As in autumn when fall the leaves
One close upon the other, until the bough
Sees its leavings upon the ground,
So the offspring of Adam depart one by one from that shore;
They journey over the dark water,
And even before they are arrived at the far side,
A new crowd has gathered upon this one. — DANTE
The bright fluorescent lights and featureless walls of the ferry terminal come as something of a shock after the congenial sunshine and peaceful reveries of the Battery. The words “STATEN ISLAND FERRY” appear over the entrance in letters six feet tall, in a garish neon blue. Beneath is an indented and irregularly shaped entrance, like the gaping mouth of an anglerfish on its side. It ushers you into a spacious atrium of glass and steel, where despite the high ceilings and generous dimensions, you are not tempted to linger. The escalators are right before you, and their constant upward motions summon you into the waiting room.
Here you find the crowds, in a large but irregularly shaped hall. As is so often true of places where people must frequently wait a half hour or an hour for the next conveyance, there is nothing worth a long look. The walls are of an indeterminate metallic stuff and are unadorned. Letters cut out of plastic sheathing identify a newsstand, a store that sells popcorn, and a bank of payphones. The phones are outmoded already and go unused, but no worry: the sign indicating their presence is held on with just a few screws, and will be removed easily enough. Three rows of stone benches filled with people sit oddly off-center near the middle of the hall.
The people take on the look of the terminal and offer little to the eye. The tourists fidget with their maps and guidebooks; the commuters droop with boredom and fatigue. In front of you a large electronic billboard runs messages in orange letters three feet tall, angling for idle eyes. “50,000 PEOPLE SEE THIS BILLBOARD DAILY,” it scrolls at you. Then it blinks three times: “ADVERTISE HERE ADVERTISE HERE ADVERTISE HERE.” When you turn away, you find two more billboards with identical messages.
Occasionally there is a preacher in the terminal, drawn as they always are by the captive audience, the principles of preaching and advertising being here as often consanguine. One very literal-minded young man, always evangelically dressed in dark pants, a white shirt, a red tie, and a tan overcoat, but with an unusual droopy moustache, reads a verse or two of the Good Word, and then offers a simple commentary, in the following style: [reading] “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father, who is in heaven, he will enter into the kingdom of heaven.” [Looking up] “Here Jesus is saying that not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ to him will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of his Father, who is in heaven, will enter the kingdom of heaven.” He then proceeds to the next verse. I have heard sermons worse than this.
The terminal was recently remodeled; older visitors to Staten Island will remember a cylindrical building made of corrugated metal which sat on the edge of Manhattan like a can of tuna. The old terminal was one of the places where New York’s homeless could go without much harassment. So they congregated there, especially in the winter when the terminal was snugly (even stiflingly) heated. Though I have lived in New York all of my 26 years, I never grow accustomed to the fact that just two hundred feet from expensive restaurants on Battery Park, and amongst corporate headquarters where nothing is thought of throwing out hundreds of thousands of dollars of computer equipment because it is a minute too slow, there could be people who have not showered or slept on a bed in six months. I would see them night after night, the same people, and in their beards in the morning I could see the crumbs of what I saw them eating the past evening.
Every now and again a police officer would come around, waking them up or telling them to get on the ferry; his logic being that they are waiting at the ferry terminal, and have a right to remain there only if they board the boat. I was always struck by the pity inscribed in the faces of the officers, and the moral uncertainty, as they did their duty to clear the terminal; at times they would become quite nasty, because it was clear that they did not wish to be doing what they were doing. The homeless would get on the ferry, cross the Harbor and return again to Manhattan, to sleep in the terminal once more. Frequently they would not sleep, but rather curse or sing or accost others, especially the pretty women. Their disorderly presence clearly disturbed the commuters, who would often stand by the wall rather than sit on the benches, though it was clear that many of them were quite tired. It is hard to maintain one’s spirit and hope when one’s daily path takes one past such Sphinxes of our society, who ask us daily the enigma of poverty and sorrow and loneliness. And though they let us go by today, we cannot escape the fear that someday they will demand an answer to their riddle, and not let us pass without a solution.
These Sphinxes are elsewhere now, their riddle unsolved, and the terminal is neat and clean. In fact the terminal has been made almost indistinguishable from the rest of Water Street, the long line of glass and steel buildings at the southern tip of Manhattan. You can imagine a building rising 50 identical storeys above your head, and the doors to your right, which the crowd is now gathering around with some impatience, you can picture as a bank of elevators.
But surely this is not what the tourists came to see, or where these commuters want to be? There are buildings like this in every city in America. But come: the ferry is here; the slip doors are opening; the crowds are pressing close together to board the boat; the funnel is no place for the drop to linger; it is time to ride upon the waters and seek other shores.
ContributorJohn Byron Kuhner
Fifth-generation New Yorker JOHN BYRON KUHNER (johnbyronkuhner.com) was born and raised in Queens. An accomplished Latinist who speaks and writes Latin, he now lives in a one-room cabin in the Catskill Mountains. His Staten Island: Or, Life in the Boroughs is forthcoming this fall from Crumpled Press (www.crumpledpress.org).