Huddled together off the coasts of the Antarctic, North America, and Greenland, are glaciers weeping like meltwater widows. Stopping their tears is of course a global priority. Somewhat inauspiciously the task is no less formidable an undertaking than easing from Juliet’s hand the “happy dagger” and convincing her there are plenty of other Romeos in the sea. And anyway she might do worse than Friar Lawrence if she would only lower her expectations a touch, and if he would swear to do something about that tonsure. Still, unless the glaciers are somehow consoled soon we shall all be the same as that putative alternative Romeo: putative, in the sea—which might explain why everybody at the beach is acting so weirdly.
The most recent uninvited guest to U.S. shores, Hurricane Bill whirled by Coney Island relatively peacefully, which marks as a curiosity the attitude taken by those policing its seafront dressed in khaki shorts and green “Park Security” t-shirts. “Get out of the water, sir!” they bellow, as if swimming at the beach were a transgression on a heaven-forbidding scale, as if it is not Al-Qaeda but swimming at the beach that most threatens security. However, like smokers chewing gum while habit-kicking, the enforcers are effectively functioning in lieu. Enacting Freud’s theory of displacement they are unable to staunch the apocalypse and so stave off what they can: swimming at the beach, underage boozing, hanging out by the jetty (don’t folks realize how slippery it gets?), sand-sculpting breasts and penises in dimensions Jack might have knocked into atop the Beanstalk.
In doing what they ought not to be doing, or rather in being unable to do what they ought, the security guards are not without company. Similarly to their pleasure-wrecking zealousness, every public display of affection I encounter seems altogether wrong, illicit, ineffably so. The teenagers furtively dry-humping under blankets, the pashing greybeards, not to mention the tanned couple whose arms windmill over each other’s tangerine flanks, their passion lapping all over the shop like I’d paid a buck to see it1: all look vaguely yet unmistakably adulterous. And in a way each rutting couple really is illicit, faithless to our shared challenge. For the sake of the planet and probity and Al Gore and Indonesia and all our children’s children’s children the flood must be prevented, not the horn procured.
The only people honest enough to cede openly to the hopelessness against which the rest kick are the lifeguards. A red flag flapping desultorily from each, their lookouts litter the beach—more salubrious concomitants to the litter that litters the beach. Each station provides seating and footrest for two; almost all are abandoned. Almost. Embodying what Tom Wolfe calls in Bonfire of the Vanities a “pimp roll,” my attention double-clicks on a lifeguard in big-rimmed sunglasses and a bright orange jacket that covers his knees. Without compunction he opts not to watch those swimmers who are, against all odds, swimming; a cigarette hanging from his mouth he watches girls, astonishes them with one-armed handstands and monosyllabic wisecracks. With over six billion about to drown, what purpose is there in saving one? his remissness seems to say.
Leaving him to his foreplay I walk further along the beach and spot a child flying a kite. But this is no colorful diamond trailing a colorful tail. This kite is large and black and menacing, a super-sized crow cut from polyester, charged with portent, devoid of amusement. As I pass gingerly beneath the string I feel all of a sudden like Bao “The Mast” Xishun2 under helicopter blades. Without even a trace of the delight you might anticipate in a child at play the boy looks in my direction. Guilt, at odds with his little red sandals, plays over his little red face. Recess can only be protracted so far before the bell becomes a siren: the child has work to do.
Slaloming through garbage cans too numerous to count I edge closer to Brighton Beach and notice that it is not just toy birds: seagulls also punctuate the weird scene playing out before me. Years have passed since I witnessed such an assembly, but, shot as it is, the seagulls in my memory look nothing like these avifaunal dropouts.3 Ponderous, their gray wings hug their gray sides, save for when they dart toward a dropped chip or sausage or mango slice. Surviving, just, on a diet of garbage and sand, they schlep about, carrying on thin legs the belly-swell of extreme protein deficiency. The trait, more commonly seen in mendicants, addicts, and petty criminals, makes the gulls appear to be saddled with indigence, paranoia and suspicion. Each of them has five or so meters of personal space into which I am absolutely not entitled—when I breach the no-go zone they shuffle backwards and glare terribly. Suddenly I feel vulnerable; my being blindsided by one of these desperados presents itself as a real possibility.
A colony of seagulls sets off in a slow frenzy toward a portly man dishing out Doritos while his girlfriend reads Vanity Fair. Grateful for the distraction I deposit my backpack on the sand, sit, and pick out one of the gulls. Along with beaking the sand like a lunatic woodpecker turned through 90 degrees it tugs at discarded plastic bags, tears off small pieces, tries them in its mouth, spits them out. The crumpled slivers are swept up by the breeze and tumbled along the beach. Another gull approaches. Mine barks—it surprised me, too—and flaps its wings a bit in warning. Rumpled, the other skulks off moodily. Then I notice what incongruous treasure mine guards and the other so badly wants: a pebble, smooth and black. It strikes me as one more curiosity in a growing catalogue. Having read a little about gulls since my visit, I have come to understand that its gravest fears were, if misplaced, at least
You can take as a given the fact that in its noun form seagulls are unfamiliar with kleptoparasitism; as for its definition, however, they wrote the entry—the scrawl is clumsy, webbed feet a cursive no-no. Granted, it carries more than a whiff of neologism, but kleptoparasitism is a perfectly kosher term, defining as it does an intensely dishonest means of survival, namely stealing, and not just food—housing also. Even inanimate and entirely useless objects like that pebble are at risk of plunder.
