The East River Ferry is no stranger to many of New York City’s inhabitants. Transporting passengers to and from Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, it serves as a daily mode of commute to work. Unfortunately, in our hurry to get to our destination, we often don’t get the chance to interact with the people who steer us there. Recently, Untapped Cities got a chance to sit down with a captain, Norman Little, and listen to his stories about working as a captain for 18 years.
We walked to the wheelhouse in the front of the ferry, where he greeted us with a smile. “Hello, it’s nice to meet you!” he said energetically, a feat considering he wakes up at 3 a.m. every day. He starts his shift at 5.45 a.m, and ends at 2 in the afternoon. However, there are days when he takes on additional shifts, which could mean he is on the ferry until 8.p.m in the evening. Within each shift, he gets a 10-minute break, during which he heats up some food in the microwave oven situated near him in the wheelhouse, and gobbles down a quick meal.
Perhaps his cheerfulness was due to the fact that we were on his favorite route. He was ferrying passengers in between the ports of Long Island City, Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Manhattan. He says the route is “challenging, because you’re not just going back and forth. Every docking is different” due to the currents in the East River.
While most of his days offer a routine schedule (and a spot of people-watching), Norman has seen some eventful days throughout the years. During 9/11, he transported families, stranded commuters, politicians and later, bodies. In the days that followed, he would find himself crying at work. “It’s something you never forget,” he says haltingly.
Norman got into the occupation after a lifetime of boating. He has owned a total of four to five boats, each one bigger than the last, before his expensive hobby forced him to sell them. It looked like his boating days were over, until he saw an ad in the newspaper calling for captains. He applied, and has been here ever since. “I’ve always been a water person,” he said, smiling.
Stand by for our next series of articles on Untapped spots to check out along the East River Ferry!