On the Road The Art of Doing Nothing: An Ode to Ferry Boats
Ferries are a salve against a society that prioritizes productivity above all else.
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried, Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d. I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old, Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies, Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow —Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
In high school I was introduced to the ultimate escape in the form of transportation. More specifically, a bus ride through the Argentine Andes. With no way to be contacted, I was able to gaze out the window and do nothing for the twenty-four-hour ride that bordered on serenity. The Andes loomed over me, changing rapidly but seemingly staying the same, a fever dream. Even though I grew up in Canada, I have never seen the Rockies. I wrote notes in the margin of the book I was reading on my amazement at seeing mountains for the first time. I watched multiple movies badly dubbed in Spanish; I switched seats and gossiped with whoever was awake at the time; I slept intertwined with my friend next to me. All of this is to say: Everything I did was trite and nothing was productive. But I didn’t feel guilty.
That same much sought-after, guilt-free time to truly relax and do nothing now exists for me on the Toronto Island Ferry. Technically, there are three ferries that service the Toronto Island, each docking at a different location: Ward’s Island (bird watching), Centre Island (Centreville Amusement Park), and Hanlan’s Point (nude beach). Yet each ferry fulfills the role of a buffer between here and there: the city and the island, work and play, the week and the weekend.
On a ferry, you’re moving, but not responsible in aiding the forward movement; you sit as a passive participant, there for the scenery and to patiently await your destination. The defined amount of time that it will take to get from y to z provides a structure that allows you to relax. This is the best time to do nothing.
The unique feeling of productivity that comes from forward movement with no thanks to your own doing can be found on: planes, trains, boats, streetcars, buses, and riding shotgun in cars; places that exist within a liminal space between your starting point and destination. During this in-between time you have no obligations to the self that you’re going to or from. You can binge watch TV or simply stare out a window, with none of the guilt associated with feeling as if you should be spending your time more wisely. Smartphones have now seeped into the oasis of transportation, with the ability to check emails mid-flight or answer business calls on the train sullying the once obligation-free ride. Yet, for some reason, the thought of answering emails on a ferry is sacrilegious. Perhaps it’s the slowness of the journey that renders productivity void, or that watching a vanishing point shift is more alluring than work. Or perhaps it’s the inability to rapidly exit the moving vessel that allows you to strap in for the ride, a structured amount of time that you’re stuck in place. You might as well enjoy it.
Freelancing, or the recently coined “gig economy,” renders downtime obsolete. Or rather: All downtime is coated in a layer of guilt. I first became haunted by a pressure to work in high school. The possibility of time spent studying and writing became infinite: There was always something else to read, another rabbit hole to go down that would result in the production of better work. The feeling was amplified in university and persists after graduation. Today, the thought that I should be working invades every moment that I’m not. Smartphones make it even harder to step away, the ping of emails and access to a word processor infiltrating every moment of should-be calm.
There’s a feeling of unknowing once you’ve boarded a ferry. The vessel is so large, the trajectory so slow, that it’s often hard to decipher if the boat is moving or not. This in-between feeling sometimes lasts the whole ride over; the passage of time marked only by the moving tide below you, the slight change in greenery along the coast. Feeling as if you are stationary and the world around you is moving is called vertigo . On a ferry, vertigo exists not only physically, but as a metaphor: the feeling of being thrown off-kilter, of feeling out of sorts, of being propelled by the unfamiliar feeling of doing nothing.
Just as the dichotomy of work and leisure exists within my life, the dichotomy of transportation and recreation exists within the trajectory of ferries. Once a practical mode of transportation, the ferry has transformed within the collective consciousness to exist as a site of recreation. Ferries elicit Yelp reviews and are heralded as tourist attractions. The memories my family has of taking the ferry to Newfoundland each summer are of windowless rooms and seasickness. Today the very same ferry offers movie screenings and casinos.
To city-dwellers and tourists, an island has long signified a certain kind of pleasure: “island time,” white-sand beaches, amusement parks, slow living. Islands that remain without bridges continue to offer reprieve from the work ethic the city demands; a moat keeps your life safely on the other side of a body of water. The ferry differentiates itself from an island with its movement; but just like a day on the island, it does not demand any participation. A ferry floats between the two worlds of work and play, and in doing so creates a guilt-free experience, a chance to allow yourself permission to do nothing and still feel accomplished. You’re not doing anything, but you’re getting somewhere.
I’m not alone in thinking that the ferry represents a distinct occasion; an occasion that can bring out a side of you that’s separate from the person who exists the majority of the time. Centuries of texts have used ferries as a setting to display characters at their core. In the case of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover , first published in 1984, the ferry ride preambles the narrator’s illicit affair, while concurrently providing a viewfinder that shows the narrator at what she describes as “the only image of myself I like, the only one in which I recognize myself, in which I delight.”
