Manhattan entrance to Staten Island Ferry Terminal

The morning of January 5, I woke to a day that was sunny and windy with temperatures in the 20s in New York City. To say that I woke up implies I’d slept the night through. I hadn’t. My body felt like every muscle was taut, like springs stretched to the max. When I did sleep, my dreams were anxiety-ridden–the kind that you rouse yourself from. I had slept for about three hours. I had decided to make a journey to my old boarding school, St. John Villa Academy, in Staten Island.

Someone asked me if the purpose of my visit was to put old ghosts to rest. My goal was the opposite. I wanted to rouse those ghosts. That morning, I knew by the night I had spent, I was doing something I needed to do.

It was time. I’d not set foot on grounds of St. John Villa since June 1969. I was curious to reacquaint myself with the place that has loomed so large in my memory–and has left an imprint on the person I am today.

I photographed my journey and took notes during the entire trip. I wanted to record everything along the way.

Battery Maritime Building (1909)
Disconnecting from Manhattan

I arrived just in time for the 10 a.m. ferry and had to run to catch it. As soon as I boarded, the boat crew pulled the accordion gate across. The horn blasted.

Departing Manhattan

I watched from the back of the ferry as we pulled away from New York’s Financial District. The ferry shuttered and creaked from the engines down below. Without warning, my stomach started churning. I felt shaky. I thought I would vomit. I’ve suffered from seasickness before and knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t a case for Dramamine. No, the visceral feeling was oh-so familiar. It was that same reaction I had decades ago, every Sunday on my trip back to boarding school. I was a child all over again.

Ellis Island

Statue of Liberty

I stepped on to the deck outside into the chafing wind. White caps dotted the water. I distracted myself by watching the boat traffic and, of course, the iconic landmarks.

Beneath the seats

I don’t know how to swim (more on that later). When I was a child, I’d see those stenciled letters on the long rows of benches on the boat and wonder whether I would have time to get at one of those life preservers in case the boat started sinking. On the boat, I was reminded constantly of being adrift on green-black water, the land gone from beneath my feet.

Verrazano Narrows Bridge

The first site of this bridge as we made the trip across the water made me think of school. At the end of a rainbow, there’s a pot of gold. At the end of Verrazano on the Staten Island side, my boarding school that was anything but a treasure.

Traffic!

Aboard the Samuel I. Newhouse Ferry

As the ferry approached Staten Island, I returned outside. The wind made it hard to push open the door onto the deck and then, once outdoors, steady my camera. In some ways, the bracing cold felt good–a distraction from all those old fears stirring about my body.

I noted the ferry’s name, Samuel I. Newhouse Sr., who started the “Staten Island Advance,” the borough’s newspaper, and went on to found a publishing empire. I couldn’t help but think of the irony. I write regularly for a Conde Nast magazine, which is part Advance Publications, and is now headed by his son, Si Newhouse Jr. My past and present were joined by that ferry. (For more about the history of Staten Island and the ferry, visit the Staten Island Museum.)

Freighter

Approaching Staten Island

St. George Ferry Terminal, Staten Island

Pulling into the dock

Lowering the walkway to the ferry

The old St. George Ferry Terminal has undergone an extraordinary renovation. The original 1940s building, the one I’d walked through so many times, had been musty and chilly. Now the building is airy with numerous glass windows to take in the waterfront views. Sunlight streamed through all the windows. I climbed into a cab. The driver, cheerful and polite, was a refugee from Kosovo. We got lost. I knew the general direction and the address, but not the exact streets to get to the school. We used the Verrazano Bridge as our landmark. His English wasn’t extensive, but between getting directions from his dispatcher and my consulting my Blackberry, we arrived 30 minutes later. He apologized profusely.

Entry Gate, St. John Villa Academy

And then we were there. I thanked him. I stood at the gates of St. John Villa Academy and looked around. I started walking. I saw no one. The only noise I heard was the whooshing of cars from the bridge ramp. I closed my eyes and listened. That sound transported me years back.

The driveway was not as long as I’d remembered. In less than a minute, I came upon the swimming pool. The summer between second and third grade, I went to camp at SJVA. There, I learned not to swim. The instructors tossed me in the deep end time after time. I’d flail around. By the end of the summer, I finally managed to stay afloat.

Pool, Summer Camp, SJVA

I walked a little further. I stopped and sniffled. My eyes and nose were watering from the cold. I dabbed my eyes with a tissue to see more clearly. Adjacent to the pool building, there it was: an ugly squat building. My old dorm.