Awful fisherwomen and fishermen, seagulls are by nature forced to pilfer victuals from the more capable. Indeed the only occasion on which they do other than hustle for their food is when alighting on unsuspecting whales’ backs and proceeding to tuck unceremoniously in. From this grim existential condition springs one green shoot, mercifully. In an article published in Behavioral Ecology in 2004, scientists claimed that kleptoparasitism “is associated with consistently superior reproductive performance relative to nonkleptoparasitic (‘honest’) parents.” Everybody knows that dishonesty and sexual prowess make fine bedfellows—Henry VIII can tell you—but once the rub is over, what a way to live: start with a bang, then endure a whimper that can span four decades.4
Its booty secure and its industry stilled for a moment, my bird turns and watches the Atlantic’s petroleum tones. Its eyes are breeze-gleamed. For a moment it takes on something like grace, silently watching. I wonder whether it realizes that, gloomy as it seems this September eve, even this ocean will be okay. We humans—at least our bodies’ non-aqueous 40 or so percent—sink, perhaps irretrievably, but the sea clings to the calefactive coattails, rises by degrees, rises alongside degrees (a meter by 2100, some claim). In short, we can fuck ourselves up, but we can’t fuck up the sea. We just can’t do it. We are in fact the best thing that ever happened to the sea. Does the sea know how lucky it is to have us? Does the sea care? Does the seagull care?5
The seagull doesn’t care.
Perhaps you care.
Were you a seagull, you wouldn’t care.
Try if you can to imagine a human adaptation of the Little Red Hen fable and you might begin to appreciate how little heed you would pay the apocalypse were you a seagull. In order to paper over the fact that you are physically unable to help, you refuse outright to lend to the eponymous martyr a hand while she tirelessly sources the grain. You stand around, shooting the breeze and thumbs atwiddle, while she harvests, threshes, mills, and bakes the bread. Imagine the indignity of being compelled—remember that no less than your survival depends on it—to steal the freshly baked loaf. Then while she is all sniffles and sobs over the loss you make off with her house, exploiting some proprietary legal loophole or something.
More crucially the kleptoparasitic world is one in which the distinction between victim and aggressor has vanished: as well as the necessarily thieving good-for-nothing, you are the hen lamenting. Ultimately, albeit on a less tragic scale, the seagull is an amalgam of Bernard Madoff and each of his cheated customers. Little wonder it cuts such an abject figure.
Despite appearances my seagull would appear to slot comfortably enough into the motley deck at Coney Island. All present teeter on the lip of terror. Spurred by disparate reasons and employing disparate methods all labor to avoid confrontation with the very same dire outcome. Like the boy in the red sandals, the security guards and the lovers, my seagull is locked in a ceaseless dance, slow and impotent, against the juggernaut of loss. Fear its idée fixe, my seagull is afraid for the sea, the sky, the stones, afraid for the sand scaling its already cracked feet, for the chewed cigarette butts in place of plaice in its beak, afraid for the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, for the cheerless red bunting tied between trash cans, one of which has fallen over, afraid for the trash cans themselves, for the pigeons, the whites, the blacks, the Russians. Afraid, afraid, afraid. Frightened somebody will take it all away.
Apart from the obvious, then, save for the wings and feathers and dubious diet, what, I wonder, is the difference between the seagull with its pebble, and me with mine?
1. Passion that is, incidentally, about to be turd-dowsed by the gull hovering directly above them. Because I am a terrible person I will it as hard as possible but the emanation never comes.
2. After losing the title in 2006 to Ukrainian Leonid Stadnyk, Xishun proudly (I mean, I assume he’s proud) stood as the world’s tallest man until very recently. Unable to brook new Guinness World Record regulations that necessitated his being measured six times (the indignity!) in one day—both standing and lying down (and you thought it was tough being short!)—Stadnyk forfeited the crown last year, which wasn’t that raw a deal, considering nobody could get it on his head.
3. As a result of its geographical position Coney Island claims almost every available photon of sunlight. Prior to the Dutch getting their hands on the deeds it was known as Narrioch (land without shadows). In a better world the Lenape—the Native American original inhabitants—would have been left to live peacefully, left to live period, but had the original name remained it would have jarred noisily with today’s spectacle, for here are shadows by the dozen, clamorous in their droves: these ghosts of seagulls.
4. On December 26, 1912, the New York Times reported on a seagull shot down by Blondeau of Quimperle, Brittany. The fantastically named Blondeau found on the misfortunate bird’s leg inscribed, “1869. Return to the Zoological Station at Heligoland.”
5. That seagulls are born without the complete emotional register is something of an understatement—they can jolt their heads this way and that; their beaks are either open or closed, or at some intermediary stage; that is more or less the sum of their physiognomic scope—yet just prior to its return to the garbage can the seagull looks at me as if to say, “And what the fuck are you looking at?”
Gary Cansell is a writer based in Essex.