When earlier this week I declared to a New Yorker my intention to take a ride on the Staten Island ferry, said confidante counselled against it. The Staten Island ferry, she warned, “is kinda gross”. A number of more luxurious lines were recommended which would tour me around Manhattan in comfort, but I was unperturbed. The Staten Island ferry is a landmark of New York, in as far as a moving object can be a landmark, and being free it is one of the cheapest and easiest ways of seeing the city skyline.
It is also however an experience which with a little dollop of imagination serves as a transportation back in time and a connection to past peoples making voyages far more significant: for could anything be more evocative of the immigrant experience than being crushed with hundreds of other travellers on a crowded deck, all craning forward to see the Statue of Liberty? Tacky marketing may have cheapened its image, but the lone lady when seen for real still has the power to speak of the poignant hopes for a new world.
It was not the Statue alone that led me on flights of historical fancy. From the moment I arrived at the terminal and joined the crowd of hundreds gathered to board the next boat, I felt I had entered an exercise in emigrant re-enactment. When the gates opened, the masses did not enter with the weary plod of commuters, but with a hungry rush, the youngest racing ahead of the pack to dart down passageways and up stairways with the exuberance of so many floppy-haired Leonardo Di Caprios, until they broke into the sunlight and threw themselves against the railings.
As we left the dock there was some jostling for position at the starboard railings, which offered the prime views of Manhattan and the lady, and here not a few angry glances were earned for personal space encroached or jagged elbows inserted where they should not be. I myself almost erred into a fracas with a woman whose excessively-large hairclip was obstructing my camera, but a full-out tussle was avoided when I volunteered to extract myself from her hair and the oppressing mass and escape to the more sparsely populated port-side.
Strolling on the sunny side of the ship, where a comradely holiday atmosphere reigned, I had greater freedom to people-watch. Presumably because they consider it to be too “gross”, I did not detect a single New Yorker on the outbound ferry. Instead, as befits my nineteenth century emigration fantasy, I wandered through a cosmopolitan crowd. An old German derided the fact that the ferry had a police escort as idiocy (his actual German word was a little stronger); a young Englishman pretended for his girlfriend’s sake that he possessed specialist knowledge about bridges; and a small Egyptian boy pointed at my feet, laughed, and ran away, which prompted the nearby adult bystanders to pay my feet a little more attention than I was strictly comfortable with, though at least the conclusion of their observations was satisfactory: no one else found my feet amusing.
As we neared port the migrants peeled away from the railings and concentrated for disembarkation. The ferry edged sluggishly toward its dock and with a deafening groan reminiscent of the death-throes of the Titanic before its final plunge, nudged into rest. The huddled masses pressed forward in yearning against the chain corralling them, and, with its withdrawal, were finally free: free to storm forward as one and charge madly through the terminal building to catch the next return ferry. And here the fantasy broke: we were not emigrants arrived in a promised land. We were in Staten Island, and all we now wanted was to leave.