Riding the Ferry
While New Orleans remains in flux, the river ferry chugs its steady route through the decades
Courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery
Soon after I first came to New Orleans, I began riding the ferry to get away from the heat. It crossed the Mississippi River, from the foot of Canal Street to Algiers. There was always a breeze on the river.
The ride gave me release. It wasn’t really that the breeze cooled me off. Even in those days of relative poverty, my apartment had air-conditioning, which made it cooler than the boat, and the diesel fumes made the air on board even heavier and more suffocating than New Orleans already was. But that breeze coming off the water did something air-conditioning couldn’t do.
It carried everything away and it took me away too. That’s what a favorite place does—it takes you away, either because of the Zen of the place itself, such that it involves you in it, or because of the associations and memories attached to it. I started riding for the ferry itself, for that breeze in summer and to get out on the river; now I can’t ride it without thinking of other things too.
The dock sits between the aquarium and Riverwalk, two tourist destinations, but the ferry is a working boat, all grit and grease and engine vibration under your feet, and it’s a working man’s boat, crowded at rush hour. The state runs it, along with another ferry upriver at Jackson Avenue and one more downriver in St. Bernard. There’s certainly nothing pretty about any of them. They’re squat and small, not much bigger than one of the towboats you see moving barges around the harbor. Inside the signs on doors (“Authorized personnel only”) and the rows of bolted-down cheap plastic seats—in colors of pinkish orange, government green, and off-white—remind you of the waiting room at an unemployment office.
But they’re boats. They have a captain, a name, and a flag. T.S. Eliot wrote, “The river is within us, the sea is all about us.” The port of New Orleans gives you the river and promises you the sea. The ferry takes you on a voyage of no consequence that involves you in the great wide world.