Front of Dorm

Dorm, side entrance

Had it really seemed this ugly back then? The surrounding buildings were nicer. Now I could see, through my adult eyes, that this brick and cement building looked much like a bunker, a maintenance building. Nothing about the structure said “home” or “comfort.” The doors are heavy steel, thick with brown paint. Every Sunday, we’d enter through the side door on the far end into a large room where each girl had a small closet to stow away school uniforms, underwear, blouses, shoes, etc. The grade school girls slept on the main level in one long room. The high school boarders lived on the top floor.

Here is the back view of the doom. On this lower floor we had a TV room and a study room, where we did our homework. We used that door to exit to the little asphalt-covered play area, which bordered a parking lot for the school buses.

View from back of dorm

From the dorm’s “playground,” we could see the toll booths to the bridge. On the Sundays my mother and her boyfriend drove me to school, I would race to the back fence to catch a glimpse of his white car pulling into a toll booth, on their trip back home, leaving me behind.

View of classroom buildings from dorm

Until 1972, SJVA had both boarders and day students. Now the former dorm is used for art classrooms. I only know because I read the sign. I had been there for 20 minutes by this point and still hadn’t seen a soul.

View of dorm from walkway to cafeteria

View of dorm and Verrazano from classroom buildings

Classroom building (left) and chapel (right)

I went to classes here and received my First Communion at the chapel.

Stairwell in classroom building

I peeked into the a few doors. Classes were being held. Unfortunately, all the doors were locked.

Leaving SJVA, classroom building in rear

I explored a little more, occasionally pausing to imagine the little girl I was in a brown plaid uniform, matching plaid beret, knee socks and white gloves. As I stood at the gate waiting for a cab, a bell rang. In the distance, I could hear kids running around outside, shrieking and laughing. Ten minutes later, another bell rang. Silence again, except for the constant hum of the cars going to the bridge. And then, just before the cab arrived, a compact car drove through the gates. In the driver’s seat sat a nun, cell phone to her right ear, her left hand on the steering wheel and no seat belt. I don’t think she noticed me.

Boarding the John F. Kennedy Ferry

When I was traveling to and from Staten Island as a kid, I’d taken a JFK ferry. I found out that the ferry I was boarding for my return trip was the same one. The JFK was put into service in 1965. The boat hasn’t changed much. The ferry no longer carries passenger cars–or buses, for that matter. (In 1970 and 1971, I had gone to a different camp–this time a day camp–on Staten Island, run by the Educational Alliance, which is based on the Lower East Side. Every day, we boarded school buses at Edgies that took us to the Staten Island camp grounds by ferry.)

On the ferry "John F. Kennedy," back to Manhattan

Life jackets, JFK Ferry

Aboard the ferry

Inside the JFK, another view

Raft

In the afternoon, I returned to Manhattan. SJVA seemed a world away, yet still very much a part of me. The ghosts had been disturbed. People speak about a need for closure. I wasn’t seeking that. As a writer, I wanted to reopen that part of my life, examine it, stir things up, and then write some more.

Approaching Whitehall Ferry Terminal

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The blog “Going Coastal” has a wonderful post about the Staten Island ferry. Going Coastal is a nonprofit dedicated to connecting people and coastal resources by raising awareness of the immense value of the coastal environment. For those who have ridden the ferry without thinking much about its beautiful journey or for those considering taking the ferry to Staten Island and back to lower Manhattan, read this piece, which covers history:

“People have been traveling to Staten Island by some sort of boat for centuries. In 1609 Henry Hudson, the explorer, named it Staaten Eyelandt, in honor of the Dutch Parliament. The American Indian population on the island resisted settlement attempts in three battles: the Pig War, over accusations that Raritan Indians had stolen settlers’ pigs; the Whiskey War, over a distillery; and the Peach War that erupted when a woman from the Aquehongan tribe allegedly stole a settler’s peach. Though the indigenous peoples didn’t believe in owning land, they would soon enough be edged out by the Dutch and then the English.

Launch of a landmark

The first regular ferry service was a sailing ship set up by 16-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1810. He eventually built a transportation empire worth $100-million. By 1816, steam ferry service was available, but because the fare was 12½ cents each way, it was mainly used by wealthy Staten Islanders. Staten Island became a borough of New York City in 1898, and then, in 1905, the city took control of the ferry.

