A Brief Voyage
We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch - we are going back from whence we came.
John F. Kennedy
A few weeks ago, the first snow of the season had fallen through the night. By morning it had already turned to rain and the roads were a mess so I didn’t take the bus to work. Instead I found myself at the South Ferry terminal waiting for the Ferry to take me to Staten Island. On weekdays, especially during rush hour, the terminal is a deluge of people making haste. But this was a cold, slushy Saturday morning and the terminal was relatively quiet. Without the crowds, the uniqueness of the upcoming voyage was distilled into an essential representation of what would normally be too overwhelming to decipher had this been, say, Monday morning at 8am. But as it was, the people waiting that morning for the ferry were a randomly diverse cross-section of people. This is something residents in New York take for granted but this doesn’t make these connections less remarkable. Depending where you look, to the left or right, behind you or in front of you, the whole range of humanity is on display. The innocent, the sad, the laughing, the vulgar, and the grotesque. Most of us choose to not let these spectacles change the course of our day. This is the survival mechanism of New Yorkers. To be swayed by the gamut of emotions this city has to offer would be to be devastated, angered, hurt, invigorated, inspired, jubilated, and disgusted before one even makes it home from work. Of course we are human and every once in awhile a moment or series of events will persuade us to be moved in some fashion. For me, this was one of those mornings.
Usually I grab a book to read for my long commute to Staten Island. This morning was no different except, in the stupor of exhaustion, I accidentally grabbed my wife Boni’s book, leaving mine to idle on the nightstand. I only discovered this when I finally settled on the train, much to my annoyance. This left me without anything to occupy my time while the near empty D train took me to Atlantic Barclays Center. From there I transferred to the R which finally took me to the Whitehall Station located deep underground. Walking up three long flights of stairs, I reached the entrance to the South Ferry terminal. I went in through glass doors and rode the escalator up where the bomb sniffing dogs were waiting. After passing them I entered the waiting area. The waiting area is a large space enclosed in glass with shops, fast food counters, and wooden benches. I sat down needing to catch my breath and since I had no book, I began to look around. Standing no further than five yards away was a man with no shoes. He looked dirty and disturbed, if his face was a reflection of his mind. Noticing a group of tourists, he decided to give them a show. Walking over to them, while they conversed amongst each other, he stopped in front of them and pulled down his jeans. This was made all the more outlandish since he had no underwear. It took them a moment to notice this naked derelict man, who was now prancing around and shaking. Even from where I sat, it was easy to see how clean his face looked compared to the muddy brown stains all over his butt. I didn’t have a chance to see the front of him but I’m sure it was equally disgusting in its own way. While the tourists tried their best to look uninterested, they failed. I was surprised they didn’t take a picture because any photo they have of the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge won’t say New York quite as much as naked, crazy man with dookie stains smeared across his cheeks. Perhaps in Germany, or Scandinavia this isn’t a common sighting but here in New York this is as common as a rat running across the subway tracks. Then the security guards quietly approached along with a cop wearing rubber gloves. They surrounded him and coaxed him to pull his pants up after which they whisked him away. Some people nervously laughed and others shook their heads. The tourists went back to their maps maybe to see if they were where the map said they were. The man in the suit next to me didn’t even look up from his New York Post.
Soon a large boat pulled up to the dock and we all stood up and lined up at the glass door watching the passengers from Staten Island disembark. I heard a voice shout in French. I turned around to see a woman in a Santa hat leading a school of uniformed young girls in a perfect line formation as if it was a page from the Madeline books. They must have been on a school trip, visiting New York to learn about American culture. I wondered what the teacher would say about the crazy man and I also wondered how it would sound in French. I looked around to the rest of the crowd and wondered about the purpose of their Staten Island visit. Were some people heading into work like me? Were others heading home after a graveyard shift? Some people looked downtrodden and exhausted while others looked fresh and rested, their lives moving in opposite directions yet intersecting for this one ride. After the boat emptied out completely, the glass doors opened and like a herd of cows we all walked to the boat, John F. Kennedy.
