Absolute Nowhere (2008)

Laura Conaway

Josephine Hagan wants you to know that she's not lost, and she's not lonely—not even atop her secret neighborhood of Marble Hill, a Caribbean-spiced but largely white haven that belongs to Manhattan by the map, to the Bronx by area code, and to another planet by virtue of its alien calm. "It's like they took a small New England town and put it down in Manhattan," she says, setting aside her broom and giving a tour. The leafy green across the way is Inwood. Below roils the Harlem River and Spuyten Duyvil—she pronounces it "Spiken Diver"—and along the water runs Metro-North, its plaintive whistle pouring up the cliff. Hagan has known the people on her block forever, having grown up here in the 1950s among the private wooden houses and cantilevered streets.

For Hagan, this hidden hill is home. For you, it's a place to claim what E.B. White called the city's queer prize, the delicious "gift of loneliness." White, like so many wanderers, craved the empty feeling that hounds the soul in skyscraper ravines. But no matter how anonymous you are in a Manhattan crowd, you can at least dream of breaking in, of making it there so you can make it anywhere. In the city's stranded islands and freeway-bound castoffs, you must savor instead the sure understanding that at heart you'll always be a stranger.

The people of forgotten hamlets have no need of you. They're heirs to the chain of colonies at the city's southern edge—Gerritsen Beach, Belle Harbor, Marine Park—and to northeastern hollows like Silver Beach, where the street signs appear to have been carved by kids at summer camp. A few inland encampments also remain. If you take the N to 30th Avenue and walk 20 minutes east, you'll find yourself in Astoria Village, a spookily silent redoubt of antebellum homes complete with columned porches, where residents keep fending off the bulldozer.

Gotham loves to tout its picturesque towns, its City Islands and Tottenvilles, but the best examples of absolute nowhere aren't in guidebooks. They're scarcely even named. Step off the Staten Island Railway at any stop short of the end and you'll enter a world where cicadas howl in a motionless landscape. Maybe you can find a store close to the tracks where you can buy a bag of chips and the town paper. Or maybe you'll have to just sit there by yourself, waiting for your ride back. Drink this lonely feeling in—you're all at once in Iowa, in Georgia, in the great metropolis, worthy neither of being welcomed nor booted away, a person unknown and in these parts unknowable.

Still, it's one thing to toy with loneliness, and another to live it 24-7. The same isolation you dip into all but drowns a little burg like Broad Channel. Nominally in Queens and almost utterly white, the Jamaica Bay island is home to 3000 people, many of them descended from the original fishing families. Today they have houses on stilts and piers, legions of cops and firefighters, kids riding bikes or selling lemonade. Two years ago, they got their own zip code, solely for the pride of having "Broad Channel" stamped on their mail. A couple years before that, a few of the finest and bravest put that name in the national news when they rode a Labor Day float through town in blackface and Afro wigs, tossing watermelon and mocking the recent dragging death of an African American in Texas. Some in Broad Channel were horrified at the spectacle, others entertained.

More commonly, Broad Channel is a quiet Mayberry, a seat of safety for its citizens and scene of rebuff for the visitor. On fall Saturdays, coaches drive the Shamrock footballers down Cross Bay Boulevard, honking their horns as neighbors step out to wave. The pee-wee squad and their elders descend on the pizza parlor like a flock of gulls. The pie they'll share with you for a moment, but the town you'll have to leave. After all, it's theirs.


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