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Chatterbox: Sailing to the office or nowhere


Though I am not a fan of email forwards as a rule, someone forwarded a wonderful little video about the Staten Island Ferry to me. It featured the ferry in the early 1960s, the old skyline, the people boarding, and the crowds enjoying the views over the rails.

Of course, there are ferry rides in many of our cities, and most offer a great treat even when our own destination is only the other side and back again. Today, especially, it’s important to remember America is still an amazingly beautiful place, and a great ferry ride, anywhere, is a soft segue past traffic as well as our political situation.

We have some riverboat cruises too, but across the United States, from Alaska, Seattle and San Francisco, to New York, Boston, Bar Harbor and more, a ferry ride can be enjoyed simply as part of the tour of any city which offers one. The Staten Island Ferry is just one of many great options.

Even the most superficial glance at organized Staten Island ferry crossings will rock your socks with a history going back to the indigenous tribes. Researching their more recent past is a great way to see some older boats with all their plentiful open air seating and outside space. Earlier ferries featured indoor sections that looked like sumptuous old reading parlors – full of woodwork, tall lamp posts and glamour.

Horses and carts had their section on the old boats too and, eventually, cars. No cars are allowed on the new boats but, on the old ones – the more romantic of mini-cruises – the lowest level of the boat was reserved just for them. Hollywood loved that little yellow ferry (though some would mistakenly call it orange) and even the clanking, crowded car levels were featured in a movie or two, in their day.

As for the people featured in the video that was recently sent to me, they were all dressed perfectly, including the teenagers. Even teenaged boys were in jackets and ties, or sport shirts and dress trousers. The girls were in skirts or dresses with nylon stockings and great looking shoes. T-shirts and jeans, in those days, were only for yard work.

For young teens in New York, shined up and putting their best foot forward, the short ride on that little boat went miles toward juvenile development; a round trip on the ferry, unsupervised, was a rite of passage. For tourists, in the city that never sleeps, it was an absolute must and, for anyone who cared to take the ride, it added a little Hollywood, an exciting and romantic touch, to any date.

Like most small ferry rides, it is breathtaking in any season: mythical in the fog, enchanting in the rain, mystical in the snow, gorgeous during the day, and absolutely magical at night.

For New York commuters, the 22-minute ride is always a respite. It is rejuvenating whether readying us for a buzzing workday in the city, or relaxing us for re-entry into family life on the return trip. It’s the best way in the world to travel to and from the office. Even if we have to run for some connecting mode of transit when we disembark, the cruise is like a great massage, twice daily.

Today, the terminals on both sides of the ride have been remuddled (that’s remodeling done wrong) and the one on the Staten Island side has lost nearly all its old-world charm. It once had plentiful rows of old and shining, dark and warm hues of beautiful, wooden benches to welcome us. They’ve been replaced with divided seating made of some sort of composite. The terminal also now lacks much of the bustling business space it once had, and some of its easy attitude has gone heavy metal, due to security demands.

Still, as we float out of the slip, through the pilings, the boat horns will make us wish we could shake our hankies and throw streamers at cheering crowds on land. The crossing is as lovely as ever. The Statue of Liberty, Governors’ Island, Ellis Island, five beautiful bridges melting into the distance, and that grand Manhattan skyline looming, gray and silent displaying only occasional changes, all lure us in during the brief and beautiful voyage.

And the fare for this mini, mystical, magical moment and memory? Well, it has varied over the years but, now, it’s free. Yes, free … and that’s not even the best part of this “tres bon voyage.”