According to SIFerry.com “the Staten Island Ferry is one of the last remaining vestiges of an entire ferry system in New York City that transported people between Manhattan and its future boroughs long before any bridges were built.” 22 million passengers ride the Ferry each year while the capacity of the John F. Kennedy, christened in 1965, maximizes at 3500 occupancy. On this morning there was considerably less people. Walking onto the old vessel, rows and rows of benches were mostly empty. I took a seat at a window facing Brooklyn. The other side would be crammed with all the gawkers waiting for a free glimpse of The Statue of Liberty; their cameras loaded, their fingers on the trigger ready to shoot their own version of a picture seen a thousand times. We slowly pulled out of the harbor and into the fog. I stared out of the windows dripping with rain as the mist roll past. A few rows away a woman sneezed and a man walking by said “bless you.”
“Thank you,” she said only to sneeze again.
Behind me sat what sounded like a mother and son. I never turned around to look but I did hear part of their conversation.
“Look what it says here in the paper,” she said in a heavy Staten Island accent marked by decades of cigarette smoke. “A decade ago there was no bed bugs in New York City. Now according to this it says we are in the top ten. Did you hear me?”
“Ma, shut up. Let me finish this comic book,” he said.
“Don’t tell me to shut up. Maybe if you read something other than those stupid comic books you would learn something. What grown man reads comic books anyway?”
“A lot of men read comic books.”
“And they are probably living at home with their ma like you.”
I stood up and walked away. Not because their conversation was distracting but because I had a sudden urge to go up the steps to the observation deck. Upstairs there was a young couple tucked away in a corner sharing a blanket and a can of beer, passing it back and forth. I went out onto the walkway. Be so high up on the boat the wind was a little more vicious. On the water you could see the shapes of boats moving through the misting hovering above the surface. Some would disappear, while others would emerge only to be sucked back into the fog. The call of the foghorn was a primal scream echoing across the water. It was amazing to see the ballet of boats gliding past one another in a performance where the dancing partners never touch, but come within inches of contact. Next, I walked around the deck to the other side. There was less fog and the Statue of Liberty was visible along with Ellis Island. A few brave people were standing on the deck in the cold. One older man and his wife were speaking quietly.
“When people arrived to Ellis Island,” he said, “anybody that was sick would be quarantined. Some would get sent back to their own country, or sent to parts of Jersey if they were healthy. Sometimes people in the quarantine would escape in the night and jump in the water to try and swim to Manhattan or to Jersey for fear that they wouldn’t be allowed in America.”
She took a sip of coffee and said, “that’s terrible. Imagine being hysterical with fever jumping in the freezing Hudson River, trying to swim to land. What would you do if you survived the river?”
“Probably die on the shore from hypothermia.”
I looked at the steely, shimmering water below and couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to come to New York City with waves of immigrants on wooden boats, arriving at the crest of some mysterious history in a city feeding off the sweat and blood of the new arrivals. I went back in and sat down to warm up. Through the window I saw a few seagulls riding the wind and dipping out of view. We are so many strangers, I thought, riding this boat together. I laid down for a few moments and closed my eyes. When I opened them again we had docked at St. George, Staten Island. I went back down and the people lined up, waiting for the gate to open. Soon we would all go our separate ways. I saw the school of Madeleine’s waiting obediently and the teacher in her Santa hat; the man with the New York Post was staring at his watch; the woman who sneezed was blowing her nose; the older couple from the observation deck were still in deep conversation. A part of me was hoping for the naked man to run through the crowd just to add a little chaos but he was probably lying in a warm cell, his tactic of arrest having been a success. Just before the gate opened I heard the comic man and the bed bug mother talking.
“Ma, I gotta joke.”
“God help me. You need a job.”
“How did the Statue of Liberty get AIDS?”
“I’m not doing this now.”
“Come on, it’s funny. How did the Statue of Liberty get AIDS?”
“Nothing you say is funny.
“She rode the Staten Island Ferry. Get it?”
“You know what? You’re sick. What’s wrong with you?”
Then the gate opened and everyone left the boat, while through the glass doors another boatload of people waited as we disembarked. It wasn’t until later in the day when his stupid joke kept nagging at me that I finally understood the punchline. I laughed to myself and my coworker asked me what was funny.
“Nothing,” I said. At that moment I decided I wouldn’t take the Ferry home, I would take the bus.