Photo by Herve Boinay
Twice weekly, we ride the ferry across the East River from the India Avenue landing in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn to 34th Street on the Island of Manhattan. Two hours later, we make the return trip. Each time we come aboard, the pilot, the bill of his cap pulled low on his brow, greets us with a taciturn nod. In turn, we reward his sullen acknowledgement with just the same gesture. No more, no less. The crossing, including a brief stop at Hunter’s Point in Queens, is short, but for those seven minutes on the river’s steel-gray waters—a trip that spans three boroughs—we are among the river folk.
Except for development along the Brooklyn and Queens shores, things don’t change much on the river. It’s not unusual for a tug boat to pass the ferry pulling a barge upstream past the East River Generating Station and the United Nations Headquarters complex in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood. My daughter—because the UN is in view, I will call her Olga Maximovna—waves at the boat. Who knows if anyone waves back. But I tell her that the skipper, no doubt bearded and well-seasoned by the salty air, has raised a tin mug of boiled coffee to her, in kind. And like clock work, as we’re just about at the 34th Street landing—and NYU’s Langone Medical Center—the ferry must give way to the good ship Red Hook, the Department of Environmental Protection’s newly commissioned sludge vessel, dedicated to transporting over two million gallons of river sludge per day—but to where? “To Who Knows Where, Olya,” I tell Olga Maximovna, addressing my daughter in the affectionate diminutive.
We take the ferry to Langone’s Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine, which is literally right across the river from where we live, for Olga Maximovna’s physical therapy sessions. But I tell her that one day, when all the therapy is finished and she can walk all by herself, we will take this same ferry to 34th Street and walk up, in the opposite direction, to the United Nations, and take the tour. After all, the ferry isn’t just for going to see the doctor. “And this time, Olya, Mommy will join us!” I always tell her how much her mother admires the design of the building—the so-called International style and it’s charmingly dated interior–even the tin ashtrays scattered throughout the facility from the cafeterias to the General Assembly Hall, where, in 1960, then Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on his desk in response to a speech critical of the Soviet Union (not that it didn’t deserve it), and probably rattling more than a few ashtrays in the bargain. But I add that she’s got to hurry and finish with her therapy for good, because they’re renovating the whole complex, and I’m sure the ashtrays were already the first to go. Her mother is even wistful about the ashtrays. So am I. “But, ashtrays or not, you, Olga Maximovna, must bang your shoe, one you just walked through the door wearing, in the General Assembly room.” I address my daughter formally to underscore the significance I assign to this objective.
One day while crossing the river to the Manhattan side, I tell Olga Maximovna about the U.N.’s art collection, comprising gifts of goodwill from member countries. There are, among others, the tapestry of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, displayed at the entrance to the Security Council chamber; the Sword into Plowshares statue from Italy; the Japanese Peace Ball, rung but twice a year: on the first day of Spring and on every opening day in September of the annual sessions of the General Assembly; a magnificent stained glass window by Marc Chagall with its many symbols representing love and peace; a pair of Léger murals installed in the General Assembly Hall; and, of course, the Gun Tied in a Knot sculpture out in front of the complex. All these things and more, I tell Olga Maximovna, I want her to see, so she better hurry up with the therapy and learn to walk already.
Another day on the river, I tell Olga Maximovna about my own first trip to the United Nations when I was in junior high school. Then, in 1980, I had to take a bus from Newport, Rhode Island, with my classmates because I didn’t live in Brooklyn yet. I tell her about walking through the halls, seeing the art, and learning about the organization’s history and how, on the way back to Newport, the bus driver, who had been listening to Howard Cosell announce a football game, pulled over to the side of the road and made a serious announcement. Though we were children, he addressed us formally: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. They killed John Lennon of The Beatles. John Lennon is dead.” I tell her how he had let the second sentence—“John Lennon is dead”—just hang there so that it would sink into our 12-year-old heads. And how it really didn’t sink in. Maybe we had heard of The Beatles, but we didn’t know John Lennon from Adam. The driver, clearly distraught, shook his head and slapped an overhead luggage compartment in disappointment as he went back to his seat to resume the trip home to Newport. I tell Olga Maximovna that while I was too young to understand the significance that the bus driver had assigned to the death of John Lennon, I did see how sad Madame C—, our French teacher, looked when she heard the news—and how her mouth opened slightly and just stayed that way as she turned to Mr. C—, her husband – but not Monsieur C—, who taught social studies.
