Friday, July 24, 2009

Below Deck

Having rhapsodized and apostrophized and otherwise sung the praises of the Rockaway Ferry yesterday (see below), in my loyalty I rushed down to Wall Street in torrential rain to get on the 5:30 boat. It was the first time ever that I sat inside. I am exaggerating when I say there was “torrential rain,” but only because inside the boat there was a TV tuned to the news and they were giving the weather, which we could see perfectly well for ourselves out the ferry windows, and the weatherman was saying (according to the captions) that there was now or would be later “torrential rain” somewhere. The boat sped through the harbor, lurching over the waves, and water sloshed up against the windows and I felt ever so slightly as if I just might be seasick . . . I didn’t dare go up top for my customary beer, choosing instead to cling to my tabletop, turning my eyes occasionally onto the horizon (still visible) for stability.

Probably my choice of reading matter didn’t help any. I had forgotten my current book yesterday morning—I am on a Jonathan Ames kick, and he can be so perverted and scatological (yet hilarious) in his personal essays that they might have helped distract me—so on the way out of the office I grabbed a review copy of “Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World,” by Glenn Stout. The book begins, for reasons that will become clear, with a description of the Slocum disaster, the worst maritime disaster in New York history. On June 15, 1904, more than a thousand women and children drowned when the General Slocum, an excursion boat that was carrying a party of German Lutherans up the East River, caught fire. The captain and crew made all the wrong decisions, and none of the lifesaving equipment worked—it was ancient or inaccessible, and hadn’t been inspected in years. Women were not taught to swim in those days. Most of them drowned in shallow water off North Brother Island. Two chapters later, in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, Trudy Ederle (born October 23, 1905) learns to swim.

The ferry arrived safely and not a moment too soon at Riis Landing, and rain fell well into the night, though once we were on land it did not seem quite so torrential. I went to bed haunted by visions of maritime disaster. If it got really bad out there in the harbor, it would be so much worse to be on (or under) water than it would to be in a subway.

This morning, I reverted to the A train. Rather than continue with “Young Woman and the Sea,” I read this week's Wave. In a letter-to-the-editor, the paper’s historical columnist, Emil Lucev, wrote eloquently about, of all things, the Slocum disaster. The letter ends, “In nautical circles, the General Slocum is known as the ‘Poor Man’s Titanic’! The captain, William H. Van Schaick, was sent to prison at Sing Sing, New York … and was pardoned by President William Howard Taft in 1912. Shortly thereafter, the real Titanic went down with another great loss of life. The cause was ice, not fire, but the reasons were similar.”

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Living, as I did for many years, in the East Village, I was always fascinated by the Slocum disaster, since many historians point to it as the reason that the many Germans in the neighborhood left it for Yorkville. (The Slocum outing was, I believe, organized by the Lutheran church on East Sixth Street.) It was never quite clear to me whether this demographic shift occurred because the survivors, faced with such a tragedy, just couldn't continue to live in the neighborhood, but that is what I've always assumed. There is a small monument to the disaster in Tompkins Square Park.