Last summer, while walking around a small state park—Fort Foster on the far southeastern coast of Maine—we spotted benchmark No. 5 stuck into a slab of concrete near the ocean. I snapped this picture. At the time, I was probably thinking about work, thinking I’d use it in some clever blog post about A/B testing or content performance or something like that. I never did, but I always wondered what the benchmark was for and assumed that finding out probably wasn’t as easy as the benchmark made it sound—“For elevation write to the Director, Washington D. C.”
It’s a nice Independence Day coincidence that these benchmarks were Thomas Jefferson’s idea. He started the program in 1807 to chart the coastline, recording data related to the tides, elevation, movement of the earth, and all other manner of slow change. For generations before the advent of GPS, scientists set benchmarks all over the country with an expectation of permanence. The idea was to hold this small spot of ground constant so that, in the future, they might return and see what had changed.
The beaches of Brooklyn are weird, wonderful places. You could be excused for not knowing there were beaches in Brooklyn to begin with. They’re certainly not glamorous. Coney Island and Brighton Beach might be best defined by what they’re not. They’re not Florida: there are no old people. They’re not Long Island: there are no rich people. They’re not even the Rockaways: there is no Blue Bottle. What they are is a fairly representative sample of Brooklyn, I think, a cross-section of people who enjoy the beach and have the means (but not too many means) to get there.
The Campbell-Raws, possessing unexpired MetroCards, happily count ourselves among that group of residents with the means to get to the beach. We slathered on the sunblock and hopped on the subway for the short ride out to Brighton Beach on Saturday, Charlotte chirping the whole way about the Q train and the beach. The scene was typical, which is to say amazing, full of notable sights and sounds, both natural and manmade. Allow me.
There are dozens of guys who roam the hot sand every day of the summer, loaded down with bags full of ice, water, watermelon, beer, even Jello shots (!). I love that the NYC cops look the other way on this kind of stuff. These guys work incredibly hard and the margins on a $1 bottle of water can’t be great. Despite the low pay, they go above and beyond to differentiate themselves; one of my favorites is the guy who yells “Water! Water here! If you don’t drink water, you’re gonna die.”
Then there’s the expected assortment of people wearing things that they probably shouldn’t be. While many beachgoers could probably stand to lose a few pounds, I love that no one really gives a damn what anyone else on the beach thinks. Brooklyn is comfortable with how it looks at the beach. Maybe a little too comfortable.
Finally, there’s just the natural awesomeness that is the beach. As a Midwesterner, the ocean is still a strange, fantastic place, no matter how many times I go. The end of the land, the waves, the horizon… taken all together, it’s a beautiful picture and a welcome reminder of the last few lines of Gatsby, despite a little local grime. So what if there’s a little floating trash getting borne back ceaselessly into the past?
The cornerstone of the 4th of July weekend is always Sheala’s picnic in Prospect Park. This was our sixth picnic; we haven’t missed a single one since we’ve lived here.
I don’t remember each year distinctly, but the arc of the picnic over 6 years tells a pretty good story of a bunch of kids growing up and getting it together. The first couple were full of new faces and energy and maybe even a little excitement at the novelty of it all although no one would have admitted it. Quite comical now in retrospect, the nadir was the year somewhere toward the end of our 20s in which everyone seemed to be going through some kind of personal drama or was otherwise on their worst behavior. Everyone left that picnic drunk and angry, I remember. It also rained.
But everyone has matured—I think we all realize it’s a sin to behave badly when there’s potato salad to be had—and the picnic gets better every year. The inclusion of JP as Sheala’s co-host brought a culinary and social sophistication to the proceedings. Charlotte arrived last year and suddenly cupcake eating was a spectator sport. Good friends have come and gone over time, but by and large, it’s been the same core of people, with Sheala as the cheerful, effervescent host year after year.
I love this picnic, it’s one of the high points of the summer. The food is great, the company is fantastic, the proceedings are even more relaxed than Thanksgiving (my personal favorite holiday). I hope it never changes.
There are lots of things I can imagine getting by without if we ever left Brooklyn, but going without the picnic is one of the toughest to envision. The routine and ritual of it is something I’ve come to appreciate and maybe even depend on. There’s no great fuss made about the event, which means that it’s easier to focus on who you’re with and what’s changed since you saw them last. In this way, the event serves as a sort of temporal benchmark, a common point at which to pause, survey, and measure the change.