Of Many Things

It doesn’t take much to get me on the Staten Island ferrythat wondrous half-hour trip across the New York harbor to an island that is one of the city’s five boroughs. Usually, the occasion is a friend’s visit to New York City. Few are those who, looking back from the ferry midway, remain unimpressed: the sight of Manhattan’s skyscrapers rising from the water could easily put one in mind of a modern Venice. Little wonder that the ride is a favorite among tourists. It never did cost much; at its highest, the price was 50 cents for a round trip. Now it is free, a boon to island residents who use the ferry on weekdays to commute to their jobs.

Dorothy Day often used the ferry too, even before she and Peter Maurin began the Catholic Worker movement in the early 1930’s. With the proceeds of a novel sold to Hollywood, she bought a cottage on Staten Island, and often made the trip back and forth to Manhattan. After her conversion to Catholicism, and well into the 1970’s, she continued to seek respite on the island along with other Catholic Workers at another location. In his biography of her, William D. Miller quotes her words about the trip itself: The taste of the salt spray was on my lips, and the sense of being upheld on the water reminded me of the everlasting arms’ which sustain us. Gulls wheeled overhead, grey and blue against the dark sea. Then she added a prayer: May the many who come to us on the island feel this calm and strength and healing power of the sea, and may it lift them to God as it has so often lifted me.

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This time I made the trip with a specific object in mind: to visit an exhibit at the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences called The Lenape: The First Staten Islanders. The exhibit itself was modest, filling just two rooms. But its display of arrow heads and other stone implements took one back thousands of years to a period when Siberia was still joined to what is now Alaska. Nomadic hunters made their way across this land bridge and down into the American continent. Some, the Lenape, settled on Staten Island, and eventually became in effect farmers who grew corn, beans and squash. They also developed impressive artistic abilities; a striking head of carved stone attests to their skills.

The Lenape tribe’s first brief encounter with Europeans was through Giovanni da Verrazano; but unfavorable weather conditions obliged him to move quickly on. Then in 1609 Henry Hudson arrived, and in an account of his voyage the native people were described as very civil. No harm was done until two decades later, when Dutch settlers established themselves in New Amsterdam, the name for what later became New York. With their firearms and trained soldiers, they easily overcame the Lenape and other tribes on the island. Finally, the British returned to lay claim to New Amsterdam, and the centuries-old culture of the Lenape came to an end. Except for remnants like those in the exhibit, all trace of these gentle and vulnerable people has disappeared.

Today’s vulnerable people on Staten Island, however, are still very much in evidence. On my way back to the ferry terminal, I paused briefly on the esplanade to look out across the water toward the city. Between me and that view, a homeless man lay stretched out asleep on the sidewalk next to a bus stop. Not far away, a homeless woman sat on a bench with her shopping cart of meager possessions. Their combined image of present-day vulnerability remained with me as the ferry moved back toward Manhattan. Again, the skyscrapers rose up in the distance, but this time more as a symbol of power and wealththe destructive kind that Dorothy Day knew well in her efforts to assist disenfranchised persons like the homeless man and womanand the kind that, centuries earlier in different guise, had laid waste the Lenape and their fragile culture.

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