Dying at Sea

One more post, before, I promise, my “Best Films of 2013” is done. What do you do on the coldest, windiest day of the year, when the city’s sleepy and you’re determined to take another week off from your writing projects for the sake of your own sanity?

Winter sunset on the harbor.

Winter sunset on the harbor.

Well, if your wife just bought you a ticket to see Benjamin Britten’s opera version of Billy Budd in February, you try cracking open your second Melville novel in a year – granted, this one a little shorter than the last. But it only takes me a few chapters to want to get close to that water. So I made sure, before sunset, to go back and see one of the most overlooked public memorials in the city, a place I’d stumbled on while reading Moby Dick and strolling around the waterfront trying to imagine where it started.

Two rows of giant slabs, the plaza between them framing the Statue of Liberty, listing 4,600 sailors who died crossing the Atlantic during World War II, “who sleep in the American coastal waters,” as the inscription eerily phrases it.

The thing that made sea stories so romantic was not just the imperialist impulse – to sit by our whale lamps in the northern hemisphere and read about white guys venturing to hot places. It was also the omnipresent deadliness of the ocean. Sailing was, and still is, the most dangerous occupation in America, and seawater is not your friend, especially when it’s cold and/or full of Nazis.

I suppose Gravity, of all the films of 2013, captured the feeling of “the void,” although, as my friend Steve Matuszak points out, it would have been better with less chatter and more void. I got about as close to it as I want to yesterday, with Battery Park all to myself in the single digits Fahrenheit, thinking about the people “sleeping” out there.

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