Earlier this week I visited Pelham Bay in the Bronx. On the low tide-strewn beach I gathered several empty snail shells — Neverita duplicata, also known as the shark-eye or Atlantic moon snail — only to learn yesterday, while arranging them in a terrarium, that one was still very much inhabited.
He* had retreated into his shell, stopping up the opening with his foot, and though he'd spent several days in my backpack, out of water and in indoor heat, I hoped he might yet be alive. After all, an intertidal life is already one of extremes. Googling "how long can a snail survive out of water?" also returned at least a couple stories of aquarium snail-owners who'd accidentally dropped their animals on the floor, found them months later, returned them to water and watched them come back to life.
Those were not the same species, or probably even the same genus or family, as my snail. And it's the internet. But still: a flicker of hope. At least I owed him the possibility. So today I set off for my nearest salt water, the East River, which enters the Atlantic not far from my apartment.
I caught a bus on the B44 line, which the city's transit authority split last year into two services: the standard bus, which covers about half the route, and the select bus, which completes it. Supposedly this makes the journey faster and more efficient. In practice, it often means taking the standard bus part-way, then waiting twenty minutes and a half-dozen more standard bus arrivals before the select service arrives.
Which is annoying on a chilly day, but also a reason to strike up a conversation — "... and all this for a snail!" — and so I ended up talking with two fellow passengers. Somewhat unexpectedly, they didn't seem to think my errand crazy. "That's awesome!" said one, a young woman, who advised me to open my snail's Ziploc bag. "He needs to breathe," she said.
The other, an older woman with a distinct Jamaican accent and kindly, I-saved-you-some-dinner demeanor, complimented me on not killing. "I never kill," she said. After all, other animals are simply trying to live their lives, just like her. And it was only fair: how would she like it if the animals she met wanted to kill her?
True, she might step on an ant sometimes, it can hardly be avoided, but she wouldn't swat flies. In summer, she opens her window and lets them out. In winter, she lets them be. "My husband chases them around," she explained, "but I say, 'Just wrap up the food!' The fly just wants to be warm." When waiting for a subway train and seeing a rat on the tracks, she revealed with a slightly conspiratorial air, she would even toss them food. "I can't stand seeing a hungry animal," she said.
The bus reached its final stop. We said our good-byes. I walked several blocks to the river. In that neighborhood it's kept off-limits behind fences and warehouse walls, but in a parking lot beneath the Williamsburg Bridge I snuck past a security guard and down to a section of fence just above the water line.
Concrete and stone transmuted the the rumble of far-above traffic into something like the sound of wind. A family of brants fed in the shallows, bobbing on a ferry's wake. I threw the snail over the fence and into the river, where he landed with a splash.
* Or maybe she, or even — given the marvelous sexual variety of gastropods — s/he.