Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Old-timey Staten Island

The kids are taking an awful long time to do The Math but their fathers are still looking on proudly. We’re in a school room built in 1795 (which is not, boys, 340 years old) passing round a pleasingly heavy wooden instrument used to panel little boys’ bottoms. The hoard in our tour group are so darn gee-whiz impressed with everything - “It’s a staircase! There’s another floor! Can we go upstairs? Please...” - that my fingers are itching to try it out. One of the older boys is saying over and over again, “Gosh, I feel a chill all over me” and shuddering like I am inside over the tour-guide’s homey wisdom. I guess it’s sort of endearing. In a few years time he’ll learn that if people don’t pick up their cue the first time, it’s best to let it drop with a quiet shame. Although maybe he won’t ever have that fall from childish grace. This is Staten Island after all, where the normal rules don’t seem to apply.

Staten Islanders divide their recent history into Before the Bridge and After the Bridge. Legend has it that Before the Bridge was a time of pastoral delight, where Staten Islanders farmed their land in peace, trapped eels in wicker baskets and set the world to rights in rustic taverns. Forty years After the Bridge there is little trace of that Eden. The island’s thin Greenbelt is hedged about by sprawling suburban homes and a golf-course, yet its woods are alive with sparrows fleeing from the factories and strip malls and nail salons that cover the rest of New York’s unloveliest borough.

On the forty minute bus ride from the port to the Greenbelt and back again there’s an endless loop of gray streets choked with pylons. The people are bigger, crazier and have dirtier clothes than any other bus riders I’ve seen in New York. The streets don’t seem to have the electric buzz that makes you feel like part of the greatest city on earth.

But even I can see that there must be compensatory pleasures. When the tour guide takes us to the ‘little itty bitty house’ I can’t help thinking how lucky those Eighteenth Century subsistence farmers were to have such a spacious home in which to weave their baskets and cook their eel pies. And again, would a world-weary Manhattan kid hyperventilate about a three-hundred year old spinning wheel, or push and shove to take a snap of a tame duck?

Sorry Staten Island: I’m just another spoiled little girl from across the water. After an hour and a half of Richmond main street I’m about ready to roll myself in Chelsea, stuff my face with cupcakes and thumb my nose at rockin’, old-timey values.

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