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Critical Writing


Birgit Rathsmann

This is a short story about a woman who has a bagel on a sunny bench overlooking the Newtown Creek. Last night she worked late by herself on an animation. While animating, she binge-watched Moonlighting as a way of staying off social media where people she knew appeared to be living life. In the early weeks, the grief had been sharp and incessant, but now she just didn’t want to feel numb anymore. She takes little bites off her poppy seed scallion cream cheese bagel. The leaves of the Pulaski Bridge are still up and traffic is stalled.

A white rowboat makes its way across the Creek from Long island City. Instead of a boat name like Whisper or A Little Nautie or Cald’N’Sick, this one has Box House Hotel painted on the bow. The boutique hotel around the corner started running a rowboat service as a shortcut to the subway station. People loved it, but the animator had never taken it. A metal ladder hangs from the end of Manhattan Avenue to the surface of the water. The ferrywoman’s short curly hair appears over the retaining wall. “Are you waiting to go across?” she asks the animator. The animator shakes her head. “I’m just breakfasting.” “Oh great, how would feel about watching the boat for me so I can run to the coffee shop and whistle?” She stands up, walks over, and looks down at the boat. “I would love to sit in it while you’re gone.” The animator climbs down the creaky aluminum ladder and steps into the boat. Newtown Creek musk fills her nostrils. Docked sailboats line up on the Brooklyn and Queens sides, bobbing up and down, ropes clanking against aluminum poles.

A sad looking man—impeccable suit, white dress shirt, bushy eyebrows—climbs down the ladder and carefully steps into the boat. His face says “let’s go already.” It crosses the animator’s mind that maybe she should tell this guy that she isn’t the ferrywoman, but instead she stuffs the second half of her bagel into her bag and picks up the oars. Although she hasn’t rowed since high school, the smooth wood of the oars feels reassuring in her hands and it only takes a few strokes for her to get her bearings. The sad looking man says, “I am here to talk business, so I am going to get right to it.“ The animator eases off the oars a little so she can hear him better, and nods.

He leans forward: “Look, your ask is too high. Tony S. says fifty grand upfront and five grand a month. That’s what’s possible.” A long pause. Suddenly, the animator finds herself negotiating: “Tell Tony S. seven grand a month or no deal.” The man sighs. “He is not going to like that. Fifty-two hundred a month.” The animator shrugs. “There are costs to cover, and that’s what it’ll take. Sixty-five hundred a month.” The man settles back and relaxes into his seat. He nods. “Yeah. He’ll probably say OK to that.” He looks at the river. “My daughter would love this. I’ll bring her this weekend.” He looks at the animator. “Do you have kids?” She says: “My Fritz just started school. He is my first ride every morning,” even though she doesn’t have a son. She thinks that talking about kids brings people together. The man looks sad again. “I wish I had more time with my daughter. Every minute feels so special.” He looks around, inhales the Creek’s cutty breeze deeply. The boat touches the pier in Long Island City, the animator reaches for the heavy rope and pulls them close. The man stretches out his hand. She wipes the water from the rope on her jeans, takes his hand and shakes it. He smiles and gets out of the boat. “See you soon.” The animator stays in the boat and watches as he walks down the pier toward the subway stop.

She pulls out the remainder of the bagel. The ferryman to the underworld in ancient Greek mythology walks into a bar and says, “Why did the chicken cross the river?” She sighs. Some mash-ups aren’t meant to be. Someone shouts from the Brooklyn side of the Creek. A man and a woman are standing on the edge of Greenpoint, waving with long arms. They are both dressed in all white. He is tall in white flared pants and a short zippered jacket that’s open to his hairy navel. She is all flouncy white lace and long blond hair. The animator waves back. Shoving a big ball of wax paper with a tiny kernel of bagel truth into her bag, she reaches for the oars. Meanwhile, the woman in white stands at the top of the aluminum ladder in Brooklyn, raises her arms to a T and leans forward over the rainbow oil slick waters of the Creek. The man in white reaches his arms around her waist. Her hair and dress flutter in the wind. Celine Dion’s voice drifts across.

