I Survived the Staten Island Mall


On the upper deck of the ferry, a pigeon taps at an old Newsday. A Korean family—parents, teenage son, tweens daughter—sit in a row, each listening to a private set of white headphones. Many riders seem like European merry-makers, with bright, jaunty knapsacks, maps, and cans of beer. Most will step briefly off this boat and immediately reboard another back to Manhattan. I mistake the women’s for the men’s restroom, inching briefly into its anteroom, where five hard chairs are bolted in front of a mirror. On a Saturday like today, the brilliant November sun blinds me for a second, and I step back to take a seat by the waves.

The Staten Island rail system will terminate at Tottenville, nearly two dozen stops distant. I share a train car with an older Fukanese couple who rode my bus from the Lower East Side. At their feet are sacks of greens.

Two boys bounce aboard, bulky sweatshirts billowing. The black guy begins to scratch into a seat with his keys. The Latino guy leans over, clapping, and steps aside to hump the seat divider. The boys start to wrestle and punch at each other, edging closer to the old Chinese couple, who don’t flinch. We’re halfway across the island.

The train stops 30 feet from the ocean. I walk off the platform with a dozen jolly math-geeks. One’s even wearing a trench coat. We scramble down onto rock and pilings.

It’s low, low tide, and a stout guy in a beard and sweatshirt digs into the muck. He lugs a bucket and I see wriggling. “Green crabs,” he says. “They’ll last for nine days or more in this bucket.” He ambles his way back to the parking lot and is unmolested by the math geeks, who are throwing rocks at each other.

I walk Tottenville’s quiet streets, fantasizing about commuting to the East Village by sloop.

Back at the sour beach, the math geeks are divided into camps. There are allegations that someone’s Canadian. This is evidently a grave insult. Edging away from their lines of fire, I notice the skeleton of a bike rusting in the surf. The handlebar grips were once a vivid green.

“Yo, son!” This is very loud, and everyone in the food court turns to look. His hair is gelled straight up, four rigid inches. “Where you at?” he asks, searching the tables in the mall’s food court. His tan is deep, his track suit is white, even down to the cuffs. He finds his crew, each holding a steaming Styrofoam of pasta or stir fry or hot dogs. High fives for everyone at the table. Nearby, three women in head scarves pick at side salads and baked potatoes. I spot a Puerto Rican family negotiating a meal for seven on $1.37. The deal includes a round of milkshakes, including a two-ouncer for the smallest guy. He gurgles and paws at a fry. The crucifix around his neck is bigger than his nose.

Outside Hot Topic, kids in fishnets and blue hair spill out on to the walkway. Imagine if they hosted shows here, if they bought the rights to CBGB and expanded the franchise.

There’s another colony of kids at the main mall entrance, the scene dominated by a group of preteen boys in too-wide jeans and rugby shirts smoking cigarettes. Their hang-out, a barren concrete bowl, features a single bench and an overflowing ashtray, neither of which were designed with adolescence in mind.

The bus to St. George travels through Arden Heights and La Tourette Park. Staten is indeed an island, and on either side of the road tidal creeks slice into dense brush. The brackish water moves slowly through mud, creeping back to the sea. A woman who might be Iraqi naps against the bus window.

The traffic churns—five lanes in either direction—and I’m pretending I can figure out how many people are in each car and where they might be going.

The ferry returns in darkness. A woman with a Cockney accent is urging her parents to look out for the Statue. She has them positioned on an outer bench, but she squirms, at war with herself over whether the spot’s good enough. Maybe they should go to the tip of the ferry? Meanwhile, the Statue passes.

“Dad, use the zoom,” the woman says. He smiles, but I see he’s just looking at his hands. The cold water slaps at the sides of the boat, and we near Manhattan.