A Box of Slides: Staten Island at Home and Abroad

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09/19/2021

Neighborhood: Staten Island

Moran

Early in the pandemic, I started posting photographs from my wanderings in Staten Island. Old storefronts, tugboats on the Kill, old signs from long extinct businesses…whatever caught my eye. 

In response to one post, I got a DM from a guy called Richie. He said he liked my posts, recognized a lot of the buildings, and wondered if I’d be interested in a box of old slides of Staten Island he’d picked up at a garage sale.

We arranged to meet on the sidewalk outside his office on Forest Avenue. He handed me a cardboard box with about two dozen metal slide trays from an old-fashioned projector—an Airequipt Suberba to be exact; much later I found the manual at the bottom of the box. Richie said he had been at a garage sale somewhere on the North Shore and noticed a metal carrying case he liked. He asked the seller, how much? “Five bucks, but you have to take the slides too.”

When I got home, I took a tray from the top of box. It was labeled with the name of a street near Ward Hill, as well as “Catskills – 1960-61.” It turned out all the trays were labeled in the same handwriting with places and dates.

I pushed up one of the slides from the bottom of the tray, realizing that this was going to be dirty work: the grime of half a century coated my forefinger. I held up the slide to the light and was rewarded with a nice shot of boys walking up the center of a hilly residential street with mounds of snow on each side. So far so good. I looked at a few more: an older woman in front of a snow covered car on the same street; and from a different season, an older gentleman (the woman’s husband?) photographing a young boy on the lawn playing with a dachshund.


Snowy Staten Island Street

I was going to need a higher tech method for looking at these slides. I thought of the battery-operated viewers that let you look at one slide at a time—too time-consuming, given that there were hundreds of slides here. From my time in the 1980s working for a publisher of nature guides, I remembered the lightbox. Sure enough, for about $50, I could get a low-end model: a rectangular sheet-metal box, 12”x10”x3” encasing an LED lighting element with an opaque plastic surface on top. A metal rod clamped to opposite sides allows you to prop it up and view at an angle whatever you put on the surface. No operator’s manual required, just plug it. 

I began my “research.” I could array about 20 of the 2”x2” slides on its surface at a time. Leaning over and peering through a loupe, I could get a good idea of what each series depicted. The second tray I pulled out was labeled “Spain-Penn.-S.I.” Along with photos of Madrid plazas and the Alhambra and the woodsy shots from the Poconos, it offered a very nice photograph of an older woman with the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the background. The next tray was labeled “Ireland #1-1967” and the next “Canada-Yellowstone – 1965.” 

It quickly became clear that almost all of the photographs were from vacation trips (to Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe) and assembled to show family and friends in slide-show get-togethers. The photographs were the predictable ones from such trips: buildings and monuments and scenic spots. From Yellowstone, geysers, bears, snowcapped mountains; from England, Stonehenge and Wordsworth’s cottage; from Denmark, the Little Mermaid. Sprinkled in were posed or candid snaps of people gathered around a table on a hotel patio, beside a pool, or at a cruise ship’s buffet table.

 The travelers appeared to be a retired couple taking part in tour groups, perhaps traveling with friends from New York, and sometimes with their grown son. The photographer, whoever he or she was, was fond of the European cars and now and then snuck in a photo of an attractive woman walking down a street.

“Grandma and Car and Verrazzano Bridge”

Here and there a Staten Island photo would show up: a girl in a high school graduation robe, a couple beside their spindly Christmas tree, children on their first day of school, a July 4th party with adults clowning around, a man in a checked shirt outside of J.C. Penny. It began to feel a bit tedious, retracing this family’s travels from 50 plus years ago. My progress slowed down, from one or two trays a day to one every few days. I considered giving up on the project

The fifteenth or sixteenth rack I pulled from box was labeled “Bermuda – 1967.” The first few slides were photos of a stone fort surrounded by palm trees and the Union Jack. I put another slide on the lightbox: nothing remarkable, warehouses along a harbor. I wondered why they had included it along the more picturesque images from the island.

Then something caught my eye: partially blocked by one of the warehouses, the distinctive black “M” of a Moran tugboat, familiar to anyone who has ever driven along Richmond Terrace, where the company berths some of its boats. From small parks along Staten Island’s North Shore, I’ve spent hours watching them steadily ply the calm waters between the island and New Jersey.

Even when I had the shot digitized, it was difficult to make out the other features of the boat, just a narrow swatch of the signature blood red superstructure. I looked closer: could this be Port Richmond rather than Bermuda? Was that snow on the buildings? But, no, there are no palm trees on Staten Island. And, with a little help from Google Earth, I confirmed that this was St. George’s Harbour, Bermuda, with its gentle hills, light pastel buildings, and white roofs, and not the Kill Van Kull so close to home.

I will probably never learn the identity of the Staten Island photographer who took the photograph. I do know, crossing back some 55 years in time, that I would have taken exactly the same shot. The glimpse of the familiar in an unexpected place can be as compelling as the most exotic site in the guidebook.

***

David Allen is a professor of English Education at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. He lives on the North Shore of Staten Island. You can follow his SI wanderings on Instagram @dallennfa

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