- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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If the park service had purposely designed the contemporary experience of traveling to Ellis Island as a cracked mirror’s image of the journey made by immigrants a century ago on their way into the New World, it could hardly have improved on the makeshift carnival that has taken hold at the tip of Lower Manhattan, where each day pilgrims await the ferries that will carry them out into the harbor to America’s foremost shrine to immigration.
My wife and I were among those wayfarers on a recent chilly Sunday morning, occupying places near the end of a queue of about 1,500 people that wound through Battery Park. Behind us, two women chatted in German. In front, a young couple spoke British and smoked cigarettes. On either side of the queue, young African men cruised by holding open attaché cases full of watches or sunglasses against their chests, softly chanting “Rohl-ex,” and “Praaah-dah.” In the distance three man-sized Statues of Liberty cruised the quayside, swathed in green silky cloth, like spirits.
We moved forward slowly; but mostly, we didn’t move at all. How long will it take? people asked each other. No one knew. A man in a park ranger uniform stood 50 or so yards away and shouted something into the wind. Was it a message for us? Was it urgent? Was he speaking English? A turbaned man took up a position near us, removed a violin from a cardboard case, and began playing “Salty Dog Blues.” Then he played something that may have been a raga. Then he packed up and left, muttering about the cold.
Slowly we advanced, passing through a bazaar of vendors of food, drink, and souvenirs. We spent a long time standing beside a short elderly man who sang mournful Spanish songs in a reedy tenor accompanied by a string orchestra that played in a boom box he held to his breast, and then we inched past a ukulele player in a multicolored fright wig who spoke with a West Indian accent and asked where we were from. We said Boston, and he played a tune that we were supposed to recognize as a Boston cultural treasure. We put money in his case anyway. Someone behind us must have come from Ireland, because we soon heard the words “I’m an Irish man in New York City looking for a wife” sung to ukulele accompaniment in intonations native to Barbados.
It took 90 minutes just to reach the security tent beside the harbor, where uniformed men and women examined the contents of our pockets, X-rayed our coats and purses, confiscated our pen knives, and ran us through detectors before allowing us onto the wood dock where the bobbing ferry waited to take us the last part of our journey.
I am among the estimated 50 percent of americans who have ancestors who slowly moved through Ellis Island’s Great Hall in long queues, waiting to learn whether America would take them. One was my grandmother, 14 when she ran away alone across Europe and the Atlantic; another was her husband-to-be, a boy with his family, but wrenched into manhood a few years later when his father died of tuberculosis and he became the breadwinner for his mother, brothers, and sisters.
Both are long dead, and while I could not be sure where on the Great Hall’s cracked mosaic tiles they had stood a century ago, nor find their faces in the hundreds of photographs that hang throughout the restored immigration center, I did seem to hear their voices in the taped recollections that can be listened to on telephones that hang beside the exhibits.
The people speaking from the phones are old, their voices etched with accents. The tapings were in the main made by volunteers, and the result is technologically thin—recordings that sound as though they were made at kitchen tables or in church basements. But the stories are robust: A woman, asked as part of an intelligence test, whether she would begin washing a flight of stairs at the top or bottom, said she replied, “I didn’t come to America to wash stairs.” (That would have been my grandmother.) A man recalled being asked what he would do to earn money, and replying, “I’ll do anything, I’ll sweep the streets.” (That would have been my grandfather.) A man from Greece remembered that the coat worn by his retarded younger brother was chalked by an inspector with a circled “X,” and only the whispered advice from another immigrant, to turn the coat inside out, spared the family from breakup at the edge of the New World. Another old man said, “We reached the Statue of Liberty. Everybody came out [onto the deck] crying. Freedom.” And he sobbed.
It’s the sound of these voices (along with that carnival in Battery Park) that remains my most resonant memory of Ellis Island. Insistent, eager, and yet frail, the voices on the tapes are like the voices one used to hear on long-distance calls in the day when no one phoned long distance unless they had an urgent story to tell, and when hearing, “It’s long distance for you,” one picked up the line with a slight quickening of the pulse, knowing something had happened or was about to happen that could change everything.
Our cover story on contemporary urgencies in immigration begins here.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum