Staten Island Ferry

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Twilight on the Staten Island Ferry

I like standing on the Staten Island Ferry’s deck. It’s my favorite way to get fresh air in New York. Between air conditioning, artificial heat and subway tunnels, you’re always in one cocoon or another. The ferry’s breeze soothes summer’s soggy swelter and winter’s crisp kiss colors crimson your cheeks: water, wind, sky and you. Swirling water is a pleasant sound year-round.

Tourists chat in Japanese around me. They flirt in Portuguese, joke in Turkish, tease in Spanish, whisper in Hindi.

A child asks, “Mama, when we leavin’?” in a Carolina low country drawl. All the locals sit inside. The gangplank creaks and clangs when lifted.  Several chains rattle and slither in response. The horn toots. The motors get louder and the water churns faster. Manhattan’s glass and steel fade behind us.

This image shows artist Paul McGehee's rendering of the Staten Island Ferry passing in front of the Statue of Liberty on an overcast day. Although the painting is set in 1952, it has a timeless air to it. The sky is overcast contrasts with the ferry's orange paint.

In his painting, “Staten Island Ferry,” set in 1952, artist Paul McGehee depicts an overcast New York Bay. Many Staten Island residents have always used the ferry to commute to jobs in Manhattan and other parts of New York City. Gray skies, murky waters and cars on the ferry’s main level communicate a routine day on the ferry. Cares were allowed until September 11, 2001. © Paul McGehee, used with artist’s permission.

Everyone– Pop! Pop! click-click-click-flash-click-flash-click-Pop! Pop!– takes the Statue of Liberty’s picture when we’re close enough. The old Green Lady poses. She never blinks, never smiles and keeps her arm raised– a true professional.

Black smoke trails off a distant vessel. The sun sets. We are close. Staten Island’s yellowish lights no longer resemble sparkling glass on a dark sidewalk. We dock with a bump at Staten Island’s St. George Terminal. The motor snorts gently, the water hums a soft hymn to Neptune.

Before September 11th, you could remain on the ferry after it docked. Now you have to do the St. George 4-Step: 1. abandon ship 2. enter the terminal 3. wait on line again 4. re-board.

A new set of locals take their seats inside. The aroma of Friday night follows them in: Pomade, flowery perfumes, Brut (by Fabergé), tobacco, new leather. I stand on the deck again with the same group of tourists. We leave for Manhattan.

The Verrazano Bridge’s lights twinkle, twinkle like little stars. Lusty foghorns moan into the new night’s darkness. The haze around the bridge makes our passage feel mysterious.

I think about the millions who passed through the Verrrazano Narrows long before the bridge was built. They, too, listened to this same water churning while pushing and straining to glimpse their new land.

They entered New York Harbor standing in puddles of fear, vomit and hope.  Excited chatter muffled the rude scraping of their rough wool coats. Loud voices silenced the howl of their twisted, hungry stomachs. The laughter and clapping made toothaches disappear and their tight, full-of-holes shoes feel better.  Ellis Island: Spirits lifted. Discomforts forgotten.

This colorful image titled

(© Paul McGehee, used with permission of artist) In “Old New York Harbor,” artist Paul McGehee envisions New York Harbor in 1908. Between 1855 and 1890, immigrants arrived at Castle Clinton (foreground left). From 1892 to 1954, they docked at Ellis Island (center, deep background). The Statue of Liberty is in the background, on the left. Visit Paul McGehee’s site to see more of his work.

I remember a story a friend told me as we pass by the Green Lady again. His great-grandfather had arrived in New York from Europe. The woman he planned to marry arrived a few months later, but was detained at Ellis Island for several days. His grandfather had two choices: wait a few days for her release or swim from New Jersey to Ellis Island every day to see her.

Which did he choose? Ahhhh, love.

Looking around New York Bay, I imagine the winters in the 1700s. The ice would freeze so deep that people walked between Manhattan and Staten Island. Walked! Right past the vessels trapped by ice. And people complain about New York’s winters now?

Manhattan’s lights reflect in the water as we arrive. When twilight dies, the city’s buildings come to life. They seem bigger and more impressive at night. Still, it’s not the same without the World Trade Center looming.

How do you explain the Twin Towers to someone who never saw them?

See the Staten Island Ferry’s Schedule. It’s free to ride.

Click on the blue pins in the map for more info. For larger map, click the square in map’s upper-right corner.

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