beer looking at a few large sailboats with white sails make turns beyond the surf, and much farther out, huge vessels like small buildings set on their sides plied the commercial lanes.
I pondered getting into the water. It was a damn shame that I had to even think about it but given the thunderstorms two days ago, and the other times I've been in the water at nearby Coney Island and found it murky to say the least, I was hesitant.
When the rains come, especially lots of water in a short amount of time, the city sewage system backs up and untreated sewage and everything on the streets of New York City pours into the area's waters. There are 540 places where Combined Sewer Overflows, as they're called, happen on the edge of New York's natural waters including the Hudson River, the Atlantic Ocean, and the East River.
Eventually, though, I couldn't not go in. It's just too hard to resist; against my nature. I waded in and tried not to notice the tiny bits trash here and there or imagine the fecal coliform level. I plunged in closing my eyes and mouth much tighter than usual.
I popped up and stood in the cool water looking back at the sea of humanity on land. The clamouring masses on the sand, the brick-brown high rises right on the beach, the ferris wheel and parachute tower at coney, the hazy skyline of Manhattan farther off. It's no wonder the ocean takes a beating this close to so many people. Then I saw floating nearby what looked like something used for feminine hygiene. The swim was over. It was cool and refreshing of the body, maybe not so much of the mind.
Back at my patch of shade, I enjoyed the sounds of the beach. The little kids squealing for joy, the tinny jingling of the bells attached to the carts selling Italian ices, the occasional lifeguard whistle, and the heavy accents and thick languages borne in faraway places. The ocean mixed all of these sounds, and washed them in it's reaffirming rhythm. As the band Further would sing much later that day, substituting "river" for "ocean" -- "listen to the ocean sing sweet songs, to rock my soul."