Why am I on Randall’s Island, shivering in a ski jacket, gloves, a scarf, and a blanket wrapped around me? It is 7 PM on a Friday evening, and I can see the Manhattan skyline lights flickering on. Normal people—sane people—are warm in bars, toasting pisco sours instead of facing blustering winds on Randall’s Island. Where is Randall’s Island, anyway?
In the middle of the East River—technically part of the borough of Manhattan, joined by landfill (Little Hell Gate, once a graveyard for ships) to Ward’s Island. Population: 1,386. Formerly Minnahanonek Island, purchased from the Indians in 1637 and used for farming by the Dutch. This expansive city parkland is where stones for Trinity Church in lower Manhattan were quarried in 1776. A 19th century home to an orphan asylum, burial ground for the poor, homeopathic hospital, rest home for Civil War veterans, and The New York House of Refuge, a reform school for juvenile delinquents. Currently home to a 25-acre golf center, an $18 million tennis center run by John McEnroe, and 60 newly-renovated sports fields.
I arrive here by public transportation, the #4 train speeding up to 125th Street from Union Square in less time than it takes to get through the Holland Tunnel at rush hour. On 125th and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, I wait for the M35 bus, which runs only once every 15 minutes. A preppy teenager and I are the only white people on line for the bus. He looks nervous; I am not.
“Is this the bus to Riker’s Island?” he asks.
I suppress a giggle. “Randall’s Island,” I say.
He nods, moving closer to me. I am old enough to be his mother.
“I’ve always been driven here,” he says.
“What game are you going to?”
“Columbia Grammar vs. Collegiate.”
“Friends vs. Nightingale,” I say. “My daughter plays soccer.”
Most of the passengers on the bus are likely going to work or to visit someone at The Manhattan Psychiatric Center, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, or the Fire Department Training Academy. Occasionally someone boards the bus with a full bag of golf clubs.
It’s obvious, my new teenage friend isn’t used to being the minority, even in our melting pot of a city. The bus passengers are rowdy but not scary, 98% male. Standing room only.
“What field are you going to?” I ask the teenager.
“I’m trying to find out,” he says, texting fervently on his BlackBerry. “Where’s Field 64?”
“Not sure.” I ring the bell to get off at Icahn Stadium, where Pele is rumored to have once played.
“It’s on the south end,” another passenger offers.
“I’ll let you know when to get off,” comes the kind voice of another.
“Good luck,” I tell the teenager.
“Yeah,” he nods.
“With the game, I mean,” I say.
“Have a pleasant day,” a passenger says, as I edge toward the rear exit door.
A pristine, extra wide turf field looms ahead, a neon gem that I approach underneath the vine and graffiti covered elevated train tracks of Hell Gate Bridge, sidestepping neglected rocky soil as if I am a right-wing midfielder outwitting my opponent.
I never thought I’d be a soccer mom. I didn’t want to be a soccer mom. Raising a daughter in Manhattan, I thought she’d be a ballerina, a tap dancer, a jazz piano player, a musical theatre star. We chose not to live in the suburbs – and yet she chose soccer. For the past eight years, I’ve been to every soccer field in the city: from Red Hook to Van Cortlandt Park. But still, we reluctantly converted city soccer parents now ruminate wistfully about how much we’ll miss going to games when our kids leave for college.
When the wind gusts aren’t 40 miles an hour, a soccer mom will notice a huge barge navigate the circumference of the island so closely that it seemingly merges with the bright green turf. During half-time, there are architectural landmarks to view: the art deco Triborough Bridge Authority Building for one. And only here can you cheer a soccer game standing under the roar of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (which some of us still call the Triborough).
Yes, sometimes we endure whiffs from the wastewater treatment plant. But if the sun is shining and one of the parents brings a box o’ hot chocolate from Dunkin’ Donuts, we can cope with the team’s season record: Wins: 3, Ties: 1, Losses: 10.
The island is both beautiful and an example of urban blight, even the center of controversy — recently, public school parents successfully opposed a city plan that would have allowed private schools special access to field times.
An oddly attractive and unsightly mix of contrasts,Randall’s Island is historical, edgy, combative and constantly evolving — much like the city itself.
Candy Schulman’s essays have been widely published including Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Lost and Found, Stories from New York, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Salon.com, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, and Parents. She is a creative writing professor at The New School.