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Spiel cruise

Manhattan Transfers

“One thing you can still do is circumnavigate Manhattan island on the hundred-and-twenty-five foot S.S. Manhattan, leaving Pier 1, Battery Park, twice daily, at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.—forty-five miles, three hours, $1.75, special rates to servicemen.” So wrote Philip Hamburger in a Talk of the Town piece for the New Yorker in November 1943. One thing I never did in almost a decade of living in New York and two more of subsequently visiting it often enough that, all told, I have no excuse not to have done it, is circumnavigate the island in the city I love most at least once. It’s one of my rare regrets, especially now that Manhattan has been so disfiguringly, because not figuratively at all, diminished by the scarfacing of 9/11.

Fortunately, one thing you can now do from the comfort of your home, which you couldn’t before, is flip through the New Yorker’s 4,100-odd issues at the click of a mouse and look for those minor gems to take you, literally and literarily, where you never went before. It’s Sunday evening in my Floridian exurb; Thelonius Monk’s “Misterioso” and other highs from most satisfying depths are playing, it’s been a fabulous weekend with the family, away from home, which these days means, most satisfyingly, away from computers, an evening’s grill and home made fries, very much the French kind, deep-fried in two vats of oil, are around the bend, and the last thing I have the heart for is writing another screed about this war or that candidate or that damn Texan.

Flipping through the old New Yorkers by way of its miraculous DVDs seemed like the next-best thing to heaven without the requirement of the suicidal 72-virgin method (which would have brought me bad to a state of screeds anyway, given the method’s attendant requirement of having a cause to die for: tonight, my only eventual cause is to watch my not-yet-four-year-old son watch “Toy Story” for the first time after his seeing and adoring Buzz Lightyear in the flesh, so to speak, every time he’s been to that place in Orlando). And flipping through the New Yorker’s various takes on circumnavigating Manhattan seemed like my equivalent of Buzz Lightyear: I miss New York, miss what’s gone missing of New York, so reading about it as it was in 1943 and maybe other pre-Twin Tower years may ease some of the nostalgia.

Cue Hamburger: Speaking of the circumnavigating boat’s lecturer, a Mr. Guy Finn, it wasn’t long before he “betrayed the effects of war. The moment we weighed anchor, he made an announcement containing a topical note.” It is 1943, remember, late 1943, when the momentum of the war, in retrospect, had most definitely shifted in the Allies’ favor, but the reality of the shift hadn’t yet sunk in at the time, when the West still nervously fiddled with the fear of protracted war, stalemate, Nazi surprises. “ ‘Good afternoon, friends and guests of the metropolis,’ he said. ‘I can discuss everything but boats and military points. Check your cameras and binoculars downstairs.’” So much for the persistence of paranoia. “ ‘Absolutely delicious hot dogs and guide books on sale throughout the voyage.’ Everybody sat tight.”

The visit devolved into required military silence about such places as Governor’s Island or unrequited glee, on Finn’s part, for the latest housing developments or landscapish gossips to catch his eyes, including Frank Sinatra’s house. Finally, “We tied up at Pier 1 and Mr. Finn bade us all farewell. ‘It’s not goodbye but buy bonds,’ he said. ‘Incidentally, folks, I forgot to say that Mrs. Roosevelt has taken an apartment in the Village and will live there—when she’s home.’”

Philip Hamburger

Glutton for punishment that he is, Hamburger revisited the same assignment ten years later, in 1953, this time aboard what by then was known as the Circle Line and its official flagship, the Sightseer, with lecturer Philip Sheridan, who “turns in a knowledgeable and expansive performance, surprisingly free of the old-time Chinatown-bus school of information.” The cruising times were the same: 10:30 and 2, but with an added one at 6 p.m. Prosperity was sailing. “The management,” Mr. Sheridan said into his microphone, “employs the word ‘lecturer for my work. I find it a bit pretentious. I prefer ‘spieler.’” He had been, after all, an understudy in “Show Boat.” And off he went, spieling bits and paeans block after block—the United Nations, “the new capitol of the world, whether you like it or not,” Stuyvesant Town, “twenty-one dollars a room,” Rockefeller Institute, “Polio research, cancer research!” LaGuardia Airport, “The Air Age! Shrinking world! I have a friend flies to Karachi every week or so. No more trouble than taking a ride. Doesn’t even wear a hat!”

I’m not sure what that last line means, but it’s preferable to the Circle Line’s more recent acts: Night Karaoke Cruise ($25), Halloween Costume Cruise ($50, or $45 in advance), Saturday Night Dance Cruise ($25, $23 in advance). The actual Circle Line, daytime, three-hour cruise is $29.50, still a steal. Philip Hamburger is no longer around to chronicle the circuitry. He died in April 2004, his spieling done. He was 89.

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