Riding the Staten Island Ferry for the Sake of Riding of the Staten Island Ferry on a Wednesday Afternoon
I’m unemployed. If you’ve never tried it, I can’t say I particularly recommend it. I was laid off in early July, and since then, I’ve discovered that unemployment has a lot in common with the aimless, unstructured summers of elementary school, but with at least twice the malaise and three times the existential dread.
It doesn’t take long before you realize you must Do Things to fill the void once occupied by steady paychecks, dental insurance, and free bagel Fridays. Of course, the most common Thing to Do is apply for jobs. Make sure you’re on top of that one. But there are only so many jobs. Sometimes, your daily Thing takes the form of going for a run. Other times, the Thing requires you to get dressed to go for a run, then watch four episodes of Frasier on Netflix (you doze off, still in your sneakers, a few minutes into the fifth).
On Wednesday morning, I was determined to find a new Thing, preferably one that involved neither physical exertion nor Kelsey Grammer. On the suggestion of a friend who’d recently done the same, I decided to take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. This, I thought, would be a perfect vacation from my non-vacation. There’s water involved, a boat, and a place that has “Island” right in its name — not to mention that it’s free, which works well for my budget.
I grew up in North Jersey, and I’m reasonably well-traveled on New York City’s various waterways — the East River Ferry, multiple school trips aboard the Circle Line, a winter seal-spotting cruise around the city (do this, it’s wonderful), the Governors Island Ferry, the IKEA Ferry, the assorted boats docked on the Hudson for no apparent purpose besides daydrinking.
My irrational yet passionately held belief in my ability to swim across any body of water longer than it is wide has emboldened me to board pretty much any river-borne vessel there is, but I’ve never been on the Staten Island Ferry, which traverses a five-mile stretch of New York Harbor. In fact, I’ve only been to the fifth-wheel borough (which, for the record, is three times the size of Manhattan, and voted to secede from New York City in 1993) once, years ago, to adopt our family dog.
I have only positive feelings for Staten Island (it helps that our dog, Gracie, is great), but in a sense, I’m venturing into enemy territory. Residents of Staten Island and New Jersey, the aspiring sixth borough, are mutually suspicious of one another. Staten Islanders resent any association with the stereotypes of Jersey Shore; New Jerseyans won’t hesitate to point out that three of the show’s eight original cast members actually hail from Staten Island. We’re like two pubescent nerds who would, in different circumstances, be kindred spirits, but viciously mock each other in a desperate attempt to secure our own passage among the normal kids. Look at a map and you’ll see that New Jersey and Staten Island are separated only by the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait about 200 yards wide. Who are we kidding? We are one.
I take the 1 down to South Ferry, where a train delay leaves me in a rush to catch a ferry I have no business taking anyway. Whitehall Terminal, renovated in 2005, looks like a nice regional airport. Thanks to an unlikely combination of popcorn, pretzels, pizza, fried fish, and a disconcertingly floral cleaning solvent, it smells like a movie theater located within a mall food court. Inside, I’m surprised to find hundreds of people, mostly tourists, already waiting for the next departure. It’s something of a relief to blend in unnoticed among the gainfully employed, people who just happen to be taking time off for a vacation—it’s how I imagine Arctic vampires would feel during 24-hour polar nights.
In the far corner of the waiting area, a woman sings over a taped, vaguely Christian backing track. An electronic ticker alternately promotes a car dealership, a personal injury law firm, and an electronic ticker ad of your very own. Directly in front of me, a boy models a cardboard Statue of Liberty crown, complete with inexplicably oversized patina-green ears. To my right, a nicely dressed couple in their sixties pass a can of Bud Light back and forth. In general, I’m impressed by the number of people sipping brown-bagged beers. It’s 1:30 on a weekday afternoon, but according to the mysterious laws of the sea, tallboys are fair game.
When the ferry finally arrives, I climb two flights of stairs to the top level. There, the tourists and the commuters separate like oil and vinegar. Most people (myself included) cram their way onto the weather deck outside, while only a disaffected few plunk down indoors: a scowling teen flanked by his smiling family, a woman reading on her tablet, a businessman in obvious discomfort rubbing his left foot.
It’s an unfairly pretty, sunny day in the high 70s, and the breeze off the water feels great. We eagerly snap pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge and Governors Island. A ferry returning to Manhattan from Staten Island passes by, and I’m struck by how gorgeous it is. You don’t get any real sense of the boat when you’re unceremoniously ushered aboard, but from this vantage point, the orange and blue exterior is exactly the right amount of dingy, topped off with a spooky, old-timey italic typeface. I learn later that the oldest active ferry is just under 50; mine, the MV Senator John J. Marchi is only about 10 years old. (The late Sen. Marchi represented Staten Island in the state legislature for 50 years — I’m happy to report that he lived to see his namesake ferry set sail, which you’ve got to imagine must have been fun.)
The crowd around me soon thins out, and it becomes obvious that I picked the wrong side of the boat. I cross over to the right side of the ferry (which is also, based on our orientation, its literal right side), where passengers have lined the outer deck three deep. We’re even with the ride’s main attraction, the Statue of Liberty, who never appears more like the ornate, stunning, ridiculous thing she is than when you’re taking her in from the water. On the ferry, strangers struggle valiantly to stay out of one another’s family photos and iPad selfies. They fail at this, but morale remains high. The long line of visitors wrapped around the statue’s base is visible even at this distance. Ellis Island (90 percent of which, lest we forget, is considered part of New Jersey) lies low and unassuming nearby.
The Statue of Liberty quickly shrinks to a patriotic action figure on the horizon. The Manhattan skyline, too, looks adorably pocket-sized. It’s disorienting, but not unpleasant, to see it from a new angle. Next, we pass a long stretch of floating industrial miscellany: buoys, barges, and Bayonne in the distance, its container cranes suspended like sleepy dinosaurs. By now, I’ve managed to wedge myself into a square foot of space outside. Though the front third of the ship is off limits, I stare ahead at Staten Island through the chain-link gate. Approaching any kind of landmass is inherently exciting, even if it took you less than half an hour to get there.
We disembark at Staten Island’s St. George Terminal a few minutes after 2, and I have time to kill before the next ferry to Manhattan at 2:30. It suddenly occurs to me that all I’ve had to eat today is Diet Coke, and my trip becomes a little less free when I spend $8.82 on a slice of pepperoni pizza and a frighteningly large Corona tallboy. I am excited to discover that the pizza is not terrible.
I meander back to the slip, where I’m a little miffed to discover that — now that we’ve left the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Financial District — I’m the only person drinking booze of any kind. The party ended before I even showed up. Not cool.
When we board the Manhattan-bound ferry, I return to the upper deck, but sit inside, across from a woman napping while her two young daughters quietly play around her. Within a few minutes, I fall asleep too — thanks for nothing, beer — and wake up only after we’ve already docked at Whitehall. I feel great. Thing Done.
Molly Fitzpatrick is a writer and editor.