A Piper Cub left an airfield in Queens and hit a building in the Bronx. There had been other accidents. Talk was that local drag racers had been siphoning gas from the planes at night to fuel up their funny cars. Eventually the airfield was closed, then abandoned: bygone blimps and skywriters soon just a neighborhood fever dream. When the operators left, they shut off the pumps that kept the runways dry, and the marsh took over again, springing back up through the seams and cracks and oozing out over the tarmac. Before long, the phragmites reigned, reed forests ringing broad, shallow ponds of brackish muck: rainwater from above, bay water from below, and who knows what else. Such mud. Heavy metals. Superfund soup. In summer, driving past on the expressway just to the east, you could smell the rot, as though the borough had gangrene. Seventy acres on the city’s watery fringe: privately owned, someone said, as we ducked through a hole in the chain link fence. No one knew by whom or worried that anyone might care. This was a wilderness.
It was winter. A Saturday morning. We parked on a dead-end street next to a fleet of panel trucks that said Tastykake. Zhukovin was from around here, he knew the way, it was his idea, we thought he was full of it. He was a skinny, sharp-tongued Ukrainian with a murky source of income. Among other things, he owned a skate-sharpening machine and did our blades from time to time. He’d been sneaking into the airport with his Flushing stoner buddies for a few years now. We pushed into the reeds, through the fence, and finally onto the ice, which, at the edges, was the color of milk coffee and gritty with panicles and the general shittiness of the place.
More reeds and then wow; Zhukovin wasn’t full of it, not at all. The vista opened up: acres of ice, dark and clean, pewter under a low gray sun. There were some unfrozen patches maintained by Canada geese that shuddered and crapped on the shelf of thin ice ringing the open water. In the distance you could see the end of the ice, where it ran up to rutted asphalt and piles of debris, and then beyond that the expressway and the baseball stadium and the intermittent vault of jets taking off from the airport nearby that had rendered this one obsolete.
We waddled onto the ice and did little bunny hops to test it. Solid. The weather had been wicked cold for a week. The water wasn’t deep; you wouldn’t drown. Still, you didn’t want to punch through. You didn’t want the ooze in your boots. Zhukovin led us out to a rusted tanker truck stranded in the middle of the ice. The crews had abandoned it there, as though fleeing an advancing army. Make and model unknown, year probably circa Nixon. Graffiti on the tank, windows punched out, hood gone, engine stripped. The ice was at the level of the wheel wells, axle deep. “Lingerie, remember lingerie?” someone said, in an Australian accent. We sat on the truck’s siding and began lacing up our skates, giddy with the improbability of it all: a clean sheet in an industrial waste, as luscious as a Polynesian lagoon. There were eight of us. We’d rounded each other up the night before.