Every month, my parents, sister and I drove from New Jersey to Long Island to visit the relatives. That meant crossing over on the Staten Island Ferry ride. I can still remember the smell of the crisp, ocean air, the distant twinkling lights of Manhattan, the taste and texture of the warm soft salted pretzels we always bought, the wave to the Statue of Liberty as we passed by, the game my sister and I had of guessing which of the seven ferries we would get—the Hamilton, the Hudson, the Verrazano, the St. George (and three more I can’t remember now). Later, the efficiency of the Verrazano Bridge overtook the sensual delights of the ferry ride, a dubious trade that our culture chooses time and time again.
Yet in spite of the bridge, the ferry soldiered on and in my senior year in high school, my friend Mark Murphy and I used to drive to Staten Island, park and ride round-trip on the ferry as passengers. For the astounding price of 5 cents! And this was in 1969.
There we stood on the deck and grappled with life’s large questions as only 17-year-olds can. Got off in lower Manhattan and walked around for a while, then the return trip home. Perhaps we had some vague notion of meeting and picking up girls— we were 17, after all— but that never happened and we never seemed to mind too much. It was enough to just feel the freedom of the adventure, the comradery between us, the sensation of those distant twinkling lights and the raised torch of the Statue of Liberty inviting us into our unknown beckoning future.
And for me, a little bridge backward into that magical sense I had in a childhood when the world glittered just a bit brighter before the hormones kicked in. Alongside the delights and freedoms of growing older we always longed for as kids— driving in a car with no adults, having a little pocket money (though I could have afforded the 5 cents as a kid!), exploring the complexities of sexual longing, came the harsh realities of a war raging in Vietnam, the aftermath of horrific assassinations, the police beatings in Chicago and riots throughout the country.
But we were young and still innocent in so many ways, hopeful for a brighter future that included hair length of our choice, free love, legal marijuana, organic vegetables, great music and end to violence, racism, greed and war. As we boarded that ferry, our adolescent confusion, faith in ultimate goodness and excitement about what lay ahead for us in the blank pages of a life yet to be written, came with us. And the pretzels still tasted delicious.
My friend Mark Murphy dipped a bit too far into drugs in his college years at Princeton and then came out the other side to be a born-again Christian, got married, had kids and worked as a chaplain for the Navy. We crossed paths briefly when he visited San Francisco in 1981, he met my wife and one-year old daughter and we had a civil conversation while aware of how differently our lives were unfolding. We didn’t keep in touch after that and years later, I learned that he had died by drowning and suicide was suspected.
Meanwhile, marijuana finally became legal, as did mixed marriages and later, gay marriages, rock music declined (in my humble opinion), free love now had the more sensible price of actual relationship, farmer’s markets are on the upswing, we’ve had a black president and mixed-race woman vice-president, racism and police brutality continued, but instead of accepting it as “the way things are,” a large upsurge of white people (though far from enough) finally agreed to wake up and insist “Black Lives Matter.” Some of our adolescent dreams crossing on the ferry indeed set in motion ideas of sustainability, kindness, courage to speak out and more.
And yet wars still rage worldwide, climate change is demanding payment on the bills we keep ignoring, and it’s still not clear if that psychopathic narcissist who brought us to our knees with the full support of far, far too many people desperately clinging to their unearned power and privilege will be held accountable for his treasonous crimes. There is more work ahead, more dreams to keep dreaming and bring into life.
But here’s the amazing news. A ferry that costs 5 cents in 1969—what does it cost now?
And the surprising answer. It’s cheaper! It’s free!
PS Too long to include here, but a good companion piece to this post is Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Extra credit for you if you read it.