Sometimes in the long, dark-too-early autumn of the soul, it becomes necessary to flee the library and get out, all the way out of Manhattan. On a boat. In the sun. With a beer in your hand. Which is just what I did on an October Wednesday, away from Thursday’s reading for class (unread), law review obligations (unreviewed), and my substantial writing paper (insubstantial, unwritten). All the way to—
Five miles from South Ferry, New York’s forgotten and sometimes-maligned fifth borough offers plenty you can’t find elsewhere in the city. Deserted beaches lined with shells and sea wrack, killer Italian and Sri Lankan food on the same block, and a 14-mile stretch of quaintly named railroad stations (Huguenot, New Dorp, Old Town, Prince’s Bay) that ends in Tottenville, a seaside neighborhood worth the slow train jaunt across the island.
This was our destination. In Tottenville is Conference House Park, comprising a jumble of forest trails, houses dating from the 17th century, and deserted beachfront. The Conference House itself is a beautiful stone dwelling built in 1680, so named for a 1776 meeting between a British admiral and Ben Franklin and John Adams to talk peace and stave off war; the talks, fortunately for us, ended sourly. (Various semi-notable historical events ensued.) Behind the house is Arthur Kill, the inland channel facing Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The water was visibly scummy, defeating any urge I had to put my feet in, but the strange and lovely feeling of having a long spit of beach to ourselves more than compensated. Twenty miles as the crow flies, and a world away from NYU. On the beach and in the woods it was possible to remember that as recently as the 1950s, the southern half of the island was full of rambling meadows and woods and home to communities of oystermen. (Read Joseph Mitchell’s evocation of that in the New Yorker here.)
I urge you to skip Central Park or whatever haven you’re considering next time you need a break from school and city and try Staten Island. Getting there is—no two ways about it—a schlep. But if you’re already playing hooky, what’s an hour and a half? The ferry ride is worth it regardless. (Free! Your city tax dollars at work.) On the way out, grab a spot by the railing on the right side to see Lady Liberty up close. On the way back, buy a beer in the ferry terminal at St. George. (It’s legal, I promise. $5 for a bottle, more for a larger can you probably can’t safely finish before the ferry docks in Manhattan.) Again find a bench on the right, where the afternoon sun will be shining, it’s less crowded, and the views of the Verrazano-Narrows, the Brooklyn waterfront, and the new landscaping of Governors Island bid you godspeed back to everyday life.