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The best $2.75 I ever spent: an NYC ferry ride

Reason No. 1 to take the ferry: It’s not the subway.

Meredith Haggerty is the senior editor for the Culture section at Vox. Before coming to Vox, she was a senior editor at Racked.

New York is a city where anything can happen, sure, but when you live here, it’s also a place thick with inevitabilities. Trashpiss smell in the summer, visiting families walking six abreast in winter, sirens at bedtime and construction at dawn and any restaurant that you really love closing, as a reminder to never love anything.

And most inevitable of all, the subway at rush hour, when each car becomes a fully packed group meditation chamber with everyone silently focusing on some variation of the mantra, “I’m not here, you’re not here, you are not touching me, I am not touching you; I am on a beach or a mountaintop or I am dead right now but none of this is happening, none of this is happening, none of this is happening.” It’s a nightmare, and all the worse in the past few years since the subway has been hideously boned.

This communion with your neighbors will run you $2.75 a ride, or $121 for a monthly Metrocard divided by however many trips you make in 28 to 31 days, an equation I’ve never been totally sure benefited me personally, but let’s call it $2.75. And you know what you can get for $2.75 instead?

You can ride the NYC Ferry.

Or at least, and this is a fairly big caveat, I can. To be clear, anyone can ride the ferry — either the NYC Ferry or the Staten Island one, which is free — but because I happen to both live and work near water, like approximately two dozen other New Yorkers, the ferry is my perfect commute.

More math: You can see my apartment from my office, give or take, but there’s a whole river in between. So I’m a 10-minute walk from a train that requires a transfer to another train, or a 25-minute walk from a farther, faster train, and you might be saying to yourself, wow, I bet your rent is a lot for being so far from those trains. It is, thanks! But I also live a 14-minute walk from the ferry terminal, a stroll that includes a picturesque view of the Manhattan skyline and only one live poultry slaughterhouse.

And maybe now you’re saying, okay, I’m convinced, this is a good idea for you, a woman I don’t know. But there’s more!

The ferry isn’t just about what I avoid (the subway) — it’s about what I get. I get to ride on a boat. I get to talk about riding a boat, constantly, to everyone. I get to feel the waves beneath the boat, and watch people who aren’t experienced ferry riders stumble a little bit, which is funny sometimes. I get to use a slickly designed and shockingly functional app on my phone to purchase and present my ticket and to make sure the ferry is on schedule. I get to memorize that schedule and then say things like, “Ah, gotta catch the 6:13!” like some kind of commuter rail-riding dad.

I get a high-speed perusal of the length Brooklyn Bridge Park, from the people doing free yoga by the promenade to the people doing expensive yoga on top of the 1 Hotel. I get the two skylines, the Statue of Liberty, a view of the bridge, and, depending on the month, sunset. I get the very loud horn. (Okay, actually I hate that horn.) I get a seat, always.

In the summer, the ferry is a particularly easy choice: sitting up on the roof deck, wind in hair, sun on face, river and sky shining like the cover of a hymnal. In New York, there are very few opportunities to see a huge expanse of sky, and you can forget that it’s kind of amazing and up there all the time. Riding on top of the ferry means cheap and easy access to a feeling mostly reserved for movie trailers where the camera spins around on a pretty mountaintop; that feeling as simple and powerful as, “I am alive, and that is good.” It’s much cheaper than therapy; it’s even cheaper than drinking.

Also, there is drinking! If you so choose, and depending on the boat. If you manage to get an official, tricked-out NYC Ferry boat — the fleet introduced in 2017 and named things like “Friendship Express” and “Lunchbox” and “Seas the Day” by adorable schoolchildren — then you can visit the onboard “New Stand,” which sells tourists Instamatic cameras and excessively cute phone chargers and the overpriced and highly specific snacks that let you know this bodega is in a rich neighborhood. And it sells alcoholic beverages.

The first time I tried boat-based commuting, I got a glass of rosé on tap. I mean, of course: My then-new ferry plan was largely about injecting my life with the kind of delight that can be encapsulated by “drinking wine on a boat after work while remembering the sky exists.”

The bartender asked if I wanted a cover and a straw for my drink, and I, so carefree, said no. I marched up to the upper deck, staked out a spot by the rail, and, as the boat began to speed from the financial district to DUMBO, going just so much faster than I anticipated, I found myself just so extremely covered in a sticky layer of pink wine.

I loved it. I loved it so much, you would think I was not wearing the contents of a plastic cup of cheap rosé, but I don’t drink on the boat anymore. This is in part because the boat goes very fast, so even if you have a lid, it’s not worth it (you really have to pound that drink), but mostly because what I liked about the ride was the purity of being out on the water and in the sun and having an experience that was enough on its own, without alcohol or my phone or even my friends, all those things I use to protect me from being unmediated and exposed most of the day. It felt amazing to be doing something as necessary and quotidian as getting back home without trying to pretend it wasn’t happening at all. I didn’t want anything to interrupt that oddly clean time in my largely grimy New York life.

(It also isn’t very good wine.)

I made a very strict rule for myself that I would only get wine in an emergency (and there’s only been one since), and I would never, ever sit below deck with all the people who couldn’t appreciate that the sky is up there, which I held to strong until it got even a bit chilly.

But even in cold and in rain and occasionally now in snow, even when the dock is a little flooded and the water’s a little rocky and the roof deck is a distant memory, I’m still taking the ferry. Because, again: it’s not the subway.

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