Duras extends the same unknowing that is present when you’re unsure if a ferry is moving or not to the narrator’s consciousness. Set in 1929, in French-colonized Vietnam, the narrator is a fifteen-year-old French girl, who throughout the novel is arguably in a constant state of in-between. On the ferry, Duras’s narrator doesn’t have to be tied down to any one train of thought. Instead she can exist comfortably in a state of knowing some things, and not others. “I already know a thing or two. I know it’s not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction or costliness of their finery. I know the problem lies elsewhere. I don’t know where.” Similar to when you know the boat is moving but can’t feel it, the ferry doesn’t work in definitives, and neither does your thinking. Your grasp on what you know or don’t know becomes less important. Just like the vessel you’re on, you can be in between personas. The ferry allows you to lean into the person who you are in flux, embracing uncertainty and perhaps providing the only recognizable image of yourself.
The 2003 romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days follows Andie (Kate Hudson) as she attempts to get Ben (Matthew McConaughey) to break up with her. Andie, a hard-working writer who has dreams of breaking out of a women’s glossy to write politics, agrees to write a piece titled “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” to highlight the dating mistakes women make. Meanwhile, Ben, the equally hard-working advertising executive, has made a bet with his boss that he can make Andie fall in love with him in ten days. The result is a comic push-and-pull between the couple, with Andie staging increasingly outrageous stunts to no avail, unable to drive Ben away. Both are so preoccupied with their opposing goals, motivated only by their work, that they are unaware they might actually like each other.
The action switches from work to leisure when Andie and Ben take a trip to Staten Island to visit Ben’s parents, a journey which requires the two to take the Staten Island Ferry. While the mainland (Manhattan) represents the go-getter attitude shared by both characters, their time in Staten Island represents an escape from those selves. Once away from Manhattan, they’re both able to leave their professional preoccupations behind—the very thing responsible for their factious relationship—and, since this is a romantic comedy, fall in love. The ferry ride here represents the space in between these two extremes and acts as a premonition: At their most relaxed—as their most recognizable selves—they are in love, a sign that their relationship is bound to last longer than ten days. Who we are when we take a ferry can provide a glimpse into who we are when distractions, working life, and preconceived ideas of self are left behind onshore.
In 1922, Edna St.Vincent Millay published an ode to the ferry in the form of a poem titled “Recuerdo.” “Recuerdo” shifts away from the pragmatic uses of the ferry, and toward a more contemporary use of the ferry: for pleasure.
We were very tired, we were very merry— We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry; And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear, From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere; And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold, And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
With the advent of bridges, ferries are now utilized less for commutes, and more for trips back and forth from island to mainland. The ferry itself has become an extension of the destination. We were very tired, we were very merry. Two contending emotions exist simultaneously, representing a person in flux, just as the ferry exists within the contending parallels of transportation and recreation.
Millay frames a memorable night out within the parentheses of a ferry ride, using the trip and the return as a marker of time. My own contemporary experiences with ferries are not that different from Millay’s: Orange life jackets line the ceiling like Tic Tacs, people rush on to get the best seats (facing south toward the Toronto Islands), eager cyclists stand at attention on the top deck. No one talks as much as they look; passive observation is an acceptable pastime. The ferry is a no man’s land: far enough away from the city’s downtown core, but not yet at the vices that the Toronto Island offers. There’s a palpable buzz of anticipation in the air. The ferry acts as concrete bookend to a day of pleasure, one which allows contending versions of yourself to coexist: the version of you that exists on the mainland, and the freer, more relaxed version that awaits you on the island.
I’ve always felt like my best self on ferries—the same goes for bus rides and airplanes—or at least less stressed. The pressure to work constantly, answer emails swiftly, and network prolifically has led to a culture that discredits the leisure of doing nothing. The stark contrast of the ferry—its ability to sweep you away and demand laziness—results in a sanctuary that doubles as transportation. Ferries are a salve against a society that prioritizes productivity: It’s hard to feel as if you should be doing something else, when there’s really nothing else to do. Today, the notion of doing nothing is so hard to fathom that transportation works as a ready excuse for relaxing; it doesn’t matter the destination or starting point so much as the time in between.
A ferry trip is nondescript in nature, so it makes sense that my most vivid memory of a ferry results from a photograph I took. Coming back from the Toronto Island (I know it was the return trip because of the magic-hour light), I took a picture of my friend Tea looking out the window. The sunlight on her face almost matches the orange of her hair. I wonder what a photograph of me would have looked like at that moment. Would I look as happy as she did? Just like the narrator of The Lover , I don’t have a photograph of myself to remember the moment by. Only the memory that I took the photograph because, after spending a day tanning and swimming on the Island but before returning to the city to resume our lives, we both appeared to be nothing else but happy. It’s possible that when you have no foot on land, you’re less married to any one convention of yourself.