A few weeks ago I was told by my shipping broker that my car would be ready for pick up the following day in Staten Island. He put me in contact with George, the man who personally oversaw the shipment. Over the phone he offered to pick me up at the Staten Island ferry terminal at 7pm and drive me to where the flatbed truck was with the car. I accepted, grateful I wouldn’t have to navigate Staten Island on my own to an obscure location. At 5pm I left my house in Chelsea and made my way to the 1 train. The all familiar ride ended when the train opened its doors at South Ferry Station. My adventure had begun. The station was like a labyrinth and the only indication for direction I had were the posted signs. I knew the train had burrowed itself deep underground because I had to take countless flights of stairs to reach the surface. Once I did, it was a short walk over to the ferry terminal. Three enormous gates marked each dock, with benches for waiting and a small food court for eating. There was already a crowd of people piled up against the first glass gate. It was my first time taking the ferry so I followed suit and joined in. I asked where I could pay for the ferry and a grumbling guard told me “inside”. The gates opened and we flooded in.
I quickly took the top deck and snapped some photos of downtown Manhattan. I thought about the importance of those buildings; of the offices and the people they hold and the sheer amount information that goes through the computers housed in every floor. The building’s surfaces faced different directions, mixing and matching each other’s shadows. As the ferry curved around the tip of Southern Manhattan, the length of the island came into view. The median height of the buildings tapered off, and, as if someone had rotated them on their axis, they all neatly faced the same direction on all four sides. I knew this was the work of the Commissioners plan of 1811, meant to organize urban sprawl spreading northward from the south of Manhattan. It worked, I thought to myself; I reflected on how quickly I learned to navigate the city when I had moved here ten years ago.
The sun dipped below the horizon, and I went inside the cabin to read a book. About twenty minutes later the ferry arrived at Staten Island, and all the passengers got off. As I walked around the ferry terminal I realized I had never been asked to pay a for a ticket. Was this a mistake? Had the toll-man missed me? I later found out, that contrary to what the grumbling guard had told me, the Staten Island ferry is a free service. This is because Staten Island residents are at a disadvantage by being so far removed from the city; the only car route into the other five boroughs is a tolled bridge, while their ferry was feed until 1997 and was notorious for terrible service compared to the metro and bus system. Staten Islander’s seriously considered secession from the city in the 1990’s and as form of conformity, the city made the ferry ride free of charge.
I called George and told him I had arrived; he replied by telling me to come to the lower level parking lot. I asked for directions, found the lot and spotted his car’s headlights. He motioned for me to get into the passenger seat. I was reassured to see that he was watching a recap of the weekend’s UFC fights. I introduced myself and he started to drive. Admittingly, I had absolutely no idea where he was taking me other than “to the car.” I asked him general questions, about where he was from and how long he had been managing shipments. He answered in long verses, “From Georgia…. You know where that is? Near Russia, but we’re not Russian. I used to transport products from Russia you know? I used to make a lot of money doing that. Much more than I make now. Wine is much more lucrative than cars.” He continued as he veered into lanes and made quick exits in and out of winding streets. He didn’t use his blinkers, didn’t look in his mirrors, and had a strong right foot. He winded up and around Staten Island quickly and with confidence; he knew exactly where he was going. We came onto a narrow street that slithered up a massive hill. On either side there were large homes, almost mansions, with huge open lawns behind metal fencing. There was no way I would learn how to get around Staten Island in less than a year of living here; it was an unorganized jumble of buildings and streets, as if the people had laid down a house wherever they wanted and a street to get to the house too. George interrupted my thoughts to tell me that he used to live here, and that it was certainly a nice place too.
He went on with his stories. He told me that once, on an especially large cross-border shipment of wine, his contracted train was stopped by not only the Russian military, but also a smaller militia. He had a received a phone call telling him this and he flew in immediately to resolve the issue. According to George, he was the only one there without a Kalashnikov rifle. He broke the suspense with the simple phrase, “I got the train back on track.” It was silent for a while. I knew there was something a bit sketchy about him from the moment he told me he used to transport wine via train near the Caspian sea. How had he once been traveling by plane in suit and tie to resolve wine shipping issues only to end up in Staten Islands running a small and struggling car shipping business?
All my sense of orientation had been blocks ago; I had absolutely no idea where I was. George pulled over under a bridge and waited for a second, “My driver should be here…”. I kept silent. Without looking, he speeded off again, took a right, a right, another right and another? That means we should make a full circle… but we weren’t where we were before. We came onto a fork in the road. Take a left, and you enter a freeway, a right and you go back into the guts of Staten Island. He approached the fork and a flatbed truck and a massive man came into view. We stopped, got off, and met the driver. The car was there, stationary and sound. The driver wasn’t one for small talk- he had just driven four days straight from San Francisco and didn’t want anything but his payment. He spoke with George in, what I assume to be, a Georgian dialect. They grunted their words, they exchanged a laugh and then turned to me. The driver handed me the keys. George shook my hand, wished me luck, and told me take a left at the fork. “It will take you over the Verrazano, and right into Manhattan.” I thanked him, got into the car, took a left and drove off. The bridge seemed never ending, it floated me to the top of the harbor, revealing an incredible view that rivaled the ferry’s. As the bridge curved back down, my head spun around a few times and clicked back into place. I knew exactly where I was.