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Floating Oldies

New York Press

August 15, 2007

The birth of a very local holiday

“You can see the density of the towers here in the downtown financial district,” a woman’s well-rehearsed voice booms onto the decks of the Zephyr, Circle Line’s 143-foot touring yacht. “They would all develop around a tiny little street called Wall Street.”
“Too loud!” Sam Dao winces. Like 90 percent of the passengers aboard the Zephyr last Wednesday, Dao, 74, speaks too little English to be able to make out what this disembodied voice is conveying. He brings his hands up to his ears. “A little bit too loud!”
This hour-and-a-half long tour is clearly designed for American tourists, but today the sunburned father and son in Tevas make up a tiny minority. The Zephyr’s deck is crowded with almost 150 local seniors, almost all Chinese, decked out for the occasion in sunglasses and beach hats. That’s “seniors” as in old-timers, not students in their last year of school, although the energy level – the noisy chatter among cliques and the unceasing taking of photos of one another – might be expected from a group whose average age was closer to 18 than 70.
By the end of the day, a grand total of 1,200 old folks, most of them hailing from lower Manhattan, will have taken a version of this tour, on one of six outings on three different boats.
It’s not the Chinese New Year or anything. No one is celebrating their independence or even a birthday. This big to-do is the second annual Senior Sail, sponsored by Council Member Alan Gerson. Notwithstanding all the elbowing in line, it’s really just a PR event…
But what, after all, is a holiday? According to my dictionary, it’s “a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done.”
Granted, these folks are by and large retired, so a day of rest in and of itself is not much cause for celebration. But a free cruise with a couple hundred of your closest friends? In this community, that’s a holiday.
Sure, it’s unfortunate that no one can understand the narration. “Which one is which one?” asks Dao, waving his hand from one imposing skyscraper to another. He and his wife Hee Yann, 73, went on the first Senior Sail last year. They enjoyed themselves immensely, but didn’t learn anything.
Dao points north at the Empire State Building. “My wife and me, we know only that one. The name of this building,” his finger aims at a skyscraper with a clock in its tower, “can you tell me?” I shake my head. I haven’t been listening, either. Dao giggles a high-pitched giggle, covering his mouth with his hand.
And yeah, it was annoying that they had to wait around for an hour and a half in ninety-plus degree heat, on account of the flooded subways, for the Zephyr’s crew to assemble. “We waited so long!” says Roger Wong, a retired senior analyst for Shell Oil Company. “Originally the schedule is 12:00. Now it’s 1:30. First we wait outside, then inside Pier 17, looking around the store.”
Was it worth the wait? “Oh yes, indeed,” says Wong. “I guess so. Yes, indeed.”
The Zephyr’s first- and second-story decks crawl with hobbyist photographers who seem to think the Statue of Liberty is Kate Moss, and it’s standing-room only in the air-conditioned indoor seating area. The only vacant block of seats is in front of the shiny black bar. The bar stools are deserted; no one’s about to blight a free holiday with the purchase of an overpriced beer.
In their anticipation, the day trippers have thought of everything, from backpacks and fanny packs containing brown bag lunches and water bottles to colorful umbrellas to shield the sun. One man even has a rolling suitcase.
Finances can be hard on retirees, says Wong, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife. “But I manage okay because I watch every dollar.”
“A long time ago, I rode on Circle Line around Manhattan,” Wong recalls. “That was over 15 years ago. You know how much Circle Line cost round trip? It was over $15 before, I guess. No, it must have been $30, I guess. I don’t know. It’s a lot of money for a retired person. This is the good deal!”
“For free!” echoes Kee, a friend of Wong’s from the City Hall Senior Center, busily taking pictures of the group. “For free!”
There is one white-haired white man in denim shorts, part of a small group of non-Chinese seniors from the Montclair Senior Center, who has splurged on a glass of white wine. Thomas Bowden gazes out a porthole in the ship’s stern. “I’m looking,” he says. “I don’t really listen too much.”
Bowden lost his son on 9/11. The body has not been found. When we passed Ground Zero earlier, “it felt a little… I didn’t want to look at it,” he says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the site.”
But Bowden’s memories today are mostly pleasant. “This reminds me of my Navy days,” he smiles. He was a seaman on a destroyer from 1960 to 1963 in Newport, Rhode Island. The blue ink on his arm reads “DD 943 / USS BLANDY.”
He, too, is in the holiday spirit, feeling spryer than his years. “I’m 66,” he tells me when I ask his age, then leans in confidentially: “which I can’t believe!”