Fathers & Ferries, Birthdays & Boats

When my Cub Scocircle lineut den mate Marc Brownstein turned 9, his birthday party consisted of a ride on the Circle Line, a day cruise around Manhattan. It was the best day ever. I begged for a similar party when I turned 9 the following spring. Dad took a “We’ll see” position.

By April, I understood I would have to be satisfied with a trip on the Staten Island Ferry. Apparently the fare (free) was more in line with our family budget.

Marc’s dad was a judge; my dad was a businessman. I had no idea exactly what a businessman did, except that they worked in offices, and my dad’s office was on the 57th floor of the Empire State Building. He dressed in a sharp dark suit, smoked Lucky Strikes, carried a fancy brief case and took the bus every day from our home in Teaneck across the George Washington Bridge and into Midtown. I visited Manhattan frequently as a kid — school trips, family visits, eye specialists — and treasured the few times I got to see Dad’s office. I watched the World Trade Centers going up. Dad had a meeting there shortly after they opened, and picked me up a souvenir embroidered patch, which I cherish to this day.

Based on what I saw concerning businessmen on TV, and given the similarity in our lifestyles, I supposed Marc’s family and mine were functioning on a similar economic basis, though I really didn’t know much about such things at that age. Still, I was surprised and disappointed that apparently the Circle Line was out of reach for us.

Staten Island Ferry 1973

The towers were brand-new in 1973

On or about April 29, 1973, I piled into our red ’72 Chevelle (white vinyl roof, no racing stripes) with my buddies Marc, Peter Hecht, Joel Pinsker and Paul Maccia. Dad got behind the wheel and we headed into the city.

We crossed the George Washington Bridge, eastbound on the lower deck. I have always loved that ugly old thing: studying the triangular pattern of the steel truss, looking for traffic on the Hudson, gazing south into the haze of the harbor. Then came the tangle of ramps and then south on Hudson Parkway. In the middle of Riverside Park, dad pulled over. “What’s this?” “Grant’s Tomb. Get out and run around.” We took turns jumping off a marble wall until I twisted an ankle. We practiced the Fireman’s Carry we learned in Cub Scouts earlier that week and schlepped me back to the car. We continued south, past the massive cruise ships, the Intrepid, and the Circle Line terminal at 42nd Street… but no… On past Lincoln Center, the sparkling new Twin Towers, then under, through or around Battery Park, I don’t remember which, and there it was, Whitehall Terminal, which I remember as a goofy, spirally tangle of concrete, like the Guggenhiem crossed with a collapsed souffle. And then the trip across the harbor, truly one of America’s great cheap thrills: the salt wind, crazy ship traffic everywhere, more bridges than I can count, the soft pretzels, sea gulls, the stinky, great grey-green greasy Hudson, the Statue, the skyline, the dumpy terminal on Staten Island, the mad dash in-and-out back onto the same boat, and —  REPEAT!!

Staten Island Ferry terminal 1973

Terminal madness

Back in the Chevelle, we were crawling across lower Manhattan when BAM! Sideswiped! Dad’s almost-new car! We loitered in a gas station, pooling our change to buy Pepsis from the vending machine. Then westbound on the upper deck of the bridge, craning my neck to gaze at the towers that I have never decided if they are regal or grotesque, staring up at the main cable as it swoops parabolically down to the bridge deck then soars away again up to the next tower… Home before dinner time, no, no pizza, sorry, thanks for coming, yeah, great day, see you Monday!

Best birthday ever! Let’s hear it for dad!

But why no pizza? Just how poor were we? As I look back, something doesn’t add up.

This was just a couple of years before my dad spent a few weeks in a psychiatric hospital. Upon his return, my mom explained he wouldn’t be drinking any more, which seemed an odd thing to mention, because I had never attributed much significance to those little bottles of Ballantine. Decades later, my mom explained that’s because my dad did his drinking in off-site binges. And here I thought dad’s frequent and sudden business trips were just part of his “Manhattan businessman” mystique! I wonder if, that year, things really were such a mess that even pizza for my pals was george washington bridgea stretch.

To their credit (and my everlasting gratitude), my folks never let on. My mom absorbed all the craziness so I could have a happy childhood — and an awesome 9th birthday. Let’s hear it for mom!

And would you believe it? “Mr. Brownstein’s a judge” they said. Ha! I just learned that at that time, Irwin Brownstein was sitting on the Supreme Court of the State of New York!! AND he was our den leader! Marc had a great dad, too.

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