Titanic, As She Never Was
I am standing on the edge of Manhattan, staring off into the Hudson River. Wind-troubled waves shatter the sunlight, and a hundred jutting pylons shatter the waves. There are no placards or memorials, but the rotten wooden pylons are proof that I’m in the right place. This is Pier 59, and I’m 101 years late for an event that never happened. On April 17th, 1912, the RMS Titanic was scheduled to dock here.
I was fascinated by the sinking of Titanic as a kid, back in the late 80’s. It was probably some outgrowth of an earlier dinosaur fixation. The idea that something so massive and majestic could just disappear forever was my first horrible realization that everything must end. That thought kept me awake many nights, as I lay under my prized replica third-class Titanic blanket. When I moved to Manhattan at the age of 20, I brought a different blanket, but I was pleased to find that I now lived only blocks from Pier 59. I made a little holiday for myself: Titanic Docking Day. I head to the water and try to imagine what might have been. I missed the Titanic centennial last year in order to make Kim Il Sung’s birth centennial in North Korea, so this year I knew I had to make up for it.
For extra poignancy I set off for the pier with a printed painting of the Titanic’s imaginary arrival in my pocket, so I could hold it up and compare. Drawing heavily on old photographs and documents, painter James Flood conjured up the scene: Flanked by ornate Beaux-Art reception halls, the elegant ocean liner is eased into her berth as thousands of well-wishers crowd the streets and rooftops. Luxury carriages wait to whisk away the some of the wealthiest and most powerful people of their era.
The reception halls are all gone now, torn down in the early 90’s and replaced by the sprawling sports complex, Chelsea Piers. Golfers in an open-air driving range swing to hit Jersey. The busy Westside Highway channels heavy traffic through the horse-drawn carriage waiting area. Joggers and cyclists flash scandalous amounts of skin where no respectable Edwardian lady would have dared venture without her gloves and hat.
I talked to a middle-aged man seated on a bench. He had lived in the area since 1988. “Did you know the Titanic was supposed to dock here?” I asked. “That’s interesting” he replied. “I remember when you couldn’t come to this place without getting mugged. There was nothing here anyway except a bunch of guys turning tricks.”
Two teenage girls with long black hair and heavy make-up were listening from the adjacent bench. “Oooh, I remember watching that movie Titanic,” one of them cooed. “I was excited to see it ‘cause all my friends said they cried. I wanted to see if I would cry too.” The other girl nodded, adding, “It was sad how the rich and poor people were separated and the poor people all died.”
I walked down to Pier 54 - now just a long slab of asphalt hanging over the river. Above it was a lonely metal arch with the name of Titanic’s operating company “White Star Line” stenciled on it in a faint palimpsest - all that remains of any of the old structures. This was the same pier that Titanic’s sister ship Lusitania had departed one spring day in 1915 before being sunk with heavy casualties by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland.
Continuing my pilgrimage, I trekked downtown, to 9 Broadway - the heart of the financial district. I had with me an old photograph of the White Star Line offices thronged by worried men after news of the sinking hit. In a scene reminiscent of the 9/11 attacks that would occur just blocks away, telegraph operators had worked around the clock, to compile and post the latest casualty lists. The final figures: 1,514 dead, 710 saved.
I walked up to the doorway. On the stone façade astride the entrance, old placards had once read “White Star Line” and “General Offices.” There were only bolt holes now. New signs read “Subway” and “RadioShack.” They flew their own flags too, like sovereign nations. In the Subway sandwich shop, hip hop was playing. The place had been gut-renovated. The only hint of the past was a bank of ornate Art Nouveau style radiators by the windows.
In the RadioShack, I approached a saleswoman named Stephanie.
“Do many people come in here asking about the Titanic?”I questioned.
“It happens sometimes.” She replied. “It doesn’t phase me.”
“You ever think about it?”
“Not really. Except that it explains the ghosts. I’m not even joking! One time we were closing and a shelf in the back just fell over. Nobody touched it or anything, I swear!”
“What did you do?”
“We ran the hell outta there!”
“Well, I feel bad for you, but I think I feel worse for the ghosts. It’s pretty sad to have to haunt a RadioShack.”