Sea Changes: Traveling the Staten Island Ferry

We’re all drawn by nature to the source. Rock me on the water, sings one of our voices, got to get back to the sea somehow. No cause for surprise, then, in the discovery by a photographer and a writer that they had in common not only residence in New York City but the sharing of a particular Atlantic voyage.

Not that they’d traveled together; far from it. In fact, they’d only met on shipboard once, late at night, and then by accident. (The photographer had refused to be pulled out of his solitary orbit into conversation, moving on with only a curt nod of recognition.) Nor, as the evidence indicates, could it even be said that they’d taken the same trip. There’s no remarkable confluence of events here, only the coincidence that something in the shape of their quite separate lives had led them repeatedly to crossing this small stretch of the great water aboard the Staten Island Ferry and, characteristically, to making something of it.

But what sort of a something? For the photographer, a series of fractioned seconds totalling five minutes, surely no more. Judiciously parceled into precise epiphanies, they’re meant only to reveal what one might truly see if one could deglaze one’s eyes for such a short while and to imply what else might be perceived if one could keep them open. For the writer, a jumble of scraps—fragments overheard, experienced, intuited, felt, read, witnessed, remembered—that washed ashore in the wake. Loosely stitched together where the junctures of their edges permit, they form a patchwork that might serve to warm the images. But nowhere would it be so snugly fitted that it could not be easily removed.

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 rhythm. 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 smoking 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 decades of stale nicotine hang in the air, 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 accidentthat, 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 25 consecutive minutes under normal circumstances. Cured in sauerkraut steam, the angry 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 20 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 5 the ferry terminal was packed with 3,000 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 (like that mellow, dapper, dark-skinned gentleman) to relax in one’s hard-earned coherence.

At night this scenario can evoke the sea-set dramas of Conrad,

O’Neill, Melville—all recurrent there in miniature. 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. Small wonder that one evening you could walk into the upper cabin and find a famous Russian poet’s shadow thrown violently onto the wall by a television station’s lights as he chanted his hymn to the bells of Moscow with the twilight deepening and the glittering skyline falling behind. He was there like all the others, writers, musicians, photographers, seduced into this microcosm and then flung out again like so much flotsam, clinging to their bits of wreckage, their endless unanswerable questions. How did that old man feel, what did he think, eyeball to eyeball with his own ghost in the glass? Could that napping fat man have known that he looked like Lou Costello? Are these truly the first moon pix? Are we significantly different from acres of rocks in a vacuum?

Late summer afternoon, alone together outside on the upper deck, leaning on the rail, looking back at the shrinking city. His fingers brushed again and again her hardened nipple through her thin gauze shirt, her hand squeezed his swelling cock, slid the zipper slowly down. The sun hot on his heated flesh. …

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, numbess 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.

About the Author

A.D. Coleman

A.D. Coleman served as photography critic for the New York Observer from 1988 to 1997. He is the author of several books, including “Critical Focus: Photography in the International Image Community”, published by Nazraeli Press, and “Tarnished Silver: After the Photo Boom”, published by Midmarch Arts Press.

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