I have seen the fleet a thousand times. From the air, looking down during some banking turn as the airplane approached LaGuardia; from Battery Park as I strolled with a friend; in magazines and on television—I have seen orange boats making their way through New York’s harbor in summer heat and winter storm, routine and punctual, awkward-looking, like enormous pushmi-pullyus: the ends are both bow and stern. I have always wanted to be aboard.
Unglamorous as well as iconic, as necessary as any tunnel or bridge, the Staten Island Ferry carries Romance in its engines. It does not matter that the trips are short. These are ships at sea. How many souls on board?
I have the good fortune to travel, so I have been on ferries before. The Star Ferry in Hong Kong. The Interislander between the north and south islands of New Zealand. The hydrofoil that used to run between Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmo in Sweden. Ferries across the Mackenzie and Peel rivers in the Canadian arctic. But never the Staten Island Ferry. It was always out there, though. Something simple and fundamental in my future.
And then I was in New York and my morning was free, the weather clear and crisp. I could go to a museum, I thought. I could wander the High Line or sip coffee in some café. I could call old friends I have not seen in years, tell stories that are mostly true.
Not a chance, I thought. This is going to be fun.
The R train from midtown to Whitehall brought me to a plaza of chrome and glass. A very nice man in a silly hat asked me if I was going to the Statue of Liberty. NYPD officers in full battle gear said I could not take their picture, but I could take a picture that happened to have them in it.
I wandered the surprisingly empty terminal. A boat had just left. People sat in chairs, many of them listening to music. Others stood alone, looking out windows at the water. There have been stories on the evening news about whales returning to New York harbor.
A ferry arrived. There was a rush of people on the other side of a glass wall as they exited and hurried toward work, and then the tremendous mechanical wonder of boarding, the hope of putting out to sea. Gangplanks and winches and chains and ropes, raised and lowered; gates and doorways opened and then closed.
The ferry is a ride, yes. It passes the Statue of Liberty. It passes Ellis Island. It passes the Robbins Reef lighthouse where, the story goes, a woman named Katherine Walker tended the light for more than thirty years after her husband died, rowed her two children to school on Staten Island and is credited for the rescue of fifty sailors. The ferry has a great view of the southern Manhattan skyline; a great view of the cranes of working shipyards.
The ferry has a tragic side (crashes and jumpers) and it has a silly side—the legend of a giant octopus attack that, of course, never happened. But it is also a great deal more. Five boats. 70,000 passengers a day. Men and women rush through the terminals to get to a boat on time. Something on the other side needs their attention.
And yet there was something I did not expect, but should have known: once on the boat and out into the harbor, time moves differently, even on the Staten Island Ferry. Perhaps not faster or slower—just richer, deeper, more in the moment. This particular November morning, the ferries were not crowded, and I rode back and forth several times. Each time, tourists crowded the boat’s west side to take pictures of the statue. And every time, people found their way to a promenade just to feel the sun reflect off the water and land on their noses. People found tucked-away corners where they closed their eyes and listened to the deep thrum of the engines, felt the rock of a vessel underway.
This, I thought, is the allure. I have always loved water, both salt and fresh, and boats, for me, are made as much of magic as steel. But there is something deeper in the way water calls.
There is a particular peace at sea, even in harbor, even in storm. This water also touches Egypt, Argentina, Tahiti and Nunavut. It might be a whisper of something ancient. It really doesn’t matter. Cross water, I think. Every chance you get. You’re not really going to the other side.
—W. Scott Olsen
Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary journal Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016).