We go to South Street Seaport without meaning to. After one of those dinners where a kid breaks a glass and whatever magic I felt watching them eat scotch eggs and lamb stew, thinking that as a parent, at least I’ve done this food thing right, evaporates.
The rest of dinner is ruined by Jim and I flinching every time someone reaches for a spoonful of mushy peas. We rush through the meal on borrowed time and patience from the servers, who sweep every one of the five thousand shards of glass up by iPhone light (because this is actually a dark bar with food, not a restaurant with cool cocktails like I thought.) We miss the ferry home by seconds, just in time to watch the hull of the ship fade into night over the East River.
We have thirty-two minutes until the next boat. There’s nothing around us but more bars packed with whatever you call the generation after millennials drinking double-time to bring back happy hour. We’ll just have to wait here at the Ferry Terminal, playing I spy in the dark.
“What is that?” Heath asks.
On the waterfront in the distance, a building appears to float over the river. It’s big, boxy, illuminated by LED lights the same shade of lilac as the underbelly of the FDR Drive that they love so much.
“Offices,” I say, knowing it’s not true. But the lie is no match for the purple light. He stares as if he doesn’t hear me, then grabs at his sisters’ sleeves.
I sigh. I haven’t intentionally been to South Street Seaport since 2000. I was a freshman in college and needed a pair of jeans. Someone told me that’s where the Gap was. So I took the 1 train to the end of the line. Even to my freshly-transplanted eyes, the Seaport was gross. The same stores that filled the mall in South Carolina were all here, in New York City, in this sort of faux village. Next to the then-functional Fulton Fish Market, so the whole thing stunk of rotten fish, even with the vendors continuously hosing blood and guts down the sewer drains.
I bought my $17 jeans. My shopping companion, more flush with cash than I, declared the subway too slow and hailed a taxi. As we traveled uptown, a stench filled the cab.
“What is that?” I wondered aloud. Looking around the cab there was nothing suspicious. We sniffed the air like bloodhounds. The smell was wretched. I scanned the shirt I was wearing. Checked the bottom of my shoes. Then I looked in the Gap bag. The funk overwhelmed me.
“It’s the jeans,” I said, pulling the drawstring tight. “They smell like the fish.”
I held my breath for a hundred blocks, trying to convince myself I could scrub out the smell in the dorm laundry room. I threw them into a garbage can on 116th Street instead.
And now some fancy LED lights, promising a non-existent wonderland to my small children, threaten to undo me. I know the Seaport doesn’t smell like fish anymore–twenty years later the market is long gone to Hunts Point. That the newish Pier 17 by ShOP Architects is less hideous than the old mall, which always looked like it would be more at home in Boston. But what is there to see, really, other than a sparkling curtainwall?
I cannot convince four children that the purple lights holds nothing for them. So we walk north along the shoreline, which is scrubbed of the garbage and fish stench of my memories and made over in the style of New York’s new waterfront–silvered hardwood and shiny steel railings and planting beds filled with native grasses. As the LED lights grow brighter, the building comes into focus. I’d read about it for years–the renderings always look nice enough with the newly expansive views of Brooklyn Bridge Park across the water and garage-style doors to open the lower levels to the streetscape in good weather. But as the kids run past the pirate ship in favor of the building’s tiered promenade, I fully appreciate the design. They climb up and down the stadium-like seating, sitting only to watch a parade of small dogs being professionally walked. They skip around the perimeter, climb picnic-perfect stools on the waterside and declare that they’re floating.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Ramona says. And then suddenly everyone does.
Inside the lights are soft, yellow, just bright enough. We walk past sleek, ground-level restaurants filled with actual New Yorkers and ride a sequence of escalators to the third floor. After we find the bathrooms, we sneak up to the rooftop, where a bouncer is checking vaccine cards for an event or maybe a bar. We manage to get a view of the Brooklyn Bridge before gliding back downstairs.
“Can we get ice cream?” Blythe asks as we’re about to exit. She has a sixth sense for dessert and has found some Brooklyn™ looking burger and shake place called Mr. Dips. We let the kids order soft serve cones. We take them outside to eat on the same benches they just scaled. All of the Financial District drops behind us like a set piece, a thousand square office windows like bulbs in a marquis.
There is the adage that New York is always changing. But seeing it anew with kids reminds me that we change too. I no longer feel any need to be first or cool or right about what the city offers. And once we let go of these constructs, and stop waiting in lines for pastry mash-ups or secret cocktails, new possibilities emerge. If joy is to be found eating soft serve at South Street Seaport in the dark, then I’ll take it.
We miss two ferries more, then stoll back for the third. The ride is quiet: the black water calm, the kids exhausted from the fun of the thing we didn’t plan. The way it always seems to go.
A, C, J, Z, 2, 3, 4, 5 to Fulton Street or E to Chambers Street-World Trade Center
East River Ferry to Pier 11
South St from The Battery to Montgomery St
89 South St btw Fulton & Beekman
Mr. Dips (burgers, fries, milkshakes & softserve)
in Pier 17 building