At the Helm

The maelstrom of 9/11 brought many gifts to our city, among them the reinstitution of long-gone ferry service between Manhattan and Brooklyn. A modest-sized high-speed twin hull from the New York Water Taxi fleet now plies Upper New York Harbor between the Wall Street pier and Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge waterfront during rush hours on weekdays. Riding it feels like stuffing a nice piece of angel food cake in my mouth (with a little lemon icing!). So I recommend it heartily. But if you go, don’t tell the crew my little secret. The bright yellow launch isn’t actually a ferryboat. It’s really my private yacht. I own it. Those crew people wearing Dockers and corporate logo T-shirts? They all work for me. I’m the peculiar passenger who always buys a round trip.

I ride the ferry at least once a week, despite its limited schedule. Now I’ve arranged to get e-mails from the water-taxi office whenever there’s a schedule change. Addicts need ever increasing doses to get them off. Next thing you know I’ll have bought a Treo so I always know what’s up with my little flotilla.

New York is a big place, right ? Lots of people doing things together. The Brooklyn Army Terminal ferry makes me feel special, though. I think I am literally the only soul in this city of 8million plus who makes a habit of the BAT ferry just for fun. In dozens of trips over the past five years, I think I’ve seen tourists on the boat twice. One of those times was during the intermediate days of the 8-day long Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. Hasidim in their long black coats and ankle-length skirts crowded the boat one sunny day last fall, enjoying the outdoors as is their tradition during those special days. I loved speaking Yiddish with my new friends, but in general, I have the boat to myself, in one way or another. There may be other passengers, particularly on the way to Brooklyn in the late afternoons, or if I happen to get up early, on the Brooklyn to Wall Street run in the mornings. But the other riders are not taking the same trip. My head’s in the clouds or bobbing above the gun-metal gray harbor water. Theirs are buried in the Daily News. I just don’t get it. This is possibly the most beautiful place in all of New York. I ride the boat a lot and never tire of the landscape thrill. Sure the sports section could wait…

On the dead-head runs against the commute, the craft’s all mine: mist-coated decks, tag-along gulls, a view of the harbor that has no end. The twin screw kicks some major donkey as we head out across the Upper Harbor, our wake slashing a mighty foaming furl behind us. Winter, spring, summer, fall: nothing stops me. Nasty weather is the best. Braving a howling nor’easter across the harbor, the gray sky unfolds all about me, roiling and railing, ducking under layer after layer of cumulus commotion. I grab the rails with both hands, standing on the top deck, buck-solid against a gale force wind trying its damndest to toss me overboard while frozen sleet smacks me in the face with fistfuls of needles.

Brooklyn-bound we make our way through a little-used body of water, named after a dairy product. Long ago, I’m told, Buttermilk Channel was filled with boulders that caused turbulence and a whitish appearance at the surface. Thus the name. Perhaps pollution now obscures it all. A few work boats still use the passage: mostly oil barges and that seldom throwback, a railroad car float. The waters welcome them, carefully carrying precious cargo across its narrow midriff, remembering their forms and functions. Obsolescence looms large among the frozen gantries on idle docks.

Red Hook’s western wharves beckon sadly. Inside the 150-year old Atlantic Basin, rotting hulks list. All is still. What wouldn’t I pay to plunge below, searchlight in hand. All along the shore north of the Gowanus Canal’s wide mouth, rip rap and rotted ghost pilings lay about, silently lamenting a past that’s slipped from memory’s grasp. The weeds and yellow fever of what was known as Bompjes Hook are long filled and bulkheaded, the dreaded germs eradicated. But nature’s returned in a strange circle, grasses growing and crabs clawing amongst the rubble everywhere.

Listen hard and you can hear the cries of barge men, tired after a month’s journey to the Erie Basin, finally delivering their precious grain cargos to the massive elevators towering over the majestic arc of protected water, home now to sunken wrecks and misguided casino-boat projects, waiting for the kiss of death from Fairway and Ikea promised soon. Go to the end of Van Brunt Street and close your eyes on a stormy winter day, and you’ll hear the roar of industry and robber barony when Brooklyn’s post-Civil War economy burst with wealth.

The echo of such activity, such real life, the drinking, the cursing, the maleness of it all, hangs in the air, lies on the building walls like some ineradicable palimpsest of a life that was real and local, a life lived hard in the saloons of Columbia Street and up-harbor in streets named Java and India, Roebling and Wallabout. Maybe that’s the same chord I hear when I see the young Wall Street back office clerks who commute back to Bay Ridge on the 4:00 p.m. boat greeting each other as the gather at the slip. One shaved-head faux goodfella spots his beer-bellied buddy; they clap each other on the back in a solemn slow-mo, a one-armed embrace. Nothing too close, afraid of being labeled, you know what… Clinch and release, this passes of friendship, true brotherhood at the end of a day of mouse-clicks having replaced the grappling hook their grandfathers wielded Brooklyn dock-side decades ago.

We cruise up the channel and idleness surrounds us where factories used to hum and smokestacks belched. What we eat and what we wear: where is it made and how does it get here? Should homage be paid in our street grid to Fujian and Guangzhou, to the New Territories, and Malaysia’s endless prison-like factory compounds. Old names remain, but what testament is paid? These battered street signs serve as tombstones of a past that will never return, of factories shuttered, lives broken, docks collapsed and ships scuttled in place. One big watery graveyard, this Brooklyn shore, among whose graves ghost-like survivors walk the earth. It’s Green-Wood sans tulips.

Blades of grass and stubborn weed-greens struggle and survive, though. Riding down First Avenue in South Brooklyn, you’ll encounter a sight almost every day that is so unexpected and antiquated you’ll gasp. Rails lie embedded in most of the avenue, branching off into dozens of now aborted sidings. But close to the Army Terminal, down near 58th Street you’ll find that most exotic of New York beasts: every day a trembling locomotive creeps back and forth, pulling a few freight cars in and out of the derelict yards that line the waterfront. Cowboys on horseback rode up and down the avenues of Manhattan’s lower West Side through the early decades of the 20th century while rail freight still made its way down to the Gansevoort Terminal and beyond. You can hear their warning cries in Brooklyn to this day from the cabs of these blue huffing giants snaking their way past the 18-wheelers and battered late model Pontiacs driven by Hasidic factory owners in this urban gourmet’s dreamland.

If you’re a dreamer, too, come join me. Make it a day trip, against the flow. Bike down there to Pier 11, foot of Wall Street, Slip A. Ferry over, walk til your feet ache and picnic on the pier. Take your fishing rod and spend the day, and then the next and then the next…

For schedule info: , but shhhhhhhh, don’t tell anyone.

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