“You’re the boss, Boss,” Desmond the Concierge said when I asked if I could leave my bags with him at the hotel and pick them up later. Mom and I were headed into the city for the day and wouldn’t be back before check-out. When he handed me my claim ticket, he also gave me a map of New York City’s ground transportation. For that I gave him two dollars.
We mapped our passage to Midtown Manhattan: hotel shuttle to the airport air train, air train to city train, city train to Penn Station and on foot from there.
Coming up from the underground of Penn Station, the city opened into a labyrinth of towering stone, glass and steel walls, offering corridors of vision only down the avenues and cross streets where I stood.
Before me lay this terrain—at the same time abundant and deficient, absurd and elegant—teeming with its history of bondage and liberty, tragedy and triumph.
No one with a simple story has ever walked these streets. But then no one has a simple story, do they?
The paranoid, the newlyweds, the cashiers at Macy’s and the tourists are all pressed in, shoulder to shoulder, beholding the same metropolitan maze, though their interpretations are worlds apart.
There’s the poor with their sad tales of the path to poverty, and there’s the rich with their even sadder stories of ascent to wealth. The prodigals of the Midwest are there, living it up in the distant country—some dining at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green, flush with cash, tipping the cabbies and waiters without a thought, others scrounging the dumpsters out back, scheming and begging for enough cash just to get back home.
And there’s me. And I’m the boss, Boss.
Mom has a plan. We need perspective. So off we go to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, 86 stories up. The crowds are negligible so we survey the north, south, east and west at will. She shows me where we’re headed—first north, up Broadway to Central Park, then south by way of 5th Avenue. From Rockefeller Plaza, we’ll catch the subway to Ground Zero and the Staten Island Ferry for a quick there-and-back.
We see Times Square, the Ed Sullivan Theater and the Hello Deli, where my mom buys a bagel from Rupert G himself. We enter Central Park from the west and leave from the east. I lunch on the most wonderful and obscene pastrami on rye I’ve ever laid eyes on, and then head over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I’m amused by my own inclination to repent of that pastrami on rye.
The Subway takes us to Battery Park. We join the throngs waiting to board the ferry for Staten Island. To the west, we pass Ellis Island—that in-between port of inspection and admittance into the New World. Marc Cohn sang of the place:
As my feet touched solid ground
I felt a chill run down my spine
I could almost hear the sound
of thousands pushing through the lines
Mothers and bewildered wives
that sailed across the raging sea
Others running for their lives
to the land of opportunity
Down on Ellis Island
Appearing as equal parts sanctuary, cemetery, prison, hospital and monastery, devoid of any hint of whimsy, an aura of seriousness hangs over that island.
And that’s right.
From 1892 to 1954, every soul who set foot on that ground had a reason weighty enough to leave behind their old, known world for this new unknown. From the steamship they’d follow the walkway to the inspection center and ascend the “Separation Stairs,” where immigration officials would scan the crowds looking for signs of illness.
From London to Kalmar, from Wittenberg to Geneva, from Paris to Cologne, for reasons all their own, men and women, young and old, bet it all on a perilous passage across the open sea to this little island of assessment. Clammy skin, runny noses, or bloodshot eyes might be enough to shut you down as you go up the Stairs of Separation under the scrutiny of men with the power to send you back to where you came from.
Serious business, indeed.
Me, I peel off the tiny bandage the nurse put on my sore left shoulder after my flu shot and I throw it in the trash. I’m fine. And if the labs got the right strains, I should be fine all year.
But one day I will take the boat to Ellis Island. I walk the pier and I’ll climb those Stairs of Separation. I’ll see the stacks of abandoned steamer trunks, the rejection papers under glass, the black and white photos of the mustached men in their bowler hats and the women with their parasols.
And by the grace of God, I’ll be humbled. I’ll repent of sins I hadn’t known I was committing, forsake idols I didn’t know I was worshiping and thank my Maker for blessings I didn’t know I had.
I’ll see the Separation Stairs and I’ll think of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats.
I’ll think about what it means to be a citizen of a Kingdom I must leave everything to enter.
I’ll understand I’m also an immigrant.
Over the course of the day I struggle to articulate my impressions of the city. From the Ferry, I see Manhattan all stacked and compressed, like the shoreline is being held in place by an elastic strap cinched tight.
When it finally breaks, look out!
We all know New York City is big. And historic. And expensive. But that we can get from a fly-over, or the web, or the travel channel.
As for me, I’m on the ground. I’m in the thick of it. My senses are popping with the sights and smells and sounds and textures coming at me all at once.
What do I see, Boss?
This city is a parable—a paradox of stain and polish. Every surface is at the same time worn smooth and covered in grime, both, I presume, from the same thing—us.
I walk a sidewalk where the feet of a billion pilgrims have gone before me. I hold a railing smudged by ten billion utterly distinct fingerprints. At the bow of the Ferry, I sit on a bench that has taken the weight of countless others just like me and as different from me as you can imagine.
And together we have worn away every surface while polishing it smooth. We’ve picked up the messiness of one another where ever we’ve gone from whatever we’ve touched. And we have also left behind bits of the crud we brought in with us—from the lifeless dust off our feet to the living oils from the pores of our fingers and foreheads.
The Steel Worker’s Union may have constructed the city’s frame, but the huddled masses painted it. With every footfall, every scuff of every steamer trunk pulled across every granite floor, every try of a door handle, every tire, horseshoe, subway wheel, rickshaw and hot dog cart has left its mark.
You’ll never see it, but I’m certain I left mine.
We can’t go anywhere with our leaving either a mark or a mess. And yet, neither can we single-handedly ruin this place. We step out onto the ledge, only to find it worn smooth by a million other fools who have also cantilevered themselves out there only to find that it somehow holds.
Tomorrow we’ll head over to Metuchen, New jersey to pay our respects to Nana—a woman of both stain and polish. You don’t make it to 89 without making your share of messes. But she certainly polished away some of my rough edges, too.
Tomorrow my parents will officially graduate to the generational position Nana was the last of hers to hold, and I to the one my mom and dad have held since the day I was born.
We’re not beginning again. We’re just shuffling up a step in line, treading sacred ground, regardless of whether or not we know it.
But that’s tomorrow. First things first. The PATH Train will take us from Ground Zero to the Airport, and the hotel shuttle will take me back to Desmond, who will give me back my luggage.
And I will give him another two dollars.