SIR: Tottenville, Staten Island

Posted on November 2nd, 2012 by Viveca in The End of the Line

Saturday, March 26, 2011

SIR Tottenville
Holy end-of-the-line, Batman, Staten Island is really far away! Like, it’s another world far away. Everywhere else we’ve gone, once we get there it feels like the center’s just moved, but in Staten Island it feels like even the locals know they’re far from “the city.” You’d think the
separatist movement would be more active.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.This trip starts at the ferry terminal, officially the Staten Island Ferry Whitehall Terminal. Well, actually my trip started when I left my home in Brooklyn, late to meet Damaso on the J train, and then stood paralyzed outside my apartment trying to decide whether I was dressed appropriately. I finally concluded that I’d be sweaty and miserable all day if I kept both coats I had on, so I ran back to shed a few layers. By the time I made it back to the J, I was sweaty anyway from being late and running, but I was also late and wrong: I had been dressed appropriately, had caught a moment of heat in the sun, and would now be freezing for the rest of the day. Damaso, always dressed appropriately in warm clothes that wick, was proportionately irritated to be kept waiting so long at my fumbling incompetence.
The J doesn’t run all the way downtown on weekends, so we transferred and then walked a few blocks through battery park community gardens and living statues of Lady Liberty. It took quite a while to get to the ferry terminal, but it still felt like the trip began there. When you’re underground in a subway, you could be going anywhere, but when you’re waiting in a giant room with pigeons flying around and some dude playing Balkan violin music you can
barely hear over his recorded backing track, you know you’re leaving one island for another.
I’ve taken the Staten Island ferry a few times since the city spruced up the terminal in 2005. Usually I just get to St. George, turn around, and come back. It’s the hip way to show visiting friends the Statue of Liberty without paying the fees and waiting in the lines for the actual Liberty Island ferry. Last time I went, I walked to the Staten Island 9/11 memorial in freezing rain and then turned around and came back. This time it’s cold but crisp and bright enough to keep me in sunglasses even inside the terminal. As we wait, I idly read the zipper scroll: corn is up. Red wax is up.
Wait. Red wax? I ask Damaso, and he suggests maybe it’s one of those odd old commodities like pork bellies. The next “stock” to scroll is ice, also up. Finally we realize it’s an ad. Nicely played, Maker’s Mark. You got us. Giant Maker’s Mark ads surround the waiting room. Each poster is different, but I don’t understand any of them. For example, one has a row of upside-down bottle necks pointed down and an alternating row pointed diagonally. Damaso explains that the bottles look like the legs of the Rockette’s kick line. I’d understood that; I just don’t know what the Rockettes have to do with whiskey. I frequently get only the wrong half of the joke. I get the joke part but not the normal meaning, and single entendres aren’t funny.
The ferry crossing, as always, is spectacular, but instead of watching the scenery we watch the tourists jostling each other for photos and the non-tourists shouting at them to close the doors—it’s freezing in here!
On the other side it isn’t hard to find the Staten Island Railway, which is just one line from St. George to Tottenville. Inside, the “subway” (no part of the route actually goes underground) car looks like a 1970s bus station in a depressed company town after the company leaves town. The walls are lined with light panels, but few businesses have bought ads, and the panels glow dully white. The ride lasts over 40 minutes, during which I gaze
out the windows while Damaso reads me Staten Island trivia from his smart phone (Android users today are like Apple users in 1990).
Welcome to Staten Island sign
With just under a half-million people, Staten Island is the least populous borough, but its area is bigger than that of Manhattan or the Bronx. More surprisingly, the Staten Island Railway is older than the NYC subway system. Operated by the Staten Island Rapid Transit Operating Authority, its western portion includes freight lines that connect to the national railway system while its main route is included on MTA maps and generally considered a
part of the NYC subway system.
I can’t see anyone out the windows, only houses and yards. At one stop, three shopping carts dangle from trees, apparently pushed off the overpass above. Although I’ve spent gorgeous afternoons at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and have several friends who’ve moved to St. George and swear by the beauty, convenience, and low cost of living in Staten Island, I still
associate it with two pop culture homages: Working Girl and Papa Don’t Preach, which means my mental Staten Island averages from 1987 and is only populated by working-class Italian Americans. Few of the train’s riders confirm my preconception.
When we finally exit at Tottenville, everyone else walks to the “uptown” exit, but we continue down the platform to the end. On our right, water. In front of us, water. The Outerbridge Crossing, which I hadn’t previously realized is not just the name of the route but the full name of the bridge, is behind us, and we can see New Jersey to our right. This is as far south and as far west as New York City goes. It’s beautiful actually, but Damaso is too hungry to stop to shoot, so we decide to find food first and come back after. It doesn’t look promising. We’re in what looks like a lovely suburb. Nobody else came out our platform exit, we see no businesses, and the streets are empty, so we start walking in the only direction we can, and it’s uphill. We don’t have hills where I live.
After walking for a block or two, we run into a man out smoking on the street and ask him where we can eat. In what I would have identified as a thick Boston accent, he directs us to a deli a few blocks away. “Deli” in New York can mean anything from a 7-11 convenience store with microwaveable pre-wrapped sandwiches to the Carnegie’s full-service pastrami, so we have no idea what lies ahead, but we don’t see signs of a business district anywhere else, so we continue in that direction.
One house has a purple hula-hoop balanced horizontally on top of a bush in the front yard. A telephone pole has a yellow sign advertising a yard sale, so we memorize the address to check it out later. It’s on the same street we’re on, and we both love yard sales.
A few blocks later, we run into two police officers. Damaso always thinks cops know the best places to eat. A lot of people think that. I don’t have any data on the subject.
