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The Staten Island Ferry changed my life

All that water. All that sky. The Statue of Liberty. The ferry itself and whispers of Walt Whitman. I understood the great teaming life of the city from the bow of the ship. Something shifted inside me.

As a landlocked product of the Missouri woodlands, I adore open spaces. A bluff over a creek’s watershed affords me a view of carpet of trees, the sky soaring above the canopy. But coming upon an aperture to the heavens in the forest compares little to the feeling of standing in the prairie. Suddenly, I feel small, insignificant as a mote in the great expanse of the universe.

I have only ever seen the open ocean a couple of times in my life. As a child, I waded knee deep in the Pacific when my parents stopped along the side of Highway 1 near Big Sur. Clouds covered the day and cold wind blew in off the sea. The air smelled parts fish and rain. I stood for a long time alone while the rest of my family splashed in the surf. The horizon mesmerized me. I had never seen water without any land on the other side. To me, it looked like the Kansas plains, where they are flat and open and stretch to the horizon free of any human-made structures.

The prairie and the ocean have a lot to do with one another. Both frame the beauty of the sky, clear or stormy. Both seem endless, limited only by the horizon. Waves of grass bust up against craggy hillsides and smooth plains. Waves of water crash against rocky cliffs and wash out on smooth sand beaches. In fact, the prairie looks like the ocean, only without any water in it.

One time, I went to a journalist conference in Seattle. At the time, I was running about three miles a day. I left for my hotel room between conference proceedings and put on my running shoes. I took off in the direction I thought led to Puget Sound. I looked forward to seeing the ocean water. I didn’t know what it would look like. I had vague memories of a family trip up the West Coast. Waves and colorful Portuguese Men of War poke through the recollection.

I wanted to see those blue and red Men of War and feel the waves against my shins. I ran for all I was worth. I got down to what I thought was the Sound but something about the water wasn’t right. It didn’t look the way I thought ocean water should. It was pale gray and I imagined the ocean water clearer and deeper blue.

Huge yachts and smaller sail and motor boats lay moored off shore. I looked out to see those Men of War and found none. But I was bothered. I bent down and with my cupped hand, tasted the water. Fresh! I had gone the wrong way out of the hotel and wound up at Lake Washington instead of Puget Sound.

My time had passed. I had to get back to the conference, for which I had some responsibilities. I never did see the Sound.

A year or two later, I spied the ocean from a bus in San Diego. The journalists’ conference spread over a couple of locales and I wanted to take a tour of the daily newspaper office. I boarded a city bus out front of the hotel. We drove through the canyons and between the hills down toward the waterfront. In the distance, an azure line traced the horizon. I remembered my trip to Seattle. I asked the bus driver, “Is that the ocean?” He said yes and looked at me like I was a little crazy.

I never got closer to the open ocean than eight city blocks. I stared as long and hard as I could at the blue. The bus turned a corner. It was over.

Then came New York. Virginia and I had flown into LaGuardia and picked up a rented car. It was a cold, gray day, punctuated with rain, soft and heavy. We drove across the Van Wyck Expressway to JFK airport to pick up my friend Joachim, who had flown in from Germany. Our arrivals were timed almost perfectly. We pulled up in front of JFK as Joachim was coming out. He waited no more than five minutes after he picked up his bags.

We packed him in the car and took off around Manhattan Island. We wanted to see Ground Zero and take a walk along the Battery. We had no idea what that entailed. We had all heard stories about driving and parking in New York and expected the worst.

But as we arrived in the Battery, we came across a large parking lot with hardly any cars in it. It occurred to us that it was Sunday, and we benefited from light traffic. From the parking lot, it was a short walk to where the World Trade Center once stood. We gawked through peepholes in the plywood paneled walls surrounding the site. Once we had our fill, we walked among the buildings and shops, stopping once for a cup of coffee.

When we had enough, we headed back to the car. We had not planned our day, except that we were going to stay the night somewhere near Delaware Water Gap. We had all day, and the distances were minor to us Midwesterners.

When we returned to the car, we discovered that the parking lot belonged to the Staten Island Ferry. What a deal. We could make a tour of New York Harbor, see Ellis Island from a distance, and gaze at the Statue of Liberty.

We entered the huge hall that led to the ferries. We found to our delight that it only cost a quarter. (Now, it’s free.) I was amazed. This was not a boat but a ship! I had never been on a boat larger than a small, 20-car ferry across Puget Sound when I was a kid, and I hardly remember that. The biggest boat I had sat in since then was a friend’s pontoon that could seat, maybe, eight or ten people.

The sheer size of the ferry amazed me. I walked along the delightfully empty interior. I discovered our ship, the John F. Kennedy, stretched 277 feet. It was 69 feet wide and could carry 3,500 passengers. It rose several stories into the sky. Since traffic was light, I left Virginia and Joachim and ran along the decks, climbed the stairs, and made note of food and souvenir stands that operated during the week. I was astounded that the JFK carried enough people on weekdays to support businesses on board.

Then, I came out on the upper deck just as the ferry eased away from its pier. There I was, standing on the bow of a ship. I couldn’t believe it. At once I thought it amazing and silly—Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic. But this was not a time to indulge in clichés. It was a time to be out on the ocean in a real ship.

I made Joachim and Virginia stand out in the rain. They laughed at me. I didn’t pay attention. We were all soon chilled, but it made me no mind. They retreated inside. I thought this might be the only time in my life that I would be on a ship on the ocean. Sure, it wasn’t open ocean. I could see land all around us. But it was as close to ocean as I thought I’d ever get.

We got out of the ship at the much quieter ferry pier at Staten Island. We were all hungry and walked up the waterfront to a Thai restaurant that served take-out only. The wind had settled down and the rain had ended. With styro containers overflowing with Pad Thai and spicy tofu, we sat on the pier and ate until time for the ferry to return.

I stood forward, again, as I had on the way to Staten Island. I savored the sight of Statue and Ellis Island, aware of the deep history they held for us as a country. I watched the city grow up again, soon towering over us. I was, for that moment, truly happy. I had my best friends with me. We were on a ship. We were on the ocean.

We arrived back at the Battery. Virginia and Joachim said they’d had fun but were ready to move on. I begged, pleaded, groveled for another ride. It would be the same as before, they said. But I really wanted to get back on board. They prevailed. We drove away from the ferry piers. As with all revelations—seeing the Grand Canyon or a mountain range for the first time, catching my first trout on an alpine stream—something had clicked inside, broken, perhaps.

All these years later, the ferry shows up in my dreams sometimes. I see myself at the helm, steering the great ship. I see it coming into the pier, easing up to the wood stanchions. I feel the ocean inside me.

Someday, I will go back to New York and I will ride the ferry, I hope, until I can’t ride it any more—four or five trips in a row. I’ll make a day of it. That’s how I see my future. Comfortable, sitting on the bow of the Staten Island Ferry.

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