Anchors aweigh, boychick!

Anchors aweigh, boychick!

Two men, boat captains both, find the water liberating

Michael Marcello has worked on the waters of New York Harbor for decades.

Stereotypical American Jewish men are likely to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, educators – people who wear button-down shirts, jackets, and ties. (According to some variants of that stereotype, they wear those outfits to bed, and perhaps even in the shower.)

Certainly there is some truth to that image, but there are many men who break that mold. At least two of them have chosen to exchange the suits for windbreakers and trade the boring, predictably solid dry ground for the ever-changing and never-quite-still waters of New York harbor.

Alan Siperstein grew up in Jersey City. (Later, he lived in Closter for many years; he now calls Belmar home.) His family owned a local chain of successful paint stores – logically enough called Siperstein’s – and Alan dutifully joined the family business. For 30 years, he managed stores. He learned a great deal about paint.

But his father always had a boat, “and ever since I was a small boy I loved the water,” Siperstein said. “I’ve been driving boats since I was 8 years old. I had to stand on a chair to drive – I couldn’t see above the wheel.” He and his father would fish together. “It always was my passion to be a boat captain,” he said.

At first, his passion for boats was entirely recreational, but despite that, in 1979, following his father’s advice, based on the theory that another skill could never hurt, Siperstein earned a Coast Guard license as a commercial boat captain. (Siperstein respected his father’s advice so much that he passed it on to his own son, who also is a licensed commercial boat captain.)

Life changes, though, and sometimes people grow dissatisfied with the choices they made decades earlier. “I got tired of the retail business,” Siperstein said. “I wanted to do something that I actually enjoyed.”

Alan Siperstein found second-career satisfaction as he found a way to live his lifelong dream. Jerry Szubin

For the last 13 years, Siperstein has worked in New York Harbor. He began as a ferryboat captain with New York Waterways, left for other employers, including the Circle Line and the Army Corps of Engineers, and then rejoined New York Waterways as port captain. In that capacity, he trains and manages the captains who drive the boats, and he drives routes himself whenever the scheduled captain is out.

A ferry is a very specialized boat, Siperstein said, and it takes months of training for an experienced captain to learn to handle one. Ferries load passengers from the back – it’s called bow-loading – and “the wheelhouse is very close to the bow. That makes them very hard to drive,” because the captains cannot see what is behind them. The boats’ bulk makes them hard to maneuver.

New York Waterways is a huge operation. During rush hour, boats cross both the Hudson and the East Rivers constantly, loading and unloading large numbers of people. Unlike a tourist boat, which entertains customers who by definition are looking to relax, commuter ferries carry people who are in a hurry, rushing to work or back home. “It’s very time-sensitive,” Siperstein said. There is no time for such sissified luxuries as tying up at the dock. Instead, the company uses what he calls a “controlled crash.” The driver has to learn to factor in the wind and tide, slow the boat down radically but still make sure that it is powered to move forward, as it bangs into the dock as gently as possible. It is at least a craft; perhaps it is an art.

For just about everyone who was on the water at the time, the most life-shattering experience they endured collectively was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most people were rendered helpless in the face of that great evil – there literally was nothing most of us could do. Neither our sweat and tears, nor even nor even our blood could be used. All we civilians could be was in the way.

That was not true of the flotilla of people in boats who could ferry the ash-covered, traumatized survivors away from the burning towers and allow them to start on the next stage of their journeys home.

Siperstein was enjoying a day off when the first hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center. He saw it happen, though, and raced to the ferry terminal in Weehawken, where he “jumped on a boat in time to see the second tower collapse,” he said. “I saw all sorts of terrible things.”

He saw people desperate to escape Manhattan island; he heard that the lines for the boats were 30 blocks long. “I saw panic,” he said. He also saw disorientation; people were so shocked that they wandered around in a fugue state. The PATH train closed, but the ferries kept running.

“I have no idea how people got home” once they landed on the Jersey side of the river, he said. Originally the boats brought them to the main terminal, at Port Imperial in Weehawken, but soon they were diverted to Hoboken, where New Jersey Transit’s trains still ran.

Weeks later, he and his colleagues asked some of the passengers who regularly commuted by ferry how they had gotten home that day. The trauma had been so intense “that nobody could remember,” he said. “Everybody was shell-shocked. It was bad.”

