Uncle Joe was mighty proud of me.
I like to talk to my uncle in Los Angeles regularly to see what’s going on with the West Coast branch of the family.
I’ve stayed with Joe and his wife more times than I could possibly count and it’s always nice to shoot the breeze with him.
Joe called me this morning and I filled him on a recent trip I talk to Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island that turned out much better than I had anticipated.
“So,” he said after I finished, “you got up off your arse and did something different?”
Indeed, I had.
I had been trying to decide if I wanted to go on this trip with one of my Meetup groups and, as usual, I was coming up with all kinds of excuses not to join in.
My apartment was a mess, I haven’t been doing enough writing, I was tired. And I don’t know my way around Staten Island—what if I got lost?
But I also knew that if I stayed in my comfort zone and spent the day by myself, I’d be miserable. Finally, late on Saturday morning, I made up my mind to go, jumping aboard a S51 bus and hoping I wouldn’t end up an X-File.
I arrived in 20 minutes.
The bus went over the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge and two stops later I was walking a half-block up to Fort Wadsworth.
It was embarrassingly easy to get there, but I had turned it to such a bear in my mind. And even if I had gotten lost, so what? Getting lost in Staten Island is one thing; getting lost in Antarctica is another.
Fort Wadsworth, an area on the Narrows first fortified by the British in 1779, is in a beautiful location. It’s almost directly across the water from where I live, but seeing the same site from the opposite angle was a trip.
“Fort Wadsworth?” Joe said when I told him. “I went there sometime around 1938. I forget what it was all about, but I know I was there. Funny you should bring it up.”
The rest of the group was coming from Manhattan via the Staten Island ferry, so I chilled outside in the warm autumn sun outside the Visitor’s Center until they showed up.
A park ranger took us on a tour of this eerily empty place. I tried to imagine what the place was like back in the 19th Century, when Staten Island a rural place.
After the tour, we walked up to the Alice Austen House.
Born in 1866, Alice Austen was America's earliest and most prolific female photographers, who lived in her family’s home Clear Comfort, which is right on the Narrows. She was also gay and her home is a national site of LGBTQ history.
Her earliest existing in photograph dates back to 1884 and over the next 40 years she produced around 8,000 photographs, focusing on the daily of New Yorkers.
This was long before I-phones and Ms. Austen had to lug around nearly 50 pounds of photographic equipment in order to photo subjects.
She lived off the interest from money left by her grandfather but the principal was lost in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and by age 63, she had no income.
She sold off silver, art works, and furniture, took a mortgage on her home, but the bank foreclosed in 1945 and this incredibly talented woman ended up in the poorhouse, where, as one person said, “there was a single, bare lightbulb hanging over each bed.”
I found myself getting quite upset as I learned how Alice Austen had suffered in her final years. But there is some good news.
Eventually her work was the subject of a Life Magazine article in 1950 and she was able to move into a private nursing home, where she died on June 9, 1952.
I’m glad I got to learn about Alice Austen and I know I’ll be going back there and Fort Wadsworth to enjoy other events.
You sure can learn a lot by getting off your arse.