I took the ferry out to Rockaway on Friday for the last time—or so I thought. It was reported in the press that ferry service to Rockaway was stopping as of March 19th. What would keep this ride from being melancholy—if there’s no ferry, I’m back on the A train with Volume II of “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”—was that it was my maiden voyage of the season. I persuaded my neighbor T. to come along—we could take the bus the rest of the way home, if her husband couldn’t pick us up in my long-lost car.
We met at Pier 11, Slip C, where regular riders were waving signs that said “Save the Rockaway Ferry” and “Save Our Boat, Keep her Afloat“ and “No Boat? No Vote!“ At boarding, the demonstrators all rushed for the prow to wave their signs at a TV camera. That left some great seats for us up on the top deck, in the stern.
The American Princess gave three long blasts of her horn and we hove to. Naw, we didn’t hove, or heave … I just like nautical language. What we did was we opened our brewskis and went to town, getting a jump-start on the weekend. One of the problems with this campaign to keep the ferry running is that its most vocal champions are likely to be the guys who drink to excess on the boat. One of them did get hold of the microphone as we approached the Brooklyn Army Terminal. “Brook-LYN, Brook-LYN!” The passengers who disembarked at B.A.T. were told that there would be an announcement at Riis Park Landing, and [wink, wink] “we will see you soon!” Later someone announced, “Look at that traffic on the Belt Parkway. Do you wanna be out there?” “Noooo!” bellowed the crowd.
On land, it was the first intensely warm, inviting day of the season. My feet had been so oppressed earlier, in their black shoes and socks, that I stopped at Paragon and bought a pair of purple Tevas. But it got nippy in the open ocean. A regular commuter, a businessman in a suit whom I recognized from a ferry meeting last fall, pointed to me, chillin' (literally) in my sweatshirt and sandals. “I’m tough,” I told him. I was cold but happy: T. had brought me a big bottle of Guinness. She lives in Rockaway all year round and knows that it stays colder out there well into June, so she was wearing a hooded parka. The regulars actually went below to get out of the cold. At least we didn’t get splashed, though the deck in front of us got wetted down. A parasailer—a surfer in a wetsuit holding on to a huge kite—raced over the waves toward the Verrazano Bridge.
In Jamaica Bay, the American Princess curved gracefully past the sweet houses of Roxbury and entered the harbor. A crowd had gathered to greet the ferry, with more signs, and not thirty seconds after I had bade a warm farewell to my favorite crew member, into my hand was pressed this notice: “Rockaway Ferry Service EXTENDED!”
The ferry, which first sailed in May of 2008, was originally funded for two years. Eric Ulrich, a councilman, was handing out the flyers and taking credit for the reprieve: the ferry service will run until July 1st. Lew Simon was on a podium with a megaphone, working the crowd. Lew Simon is all over the place in Rockaway: he is a Democratic District Leader, writes a column for the Wave, accosts people at the supermarket, schmoozes the ladies at their annual card party at St. Camillus (T. said she’d given him a hug the day she won a flat-screen TV; he’s good luck).
Ever since I’ve been going to Rockaway, there has been controversy about the ferry. The editor of the Wave is sour on the subject. For years, whenever there was talk of a ferry, he’d wager in print that it would never happen, which outraged me, because that kind of behavior, betting against yourself, is exactly what makes things not happen. Even people who wanted a ferry complained, when they got it, that this wasn’t the ferry they wanted. They deride the American Princess as a refitted fishing/party boat, and say the trip takes too long. The riders don’t mind that: it’s a spectacular harbor—why torpedo through it? The schedule doesn’t suit everyone—how could it? T. agreed that taking the ferry home on Friday is a swell way to launch the weekend, but leave in the morning at five-forty-five in order to be an hour early for work? No, thanks. In summer, I leave at seven-forty-five in order to be an hour early for work, but the flip side is how highly motivated I am to get out of work early in order to catch that last ferry home, at five-thirty. And they're doing the best they can with one boat. The only way to offer more crossings would be to add a boat.
Which brings us to the inevitable: the cost. At $6 one way, it’s controversial to everybody except the people who pay it. I think it’s a steal. The operating cost per passenger, I read, is more than three times that, at current ridership. Yet there are also complaints that $6 is too much. The Staten Island Ferry is free.
Is it elitist? It is. Is it impractical? It is and it isn’t. Is it fun? Oh, yeah. Is it beautiful and bracing? God, yes. I will be on it as often as possible for as long as it lasts.