Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?–Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks glasses! of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster– tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand–miles of them–leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues,– north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?
At the beach a few weeks ago, I learned that people with seasonal allergies find relief at the ocean, and it instantly makes sense: inland, you’re buried in a silent storm of pollen coming at you from every direction, but since the ocean is, among other things, the most massive absence of pollen in the world, it serves as a vast vacuum of irritants, draining and purifying the air around you. And as such, it becomes the object of pilgrimage, precisely for what it isn’t.
I’ve also recently moved to a house very near a lake, and I’ve discovered that on days when I’ve spent so long staring at a computer screen that my hypos begin to get the better of me, when I find myself growing grim about the mouth and it’s a damp, drizzly November in my soul, when after reading all sorts of nonsense on the internet my moral principle fails to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off, well, then I account it high time to sit down in front of Lake Merritt and let the great absence of internet suck the sinuses of my mind clean of such vile effluvium.