Though the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, completed in 1964, connects Staten Island to Brooklyn, the ferry remains the only link to Manhattan. It used to carry cars, too, but that service was discontinued after 9/11.”

Literary ties:

“The poetry of memory

Edna St. Vincent Millay immortalized the Staten Island Ferry in her poem Recuerdo, which means “memory,” written in 1919. The first two lines of her poem are printed in large letters on the wall of the Whitehall Terminal, which opened in 2005:

We were very tired, we were very merry

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.”

I grew up in Manhattan, but have two distinct memories of the Staten Island ferry. One was going to and from Catholic boarding school, which was on Staten Island. More often, my mother’s husband drove us over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I remember riding the ferry home in the middle of the week from school. The school called my mom to have her pick me up. Fortunately, she worked in lower Manhattan, so the ferry was a quick walk from her office. I’d come down with what was then called German measles, now better known as rubella. On the trip back to Manhattan, an elderly woman leaned her face into mine, which was covered with red spots. “Your kid has something wrong with her,” she said. My mother replied, “She’s contagious.” The woman pulled back quickly and said nothing more as she walked away. I missed about another week or two of school. When I returned to SJVA, several kids in my class were absent. They too had rubella. I had been the first.

I’m sad to find out that the ferry no longer allows cars and other motor vehicles. My other memory is of a happier time, two years later when I was enrolled in the Educational Alliance (Edgies) day camp. Every summer weekday, we’d board school buses, which were driven onto the ferry, on the Lower East Side. After our ferry ride, the buses drove–more like raced each other–through the island to Henry Kaufman Campground, where we spent the day. For lunch, I brought cream cheese and grape jelly sandwiches, which tasted so good after a morning of arts & crafts, games and other activities.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey or Historic American Engineering Record, Reproduction Number (HAER NY,24-BROK,57-7)One of the enduring images for SJVA boarders was the tollbooth plaza of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. We could see it from the back fence outside our dorm. Every Sunday afternoon, my mother’s husband drove his Impala through those booths. I sat in the backseat of the smoke-filled car, my stomach churning, the lump in my throat growing, with each landmark we passed. I felt so small back there—even tinier than I was then. At 7 years old, I weighed barely 35 pounds or so.

Every Sunday during the school year, our journey began in Ozone Park, Queens, where my mother and I lived in an apartment next to the elevated “A” train. I came home on Friday nights, always relieved to be back. By Saturday night, I was dreading the next day: my departure once again. Our route to school took us from Queens through Brooklyn to the Verrazano. The bridge was new, opened to traffic three years before, in 1964. Named after Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian explorer who was the first European to sail through the Narrows in 1524, the bridge is an imposing light grey span with 693-foot towers. Unlike New York City’s grander bridges, the Verrazano looked cold, a spare feat of engineering. A sum of bolts, steel and asphalt.

When we reached the bridge, I could feel my world—or what could be my world had I been like other kids, a day student, with two parents, maybe some just-baked cookies to greet me after school—shrink away behind me. Although the bridge connected two boroughs, I viewed it more as something that was a boundary—disconnected from home, from my mother. Cross that bridge, and I was deposited into the charge of Sr. Claire. She oversaw the boarders who were attending elementary school. At that moment, passing through the tollbooths, I felt abandoned and isolated. I was thrust into a place where I had even less control than any child could have.

I’d try my best not to cry. After my freshly washed uniforms, white blouses and gloves, knee socks and underwear with little white tags bearing my name sewn in at the waist by my mother, and my shoes were placed into my closet, and after my bed was re-made with clean linens, my mother and her boyfriend would leave. And I would run out to the back of the dorm, embraced only by the chilly autumn dusk,to glimpse their car passing through the tollbooth and watch until the Impala became too small to see.

I hope to start a conversation with women who were sent away to a Catholic boarding school, especially if you attended St. John Villa Academy in Staten Island, NY. Ours was a unique experience. I can still summon myriad feelings of isolation, abandonment, loneliness, fear, etc., even though I was a boarder back in the Sixties. My time there for two years (1967-1969) and at St. Mary’s Academy (1966-67) in Lakewood, NJ, have stayed with me always. I loved attending grammar school, but hated being a boarder. I long dreamed of the day I would become a day student, someone who could go return to a real home every day after school and be greeted with love, not a stern nun, strict regulations and more regimentation.