A Salute to the Immigrant Stranger

In early October, on one of my first days off from Ragtime rehearsals, I resolved to do a little research and took the ferry out to Ellis Island. It was a bright, crisp day and clearly other people had the same idea as me. Since I wasn’t interested in visiting the Statue of Liberty (hence the “No Monument” wording on my ticket), I was able to procure a ticket pretty easily online. I took the subway (first time by myself; was I proud or what?) to the tip of Manhattan Island and walked over the Battery Park ferry dock.

I picked up my ticket from will call and went to look at the ferry that was currently boarding. I was actually scheduled to take a later ferry, but in the spirit of High Adventure I decided to see if I could board right away. I was a little bit disappointed that no one even looked at my ticket; all the ticket-taker did was scan my ticket with a reader and send me on my way. I passed through security (just as stringent as airport security, and no wonder) and boarded the boat.

I made my way through the crowd to the upper deck and wormed past all the people to a spot as far forward as I could get. It was nippy outside and I was glad I’d worn a scarf and a windbreaker; many of my fellow passengers seemed perfectly happy to stay in the cabin downstairs, close to the refreshments, but I wanted to have the wind in my face. This is me with the wind in my face.

Our first stop was the Statue of Liberty, clearly visible in near distance. There was plenty of traffic to and from the Statue and nearby Ellis Island and I enjoyed watching the other water transports chugging through the water. As we drew closer to Lady Liberty and the ferry starting jockeying toward the dock, I realized I was going to be on the wrong side for a good view. So did the other passengers nearby, and there was a polyglot outburst and a general surge to starboard. I stood my ground and got an interesting shot of Miss Liberty looming over the boat:

The vast majority of the passengers debarked, and there was a lull before the ferry crew allowed those waiting to board. I left my portside post and went to the opposite side of the ferry so I could get a better look at the Statue and take a gander at the people on the dock.
The masses were definitely huddled and some looked a little bit tired, but not too many of them looked poor although some could have been yearning to breathe free. Mostly what they seemed to want was ON BOARD. They shuffled from foot to foot impatiently and I enjoyed listening to all the different languages blending together as they were allowed to walk up the gangway. I held my position on the starboard rail, and finally got a good view of Liberty as we pulled away:

It was just a short jog from the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island; in fact, I was giving some serious thought to how the average immigrant in the early 1900s would have felt, passing by the Statue which promises so much and heading to Ellis for processing. Since my main role in Ragtime, Emma Goldman, had arrived in the United States prior to the establishment of Ellis Island as an immigrant processing center, I was more focused on what an average immigrant would have gone through upon arrival. It sounds terribly “actor-y” to explain why, but the reason was this: in the “Shetl/Success” number in the show, I started out costumed as a generic immigrant. This character left the stage as the other “immigrants” in the number are winding their way downstage, as if in the processing line at Ellis. The reason for me – the actor – to leave the stage at that point was to make a quick change into the Emma Goldman costume, but I wanted a reason for this generic character to leave. To those in the acting business, this search for motivation makes perfect sense and is simply part of the process; to those who aren’t, it probably sounds like a lot of hooey, and I’ve probably made it sound a lot crazier by trying to explain.

The main building at Ellis is red and white, and as we docked it was a striking view against the blue morning sky. Many of the passengers who’d boarded the ferry at the Statue stayed on board; I debarked with the others, walked under a large canopy and through the doors of the building. I found myself inside the Registry Room, a large and echoing hall with an impressive vaulted ceiling. Giant windows in the shape of half moons let in light from the outside to either end of the great room; American flags hung from a second-floor balcony that surrounded the main room. Hallways led from the Registry Room to other, smaller rooms where the immigrants would be examined and questioned. I tried to imagine the place packed with lines of immigrants, carrying their belongings in suitcases and boxes and sacks, wondering what this New World would have in store for them. In one of the side rooms, I found a placard with a quote from an immigrant about the experience:

I went from room to room, looking at the displays of photographs from the early 1900s and reading the information posted with them. I found that the vast majority of immigrants were processed and left Ellis within a few hours, but if you had a criminal background, were suspected of having a contagious disease or being mentally unbalanced, or if the officials thought you would be unable to support yourself and might end up as a “public charge”, you could be denied entry into the United States and sent back where you came from. If you were ill and lucky enough to be hospitalized at Ellis rather than sent home, you could be stuck on the island for months. I decided that my “generic immigrant” had some kind of contagious disease, and that’s why she left the stage during “Shtetl/Success” (later on, when I caught a bad cold the week before the show opened and was hacking my way through every show, I decided my immigrant was tubercular).

I spent about two hours touring Ellis, and toward the end of my time there I walked into a room and saw this display:

It made me catch my breath. While Emma Goldman hadn’t been processed through Ellis when she entered the country, I had forgotten that when she was deported (for seditious activities relating to the WWI draft), she had been held at Ellis prior to being sent away to Russia. If you click on the photo, you can see the headlines regarding her hearing and that of her partner, Alexander Berkman; there’s also a photo of the two of them which is, unfortunately, hard to see because of the reflection of the flash from my camera.
Seeing the display gave me a lot to think about. My return ferry was due in half an hour, and I spent that time walking around the grounds at Ellis. The hospital area of the complex has not yet been restored, and it’s somewhat depressing to see the boarded-up buildings. It made me wonder how the people felt – the ones who waited, looking out the window at the Statue of Liberty and wondering what would become of them. It made me feel more empathy with my little “generic immigrant,” and a lot more sympathy for Emma Goldman, the outspoken activist.

One comment

  1. Editaur

    It's funny – I noticed you dash out during the immigrant number and I immediately guessed why, but I also found myself trying to find an explanation within the context of the scene. Don't ask me why, but I came up with the woman being the victim of some kind of accident or crime and never making it to Manhattan island, maybe not even to Ellis Island. I think it was the way you kind of whisked off in the background while everyone else was distracted. It's pretty grim, but I'm that kind of hairpin.

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