I arrived at the North Williamsburg ferry terminal early, just to be safe. The boat was due to launch at 7:10, so at 6:30 the crowd was sparse. The only activity consisted of building employees sweeping up the concrete walkway from street to shore and a few odd reporters milling about. News trucks lined with the street with their massive antennas extended and some shiny condo towers loomed overhead. Their waterside lawns were well manicured and the view was indeed impressive, but any other day we’d have no reason to be down here. Today marked the official debut of the East River Ferry service, though, and we’d come to see the mayor take his inaugural ride.
Aside from our Rapture coverage, Realcity hadn’t delved into many “newsworthy” events before. We’d rather cover what most outlets would consider back-page news than jump on the bandwagon with everyone else. In our eyes, anything that happens in the city’s reality is of equal importance, and this event seemed particularly intriguing. Connecting Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan with an affordable and efficient ferry service could make a big difference for the people of New York. The fact that it will be free for the first 12 days also doesn’t hurt. After our Times Square encounter, I was also hungry for another brush with the press. Their frenzied pace made me nostalgic for the early reporting expeditions that had inspired my entry into this crazy field in the first place.
While some reporters started harassing the few locals that were actually waiting to take the ferry, I kept my notepad out of sight. Today was more about observing the fray than getting in the middle of it. Instead, I sidled over to a bored-looking cameraman and struck up a conversation. His name was Isaac and he worked for a media group that archives mayoral appearances and council hearings. He wouldn’t comment directly on the mayor’s job performance, but wasn’t shy about discussing the city’s problems — housing, education and safety, to name a few. We both agreed that no matter what people thought, the life of Bloomberg must be a strange one: spend your weekend in the Bahamas and fly up Monday morning in time for a Brooklyn photo-op. Looking back from my spot near the entry gate, I realized that the crowd had grown and soon spotted the stirrings of Bloomberg’s arrival on the street.
Flanked by a retinue of aides and security, the mayor carried on his conversation with a group of city officials as if no one was there while walking down to the gate. Cameras flashed and eager reporters followed tightly, clinging to his every word. Isaac sprung into action and I retreated to make way for the rush of grizzled news camera operators, but stood close enough to hear most of the conversation. Bloomberg reminisced about an old apartment, while Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz took some gentle ribbing: “Marty, you ready to go to Manhattan?” “I’m getting off at the next stop in Brooklyn,” Markowitz replied jovially, a golden Brooklyn pin sparkling on his lapel. With the boat yet to arrive, they killed time by posing for a photo-op and let some press onto the dock itself. With Bloomberg and co. still on land, I hesitated nearby, but when one of the city operators in a pink blazer hastily shouted, “Any other press getting on?” I gleefully took the cue and slid past her up the ramp.
Out on the water, a group of camera operators were getting a spiel about what would happen when the boat came in, but I was distracted. The gentle bobbing of the dock had started to remind me of home. When the boat did come barreling in, though, I was ready. The politicians made a speedy ascent up the ramp, surrounded by cameras on both ends, and lined up for an impromptu ribbon-cutting ceremony. Markowitz uncomfortably mimed the dock’s heightened movement with a gesture of his hand while smiling widely. As another batch of fresh commuters disembarked — one a Staten Island resident who claimed the ferry cuts his commute by at least 40 minutes — another city aide unfurled a length of red ribbon and produced enough sets of golden scissors to go around. Bloomberg wielded them with detachment, as if they were a toothbrush, and unsuccessfully tried to count off a simultaneous snip. Laughing at the sight, the same aide collected the scissors back into a small cardboard box with her spool of ribbon and it was finally time to board.
I said hello to Realcity‘s own Eric at the entrance (he was the one who turned us onto this in the first place) and found a spot inside to survey the commotion. The ferry itself was compact but comfortable. Three rows of booths lined the first floor, along with a bike rack and a coffee counter in the back. A large sign proclaimed this was courtesy of Brooklyn Roasting Company and the owner was there to prove it. Wearing a company T-shirt, he stood with a cup of coffee in hand to greet the mayor. Bloomberg takes his with a little milk. The throng of reporters had dispersed, the loyal few staying close to the politicos while the rest of us went exploring. In a hallway behind the coffee station I found two bathrooms (one without a toilet and one with a non-flushing unit) and an upper deck that was more of the same. It seemed that the “regular people” had retreated up there to ride in peace.
Back downstairs I spotted Isaac, who assured me he’d gotten some good stuff, and was soon intercepted by a publicist. Damiano, a tall soft-spoken guy with glasses, was very concerned that I speak with a Paul. I dropped Eric’s name to try and imply that I was already in the loop, as I didn’t really know what to ask this Paul, but that only encouraged him further. He pulled one man aside who was clearly doing something to ask if he had time, which prompted some stammering on his part. I politely assured him that I’d be around and he could take his time. It seemed that by not flocking to the nearest warm body with questions I’d either made myself a target for reportorial sympathy or reward. Meanwhile I noticed that we’d already stopped at least twice, likely putting us somewhere near Midtown.
By this point, only Bloomberg and one other politico were left, having taken a seat at one of the tables, so I made my way up front to see who else was around. I ran into the coffee man, who’d apparently met Bloomberg a number of years ago at Gracie Mansion. The mayor had revealed that he drank 15-20 cups of coffee a day, but only because he kept forgetting where he left them. After imparting that anecdote, the coffee man was off, inviting me to stop by their mainland location anytime.
Damiano had magically appeared at the front of the boat and was ready for me to speak with Paul. Sporting a gray mustache and well-worn suit, Paul Goodman was apparently the owner of Billy Bey Ferry, operator of the ferry service, and had worked with the city to orchestrate this entire operation. Damiano looked on watchfully, hopefully not noticing my near illegible notepad scrawl. He gave me a solid few minutes of undivided attention and helpful background information on the project. It had been in the works for three or four years, but the city only got serious and pushed the funding through last year. In addition to the obvious commuter benefits (including a GPS tracking phone app), his company was also working with Homeland Security to provide access to camera footage from all docks and ferries. Goodman planned to be around the boats all day and was soon pulled away.
I stayed up front to assure an easy exit and soon found myself the recipient of even more attention. In addition to card solicitations from one of Damiano’s colleagues and the city woman in the pink blazer (who promised to put me on their event list), I also met David Plotkin, owner of Steelways Inc. In addition to building the ferry dock we were approaching, his company had also re-decked the Throgg’s Neck Bridge and done almost “99 percent of the above ground pools in the city.” After all, “a pool is just like a barge turned inside out.” Realizing that we’d returned to North Williamsburg, I parted ways and quickly departed. Moments later, the ferry had sped off south, leaving me alone where they’d cut the ribbon barely 30 minutes before.
The media whirlpool may not have been entirely informative, but it was certainly a strange way to spend the morning. Back toward Williamsburg’s main streets, the foot traffic had increased a bit, none of them likely aware of the East River Ferry. The mayor had given it his blessing, though, as had a number of reporters by their mere presence, so it seemed they were off to a good start. How long it will last or how impactful it will be are questions for someone else — Realcity just came to catch a glimpse.