By the time the animator slows the boat toward a gentle landing, the woman is ready to board. Standing on the bottom of the ladder, she asks “Can I row?” in a heavy German accent. “Why not, my arms are getting tired anyway,” the animator replies. She stands up very slowly and finds the right balance before moving back to the second bench, leaving the rowing seat free. The man steps into the boat. The German woman takes a deep breath and pulls on the oars. The boat turns to the right. The animator notices the woman’s shoulders sink a little. Concerned, she leans forward a little and reassures her, slipping into a kindergarten teacher she didn’t know she had inside her. “Try again, everyone takes a few time before they can do it.” The woman sits up straight and pulls on the oars one more time. They turn right a little and go forward a little. The woman makes a tiny sigh, pulls out an asthma inhaler and takes a deep hit of medication. The man balances in the bow of the boat. A small speaker attached to his belt starts blasting distorted music. The animator coaches the woman: “Close your eyes and try to pull on the oars evenly with both arms.” The woman nods and tries again. The boat moves forward in a straight line. On the next stroke of the oars, the boat straightens out and they aim straight at the pier in Long Island City. A warm wave of pride washes over the animator. Honestly, she doesn’t know why, but who cares? The music on the man’s speaker hits the chorus and he starts belting it out (also in a German accent):

Come sail away.
Come sail away.
Come sail away with me!

Close enough to the pier in Queens, the man jumps out and waves seductively at the rowing German woman. The animator loves dramatic silliness. The last time someone made her laugh this hard? She actually can’t remember. Ouch, it’s been a long winter. The ridiculous people in white run down the pier loudly singing along to Styx on the shitty speaker.

From that moment on, the procedure for the rest of the morning was to deliver someone to the pier in Queens, turn around and pick up the next passenger on in Greenpoint. A babysitter with a pensive boy in a Batman cape asked her if they could go to the northernmost tip of Long Island City for a picnic. The animator happily obliged. A hand-powered taxi ride to waterfront destinations? What a great idea! A tall man in leather pants asked to go to 23rd Street in Manhattan while folding himself onto the passenger bench. In the middle of the East River, they had a hairy moment when they hit waves from a passing ship, and were very relieved when the boat nosed onto the small beach at 23rd Street. Surprisingly, the East River Park manager enthusiastically welcomed the rowboat to Manhattan. After the tall man left, the park manager helped her push off for the way back. The animator was starting to get tired from all the rowing. Back in Brooklyn, she wonders what happened to the ferrywoman who just went for a coffee.

She is jolted out of a short nap by an older woman at the top of the ladder. There is an air of menace about the woman, which is incongruous with her appearance. She is wearing a floor-length cotton print skirt all the way up her rib cage where it meets a white blouse that goes almost all the way to her chin. A broad but brooding face and long dark hair swept into a loose bun. If the animator hadn’t been trying so hard to suppress her desire to stare, she would have noticed that the boat wasn’t really moving when this passenger got in. In a dense Irish brogue her passenger says: “You need to take me home.” Assuming that means to row across, she picks up the oars. After a few strokes, the Irish woman says: “You made a promise and you are not keeping it.” The animator stops rowing, and lets the boat drift. A car honks on the bridge. “I will. I will keep the promise,” she finally says before continuing: “You have no idea what my year has been like. I am still finding my legs. Soon, I will be able to keep my promise.” The Irish woman holds intense eye contact for such a long time it makes the animator dizzy and forces her to confront the pain. It doesn’t hurt anymore. Even the numbness is gone. Wow. What a relief.

The Irish woman says: “Alright. You have two more months. I will return.” At this point, the boat has drifted to the middle of the Creek. The woman gets up and stands. The animator notices that the boat isn’t moving the way it should as the woman adjusts her balance. Suddenly, the woman goes overboard. When she makes contact with the water, she vanishes and there aren’t any ripples, just an empty patch of water. The paddles hit the water loudly, as she rows as fast as fast as her tired arms can. When she stands in the sun at the top of the retaining wall, she decides that it would be pointless to call 911. There is no one to rescue in the Creek. What was that? Water spirit? River ghost? Typhoid Mary?

The ferrywoman comes toward her with a cup of coffee, thanks her for watching the boat and apologizes for taking so long, saying something something something…but the animator can’t really process any more information and slowly wanders off to work where she is going to finish that animation from last night.

About the artist

Birgit Rathsmann

Birgit Rathsmann was born in Germany, raised in Indonesia, and trained as an animator. Rathsmann studied Fine Arts at Hunter College (CUNY). She is committed to finding out how a complex understanding of humor can offer possibilities for responding to an uncertain cultural moment. She believes that both art and comedy offer the potential to prompt sudden convulsive shifts in perspective, while willful ambivalence can reflect the re-assessment of a given situation. Rathsmann’s process is circuitous: an art discovery might be followed by a need to write, a lecture might lead back to the image, an equation might result in a film.