None If By Sea

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02/10/2002

South St, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Outer Boroughs, Staten Island

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Ever since my first wooshing ride down a log flume, I’ve been enamored of water. From sprinklers to swimming pools to lakes and the Atlantic,water soothes me like no other substance. Except beer. So when I heard the Staten Island ferry served cold brew on its cross-bay excursions, I knew I’d found my manna. A Friday night was chosen. That way I could binge-drink like the irresponsible, idiotic 23-year-old I am. Not depressed enough to drink alone, I tried to cajole a posse into accompanying me. “It’ll be like a party. We’ll just ride the ferry back and forth until we’re totally smashed,” I wrote in my mass e-mail. “What could be better than getting drunk on a free boat ride?” Evidently many things, because out of 15 people, only two agreed. But Aaron, Tim, and I were excited.

We’d sipped Sam Adams on the subway and imbibed Budweisers on the bus, but the ferry was a new angle on our mass-transit inebriation. We wereriding the ferry drunk! Who knows, maybe if we got drunk enough one of us would meet a sweet Staten Island girl and fall in love. Then we’d ride the ferry drunk all the time!

At 7:45, 15 minutes before the ferry embarked, the three of us met at my office on lower Broadway. We headed south toward the ferry. A few minutes later we stopped. We’d run out of Manhattan.

A gigantic gate dissuaded us, and several hundred milling Staten Islanders, from entering the dock while the ferry landed. Maybe it was the proximity to Ellis Island, but as I waited for walkways to lower and winches to snap, nineteenth-century immigrant visions flooded my mind. I imagined the tired, the huddled, the yearning masses. I envisioned tattered suitcases overflowing with dreams and Old World artifacts. But what I saw was the gates open and unleash a horde of Staten Islanders, all charging toward Manhattan’s shore. Bracing ourselves for the crush, we pushed forward and threaded our way onboard.

My first impression of the ferry was wretched. “It smells like someone pissed themselves,” Tim said, “but I’ve drank in bars that smelled worse.” The boat itself looked like a cruise ship for 1960s Skid Row. Pastel-hued benches filled the filthy deck. The lighting was fluorescent and flickering. Salty windows afforded smudged skyline views. It was time to find beer.

Tim, Aaron, and I blindly wandered the first deck, searching for suds. All we saw were bums bunking for sea-faring eves and businessman loosening ties and sighing. Unsure of where to go, we walked through a door marked “EXIT.”

The night air met us with a kiss.

“Can I help you boys?” asked a grizzled ferryman who was leaning against the railing. He looked like he wrestled sharks for kicks.»

“Uh, yeah,” I said, “we’re looking for vending.”

“Vending? What’s vending? Oh, oh, oh; you boys want some dogs,” the ferryman said. “Concession’s up one floor. Walk back in and take them stairs. Oh, and make sure you slop some relish on yours; dog’s not a dog without relish.”

I pretend-smiled, and we quickly walked back inside and up the stairs. Eureka! Located center-deck, the ’70s-era concession stand looked like it was stolen from a baseball stadium. A yellow sign with red lettering ran around the square stand, proclaiming BEER, CANDY, POPCORN, HOT DOGS and other nutritional stopgaps. I stepped up to order.

“Can I have a beer?” I asked the Pakistani man behind the counter.

“No beer. Look at sign.” He pointed to the Pepsi placard behind the counter, where the drinks were listed in interchangeable black letters. I saw Coke, tea, coffee, and even Snapple, but no beer. No beer?

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, interrupting the vendor, who was busy slathering mustard on a hot dog. “I thought the ferry sold beer. Do other ferries still sell beer?” My dreams of boat drinks were hardy little suckers

“Not now,” he said. “This boajjytyeut doedhsnsysjk haevegjhej license. Maybe next wehekjryidewa.”

I regretted failing vendor English in college. I heard “license” and “next,” but next what? Ferry? Week? Lifetime? Whatever the reason, we weren’t getting served on this ship. Running over to Tim and Aaron, I explained the situation. “I do not want to ride the ferry sober,” I added.

The Staten Island Ferry has many fine attributes. It’s a rapid, cost-effective method of shuttling individuals between two bodies of land. The ferry provides gorgeous views of Manhattan, as well as a very large lady. And as the ferryman informed me, you can even get relish on a hot dog. But without beer, this was just one long, bumpy commute. If I wanted to spend 60 minutes crammed with angry, unhappy New Yorkers, I would’ve ridden the subway. Happy hour this was not.

Tim started running first. Aaron and I followed. We flew through the top deck, past a bum shouting, “I ain’t the only one; them white boys fell asleep too.” We sprinted down two flights of stairs and jumped onto the gangplank. Smoker lungs wheezing, we dashed down the walkway and through the gates right before they clamped shut. We caught our breath, then the subway. The three of us went to a bar and drank ourselves into one fine, landlubbering stupor.

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