From my window in Brooklyn Heights, I’ve watched the Staten Island ferry come and go for more than two years now, a big orange boat crisscrossing the water. That’s when I’m home, which is not much.
At night, I hear the foghorn, a reassuring sound, fading slowly like memories. On the road, in yet another hotel room where my hand can’t locate by instinct the light switch, I imagine that sound sometimes. It makes me smile. Home is little things, the clunk of the door closing on your world.
There’s a lot going on out my window: joggers on the boardwalk, barges plowing the East River, choppers landing on the prow of Manhattan, planes nosing down into Newark Airport, cars on the first traffic-free stretch of FDR Drive where hope surges only to collide with reality at a bottleneck. The view always reminds me of a children’s picture book. Yes, my love, that’s a helicopter.
I don’t look out on all that enough. Water is life, a mirror one day, a maelstrom the next. Do I live in New York or camp in it? Sometimes I wonder. I resent the inevitable question: How long are you in town for? Forever, I feel like saying. That’s right, the farthest I’m going for the next six months is the convenience store on Montague.
Home’s important. Belonging is important, right there behind love in terms of human needs. Watching an old movie on your couch is important. That’s what holidays are for. I watched “Shampoo,” a minor Hal Ashby masterpiece. “You never stop moving,” Jill (Goldie Hawn) tells her feckless hairdresser boyfriend, George (Warren Beatty). “You never go anywhere.”
The movie’s set on the eve of Nixon’s 1968 election. A TV blares in the background. There’s Nixon. He says the American flag won’t be “a doormat.” He says “the great objective” of his administration will be to “bring the American people together.”
That which is new under the sun is meager. Funny, Nixon’s not looking so bad these days, compared with the orange apparition in the White House.
Speaking of orange, I figured, what the heck, I’m paying, like every New Yorker, for the free Staten Island ferry service. I gaze at the boat, imagine it, and it goes to a mysterious place where the Great Leader triumphed in the presidential election. A cleansing end-of-year wind was gusting. I boarded the ferry, not to go anywhere, just to be transported.
Some cities waste the water on which they are set. London used to. Rome still does. Paris is the aqueous gold standard. I’ve watched New York embrace its waterfront over the years. Right beneath my window a lawn has been taking shape this year on Pier 3, Brooklyn Bridge Park’s last pier to be converted, and set to open in 2018. It will include a labyrinth.
The ferry’s a commuter service, of course. But at this time of year, it’s full of tourists gasping at the sunlight falling on the serried towers of lower Manhattan, on the Statue of Liberty, on the derricks, like gangling metal dinosaurs, of New Jersey. New towers go up, yet to acquire, or having half-acquired, their gleaming outer coats of armor. How handsome the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is!
The boat crosses to Trump country, but its brief passage evokes the centuries of American hope invested in this city, seen by so many immigrants for the first time from this expanse of water. Here, suffering, famine and the endless gyre of Old-World conflict were set aside, or at least cushioned by New-World possibility.
At this low point for the United States, when truth itself is mocked from on high, that liberating message is worth recalling. Certainly, no naturalized American, as I am, who has witnessed the rites of passage of people drawn by hope from every corner of the earth to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, can be indifferent to it.
I made the journey to Staten Island — beyond Montague, I know. We can’t always live up to our word. But we must keep trying. Avoid a high moral tone. Pay attention to detail. Wander aimlessly. Know, with Cavafy, what “these Ithacas mean.” Believe in, and provide for, the children who will inherit this earth. Yes, darling, that’s a boat. And that’s a labyrinth.
The night I took the Staten Island ferry, I went to a party. Each of us, after eating well, was asked to read or recount something close to the heart. One guest read Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry uplike a raisin in the sun?Or fester like a sore —And then run?Does it stink like rotten meat?Or crust and sugar over —like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sagslike a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
In 2018, take the time, dear reader, to gaze at the familiar, board the ferry to nowhere — and do not, at risk of an explosion, defer your dreams.
Roger Cohen, an Op-Ed columnist for the International New York Times, writes about international affairs and diplomacy.