Siperstein said that because so few Jews work on the water, he occasionally is teased about being Jewish; on the whole, he said, “People just are surprised. Being in this industry, they don’t know a lot of Jews, on the whole. They ask about the holidays and traditions.

“They see a lot of chasidic people,” and because they don’t understand the differences between different streams of Judaism, “they ask a lot of questions,” he said.

Siperstein loves his job. He loves the diversity of ethnicities and cultures among the passengers; he loves the way that each run across the river is different. “What makes me the happiest is the freedom of being on the water,” he said. “There are rules – but there is the freedom of choice. When you’re in the car, you have to stop at a traffic light.

“You have the freedom to make decisions, but that comes with consequences. It’s a big responsibility to be in charge of this boat. That could be 399 lives.”

According to the Coast Guard, “when you are the captain of the board, you are the master of the boat. Even the owner of the company can’t tell you to do something. You are the master of the vessel.”

The river constantly changes. “You never know what is going to happen,” Siperstein said. Rain, fog, ice, tides, wind, heat, the constantly mix of fast and slow ships moving up and down the river, or between New Jersey and New York, demand constant vigilance – and reward that vigilance.

“There is nothing in the world like this place,” Siperstein said.

Michael Marcello of Hoboken, like Alan Siperstein, is around 60 and a native New Jerseyan, and both work on the water in New York harbor. Both had fathers who encouraged their love for boats, and both are Jewish. The similarities between them probably end there.

Marcello, whose family was Italian-American and Roman Catholic, was born in Long Branch. “My father was a machinist by trade, and he was very good at it,” Marcello said. “But every time he started to get a little bit of responsibility in his position because of it, he had this knack for packing us up and moving.” Because his father was both talented and feckless, they moved often.

When Marcello was about 5 the family moved to Florida, and it was there that he first learning both fishing and boating. “My father built me a little boat when I was about 10 years old,” he said.

Marcello was a natural entrepreneur, he moved into a business that seemed promising and stayed with them until it was time to move on. One of his favorite businesses was pinball machines; his business flourished until the technology changed and made the machines he loved almost obsolete. “Technology is not often one of my favorite things,” Marcello said.

But then the water called.

In the 1980s, he began to commercial fish, catching lobster, flounder, fluke. “When you commercial fish, you go after whatever is in season,” he said. (Yes, he added, commercial fish is the term of art that describes the work of a commercial fisherman.) Next, he moved to working on a tugboat.

He did what was called “car float work.”

“Years and years ago, going back to steamships, everything in the harbor used to move on barges,” he said. “Over the years, the business died out with modernization, but I did work for the last car float company.” In this context, the word “cars” means “train cars,” which would be put onto barges. “The tugs moved the barges from Brooklyn to Jersey City.

“Now that’s antiquated. There’s not a lot that moves across now. When we were doing it, we were moving products – coffee beans and molasses and odds and ends – but now it’s mainly recycling.”

Today, things have changed – not only has technology made some of this easier, but newer facilities have rerouted much of the traffic.

“The tugboat days were fun,” Marcello said. “I was single. I was crazy. Now I’m married, but back then it was a nice life. My boss was my friend, and he taught me how to work on the water. Before that, I would just ride on the water, but then I learned the skills that I use today.

“We didn’t make a lot of money, but we had fun.

“We would tie the boat in Jersey, but we got involved in Red Hook, in Brooklyn. There is an old covered barge there – and I mean old, it goes back to the ’30s. It’s the Hudson Waterfront Museum now. The guy who owns it, David Sharps, formerly was a clown and juggler for the Big Apple Circus.

“We pulled the barge into Hoboken for him” – before it settled in Red Hook, it had been in both Jersey City and Hoboken – “and what we got out of it was that we got to stay in Hoboken.”

It was in Hoboken, in the late 1980s, because of that barge, that Marcello’s life was upended.

Karen Jurman, an IT consultant who lived there, went to the barge museum to see a movie being screened there, and the two met.

It was not a logical romance – he was a lapsed Catholic and she a committed Conservative Jew; if his shirt collar was blue, hers was the purest white. But love transcends logic.

