Some journeys take you farther from where you started, closer to where you come from. Stepping off the ferry at Ellis Island, a thousand miles from home under soft skies, time and space had compressed. A thousand footsore people spilled down the heaving gangway, yearning to breathe free on dry land and speaking what seemed like a thousand different tongues. We'd already paid for passage, but most had come for Liberty, and the stop at Ellis Island was simply part of the price of admission.
It was already late in the day when we arrived. Light slanted through the enormous windows in the great hall. Over more than 60 years -- from 1892 to 1924 -- some 20 million immigrants passed through this room, this gateway to a new world, a new life. Among them was my grandfather.
On October 17, 1911, Pietro Franscella arrived on the steamer Niagara from Le Havre in northern France. He was 17, alone, having traveled from his small village in the Italian-Swiss Alps to come to America, perhaps giving his philandering father Paolo a convenient scapegoat for a young neighbor's pregnancy. He had $25 in his pocket, mostly to pay for a train ticket to Colorado Springs, where some of his mother's family lived. When the American clerk asked him his trade, he said he was a farm laborer, as so many did, but he didn't want to work in the fields. No, he told the clerk, he was not an anarchist. No, he was not a polygamist. Yes, he had a sponsor, his mother's brother in Brooklyn who'd promised to meet him at the "kissing gate."
I found a copy of the ship's manifest in one of the Ellis Island computer archives. At first, his name didn't come up and I presumed he'd been lost to pen-and-ink American bureaucracy. He'd always told the story of how he'd become an American from the start, dropping the Italian "a" from Franscella, and transforming Giuseppe Pietro Franscella to the name on my grandfather's mailbox: Joseph Peter Franscell. But a Park Service clerk peering over my shoulder suggested a couple tricky clicks, and there he was, officially and forever. He'd given only his middle name, and there was that ancient "a," proud as hell.
I paid for a laser-copy of the ship's manifest, and went out into the Registry Hall, where he'd likely waited for hours -- maybe longer -- with other immigrants to be examined and questioned, perhaps detained further, perhaps sent away. I sat on one of the old benches, my legs thick and exhausted from a day standing in lines, holding my balance aboard the boat, going halfway up every wrong block, standing in more lines, finding something to eat, and following a thousand people wherever they were going. The light had sunken further, and I wondered: When did they stop being tired? Was it when they set foot on the mainland? Was it when they stepped into the first street where they heard a language they recognized? Or did they never stop working to earn what they'd won?
Later, I wandered into a small exhibit in what was once the infirmary and looked at the things they'd carried: Wedding dresses, china, sewing machines, shawls, photographs, holy books. But they brought more, like the strange musical instruments of faraway places, porcelain figurines, even hand-painted Easter eggs. And again, I wondered: If I were a 17-year-old kid leaving home, what would I have taken? What did he take?
I can only imagine the difficulties of his journey. For me, interpreting the babble of a subway map, unscrambling the train codes, turning a dollar bill into a metro card, and screwing up the courage to dive into rush-hour's human torrent for a simple ride Uptown -- my first -- was a simultaneously vexing and invigorating adventure. I take the wrong train, it costs me, at worst, two bucks to turn around. He came much farther, and there was no going back.
My grandfather died in 1985 at age 90. He ended with far more than he brought, including three sons of his own. In 1911, he'd come West from New York, met my grandmother in Colorado, pressed farther to San Francisco and later Los Angeles, where he was a chef in a fancy Hollywood hotel and bought little parcels of land here and there. He taught me to fish in the streams of the High Sierras and cooked every meal that was ever served in his house. And although he'd long ago dropped the vowels and the names that marked him, he never lost the rich Italian accent, and thank God for that. It's the voice I hear in my dreams of him.
He never spoke of New York City to me. But he was here, however briefly. New York was the gateway to his new life. And a good, long life it was. I have spent only one day here understanding my grandfather's journey, which has now lasted 95 years. It was worth the trip because some journeys take you farther from where you started, closer to where you come from.
Statue of Liberty, 3:15 p.m. Monday