Sunday, June 15, 2008

New York Pictures--Part 2A few days after our three hour visit to Books of Wonder and Union Square in April we returned to the greater metropolis for a six--maybe six and a half--hour excursion to the Statue of Liberty. At least, we went to the island where it is and walked around it, for it is necessary to reserve around a month in advance to go inside, and I did not plan that far ahead. My children have a set of National Geographic flash cards with pictures of iconic global sites--the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, etc--that they like, and the Statue being the site in the collection nearest our house, and my always looking for any angle to persuade people to go to New York with me, it was tentatively determined that we would go. I had never been out to the island to see it close up before, nor had my wife--my impressions were that it was uncool, that real New York people never went there, that the boat ride and islands were unpleasant and overcrowded with stupid/unattractive people and vendors selling junk. Not that any of that would, or should be a matter of concern to me personally, but Mrs S naturally doesn't care to waste any more hours of her life surrounded by lame people than she has to. These fears however were either unfounded, or in the case of the junk not obtrusive enough to spoil the atmosphere. We were fortunate that it was an exceptionally beautiful New York City day on the day we went, and Mrs S, who is always sporting, but usually warily so, when it comes to my excursions, even said afterwards that she had much more fun than she thought she was going to have.
We were in Philadelphia for the week, so we actually took the boat from the New Jersey side, and therefore did not go into the city at all. In addition to the people already named, something possessed me to invite my mother along, so while it would have been fun to go into Manhattan and catch the boat there, it was much cheaper and easier to do it this way (in addition the restored train terminal in New Jersey where you buy the tickets is a beautiful old-America swell kind of building). Although my mother has lived on the north side of Philadelphia, about 90 miles from Times Square, all her life, she has not been to New York since the 1964 World's Fair. I know she still hasn't really been there, but this outing feels very much like being there: one is on the river, and getting the same air, and light, and trees and rocks, and the crowd and the personality of the various monuments and exhibits on the islands have, contrary to popular belief, a distinct New York bent to them. The layout and construction of the park areas very much appears to be in the same spirit as the great WPA-era parks of the 30s and 40s that are found all over the greater New York area.
Here are the guys on the boat. We were there around the time of the Passover holiday, and while I honestly don't know if it is usual to go on outings during this time, it is worth noting that about half the people on the ferry and at the park the day we were there were Hasidic Jews. This made for a higher concentration of obviously intelligent and thoughtful-looking people than one usually encounters when on an outing. Many of the women of this group were also strikingly beautiful and mentally lively-looking, though they often had eight or nine children in tow, a combination of traits which is usually deemed incompatible in mainstream communities. In high school especially I had frequent crushes on various adorable Jewish girls who not only weren't buying what I was selling, but wouldn't even go to the part of town where I kept my store. But now is not the time to go into great detail about these lost loves, though this trip took me back to those days. One of the many deficiencies of the place where I live now is that the Jewish population is miniscule, and the lack is palpable in the general tenor of the local intellectual life. It is not that people are morons, but they lack intensity and any sense of immediacy of their learning or of their habits of thought in their personal relations with strangers, which seemed to me to be a more common, and often attractive, characteristic of Jewish people I knew growing up, though of course I did not make this connection or indeed take any notice of it until I moved somewhere where there were hardly any Jewish people and wondered what it was that was lacking in the mental life of the city I had come to, which has some very good institutions and other cultural infrastructure for a town its size.
The ferry stops at Ellis Island as well as Liberty Island. Naturally my children weren't much up for taking in the museum, but we did walk all around the building for forty-five minutes or so. The building, though restored, is really remarkably beautiful when one considers what it was built for. I doubt our modern holding pens for immigrants of questionable status are either so nicely built or situated. The giant curved windows, built in those pre-airconditioning days, if opened, would have allowed for abundance of air and light, as well as enticing views of the tireless activity of the river against the backdrop of the city skyline. The ceiling of the grand concourse itself is rather finely arched. I know it was not pleasant to be detained there and that liberties were taken of and abuses given to human beings, but for all that the place definitely holds a certain romantic appeal in the American imagination. When it was on the cusp of being demolished, people clamored for its preservation, and not as a memorial of shame. It does arouse very positive symbolic associations when one is there on such a day as we were there.

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