At just about the same time, he took a job as a deckhand with the Army Corps of Engineers; he knew it would be far less fun, but far more stabile than his tugboat work. He went from there to the National Park Service, where he became a captain of the boat that shuttles employees between the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Manhattan’s Battery.

That shuttle also occasionally takes celebrities on personalized tours. Through the “luck of the draw,” Marcello said, “I happened to be on duty the day that Nelson Mandela came by. They did tell me about it the day before, so I had a clean uniform on.

“My deckhand and I pull into the Battery, and the Secret Service pulls up, and President Mandela gets out and walks to the dock with probably 10 people in his own entourage,” he said. “Also half a dozen Secret Service guys, and our superintendent, and a couple of our interpretive rangers, who were going to give him the tour.

“The boat had a separate pilot house that had very little room, just enough for three or four people. Below it, there was the main cabin, where you could seat 75 people. They all started to go down there, but Larry, my deckhand, when they introduced him to Mr. Mandela, said, ‘You don’t want to sit down there. You want to sit up top. You can’t see anything from there.’ The secret service guy was cool, he said sure, no problem.” Because the space was so small, Marcello and Mandela were two of the four people on that very private tour.

Being nearly alone on Liberty Island – much less nearly alone inside Lady Liberty herself – is an extraordinary experience, Marcello reports. Although tours sometimes could be arranged for celebrities, that ended after September 11. But the light bulbs at the top of the torch have to be changed, he said, and so “Charlie, the keeper of the flame, would go up there on Thursdays mornings.

“He kept saying, ‘You have to go up there,’ but I’m not big on heights, but the week before I left that job, he said, ‘This is it. You have to go.’

“So Karen came with me, we took an early boat over. You have to climb a ladder up, which is a little scary, and I wasn’t too happy about it, but when I got up there it was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

“I don’t even know to explain what it’s like to climb up to the crown, all by yourself, with nobody else there. It’s a little eerie. It’s the most amazing feeling to be up there by yourself and look around. You’re in awe.

“I used to walk around the island by myself and look over Manhattan and the harbor, and think about everything that went before me, sail and steamships and steam tugs. It was an amazing experience.”

Marcello now works for the Army Corps of Engineers again, this time as the captain of a survey boat. Because the corps is responsible for the maintenance of the harbor, it has to carry out constant hydrographic surveys. “You learn every inch of the harbor,” he said. “All of Ambrose Channel, and up the Hudson River and the East River through toward Newark, and all the kills.” (A kill is a creek, like the Arthur Kill.) The staff on the boat also is responsible for surveys of migratory fish, and carries out routine patrols.

Like Siperstein, Marcello helped ferry survivors out of Manhattan on September 11.

“How do you explain that day?” he said, and then he tried. The emotion was still thick in his voice.

“I ran trips from the North Cove and the South Cove” – at the World Trade Center – “into Jersey City. It was very crazy, with the number of boats that responded. We were one of the first boats there. We could see what was happening from our base, and I was on my way when the second plane hit.

“I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it. When we landed on the wall, people were ready to jump into the water. The first hour was bedlam. By the second trip back, we were bringing law enforcement and emergency management technicians and firemen from Jersey City.

“I can’t tell you how many tugboats and ferries and other boats there were. It was just back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Just bedlam.”

In 1993, the year before he and Karen married, Marcello converted to Judaism. “I’ve always been a religious person, and I missed the Catholicism I had grown up with, but I couldn’t tolerate the church any more.

“I was lost for years. But Judaism had always interested me. I went to a seder at Karen’s aunt’s house, and everyone started reading, and when it got to me I said, ‘Oh no, I pass, I’m Catholic.’ But Aunt Anna looked at me and said, ‘You’re here. You’re a part of it. You’re going to eat. You read!’

“So I read, and it made me feel a part of it.

“After that, we got involved with the synagogue, United Synagogue of Hoboken. The rabbi, Stephanie Dickstein, and I started talking about conversion.”

Not only did Marcello convert, he eventually joined the shul’s board.

Alan Siperstein and Michael Marcello both talk about freedom when they talk about the water. It’s not pure freedom, of course; both of them have jobs that involve rigid schedules, and the rules governing ships’ movements, particularly in areas as bustling as New York harbor, are complex and vital. But both have found on the water a kind of liberation that many people crave on the ground even as their feet stay entirely dry.

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