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Ferryman Monologue
Dumbo - 1908

by Anastasia Lyons Osorio

Panoramic view of Manhattan, showing Brooklyn Bridge under construction. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

(The ferryman sits on the edge of the ferry boat as it is moored to a noisy pier, watching the young boy carry large boxes onto the boat. He speaks slowly in a lilting Irish brogue, loudly over the noise of the bustling Brooklyn harbor.) 

Don’t you complain about that heavy lifting, boy, they’ll be lightening your load and your hours with it too in times to come, let me tell you. Lord knows I’ve seen it. How everything around here changes, how one thing comes up and devours the other — industry is always hungry, but careless and cruel too. (pointing) See that bridge? That beast of human ingenuity stretched out over this expanse of river. The river no longer divides — yeah, that’s what they said when it opened. But you know we had been here. Sure look, the ferry been here since that Dutch fellow took people across in a damn canoe! (laughs)

But everything gets faster here, New York, everything eats itself up eventually. They’ve been building the damn thing ever since I landed on American soil, and before that too. Took ages to build the thing. I was here that first day when it opened, with the parades and all that, really something. We decked out the ferryboats in bunting, and we filled up with passengers, and all lined up in a row, we watched from the boats that Mrs. Emily Roebling take the first trip across in her five-horse carriage — that woman, was always out front inspecting, dealing with contractors, after her poor husband gone down with the bends, and on that day can you believe she took a damn rooster across with her for luck? The whole time she’s crossing this marvel of engineering, and if it fails the damn rooster gonna save her? What a laugh! (laughs)

Boy you’d never seen so many people waving flags, cheering, all manner of boats filling up the river all dressed up like ladies in finery, fireworks in the air like nothin you’ve ever seen. 

But thing is Jimmy, now they are building the subway too, and it aint’ gonna land on the waters edge neither, no, those riders are gonna spill up from the ground by Borough Hall. You’ve seen it. Seems to me to be no end to digging up the ground, putting in the reinforcing to house some or other great invention. 

Yeah I know I’m going on. Thing I’m saying is boy, I’ve been here long enough to know our days are numbered. Soon they won’t need us like they needed us before. There’s the bridge now, and those Mack trucks — you seen those? There are hundreds now where there weren’t none a year or two ago. You’ve seen ‘em load up the trucks and they just drive off — taking those things to every place the roads reach. 

That’s what it is to be here, from the banks of this river boy you are connected to every place that is — as near as Manhattan landing, as far as Cuba, and of course we came from far away to be here too, like most everybody else that labors. We are everywhere right now in the world, in the middle of these clouds of smoke and stink and noise. 

But out on this river — that’s another thing — you know the trip across ain’t long but it’s enough to feel that breeze and sun on your face, to feel that man can never squash what is beautiful in nature, the river, it’s freedom, no matter how much we try to tame its crossing with bridges and steam and tracks — Why anyone would want to go underground in a dark and filthy tunnel to get across is beyond my understanding — why crawl underground like an animal, crowded up with the others, when there is this great blue out here, and that view of the city and all it’s tumult at a distance? — what refreshment to be had in that. 

That view, Jimmy, don’t blink, it will all change before you know it.

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About the Author: Anastasia Osorio

Anastasia Lyons Osorio is a Masters of City & Regional Planning student, concentrating in Environmental Planning. In her writing she explores urban histories through short narrative nonfiction and performance poetry. The idea for this piece came while digging through the Brooklyn Historical Society’s archival collection.

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