A Moment at Ellis Island

I’m not totally sure what I’m trying to accomplish here. Maybe I just want to share a moment with you.

I was on the 2nd floor of the main building and museum at Ellis Island, and had paused to look at the open diary of a woman who had worked on the island. The diary entry for that day detailed being summoned to escort a teenaged girl into Ellis Island for deportation proceedings. All individual women had to be escorted by female employees (and single women were not allowed to proceed off the island without escort by a male relative). The teenager had an unspecified mental illness and had become violent in the mid-Western town where she’d settled.

As I bent over the pages, puzzling out the carefully looping, neat script, a young man with fair skin and hair, who looked to probably be in college, came to stand a little beside and behind me. I shifted over in case he wanted to see. Instead, he asked in a light accent of strong consonants, “Can you read it?”

“Yeah,” I answered, straightening to face him. “It’s not easy, but I can.”

“Would you tell me what it says?”

I began to explain, pointing to how far I’d gotten, only about halfway down the first page of the spread.

I read on, and the young man stood still, waiting. After another couple of paragraphs, I told him that the judge and other male officials overseeing her hearing asked the employee writing the journal if she was afraid. She wasn’t. She told them she would just lay down on the girl if she became violent so she wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone or herself.

My fellow Ellis Island visitor grinned at this and looked back at the page. A couple friends came up to him, paused as I kept reading, then moved out of the room. I expected him to go, too, but he didn’t. He wanted to know all those pages shared. And he waited—patient, pleasant, non-threatening, interested—for me to learn myself so I could impart it to him.

When I reached the first description of the girl, I caught him up and read out the traits: brunette, fair skin, seventeen, German.

“German?” he asked, beaming. “I’m German!”

“That’s amazing,” I told him. It wasn’t, in a strict sense. No more than me being born in the US is amazing. But I recognized that his connection to this woman, nameless at least on these two pages, was profound even before he learned of her country of origin. Now, it was amazing.

I read the rest aloud, no longer worried about bungling a word at first or misreading an unfamiliar phrase. He stepped forward, almost beside me, looking at my finger on the clear case as I traced my way to the end of the page.

“She was German,” he said again, when I’d finished. His face almost glowed from delight and awe. “I can’t believe it.”

A little circle of other museum patrons had formed behind us, listening to me read, and were now side-stepping and breaking apart.

“Yeah,” I said. “I wish we knew her name.”

“Yeah,” he answered, looking at the pages again. Then, “Thank you for reading it to me.”

“You’re so welcome! I’m glad I could share it with someone.”

I left the room first, he lingering by the case. I wondered all sorts of things about him, but despite that feeling of connection we’d shared, I didn’t feel close enough to ask a lot of questions of him. “Why are you here, at Ellis Island? Where in Germany are you from? What did your friends say to you when they left you here, waiting for me to read more of the journal and interpret it to you? Where are you going now? What are you hoping for in life?” So I kept going, and even though I tend to take museums at a near glacial pace, I didn’t see him in any of the subsequent rooms. But I keep thinking about him, his rich, full life, and the five minutes we bent over a long-dead woman’s journal and read her words detailing a ten-minute span of a single day in her rich, full life.

Things I Miss about Manchester

I’ve lived in Manchester twice, the first time in the neighborhood of Withington for 4 months and the second time in City Centre for 6 weeks. The flat I lived in the second time was about 10 minutes, walking, from the Manchester Arena where this week’s suicide bombing targeted young concert-goers and their parents. I would have been one of those people offering, at 2am, a cup of tea, a chance to recharge phones, even a spare bed.

To honor this city I adore and greatly miss, I’m making a list:

1. The people. Individual people, absolutely. The first I knew something had happened in Manchester was when I started getting Facebook notifications that friends had checked in as safe. But I also just miss the spirit of Mancunians. This is a former industry town, red-bricked and soot-stained with old canals and some gleaming new facades. First-rate public transit. Prams (strollers) in parks. Excellent museums and art galleries. Where there are more students than you can reasonably hope to count. Where I once saw a person in a rabbit costume walk sedately up the street. Where the Queen once attended a couple’s wedding in city hall. Where I could look up from my kitchen table and into the faces of passengers on the top level of a red double-decker. Where a statue stands of Abraham Lincoln, commemorating that though the American Civil War decimated Manchester’s economy, the ending of slavery in the US was worth it. They are extraordinary people.

2. Piccadilly Gardens. From hot chocolate at an outdoor table to watching children play in the fountain, from whirring over the city in a carnival swing to the Primark at the corner (good grief, I miss that Primark). I miss just walking through on my way to Arndale’s food court for lunch with a friend or to Printworks then a pub. (Both Arndale and Printworks are mere blocks from the arena.) I miss the ridiculous two Starbucks locations on opposite sides of the square, and a Cafe Nero, and another Cafe Nero around the corner. I miss getting desperate enough for a single Krispy Kreme donut that I pay that price and queuing for the bus in the freezing cold. I also miss running to the first stop up Portland Street when I arrived too late and my bus had already shut its doors to depart.

3. Food. MCR loves curry. And American restaurants. And Chinese food. Mostly curry, which is as it should be. And Chinatown is fantastic (I have a favorite place). Krispy Fried Chicken, Kansas Fried Chicken, and various other establishments (including KFC) can be avoided quite well, thank you. (The meat is hallal, there’s no such thing as extra crispy, they fry in olive oil, and it’s the greasiest food you can manage to find in all the Isles.) A friend begged me to go with him to the Arndale mall food court when Taco Bell opened. I know someone who threatened to move when the American-style burger place in the Northern District burned. But oh, goodness. The curry!