The cops recommend the same deli the smoker had, only with a twist: “You should go to the deli,” they say, “but we’re not allowed to eat there.”
“There’ve been a bunch of 911 calls originating from that place.”How is this supposed to be an explanation? If the place is dangerous, shouldn’t cops be encouraged to hang out there? And if it is dangerous but police aren’t allowed in it, should we be going there? Of course we are now. We make sure we have cell phone service to call them in case of emergency, and we continue our uphill trek. Staten Island feels like that—a place where we might not have cell phone service. But we do.
Eventually we reach the Towne Deli and Pizzeria, established 1971, which turns out to be a perfectly nice looking restaurant with a take-out counter in the small lobby and about four tables and four booths. None of the patrons look like Mafioso, although clearly they all are, because why else would the police chiefs be worried about their patrol officers mingling there. I should have checked the toilet tank for a gun, but that just occurred to me now. That’s probably the only way to know for sure, right Mikey?
Tottenville clock
Towne Deli
It’s bustling late on a Saturday afternoon. We sit directly under a giant “Welcome to Tottenville” sign, open our gondolier-decorated menus, and try to decide. One of the weekend specials is a hot roast beef sandwich with melted “Monetary Jack” on toasted ciabatta with fried onions and horseradish spread. It comes with cole slaw and pickles and a soda or beer. Even if it hadn’t promised lucre instead of cheese, I was interested, but I when I point it out, Damaso decides to get it, and I decide not to. So there.
Back to the old drawing board, or in this case, back to the giant laminated menu. Except for knowing I was not going to order another burger, I can’t even narrow my selection down to a category, so I ask the waitress for advice. She says to get a panini, most of which, like the pizzas are named for various relatives and other characters: Famous Fouch’s, Aunt Cathy’s Uncle Charlie’s Titsi Gina’s. I ask for the Super Townini—ham, salami, pepperoni, provolone, and American cheese. We’ve been eating so many French fries, and I’d happily eat more, but I’m beginning to get nervous about my waistline, so I take the half-sandwich option and get a side of spinach with garlic.
Both meals come with drinks, but they don’t have unsweetened iced tea. The waitress offers me my pick from the coolers, but it’s mostly soda, so I say I’ll try the sweetened iced tea. As always with our afternoon meals, I encourage Damaso to get a beer, and he asks the waitress what they have. As usual, she goes through a long list, and then he orders a Coke.
After way too long a wait, our sandwiches arrive, and some time later, but only after I ask the waitress who then admits she had forgotten all about it, my spinach comes. The panini is okay, but the spinach is an overcooked watery, oily mess. Apparently oil and water do mix. It’s also giant, but I drown it in lemon and eat the whole thing, convinced that each bite cancels out one of the week’s earlier French fries.
Super Townini
Roast beef special
We’re already finished eating by the time we remember to ask the waitress about one line on the menu that had caught our eye: “Home of The Mess.” What’s The Mess? She almost slaps her head like an old V-8 commercial and says she should have recommended I get that. It’s a sandwich with “all the meats” on it, or, as she clarifies, “all the Italian meat.” The young couple at the next table, who haven’t been served yet, can’t stand her straightforward definition and interrupt to gush about The Mess: “If Jesus made a sandwich,” says the woman and just ends the sentence there with a sigh. They offer to let us try theirs, but who knows how long it’ll be till their food arrives, and we’re ready to roll or, as my father would say, rolly to read, so we head out into the cold.
The yard sale is on the same street we’re on, but we can’t find enough addresses to figure out which way to go. We sure didn’t see it on the way to the deli, so we walk a few blocks in the opposite direction. We get far enough to find another SIR stop and are tempted to return home, but despite the cold, we decide to walk back so Damaso can photograph the  Tottenville station. Maybe I misremembered the yard sale address.
We walk all the way back to the yard sale sign and confirm that A. I had gotten the address wrong, B. we have apparently now passed it twice without noticing anything, and C. according to the posted times, the sale has just ended, but just then a slew of pre-teenage boys ride up, throw their bicycles on a nearby lawn, and pound on a doorway. We’re standing right in front of the yard sale home!
We follow them into a living room whose floor is covered with absolute junk sorted into piles each less appealing than the last. Most of the mounds are loose toys of the small, plastic variety, but there is also a mound of random furnishings (pillows, candlesticks) and a large collection of small shoes, including a pair of turquoise and lime low-top Chuck Taylors. I
take off one shoe to show the hosts my turquoise and lime socks. The shoe is a Cinderella-perfect match but in color only; I can barely squeeze a few toes in. We leave empty handed.
To get the best pictures, we walk around the stationhouse the long way and startle a pair of necking teenagers. She’s a knockout. He’s dating up.
SIR security camera
Dead End
Tottenville Station


View from Tottenville Station
The subway back to St. George station is crowded, mostly with groups of women talking loudly either among themselves or into cell phones. I fall asleep with my head on Damaso’s shoulder, and he falls asleep with his head leaning on mine. I don’t want the ride to end.
But it does. The waiting room at St. George Terminal has two giant fish tanks and outlines of the harbor islands in mosaics on the floor. I stand on the Liberty Island and watch a little girl jumping from one floor decoration to the next as though they she were a frog on a lily pad. There are benches on both sides of the long room but none in the middle. Everyone on one
side of the room seems to be waiting for the next ferry. Everyone on the other side seems
to live in the station. The women’s room is past the gauntlet of station dwellers, one of whom is talking to himself loudly. A woman in metal stilettos and a jacket whose back looks like a tiger slashed the leather buys a frozen yogurt. I still feel a little ripped off by the bad spinach, so I’m tempted to get one too, but I resist. This station is the near end of the SIR, so maybe I’ll buy desert when we return to St. George for the other end of that line.
Photographs by Damaso Reyes

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