In Pursuit of Liberty

It is the weekend before the Republican convention. My partner Jessica and I are staying with her relatives in their New York apartment on a tree-lined street on the Upper West Side. Our four-year-old son, Oliver, wants to see the Statue of Liberty. I have not taken enough time off work for another day of vacation, but I remember fondly seeing the Statue for the first time as a child. And so I call my office, clear my schedule, and we stay one more day.

The last time I visited the Statue of Liberty was during the summer of 1973. That summer my mother, my sister, and I drove to Washington, D.C. and New York in our green Pontiac all the way from San Antonio. On the radio, we listened to news from the Senate Watergate Committee and felt conflicted about the historic sites we visited. Back then, getting to the Statue of Liberty was easy: You simply bought a ticket and got on the boat.

Now our New York relatives jokingly scorn us for wanting to visit the Statue. It will be a mob scene, no doubt. But we are undaunted. Jess and I venture out into the streets with Oliver and our 18-month-old daughter, Helen, who is in a stroller. After buying our subway tickets and finding our way to the platform, our son, who is unaccustomed to the roar of the subway, holds onto my waist and starts to cry. His other mom and I reassure him. After waiting for what seems like a very long time, we board a subway train that takes us through the World Trade Center stop. As it travels through the boarded-up station, the train reverently slows, but does not stop. Eerie blue lights allow a partial view of the closed platform. “Why doesn’t the train stop?” Oliver asks. “I guess they are doing some work on the station,” I offer. He is satisfied with that, and given his young age, I decide not to offer more.

We exit at South Ferry, the end of the line. On our way out, we are met by a flock of vendors selling hats, t-shirts, and sketches of New York landmarks including, of course, the World Trade Center. Oliver pulls my hand and takes the lead. Along the dock, ferries are lined up. A sign directs us to stand at the end of a long line of tourists wrapping its way around Castle Clinton, an old fort in Lower Manhattan where immigrants were processed before Ellis Island opened.

“Is this where they sell the tickets?” my son asks.

“Yes,” I say as I touch the top of his head, which is noticeably warm from the bright sun. “Do you want me to buy you a hat?” I ask. He does not and I stand so that my shadow shelters him from the sun. My partner rubs sunblock on the children’s faces.

Half an hour later we enter Castle Clinton and find eight more lines, like a supermarket, each devoted to the purchase of tickets for the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Ferries. We buy four tickets for the boat, one post card—for show-and-tell at my son’s Montessori preschool back in Austin—and a disposable camera. We leave Castle Clinton and stand in yet another line.

After a few minutes, I notice the languages spoken by our fellow tourists: Russian, German, Spanish, Japanese. A small Coast Guard boat with two huge outboard motors on the back pulls up near the dock. Loaded machine guns are attached to the bow and the stern. Two Coast Guard officers sit inside the boat underneath a metal roof with open sides. They make no sign of welcome; they simply cut the engines and watch the tourists standing in line. The multilingual banter immediately ceases; the lady in front of me looks down at her tennis-shoed feet. I try to distract my son by suggesting that he look at a seagull eating a piece of hot dog bun.

I am starting to feel depressed. Helen is crying and fussy in her stroller. Despite our proximity to the water, there is very little breeze and the sun is hot. Oliver wants me to pick him up. I wonder if we shouldn’t forget the $26 we spent on tickets and go to lunch instead.

Just then, a street musician starts to play his steel drum and flirt with those of us in line. Because of his accent, I assume that he is from the West Indies. A woman who quickly tires of his flirting with her daughter turns her back to him. He laughs and says in a thick, sweet voice, “I hope you do not find me too distasteful. I could marry your daughter—or your son.”

The crowd laughs. The line inches forward. And just off the dock, the Coast Guard boat continues to bob in the water while the men inside, unsmiling, watch us through their aviator sunglasses. I wonder—could they get in position to fire those machine guns before my family and I could take cover on this dock? Again, I wonder if it was a mistake to come here.

Soon, the crowd is herded into a big white tent and we have some relief from the hot sun. The guard yells at the crowd, “This is not a single file line. Move to the end of the tent!” I worry about his order since there is only one small door at the end of the tent and it would seem to require a single file for the crowd to pass through safely. But no one is pushing, and so I do what I am told.

We exit the tent and go into another room filled with metal detectors operated by Wackenhut employees. (Wackenhut is the company that runs a large number of private prisons in the United States and has been involved in civil rights lawsuits. It seems odd that they have the contract to perform security for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferry.) We take off our shoes, empty our “pockets, relinquish our purses, and try to calm our children in the presence of the incredibly brusque guard who barks orders for us to “Stop!” or “Move on!” After another 20 minutes, we are through security and wait in line to board our boat: the Miss Liberty.

I am heartened by its appearance. My partner takes Helen out of the stroller and carries her up the gang plank. I sling the stroller over my shoulder and grab Oliver’s hand. Soon we are on board and moving as quickly as we can to the top deck. We use our 40-year-old thighs to claim our three-and-a-half feet of bench space. I buy cold water and dig broken crackers out of my purse to divide between our children.

The boat pulls away from the dock. Soon a number of passengers are on their feet and looking, not at the Statue of Liberty, but instead at the gap in the New York skyline where the World Trade Center towers once stood. The international chatter has stopped. I pour water on my hands and run them through the children’s hair to cool the hot sunlight. Miss Liberty noisily makes her way over the Hudson in a great cloud of diesel smoke.

Seconds later, the wind shifts and the deck cools down. The diesel smoke is temporarily blown away, and best of all, the Statue of Liberty is in full view. Like the wind, the mood on the top deck also shifts. The lady next to me, whose large thigh is firmly pressed against mine, starts to dig in her canvas bag for a camera. Two handsome young guys from Poland or perhaps Russia ask a young American woman to take their photo with the Statue of Liberty in the background. A woman in a bright red sari steadies herself at the rail and excitedly exclaims to her small daughter who is sitting astride her hip, “Look! Look!” Oliver stands on the aluminum bench and starts snapping pictures with the disposable camera that I bought for him back at the ticket booth. He is speechless.

Our little boat makes a long and graceful U-shaped pass in front of the Statue. Oliver and I admire her strong chin and nose, her powerful legs and her graceful arm that is supported by a steel girder attached to her shoulder. Just before the captain tells us to stop standing on the benches so that we don’t fall and hurt ourselves, my little son kisses my cheek and says, “Thank you mama Laurie for taking me to see the Statue of Liberty.”

I no longer regret our trip. My partner tells our son how his great, great, great-grandfather was among the dignitaries to accept the Statue of Liberty from France. The next stop is Ellis Island, although we do not get off the boat because our kids are too tired and hungry. I tell Oliver that my grandfather—his great-grandfather—immigrated from England and that his first stop in America was Ellis Island, before he took the train to Gonzales, Texas. He looks bored; he is too young for these stories. My partner buys a package of peanut M&Ms from the snack bar. Our children fight over them. I become stern and place the bag back in my purse. Diesel smoke envelopes the deck as Miss Liberty returns her passengers to lower Manhattan.

Back at the apartment we are sunburned and tired, but also a little awestruck. In his high sing-song voice, my son tells his three-year-old cousin, “Some moms will say that they are taking you to see the Statue of Liberty, but really they are just showing you a picture. My moms took me to see the real thing.” I overhear this discussion while I am eating lunch. And I remember that summer 31 years ago, during the Senate Watergate Hearings, when my mom drove my sister and me from San Antonio to New York and took us to see the real Statue of Liberty.

In addition to being a mom, Laurie Eiserloh is an Assistant City Attorney in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST