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MULTISENSORY: A trip on the Staten Island Railway

Did you know that you can take a New York City subway to the end of the line, disembark, and a few steps later stand at the edge of the sea? The water laps at the base of the platform; concrete and metal barriers prevent you from stepping off the train and into the tide. One has the sense of getting away with something—like stepping outside in your bedroom slippers—as the familiar subway car with its community-college ads and periwinkle blue seats chugs off into uncharted terrain.

At Tottenville, the last stop on the unsung, single-line Staten Island Railway, the exit ramp from the station leads directly to the shores of the Arthur Kill, a saltwater tidal strait that separates Staten Island and New Jersey and flows out into Raritan Bay.

The hour-long trip from St. George, the Staten Island Ferry terminal, to Tottenville is a unique sensory experience in itself. The first phase of the journey is the antithesis of the end: a bank of gloomy tracks and exhaust-choked platforms where the rumbling trains lurk, gasping.

On the day of my ride—a Sunday in May—the passengers are sparse. A man furiously scratches his head for several minutes, a lady in an all-red track suit sips noisily from a dome-top cup, and a woman gazes out the window, a blank greeting card in her lap, a paper bag of Trader Joe’s flowers resting at her feet.

The scenery for the first part of the trip is industrial shoreline: ramshackle graffitied warehouses, tugs and barges nuzzling in the distance. In contrast to stations in the other four boroughs, all the SIR stations are built in a distinctive midcentury style, with mint green, faded red, or rust brown paint; walls of glass bricks; and peaked roofs propped by metal circles.

Each station also has at least one suicide-prevention poster sponsored by the Staten Island Railway, a PSA response to several recent tragedies: “Tell us your story. Don’t end it.”

The industrial scenery soon gives way to backyards with murky aboveground pools and barbecues awaiting spring, strip malls with Crunch gyms and Irish pubs and delis with names like Caruso’s. There are Trump flags and Thin Blue Line flags, gnome balls and catering halls, windows with crooked Venetian blinds and rows of plastic shampoo bottles pressed against the glass. Out the train window, I see someone hit a home run in a public park, and someone else scattering crumbs to seagulls. When I finally step out of the train in Tottenville, the air smells like hamburgers, butter, saltwater, and rubber.

After “Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” I hear peals of children’s laughter from a nearby birthday party at a waterfront restaurant—and then the lapping of waves against jagged concrete slabs that jut into the water. Leaning against a concrete barricade, I watch seagulls preen on the relic of a wooden dock, taste the salt sting in the air. It’s not a glorious stretch of beach, and nowhere one one would want to take a dip, but it’s a reminder that New York is a city of water, and the tide is always ebbing and flowing at our shores.

On the subway ride home, the man sitting across from me delivers a wistful and meandering monologue on his life growing up in Staten Island, marked by school bullying as well as local camaraderie. The train passes a station called Pleasant Plains, dripping in purple wisteria.

As we pull into St. George terminal, he concludes by looking me directly in the eye. “Everything changes,” he says. “One day it will all end. After all, who made all this?” He gestures out the window to the railyard, the glowing lights of waiting trains. “God did. God made it all.” The train wheels screech as we round the last turn.

Sense & the City is a monthly blog exploring the hidden corners of New York City. Each month’s post is devoted to one of the five senses. Receive daily sensory impressions via Instagram @senseandthecity.

3 thoughts on “MULTISENSORY: A trip on the Staten Island Railway”

  1. Sharon L Regan

    Thank you again Caitlin for this unique kind of trip with words that makes you feel you are there. Never heard of the Staten Island Railway. (Only the ferry, never a disappointment.) It sounds like an adventure. I would love to ride the rail and bring my grandson who is 11. We live in the Boston area, so who knows when that will be…hopefully sooner than later. Your word pictures are so graphic. Poetic. How do you ever find all these unique places & situations that it seems no one else knows about?! Again, thanks! Sharon L Regan

  2. Caitlin Van Dusen

    I brought my kids when they were around that age and they loved it. There is a cute café in Tottenville just a short walk after you get off the train, which completes the adventure! I hope you can make the trip.

  3. thanks for including Staten Island in your explorations. As a Manhattan-born, lived in every borough person, i find the car culture of SI
    unproductive and unfortunate. So the railway invokes the island’s settlement history. my rewards for circling, for poking about,
    are its shipbuilding and industrial history, unexpected decent dining, and strange politics.

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