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April 1998

Island Living 11: Sea Changes: Riding the Staten Island Ferry
by A. D. Coleman

Daytimes, at rush hour, the fantasy is that this ship, full of dancing celebrants, will emerge from the morning mists and pull into a city pulsing with music. Minstrels are drawn to it, so often there's music, sometimes even a steel-pan band.

But hardly anybody dances, not even the tipsy prom couples who parade the decks from midnight till dawn in the warmth of June, strolling unrealities of tulle, giggles, tuxedos, adolescence, wilted corsages. Only the children, sometimes on the sunny days, stop for a moment long enough to realize that with only wood below their feet they're walking on water.

There are half a dozen of these boats. Let's assume we're all in the same one, named after someone no longer alive -- a local politico, an explorer, an assassinated president, perhaps a war hero. Four kinds of people ride it. Three of those are: the tourists, the commuters, and the hands.

For the sightseers (and for their professional paradigms, the fashion photographers with their models), it's a set, a backdrop. For them the voyage ends at its beginning, when it starts to become an experience acquired instead of one anticipated, suddenly memorable only for having been intercepted on film.

For the mass of riders it's a function, a commonplace, assumed and ignored -- a punctuation mark in their sentences. Newspapers serve to block it out. From the cabin on the lower deck you can see the water up close, watch the whitecaps snap in the wind or the swells roll calmly on balmier days. But the windows are coated with salt crystals and grime. Almost no one looks out.


They could never really figure out how or why it happened. So they assumed it was an accident -- that, parked there at the front of the boat, she had inadvertently hit the gas instead of the brake, broken through the flimsy gates, and plunged herself and her boy into the harbor. It took hours to hoist the car out. All the other passengers had to change to another boat.


Hard to say what this vessel and its shuttling mean for the crew and the ferry workers. They know it best; no one else stays on any one boat more than twenty-five consecutive minutes under normal circumstances. Cured in sauerkraut steam, the ladies behind the coffee counter snarl among themselves and avoid the eyes of customers. The shoeshine men announce only the name of their trade; when one of them who'd worked the boat for twenty years came in drunk, fell off and drowned, none of the passengers noticed his absence. The crew does not mingle any more than is absolutely necessary. Occasionally a pretty girl is invited up to enjoy the view from the captain's cabin.

The fourth kind of people who sail these ships: call them voyagers, those who reach awareness -- if only for a moment -- of what they're really doing, of where they really are. More often than you might expect, they're children, inquiring into the possibility of catching a ray of sunlight in the hand, dreaming past the confines of a mother's devoted attention, allowing the world to be in all its incomprehensible fullness because they are too small to conceive of reducing it down.


One weekday afternoon at five o'clock the ferry terminal was packed with three thousand people in office uniforms. A legless man on a dolly wheeled himself through this crowd, which displayed not even a faint awareness of his distinctive presence. Then a boychild walked straight up to him and announced in loud surprise, "You've got no legs!" All the adults within earshot gasped, or winced, or looked away, discomfited. Everyone except the man on the dolly. He knew he had no legs. He talked amiably with the one person who had been unafraid to look him in the eye and acknowledge that he'd seen him.


The older voyagers take what they can find, depending on their inclination. For some it's a time warp, in whose quieter spaces they can coast past Ellis Island wearing their grandparents' immigrant eyes, or bid adieu to their bon voyage party and embark for the continent on their own grand tour. Others meditate as they're cradled on the bosom of the world. Still others take it for what it is -- an interlude, a transition, a few minutes' peace in which to pull oneself together or to relax in one's hard-earned coherence.

No matter where one is in the cycle of the hours, there's room and time enough here for love, hate, romance, adventure, mystery -- a floating metaphor. Day into night, this voyage is as short as you make it, or as long. Because it is a space apart, afloat, unmoored, you can take it as permission to shift position, to unlock the door and leave it slightly ajar, to glimpse the possibilities of rage, passion, sweetness, numbness in others, in yourself.

Will you read the short story about that young couple with their motorcycle? Have you time enough to open the unwritten novel in the sad eyes of that blond woman who looks at you and past you from her seat? Are you still on speaking terms with the mother of liberty astride the harbor, patiently waiting for those who yearn to breathe free? Will you play the game of life wherever you find it, whether it's right in front of you or off to one side and moving fast, something terribly important caught with the corner of your eye?


Once, on a winter's morning, the boat he took got lost in a driving snow. There was no visibility past the edge of the deck; when they pulled away from the dock the world disappeared. Tasting eternity, those on board fell silent, all listening to the spectral foghorns converse in the white darkness. It took an hour and a half to inch back into reality.

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© Copyright 1998 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved.
By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services,
P.O.B. 040078, Staten Island, New York 10304-0002 USA.