Wednesday, October 15. The early morning weather was warm and sunny again on the third day of my Amorous Woman book tour. Joining the subway commuters, I took the 1 train to the bottom of the island. Walking briskly down to Castle Clinton at the very tip of Manhattan, I purchased my steerage fare and flashed my paperwork at the ticket collectors. The next stop was security, then, properly scanned, I joined the growing crowd of travelers as we were herded into the waiting area. As the minutes ticked by, we were pushed closer and closer together by the swelling number of passengers. People and voices of every nationality surrounded me—a group of Japanese businessmen, an Italian family, some Australians, high school kids with a Midwestern twang.
Finally it was our time to board, but occasionally the wake of some passing boat or ship would set the vessel rocking so hard, we had to stop and wait. When I was on the boat, this roll and pitch was enough to make me queasy—a taste of seasickness that was all too real. At long last the 10 am group was all on board and we steamed off across the river on our journey back into history.
I have to admit my heart soared at the sight of the Statue of Liberty across the water. In fact, everyone on the boat seemed riveted by the vision, and the decks of the ships were standing room only, with all of us holding our digital cameras over our heads to get a good photo sans the body parts of fellow passengers. Her torched glowed golden in the morning light and she looked so strong and confident—girl power at its best. It struck me then that I’d just sampled a mini passage to the Golden Land of America: waiting amidst a jostling crowd of foreign strangers, enduring stomach-wrenching rough seas, and finally, glimpsing Lady Liberty at the end of my journey.
I’d wanted to visit Ellis Island since it opened some years ago, but my New York visits since had mostly involved family celebrations. Free time was dedicated to the Nintendo Store or the uptown museums. Since this was my one free full day in the city, I thought I’d take advantage of my temporary independence to indulge in some historical sightseeing. After all, my next novel will be very historical, so a book tour was a good time to look to the future as well.
Most of my shipmates disembarked at Liberty Island, but I’d already climbed the Statue back in the day when you could go all the way to the crown, and the present-day limited access seemed somehow unsatisfying. I also guessed, correctly, that an earlier visit to Ellis Island would be quieter. Tourists to Ellis Island follow roughly the same path an immigrant would—disembark, enter downstairs where your luggage would have been stowed (and where you can check your backpacks now), then trek up the stairs to the Registry Room, the famous grand hall that processed 12 million new Americans.
The restored hall was mostly empty at 10:30 am, perfect for picking up the faint whispers of its many ghosts. I stood at one of the podiums where the immigration officials interviewed new arrivals and imagined earlier times when this very spot was the scene of so much hope and anxiety. Then, as my guidebook had recommended, I stopped in to see the film about the Ellis Island experience. It was a good introduction, because I hadn't been sleeping well, I dozed off a bit in the warm darkness. But a talk from a park ranger was a good introduction to the galleries, which were next on my agenda.
Some highlights were the statue of Annie Moore (1877-1923), a young Irish girl who was the first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island. She was a modest mirror of Lady Liberty, human in scale, but just as brave and symbolic. A little internet searching today unearthed this interesting tidbit about the real Annie Moore.
The museum was a labyrinth of exhibits: rooms where the immigrants changed their money from the old country, bought train tickets, were questioned to weed out the legal or political troublemakers. It was interesting to note that when the immigration official asked “do you have a job waiting for you?” the proper answer was “no.” This is contrary to what you’d say these days, of course, but the government was trying to protect immigrants from sleazy types who basically lured them over as indentured servants. I had to wince at the shoe button hook, an implement that was used by doctors to turn up the eyelids of newcomers, especially those from southern Europe, to check for trachoma, a common eye disease there that had not yet reached North America. (I wonder how many poor souls came down with conjunctivitis from the examination?)
As I wandered in and out of the rooms on the third floor, I became aware that the cavernous Registry Room was now almost frantic with the echoes of the tourists coming in from Liberty Island. But the roaring echoes seemed appropriate as well. After all, it took a certain restlessness and courage to make the trip to an unknown land. Our ancestors were people who were willing to give up what they knew for the uncertain, and the Ellis Island descendants of today were certainly displaying the same (loud) enthusiastic desire to seek out the new and be on the move.
