The Staten Island Ferry

This is the 11th in a series of posts about New York.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I used to be a Sorority Advisor.

The collegiate chapter where I advised was on Staten Island. This was one of those things that Seemed Like A Great Idea at The Time. I liked being in a sorority in college, but I never held a leadership role; I was never on the executive team. The highest office I ever held was Chaplain.

But when we moved to New York, I knew no one. And the sorority alumnae network seemed as good a way as any to make friends. So I was new to New York, and new to public transport that was not the extremely expensive and largely suburban DC Metro, and there I was, taking the Staten Island Ferry.

If you have never taken the Staten Island Ferry before, it is an experience worth having. Just maybe not at 9 o’clock at night – which was when I was taking the damn thing – because the chapter I was advising met in the middle of the night. I had moved to New York right after the new Whitehall Terminal was completed, so the ferry experience I was having was immaculate, as far as long-term riders were concerned.

For me, it was still pretty terrifying.

Ferries have been running between the southern tip of Manhattan and Staten Island since the 18th Century – before Staten Island was one of the Five Boros; indeed before these United States looked anything like they look today. At that time, the service was conducted mostly by private sailboats. In the 1850s through the turn of the 20th Century, Staten Island developed quickly – going from a rural outpost to having a settled population with its own railroad and daily, frequent traffic across New York Harbor to Manhattan conducted by motorised steamships.

By 1900, Staten Island was a part of the Borough of Richmond – part of New York City – but the ferry service between the island and Manhattan operated under the control of the Staten Island Railroad, and its successor, the Staten Island Rapid Transit Railroad. A ferry collision in June 1901 between a Staten Island-bound Ferry and a Jersey City Ferry led the New York City Department of Docks and Ferries to seize control of the ferry system for good. Service resumed in 1905 under the auspices of the City of New York, and has been operated by the City ever since.

I rode the ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island for years – back and forth – at all hours of the night. During sorority recruitment (f/k/a Rush), I would ride the ferry with one of my sisters (or sometimes alone!) at two or three in the morning. Oh, the things I would see!

Some nights, it was nothing. It was just me, alone, on the upper deck.

And other nights, it was people vomiting into trash cans; couples making love in the corner; two drag queens in full regalia circling each other in a knife fight…

The works.

After the knife fight, I came home and told my then-spouse what I had seen, and the following weekend, he bought me a car. I stopped riding the ferry after that. I’m not sure whether I missed it.

But one day last autumn, I had a friend visiting from London and we couldn’t get Statue of Liberty tickets so we took the ferry out into the harbour to see Lady Liberty from a distance. And it all washed over me – the days of being new to New York; the nights of being devastatingly exhausted; the questions I’d had about what I was doing; the stink of the ship – I was back where I’d started from.

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It was different – I was different – but I was still very much the same.  Or maybe Not The Same, but that was good too.

The odd thing about becoming a Real Grownup in New York City is that the most mundane things grab you by the throat and seem like the most profound things in the universe. Sometimes, it’s the way the late summer light flickers above the W Hotel in Union Square; sometimes it’s the way the first snowfall settles on the rooftops; sometimes it’s just an ordinary ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

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