When I approach Manhattan from the north and right before I enter the Lincoln Tunnel, I see a postcard view of the island, visible for only seconds through a bus window, but one that holds a large chunk of my history.
The Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan rises in its impressive solitude, making a muscular case that this city cannot be defeated. The symbolism is steely and aesthetically pure. But I can’t view this splendid structure without remembering the view I had of the Twin Towers from my bedroom window in Brooklyn Heights a stone’s throw away. I recall watching the towers burn and smolder for years, a slow and blessed funeral pyre. I saw the move Moonstruck the other night and for a time I was in the old neighborhood looking out over the East River on those beautiful towers.
About five miles to the north, I see the USS Intrepid tied up at the pier at 12 Avenue and 46th Street. This scene brings back memories of serving four years in the Pacific with the 7th fleet and operating with aircraft carriers in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. I was on an ammunition ship. We delivered bombs and rockets for the carriers’ aircraft during an underway replenishment. For a recent novel, USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story, I researched the amount of explosives America dropped on Vietnam during that war. In total, America dropped 7, 662,000 tons of smart and dumb bombs on that country. That was about three times what we dropped during World War II. I still dream of being at the ship’s helm during a replenishment, watching the bombs transported in vast nets over to the carrier’s hangar deck, as if hand-delivered.
I have never been aboard the present USS Intrepid, now a Sea, Air and Space Museum, because it’s hard to experience as a Sunday tourist a fighting ship that had seen so many battles and has so many scars. Perhaps more to the point: all the ships I was associated with have now been sold for scrap or more likely are at the bottom of the sea, some serving useful duty at the entrance to harbors. Only the lucky few become museums.
Next to the USS Intrepid is an ocean liner well on its way to becoming a hotel. The liner bears only a slight resemblance to the SS Italia that brought my family from England to the states. Our vessel docked in the same vicinity as that hotel cruise ship. My mother said we had to sneak off the ship because we couldn’t afford to tip the steward. She also said a taxi driver gave us a free trip to the bus terminal a few blocks to the south in midtown, stopping on the way to treat her three sons to their first hotdogs. She paid him back, she swore, she swore.
From my bus window view, I can almost see St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 50th and Fifth Avenue. My mother had said this was my father’s first stop after disembarking from his ship a year ahead of us. I don’t know whether this is true either, but it really doesn’t matter. Years ago, I began the habit of stopping in the cathedral to thank my father who had thanked the powers. When I was young, he hinted at my becoming a priest. Perhaps I was looking for some sign or wonder. Then again, he also thought I’d make a good jockey or accountant.
As we enter the Lincoln Tunnel, I reflect on the letters my father had written after he settled in Pittsburgh, PA. We didn’t hear from him for months after his arrival, and we thought he had abandoned us. Mother fainted when she received his first letter. “I feel like I have entered another country,” he said in so many words. “America is very hard on the immigrant,” he wrote, “but at least the boys will have a future.” He was an Irishman to the core, but hardly a sentimentalist. That he saw angels at the foot his deathbed might have been born in my mother’s imagination. For her, that is the place where prayer resides.
I am reading a haunting graphic novel “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan, a gift from my son. It’s about a young man’s travel to a new land, looking for a better life for wife and child. This is a wordless, dream-like, archetypal journey through what seems like old photographic panels presented in grayscale and gold, depicting the riotous, cartoonish and scary impressions the new immigrant has of his new world.
There seems enormous, creative truth in these wonderful photographs that Shaun Tan says he created in his garage. There is an immigrant look to this book in the portraits, the imagined castles and the touches of ancient lands that seems to infuse a vaguely familiar Lower Manhattan with its monsters and faintly familiar rats.
The author provides us with stunning images of the immigrant heart and soul projected onto grim and fanciful scenes that seem just as meaty and real as the familiar architecture on that fantasy island we call Manhattan.
Ask any immigrant.