1: South Ferry, Manhattan

Posted on April 20th, 2012 by Viveca in The End of the Line

1 South FerryTuesday, March 15, 2011

Sometimes, admittedly not as often as I’d like, I learn from my mistakes. After having trekked out to Canarsie on a cold Sunday evening only to find all the restaurants closing, I decided to visit the southern tip of Manhattan, which I pictured as bustling with business during the week and desolate on nights and weekends, in the middle of a sunny Tuesday morning. I imagined we would exit the downtown 1 station into a world of rapidly moving stock traders, still wearing their three-letter badges, and we would eat someplace intimidating in its impatient efficiency.

Sometimes, yes, more often than I wish were the case, I fail to learn from experience. I’ve exited the downtown 1 station plenty of times on my way to the Staten Island or Governors Island ferry, and although it’s a only a stone’s throw to Wall Street and the financial district, that’s way too far for any time-pressed trader to foray for lunch. I began to realize my mistake before we even emerged because the station art stopped me in my tracks. Could anyone bustle through without stopping to admire the images of trees in winter glowing on glass walls? Besides the trees, a dry, brown leaf takes up one wall—if I had to guess I’d say it was a maple leaf—and an old-fashioned sepia tone map shows contemporary lower Manhattan overlaid on an earlier map of the island.

Lower Manhattan map

In addition to the translucent images glowing on glass walls, similar imagery is repeated in other media. One wall shows the same trees in glittering mosaic, and the steel gate that curves through the station is fashioned into branches instead of bars. Rocks from the nearby excavated battery decorate one wall. This project is making me even more appreciative of the city’s Arts For Transit program. Damaso had told me about the city’s Percent for Art law, which mandates that “one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for City facilities. “ Later I looked up the law online as well as the South Ferry station artists, Doug & Mike Starn, and learned more about the 2008 permanent installation, which is titled “See it split, see it change” referring both to the city itself and specifically to the branching 1 line.

The station interior was bright and light, and so was the morning, but it was cold, and a sharp wind cut across the concrete plaza fronting the lovely Staten Island ferry terminal. We’ll board a ferry another day; this time we headed back towards buildings, along the way passing a mysterious white building reminiscent of the Candela structures in Queens. This one was larger than the World’s Fair remnants, newer of course, and still had its walls and windows, although they were closed. We decided that it was probably a ticket office, perhaps seasonal, and I knew I wouldn’t look it up online but would instead look forward to finding the truth only when I returned some summer day and found it open.

The wall of buildings across Water Street did not look promising. Museums and office buildings loomed large, but I didn’t see any restaurants. We headed east and spotted it at the same time: Fraunces Tavern. George Washington’s watering hole. The oldest, well, the oldest something in the city—maybe the oldest pub? The oldest original building? Neither of us had ever been inside, and that had got to change right then.

As we walked up Broad Street, a man leaned out a second floor window to hoist a banner. We strained to read the unfurling flag as it flapped in the wind. It proclaimed the Angler’s Club of New York. I imagined the same man leaning out the same window every sunny day for decades. We smiled at each other, and something about the interchange made me yearn to enter that red brick building and beg the flag man for a tour.

Instead we turned the corner onto Pearl to check whether Fraunces Tavern served food. It did, and somewhat to my surprise the menu looked entirely appetizing and reasonably priced. It was only 10:40 am, but the host let us browse through the rooms as we awaited the 11 am opening. The Long Room, in which General Washington “bade an emotional farewell to his officers at the Revolution’s close,” was warm and wonderful. Damaso photographed the art, which included a reproduction of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and a portrait of George Washington, while I curled into a leather sofa facing the hearth. I wondered whether they had wireless and anachronistically wished I’d brought my laptop so I could spend the day working in this cozy, historic room.

Portrait of George Washington

Cozy

Art

At various times, at least three staff members let us know the restaurant wouldn’t open till 11, but none of them minded us wandering through the open rooms. I was even tempted to walk upstairs into the museum (which wouldn’t open till noon), but I didn’t want to betray their trust. The Long Room was my favorite, but I also liked the main dining room, which was airy and open, filled with long, wooden tables that reminded me of my college’s dining halls, although some of the seats were benches.

We didn’t want to disturb the staff, who were having their pre-opening early lunch, so we tried not to peer into their room, but we roamed into the bar, which was bathed in red neon light and loud music. To my surprise, Damaso wanted to eat there instead of in the main dining room, and his reaction was so strong I could tell he assumed I’d prefer it also. Actually, I liked the open feeling of the large dining room, but maybe he would feel awkward being the only customers in such a large space. Damaso noticed my disappointment and insisted we could eat wherever I wanted, even suggesting we stay in the Long Room I liked so much, but in a Gift of the Magi turn, I decided that my momentary aversion to the bar was only due to feeling like it was somehow less authentic or less historic than the dining room, whereas under the neon and music, maybe it was just as old. Anyway, I had never heard the place referred to as George Washington’s eating hole. Maybe he stuck to the bar. Or maybe “eating hole” just sounds obscene.

After making sure the menu was exactly the same, which involved a confusing story about the Porterhouse Brewing Company taking over the kitchen, we opted for the bar. It was chilly, so I asked for a booth far from the entrance, and we settled into a corner booth with a wooden table and a cowhide-upholstered banquette. The taps, blackboards, and menus listed dozens of oddly named beers, and I tried to convince Damaso to order a Smuttynose or Left Hand Ju Ju. I, as usual, asked for an iced tea and was delighted that it was refilled rapidly and regularly. When I drink caffeine, I want to drink a lot of caffeine.

Damaso will probably object when he reads this, but he isn’t generally a very adventurous eater, and he immediately opted for the cheeseburger. We had been having a lot of burgers, which seems antithetical to my goal of exploring food as well as neighborhoods, so my eyes linger on a smoked trout sandwich with a poached egg, but I’m very suggestible, so once he said the magic word, I started craving a burger too, and we wound up ordering the same thing—bleu cheese burger with fries. To make up for the relatively boring entree choices, I asked for an order of whiskey and ginger roasted nuts, which appeared on the bar special board and sounded suitably exotic. It wasn’t. The nuts, mostly peanuts, were okay, but we didn’t even finish the small ramekin. Guess they would have been better if we had been drinking beer.

Whiskey peanuts

Burger & fries

The burgers, however, were quite good, and the fries were terrific. I ate all of mine and half of Damaso’s. He’s a light eater for a big guy, and I’m a heavy eater for a mid-sized woman. I was actually tempted to finish his burger when he abandoned it, but I would like to stay a mid-sized woman, so I resisted. We linger for a while over the fries and my multiple iced tea refills. No other customers enter, and the servers neither rush us out nor abandon us in neglect. It does take a while, however, to get Damaso’s credit card back so he can sign the check. Our waiter eventually returns and apologetically explains that the credit card machine was down, so he had to enter the information by hand. I say that doing it the old-fashioned way adds to the authentic 18th century atmosphere, and both men look at me as though they’re about to correct my history, but fortunately neither does, and Damaso continues the joke, elegantly signing his John Hancock on the receipt.

After eating, we walked up Broad Street to the subway entrance at Exchange Place. Along the walk we admired the buildings’ elaborate entrances, gilt seahorse reliefs, and permanent etched stone names of long-defunct companies. I set out to explore the immigrant fringes of the city but today traveled into its forefather history instead.

Photographs by Damaso Reyes

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The End of the Line

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