The last time I lived on Staten Island, I was 20. I was home from college for the summer, struggling to find work, any kind of work—the job’s only requirement was that it be seasonal, because by summer’s end I planned to quit and return to school in Manhattan, the borough of big dreams. My friends at Hunter College remained in the city working unpaid internships at Sony, ABC, MetLife. Me, I needed cash in hand to take girls out on the weekends. Plus, my constitution wouldn’t allow me to work for free. “Worker exploitation!” I said to my father. He was an administrator in collective bargaining, so I thought I’d have his sympathies.
Staten Island is the most southern borough of New York City with nearly 70,000 daily commuters passing through the Staten Island ferry terminal and on into Manhattan. The island is more than twice the size of Manhattan and shaped like a mini South America. Those who commute begin an ordinary weekday sometimes hours before the rest of New York City has hit snooze on their alarms. And I say this not to glorify the Staten Islander over other New Yorkers, but just to state a fact. A large portion of Staten Islanders, professionals and non-, commute. It’s been our way of life since the beginning.
My father had been commuting into Manhattan from Staten Island since 1967, making four transfers for about forty years. My mother also commuted. She went from our home in Eltingville, on the island’s South Shore, to City College on 137th Street, Manhattan, where she worked in accounts payable. They moved to Staten Island from Manhattan in the late sixties because it was cheap, safe, and neighbors were separated by ten yards of lawn. One could afford a house and raise a family in a version of suburbia that didn’t necessarily exist in the other boroughs. But this is primarily the South Shore, where I grew up, and which has seen rapid development since the 1960s. There is a large disparity between the South Shore and the other half of the island that makes up the North Shore.
That summer, I didn’t want to commute into the city like my parents. I wanted something like my sister. She was a high school senior and a hostess at a local diner in New Dorp. I wanted to roll out of bed thirty minutes before work and clock in no more than ten minutes late. So I looked primarily on the island, in the local want ads of the Staten Island Advance and on Craigslist. When my search proved unfruitful, I took the train from Eltingville to the North Shore because I knew of a handful of bars, clubs and restaurants in Staten Island’s “downtown,” composed of St. George, Tompkinsville, Stapleton and Clifton, all in close proximity to the ferry terminal.
There were five places I remember: the Cargo bar, Side Street Saloon, a rock club, a bar with a nautical theme (ropes and maritime instruments and such) and the Everything Goes Thrift Store (which mainly employed those who lived in their strange commune). This was the closest thing we had to the Village. Outside of these five businesses, there were only pawn shops, fast food joints and check-cashing places.
I walked the hills of Staten Island’s downtown where the Manhattan skyline is never out of view. I was dressed in an ironed white shirt and black pants, my interview pants, determined to go door to door and start work at a moment’s notice.
If one were to arrive from Manhattan by ferry, walk out of the terminal and turn right into St. George, one would fall upon some prized Victorian homes in the area’s historical district. Upon one hill is the decadent St. Peter’s Church on St. Mark’s Place, my favorite cathedral over St. Patrick’s in Manhattan. This joint sits on a secluded cliff, complete with a mythical tower, its giant beacon announcing the island’s largely Roman Catholic population to the newly arrived. Unfortunately, the hilly oasis of St. George, which can at times resemble the teeming hills of San Francisco, is largely residential and had no work to offer me.