Watching the World Come In

In my early teens, I read the shipping news in the local papers to learn the departure times of transatlantic liners.

The Queen Mary, with her three smokestacks, was my favorite. When her sailing time was announced, I would ride my bicycle from East 96th Street, where we lived, to the North River passenger-ship piers on the West Side. (The Hudson at its southern end is known as the North River.) Here I watched passengers arrive by taxi cab. The idea of a 5,000-mile journey by sea, from the New World to the Old, fascinated me.

As the vessel's departure drew near, I would leave the pier and bicycle four miles to the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan.

From this vantage point, I would see the Queen Mary, as befits a monarch, at the center of a procession of admiring vessels. She would emerge from the North River into New York City harbor and continue her royal progress toward the Narrows and the sea beyond. Not until the tip of her last smokestack disappeared from view did I move from the spot.

Today, few - if any - transatlantic liners depart from New York. The shipping news has disappeared from the papers. And I have not owned a bicycle for a long time.

But fond memories of cycling in the city persuaded me to buy a new bicycle. This past Fourth of July, I spent most of the day cycling the streets of Manhattan.

After visiting former haunts, I returned to the Battery. No ocean liner was in sight, but there was much to cheer about. The Independence Day celebrants in Battery Park highlight the diversity of the city's population, coming from more than 150 countries. Parks and walkways, replacing dilapidated piers, extend from the Battery along the North River to Chambers Street.

In a plaza by the river, these lines of Walt Whitman, that quintessential New Yorker, are embossed on an iron fence:

City of the world! (for all races are here,

All the lands of the earth make contributions here;)

City of the sea!

Whitman would bemoan the absence of ocean-crossing passenger ships in the harbor, but applaud the diversity of the peoples making up his "city of the world."

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