A photo story, and accompanying essay, focusing on the commuters of the Staten Island Ferry, featured in August Journal Volume 2.
When the large, glass terminal doors are pulled open, an eager crowd hurries onboard and collects at the west side of the ferry. Instructions from a New York City travel guide, surely. Insider tips and tricks. The Staten Island Ferry will usher you beside the Statue of Liberty, will give you a view of Manhattan’s Downtown skyline, and best of all, it’s free! But for all the enthusiasm over scoring a good vantage there are those who remain seated in the terminal, finishing a meal, or an entry in their crossword. They know there will be entire sections of seating for which there’s no rush, and those seats will get them home just as well.
I’m fascinated by the contrast of these two categories of passenger. For some sharing the ferry, it’s a bucket list item ticked off. One of the most iconic views in the world, only so far imagined thru its depiction in movies and magazines. Symbolic and ubiquitous, yet so attractively foreign. Now they’re right there in front of it, estranged no longer.
Yet for others, it’s little beyond the way to get home from the office. Some passengers look at that stretch in the day as dead time to catch up on emails, or on sleep, or to do nothing at all. It’s only ever enticing because of its sheer nothingness, the one time each day they have completely to themselves. Solitude, so long as they’re not counting the hundreds of people who traveled the world to join.
I imagine there could be some temptation to frame this as some sort of lesson to the jaded commuter. A Remember to take a step back and look around, be grateful for your unique life, sort of thing. But to me, it’s perfect, and likely necessary, that awe and obligation can exist at the same time, in the same space.
I’ve taken the Staten Island Ferry many times now, but what’s special about it still hasn’t quite worn off. The next time I host an out-of-town visitor, I’ll suggest we make time for the trip. As the boat makes its way across the water we’ll be able to grab a spot on a deck, or better yet down on the loading platform where it feels like a bit of a secret, and have a beer. The salty air, the storied surroundings. It’s a ride during which I’ll surely turn to my friend and say something like, This is pretty incredible isn’t it? And they’ll agree. But I’ll also know that seated inside the ferry somewhere will be someone having a beer not because of holiday, but because they’ve come to the end of a long, hard day. Those are two entirely different types of beers. The Staten Island Ferry sells them both.