I went to New York City by myself for nine days— my friend Billy said "Nine days?
That's too long. You shouldn't be here for that long. You'll be exhausted." As you may have noticed by his choice of the word "here," I was already on his front porch in Brooklyn, so I couldn't do much about it.
Seven days later, I met a man who had missed the last boat to Ellis Island. I had missed it too, and I was talking to him and his friend about having missed it. "The last boat leaves at five? There's no sign saying so; it's completely confusing. What the hell?" Actually, I was only talking to the friend, because the man couldn't move. He was young and handsome, maybe American and ethnically South Asian, or maybe visiting New York City from another country. He held very still, calm but straining. He looked like he was trying to decide whether he was trying to hold back tears or not— I remember, because you don't see that look on a stranger's face very often. He wore purple. The light was orange.
When you're standing in Battery Park looking out at the Statue of Liberty at 5:30 and it's your last day in New York and you realize you've missed the last boat to Ellis Island, you're about to have a lot of complex emotions.
If you're like me, you spent the last 40 minutes crying on the back deck of the Staten Island Ferry because the Lady surprised you in so many ways. She caught you off guard with her beauty, with her strength, with her permanence. Seeing her with my own eyes for the first time instead of seeing her image brought instant and unanticipated tears— let me tell you I don't think of myself as any kind of flag-waving patriot. But it was the difference between seeing a sunset and seeing a photograph of a sunset; one can bring you up short and the other is meaningless. My surprise came partly from my competing thoughts: The Lady has been criticized by African-Americans from the start, for example; "It can not, or rather does not, protect its citizens within its own borders," as Harry Clay Smith's long-running integrationist newspaper the Cleveland Gazette pointed out in 1886. How little things have changed since then would infuriate Mr. Smith, and I'm with him. I believe in words, though, still, and here is a big unsmiling symbol of some very good words. I'd never been in the same air as it before.
If you're like me, you have only now realized how vital it is to go to Ellis Island; no one tells you this if you grow up in California, or if they do, you don't listen. If you're like me, you have only just remembered that the name you wear is not the one your grandfather came here with— that in the singularly American tradition of this place, you and your family are the only ones of your kind, sharing your name with no one else on earth and no one in history. Before Ellis Island, in an old country, there were others like you (or half like you) and there still are. But the severance of you and them is part of the meaning of this country, even if you do live in California. Old America is new to you, it only cropped up right this minute and you're falling in love with it; New York City is doing its whammy on you, just like the movies say it will, and you love to love it, and love to know it, just like the movies say you will. And because of all that, it's very, very sad that you just missed the last boat to Ellis Island.
And if you're like me, you know way deep in your gut that you'll come back to New York City someday; if you're lucky you'll come back in the company of the only other ones of your kind, stand on the back deck of the Staten Island Ferry, and see your new old country.
But if you're like the man I met, something else has happened, and this 5:30 is finite. You know you'll never come to New York City again. That you will die first is a stone fact. This is me reading his face, I admit, because I didn't sit him on a bench and pry his story out of him right that sunset minute, damn it. So I'm forced to read in his face that his friend didn't actually care that much about the boat to Ellis Island, and mostly only wanted to get uptown and go to titty bars and have bottle service, because to him that is the meaning of America and New York City, and why shouldn't it be? Titty bars and bottle service are America and New York City's brand name, they're the way America and New York City advertise themselves to the rest of the world, including the rest of this country. I don't blame the friend.
But something had happened to the other man. He was standing in Battery Park on a mid-August evening with the Statue of Liberty right there, torch now lit, and he was trying to work out some kind of bargain with time or physics. Maybe he had promised his mother he'd go to Ellis Island. Maybe he had a secret reason to see the Immigration Center, like a lost girlfriend (Baby?) Maybe he was confused about the meaning of this country, and needed to get clear. Maybe he was a graduate student in history and his dissertation was on the subject of the Ellis Island Immigration Center. No, that's not important enough, not even close. Whatever it was, he wanted to get to Ellis Island so badly that he was doing hard, bizarre math in his head— private water taxi? Exist? To be had? How much?
He had yet to accept that no more trips to Ellis Island would be taken tonight, not by him or anyone. I know this because it had taken me twenty minutes of rushing around dodging waterfront hucksters before I met these two to accept this same fact. I could see that he still felt the near-physical push in the small of the back and the manic activation of mental resources that come when you think there's a chance and you can see what you want across the water. Could you swim there? You're strong. You could sneak into the closed buildings and have a private, sweeping, cinema-worthy commune with the history of half the world. Significance would seep into you, because the buildings themselves would know what you'd gone through to get there and they'd yield up precious, ancient secrets. It would be like a more cosmopolitan sequel to a favorite childhood book or special movie scene. If caught, you could only become belovedly Internet-famous. Risking your life to see Ellis Island? Who in the entire world wouldn't love you?
All of that was on his face even as he kept it very carefully still, and pointed at the island for far longer than any normal person points their face in any direction during a normal conversation. He never saw me, because he never took his eyes off the island.
I had already been looking forward not to meeting, exactly, but to accompanying my co-travelers to Ellis Island. I wanted to love them the way I loved my co-people standing on the back deck of the Staten Island Ferry crying. We didn't talk, didn't want to, didn't even make eye contact. But we knew we were shoulder to shoulder, like it or not, the meat and bones of whatever this country is. From that deck, you can feel the weight of a nation hanging on your frame; good thing you're not alone. Good thing your shoulders are strong. Only the littlest kids looked up at us -- they'd remember us forever, the grownups standing on the back deck of the Staten Island Ferry crying. I noticed the older kids didn't even ask what was going on; I guess they knew. I hoped the trip to the Immigration Center would be as significant and less weepy, but I was ready for what would come.
Back at Battery Park it was sinking in: We missed the boat. We had simply, awfully, missed the boat, the boat, the one that would have changed us.
Lucky for me, I'll catch that boat someday. When I do, I'll think of the young man in purple standing in the orange light of Battery Park looking out at Ellis Island at 5:30 on his last day in New York City.
is a San Francisco based writer. She was born in Moffitt Hospital at the UCSF Medical Center, but grew up in a mobile home on a farm in hippie country, now called wine country. Some people think this makes her a San Francisco native, and some don't.