Looking upriver on another ferry ride, I tell Olga Maximovna how one year, before I had even met her mother, I had marched up the streets just a few blocks from where she gets her therapy to protest the impending war in Iraq. Thousands and thousands of people were holding signs and shouting in protest against the war as they made their way uptown to the United Nations Headquarters, before being turned away by police. I told her about how cold it was, but how it sometimes felt warmer because of all the people marching side by side, and how, somewhere in the big crowd, her mother was there, too, even though we didn’t know each other then. Nothing so dramatic as Roger LaPorte, the young seminary student who, in 1965, had set himself on fire at the United Nations to protest the Vietnam War—but he didn’t stop the war either. Speaking to Olga Maximovna then, I used the term “self-immolation” rather than “set himself on fire,” figuring that there was less of a chance of the former haunting her young dreams than the latter.
To change the subject, I tell her that the United Nations is located in a neighborhood called Turtle Bay, but that there are no turtles there. It was named that in the 17th century because it was a safe place to land and to build ships. Maybe there were turtles there back then, but it is no longer a safe place for them to lay their eggs.
During the Civil War, I tell Olga Maximovna, after the first Conscription Act was passed, the Army set up an enrollment center there, and men had to sign up to go to fight their brothers. On July 13, 1863, an angry mob burned the office to the ground and rioted all through Turtle Bay, destroying entire blocks—maybe that’s when the turtles had left. The riots went on for three days before troops managed to put down the mob, which had burned and looted much of the city. I assure Olga Maximovna that her mother and father had only chanted slogans as we marched through Turtle Bay about 150 years later.
On still another ferry ride, I tell Olga Maximovna about how Muammar Gaddafi, who they had killed just the day before, once tried to pitch his tent on the grounds of the United Nations, just blocks from where she gets her therapy, but they wouldn’t let him. They wouldn’t let him put it up in Central Park either, or in New Jersey, even. So he had to rent property outside the city from Donald Trump. He always slept in that tent, except, apparently, one night in 1986 when Ronald Reagan bombed his compound in Tripoli. Despite plans by Oliver North to lure Ghaddafi into the compound on the night of the bombing, he wasn’t there. Someone had tipped him off. So they only ended up killing his daughter instead (I regretted telling Olga Maximovna this last detail. Just a year earlier, Nancy Reagan had given a mosaic to the United Nations to celebrate the organization’s 40th anniversary. The Golden Rule mosaic was based on a painting by Norman Rockwell. Depicting people of all races, religion, and creeds, the mosaic tells everyone “to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I go on to tell Olga Maximovna, the murky waters so gray and thick as to appear like the ferry is cutting through something solid, about how in another military operation, President Obama had killed Osama Bin Laden, though unlike Ronald Reagan, he didn’t bomb his compound, instead using specially trained men to sneak into his house and shoot him. That night, everyone in New York was out in the streets celebrating the killing of the man who had ordered that two airplanes be crashed into the World Trade Center (For context, I gestured downriver to the empty piece of the skyline where the Twin Towers once stood before the two planes had crashed into them.). That is, everyone except us. That night, I was struggling to feed Olga Maximovna while her mother was sleeping in the bedroom, herself exhausted from an earlier failed feeding. Still, had the circumstances been different, I’m sure we wouldn’t have joined in the party. “It’s a strange thing to cheer about, don’t you think, Olya?” I ask my skinny, red-haired daughter. It’s not like it made the river any safer for a little girl to go to physical therapy.
Even just a few weeks ago at 34th Street landing while waiting for the ferry to take us back across to the Brooklyn side, I saw that on our part of the East River there was a small Coast Guard boat with a mounted machine gun pointed in our direction, bobbing gently in the wake of the good sludge ship Red Hook. A machine gun pointed in the direction of little Olga Maximovna and the hospital she rides a ferry to twice a week for help learning to walk. Thankfully, she was napping, exhausted from a tough session.
This year’s General Assembly meeting started at the United Nations only this morning. They must have rung the Japanese Peace Bell just a few hours ago, I wonder aloud to the sleeping Olga Maximovna if the tug boat skipper had heard it sounding over the river as he made his way past Turtle Bay, pulling a barge full of who knows what to who knows where among the river folk.
Kevin Kinsella is a writer and critic. Most recently his work has appeared in/on The Believer magazine and Bomb magazine’s Web site. He is the translator (from Russian) of Sasha Chernyi’s “Poems from Children’s Island” (Lightful Press) and Osip Mandelshtam’s “Tristia” (Green Integer).