It was rather ironic, then, to step into the “Silent Voices” exhibit, which had photos and artifacts from the abandoned Ellis Island in 1954, before it was restored to its current glory. This was the most moving and memorable part of the museum for me. The rusting, broken basins, crutches, metal bedsteads with crumpled blankets, a mold-covered piano, an ancient cash register, signs reading “maintenance,” “tickets,” “release office,” “social services.” I think these decaying objects were so poignant because they had been part of the real Ellis Island experience. The polished marble and thoughtful exhibits were great, but these homely, forgotten objects had been the real witnesses to the history being made here.
Ellis Island got me thinking about my own immigrant ancestors. I only have any sense of the background of one, my maternal great-grandfather, Peter Hufnagel. One of my mother’s cousins was a genealogy hobbyist and researched the family history—I’m not sure why he ignored Catherine Hufnagel, sexism perhaps or she was too much of a mutt to unravel her many ancestors? Anyway, Peter came to the US from a town near Frankfurt in the 1880s to escape conscription into the Prussian Army, which is as excellent a reason to come to America as any. He arrived before Ellis Island was opened and settled in southern Pennsylvania farm country along with many of his countrymen to establish what we now know as “Pennsylvania Dutch (Deustch)” country. He was reportedly a stern, strict father who liked to read his paper in peace in the parlor on Sunday while his wife and children did all the necessary chores for Sunday dinner. However, I’d also heard that he was the man his neighbors would turn to when they had a letter to write to the old country. Until I heard that story, I’d assumed my interest in writing came solely from my father’s side of the family—a motley bunch of poets and mad(wo)men—but perhaps old Peter had some literary skill as well?
The trip back to Manhattan was even sunnier and warmer than the morning journey. The view of the city’s skyline from the boat was truly majestic—a symbol of American energy in itself. The southern tip of the city is where its history began and I noticed an out-of-place, old church near the subway station that had a Federal Era feel to it. Some day I knew I would be back to this neighborhood for more touring, but for now my Ellis Island journey had tired me out.
I arrived back at my sister’s place in late afternoon, and we both headed up to Bed, Bath and Beyond to look for room-darkening shades for my sister’s friend who had a new baby. Distracted by the many offerings of this New York branch of the familiar chain, I was jarred back to attention by my sister’s nudging. “Did you see him?”
“Wallace Shawn. That’s like the fourth time I’ve run into him and he always give me such a warm smile. You’d think we were friends.”
Darn, I’d missed him and he was nowhere in sight! I’m a big fan of My Dinner with Andre, and would have loved to catch a glimpse of a real New York literati. My sister lived on the same street as Sarah Jessica Parker, but I had no real interest in that sort of celebrity gawking. But Wallace Shawn? That would be cool. Alas, Wally had disappeared.
Later that night, my sister and her husband took me to dinner at their favorite local French restaurant, A.O.C. at 314 Bleecker Street. The owner greeted my sister with kisses on the cheek and gave a warm welcome to me, but I’m glad to say our waitress was appropriately snotty to give the place an authentic Parisian air. My sister told me she’d once seen Keanu Reeves here, and he was even more gorgeous in person. But Keanu must have been having dinner with Wallace Shawn that night.
More red wine, more grilled fish and salad. Of course the meal was wonderful, but I was told to take a pass on dessert. We had to get back to watch the last Obama-McCain debate—the one where Joe the Plumber rocketed to his undeserved fame. Our debate evening was sort of an amusing coincidence, because we’d watched the first one together in LA. Champagne on both occasions made it easier to watch, and when the debate was over, we all got our reward for enduring Joe the Plumber—a sampling of orgasmically chocolately desserts from Bouchon Bakery. I stop by the original Napa branch of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon whenever I go to Wine Country, but I’d never tried their most sinful treats, only the breakfast pastries, crusty breads and airy French-style macarons.
These glossy confections were as wickedly delicious as they look here. I ate heartily, knowing I’d need my energy and courage for the most demanding part of my book tour ahead. Three readings in four days awaited me. Many people told me I was crazy or at least admirably ambitious to be packing in so many events. But I’d like to think I was just carrying on the restless, bold sense of adventure that made American what it is. (And you thought I was just a sleazy pornographer….)
Next: A meeting with some real celebrities, plus my very first power breakfast