A literal sign of the times went up on Saturday morning by the entrance to a pier at the bottom tip of Manhattan.
The Government has temporarily shut down both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island”
The irony was obvious to anybody who understood that disagreements over immigration and border security had been a prime factor in the political impasse leading to the shutdown.
One immediate result was that the Statue of Liberty ferry would not be running to the two foremost symbols of the immigrant spirit that made America great.
Most of the tourists accepted the disappointment with admirable equanimity, among them the recently married 24-year-old Jesse and 23-year-old Marilla Kingsley of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jesse made the most of it by pausing before the shutdown sign with his call phone.
“Might as well get a picture of it,” he said.
Jesse allowed that he did have some experience in such things, having chanced to visit Washington, D.C. during the previous government shutdown, in 2013. He remembered that the museums had been closed but some of the monuments had remained accessible.
“You could still go look,” he recalled.
He had arrived at the pier at the start of this latest shut down hoping the same might be true for Lady Liberty.
“We weren’t sure if it would affect the State of Liberty,” he said.
Marilla noted that government shutdowns are generally one sided.
“It’s not like we can say we’re shut down, we’re not paying our taxes,” she said.
The Statue of Liberty ferry company was offering either a refund or a boat tour of the harbor in lieu of the usual run. The few who took angry umbrage to the proposition included a visitor from France. He made his displeasure known to a ferry company manager who was seeking to make the best out of a bad situation.
“You’re yelling at me,” the manager, Robinson Santana, calmly pointed out. “You're not going to get anything yelling at me. Relax.”
“I’m not relaxed because I’m running around the whole morning,” said the French gentleman, who provided some added irony to the situation by hailing from the very country that had donated the Statue of Liberty to America.
Santana was self-assured and firm without being challenging, standing up without seeking to put down. Santana’s steady gaze seemed to steady the man. And Santana maintained unfailing good cheer all the while
Too bad this powerfully pleasant arbiter was not in Washington, D.C. rather than on this Manhattan pier, directing the French gentleman to a booth where he could secure a refund. The proof of Santana's brilliance came as the French gentleman strode back past him on the way out, a tourist transformed.
“Thank you,” the gentleman said with a smile
“Have a nice day,” Santana said, smiling back.
“You, too,” the French gentleman said.
In a zipped-up jacket and a baseball cap that are both emblazoned with the red, white and blue Statue of liberty ferry emblem, Santana assisted a succession of other disappointed tourists. He is 45 and was raised in upper Manhattan and now lives in the South Bronx and possesses the nimble people skills needed in the street by any determinedly decent person. He also wields the experience born of dealing with tourists for a decade at this most popular of New York’s portals to history.
But there was something else at work, something that became easy to identify when he began to speak of how people come to see the statue in all weathers, be it blizzards or thunderstorms. He recalled a recent day when the temperature was in the single digits, the cold made all the more brutal by a biting wind off the water.
“We still had a two-hour wait, people fainting,” he recalled. “They still want to see the lady.”
The rest of Santa’s power comes from understanding—and appreciating—how much Lady Liberty means to those who come to see her.
“What’s amazing is when you get that persons that it means the world to them,” he said.
He was asked who such a person might be.
“Any immigrant,” he said, adding, “Or a little girl with her mother and father who jumps up and says, ‘There she is!’”
He took a moment to assist two men from Argentina, addressing them in their native language. He explained afterward that he translated “government shutdown” as “impasse do gobierno.”
“I use ‘impasse’ because it’s easier to understand than ‘shutdown,’” he said.
He was complimented on his Spanish.
”I am Spanish,” he replied.
He said that he was born in America, but both his parents were from the Dominican Republic. And now there he now was with seagulls wheeling overhead and the sun glinting off the water and Lady Liberty standing off to his right. He himself seemed an embodiment of what the statue represents, only vibrantly alive, his light not from an upraised torch but in those steady, knowing, good natured eyes.
He is imbued with the immigrant spirit of his parents and he has passed it on to his three children, the oldest of whom has graduated college. He makes a living and sets an example by following the principle that in his own avowedly modest way built up America when the government shut down. He made Lady Liberty stand just a little taller on a day she could only be seen from afar.
“I just try to do what I do,” he said.