4. Parks. This is very much an English thing, but Manchester’s parks are amazing. I already talked about Piccadilly Gardens. Then there’s the one nearest my flat in Withington with double duck ponds and willows that look ready to whomp. The one where the Salford and Quays meet. The one where my friend took her boys to play every day, even in the rain, and where I also took them when I babysat them. The one we’d cut through visiting friends in Fallowfield. The one where I saw a 5-actor production of “Pride & Prejudice”. The ones attached to homes in the National Trust, great sweeping grounds of manor houses like Dunham Massey, Tatton Park, and Lyme Park (the house used as Pemberley in the classic “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries). There are even a couple more I can’t place. But parks are well kept and well valued by Mancunians.

5. City Katie. I’ve written about her before. She was her best self in Manchester. And she got really good at applying eye liner, mascara, lipstick, and blush on the train. Less so on the bus.

I long to hear the Mancunian accent. I long to queue! Every Christmas I miss the markets with an almost physical pain. I find myself wistful for a particular yarn shop, wishing I could get my watch battery changed at a certain hardware shop. I yearn for a specific Italian restaurant and please, please give me Nando’s! Did I mention Primark? I miss Primark. The Piccadilly Gardens one.

Manchester is truly English (much more so than London), truly British (see halal meat and curry), truly in love with sports (Man City over United any day), truly lovely in just about every sense of the word. And I am so, so sorry for them. I am also immensely honored to have called Manchester home those short, pivotal times in my life.

Things I Already Miss about NYC

I spent last week in the city of lights, specifically in Brooklyn and I was immediately a bit of a snob about it. I miss the narrow, tall house, the smooth wooden banisters, the orange and red tulips on my dresser. I miss the wonderful friends who hosted me. And here are some other things I miss.

Delivery on everything. We didn’t even order in groceries or pillows or bagels or postcards. But I could have. And I’ve missed that freedom.

Interesting food. Also bagels. And pizza. And macarons. And cart pretzels (even though I didn’t have one, they were always nearby). The restaurants themselves were fascinating: long farm tables so you can share a workspace, round tables stacked with silver plates of pastries, a narrow counter at an open window, a tiny square table in a former church.

Walking culture. I almost never say, “Let’s walk there,” in my life in Macon, GA. It’s still rarer for everyone in a group to assume we’ll walk. Even at church I take the shuttle to and from the back lot where I park. But in NYC, of course we walked the 1.2 miles to the book store. Of course we walked the 8 blocks from the restaurant to the theater. And I’m happier doing so. And I discover so much more along the way. And the Brooklyn Promenade my first night in town irrevocably captured my heart.

Trains. I love them so much a friend called me Sheldon. Mostly, I love that I can travel hundreds of miles without long waits and baggage hassles (as in airports) and while free to read, write, crochet, work, or any number of other things not possible when driving. Trains are soothing, scenic, inspiring, and the least stressful way for me to travel.

Good public transit. Set me down anywhere in a city like New York, ask me to get anywhere else, and I can do it. I don’t need a car or bulky bags—I can’t take anything too heavy with me—I just take myself where I’m going. I get to people watch. I get to share the space and experience with strangers. I’m also, as on trains, free to use my time because I’m not busy driving.

Connections. I had no idea how far the Chrysler building is from the Empire State building. I had no concept of how close Brooklyn Bridge is to Freedom Tower. I saw movies and read books about New York, so every place in New York was a shot framed under a lamppost, a pan of the skyline, every location disjointed and without context. I couldn’t see how the pieces fit together, relate to one another, and continually marveled at how near things were, even more than how big. Plus, I love recognizing a place I’m seeing in front of me from a favorite TV show or a well-loved movie (“You’ve Got Mail” came up a lot).

History. Yes, I love history. Give me a good museum and I’ll be happy all day. But NYC is, in so many ways, sacred ground. Every inch I walked and every train car and every seat in every restaurant has been vital in a person’s life. More than one person. In an old city, my heart beats in the echoes of all the heartbeats around me and before me. For centuries. Including people I admire and people I ought to admire but don’t know.

Art culture. Sculpture installations, galleries, musicals, plays, schools, book stores, and every other form or product of art. NYC is a place for art. When you visit the city, you’re expected to see at least one Broadway musical. The names of galleries and museums can be rattled off by people who have never been been to the Big Apple: The Met, MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Natural History Museum. And I do love art in Macon as well, and in Atlanta, but there isn’t a culture surrounding art in the same way.

Parks. City folks love—and need—parks. And NYC’s parks are unique, like The Highline: a former above-ground rail line full of trees and grasses and flowers weaving through the West Side along the river. Sitting on a bench in Cadman Plaza, I watched children race their scooters and nannies change diapers while a tiny soccer practice was underway. I live near a wonderful park that I use often, but NYC’s walking culture combines with the unique flavors of neighborhoods for delightful beautiful in high contrast to the surrounding miles of concrete. Not that NYC lacks green beyond it’s parks. I was delighted to find tulips growing at bases of nearly every tree on the sidewalks of Brooklyn.

City Katie. I love who I am in a city. I move through the world confidently. I’m comfortable. I’m so happy. Even when something goes wrong (or many things), I have options and I solve problems. Some days the city wins, but I win far more frequently. I’m flexible, patient, amused and amusing. I do so much in a day. I buy things that bring me joy and that I don’t mind carrying for the rest of the day. (It’s a good litmus test, really: am I going to regret buying this after carrying and keeping up with it for four hours?) I have access to almost any experience I desire. I’m creative. I’m so tired by the time I flop into bed at night. I’m on a constant adventure. I love being this creative, curious, confident, capable person. Driving to work in an ill mood this morning, I missed her the most.