New York City is a port city: its harbors make for good docking, and as a shipping industry rose, so too did a city around it. There’s no arts and culture without shipyards, no residential without industry—there’s no Gravesend without graving docks. One of New Yorkers’ favorite pastimes is figuring out who is and isn’t a true New Yorker, so I submit this test: if you can’t hear the foghorns, are you a real New Yorker?
Granted, I’m not sure there are any spots in the city so far inland that the foghorns become inaudible; I’m presently in Bay Ridge, half a mile uphill from the water, where international boats drop anchor, and every time a ship sounds her horn, it’s louder than a neighbor blasting her radio. Nothing shakes, but the hum reverberates in your bones. I imagine this hum, iconic as Sunday church bells, trails into the deepest corners of Prospect Park like scurrying snakes. But maybe that’s just fantasy. Maybe most of you don’t know what I’m talking about.
So let me explain: the beauty of foghorns lies in their opposition to fog. When the clouds come down to earth, it’s beautiful and strange: our physical reality seems to disappear, erased. That’s why fog is difficult to photograph: one day it was so foggy in Bay Ridge that the Verrazano Bridge had vanished. I wanted to take a picture, but how do you capture nothingness, not-being, on film? Fog is about absence; photography is about presence. So too are foghorns: reminders in the murky white that passing ships—and ourselves, and the things we hold dear—are still here.
Also, there’s just that basso moan, man. One evening I came home and these two horn-happy captains were really going at it, blaring their markers, a chorus alternating between A and its relative minor, F#. “It sounds like Philip Glass writing whale songs,” I thought at the time. What’s better than that?
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