Pretend I’m a Tourist: Could the Statue of Liberty rekindle my love for NYC?

They say “behind every strong man is a strong woman.” I’ll add that inside of every 151-foot-tall strong woman are two park rangers, perched in the corners of her crown, advising you on the best angles for your photos.

“If you look down, you can see her tablet,” one of them said after my ascent last week.

“I don’t want to see the tablet!” the woman arriving behind me screamed.

She had no malice against the written word or aversion to its July 4, 1776 inscription; she was just afraid of heights.

“If you’ve made it here, honey,” the friendly ranger added. “The worst is over.”

The Statue of Liberty plays no role in my day-to-day life as a New Yorker, but she’s lurking behind every corner for tourists. In only a few weeks, I’d already waved to her from outside a skyscraper, digitally flown by her, and watched her hold up a spectacular margarita glass. Now, in an attempt to regain the spark in my loveless marriage with New York City, I was inside her.The park ranger talked the woman down by asking where she was from, which led to them swapping tales of their times in Colombia. Eventually, the ranger morphed from an amateur therapist to a director of photography.

“If you look through here, you can see her rays,” he pointed. I looked out through tiny windows at the water I had to cross to get here.

The adventure began by boat. Like a friend who lives on Rockaway Beach, you have to really want to visit her. Before I boarded the good ship Miss Ellis Island (a great drag name) I went through airport-style security which didn’t care about my TSA Pre-check status. In the past five years, I’ve only removed my belt to go to sleep, take a shit, have sex, and now visit the Statue of Liberty.

in line for the statue of liberty
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

On the dock to the boat, there were inspirational, nationalistic quotes:

“Freedom means the opportunity to be what we never thought we would be.” — Daniel J. Boorstin

“Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American Life.” — President John F. Kennedy.

“Where liberty is, there is my country.” — Benjamin Franklin

“I’m not waiting a fucking hour. We’re getting on this ship.” — Lady In Front of Me in Line

It was 40 degrees on a Wednesday in January, so being open to freezing our asses functioned as our fast passes. We reached the two-floor boat quickly, most passengers opting for the outdoor, upstairs view, while I hid on the first floor to stay warm. There was a small concession stand in the center that sold coffee and chips, positioned in a way that the employees who staffed it couldn’t take in the view.

A view of statue of liberty
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

From afar, the statue looked like a chess piece—the last and only queen left on a kingless and pawnless board. As we moved closer and closer to Liberty Island, she felt like one of the large stone sculptures at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, hands raised in defiance against the foes of Gondor.

An educational video played on the boat, but the engines were too loud to hear. I tried to read the subtitles, but the second line kept getting cut off:

“Your view of this great monument as we approach Liberty Island-”
“The ships neared New York, the shining torch of the Statue of Libe-”
“Liberty Enlightening the World’ as the Statue was officially t-”

I eavesdropped on the small paid tour next to me and stole a few fun facts: the statue was a rare collaboration between two countries on a piece of art (France made the statute, the U.S. covered the pedestal). She was also the first crowd-funded campaign: since New York’s wealthiest didn’t contribute, afraid she’d inspire workers to unionize, Pulitzer (yes, that one) ran a front-page ad asking Americans to donate, and they did. She pronounced Carnegie like “Carneggy,” like he was someone who compliments with insults, which made me smile. As we neared the statue, the tour guide took her small group to line up by the door to get out first.

“This is what my mother would have saw,” remarked a woman next to me to the woman next to her as the Woman in the Harbor came into view.

Unveiled in 1886, the Statue of Liberty took on a special significance for the mostly European immigrants arriving by boat in the 1890s to the 1920s. She was the first sight they saw coming into the harbor after the difficult weekslong, transatlantic voyage. Now, if you immigrate to New York City, you’re probably welcomed by a Dunkin’ in JFK airport.

Zach Zimmerman at Statue of Liberty
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

When we arrived, the Statute of Liberty had its back turned to us. The gates and doors at her rear weren’t super clearly marked. A park ranger in green checked my ticket but didn’t really tell me where to go. It’s a bit of a figure-this-out-for-yourself situation, this coming to America. At the base of the pedestal were unmanned glass doors, giving way to what felt like a vintage government building. The entire vibe was more DMV than Disney.

To reach the top of the pedestal, I had to climb a first set of stairs, taunted by fun facts on the wall along the way.

“National Park Service Rangers have found peregrine falcons perched on the Statue of Liberty’s crown.” 176 steps to the top of the pedestal.

“In very strong winds, the Statute of Liberty can sway three inches, while her torch can sway almost six inches.” 67 steps to the top of the pedestal.

Inside the Statue of Liberty
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

Inside the statue of liberty
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

At the top of the pedestal, I walked around and snapped pictures of the skyline. French, Chinese, Spanish, and Russian were all languages I heard. A young gay couple took a photo together. I opened Grindr just to see, but the nearest person was several thousand feet away. There would be no Eiffel Towering at the Statute of Liberty today.

Then, I made my way to the stairs to the Crown. The couple in front of me let me go first so I wouldn’t be delayed by her fear. The dimly lit, 164-step spiral staircase looked like a winding drill where Liberty’s spine would be. I spiraled as I stepped, in the dark where steel beams in Xs built into a lattice design held me up, and I could see the dark waves of the inside of the statue’s toga.

I had practiced the climb the day before on the last functioning Stairmaster at my gym. Once the land of affordable opportunity, my $20-a-month gym has experienced a sharp decline in recent months: the shocking removal of all paper towels, a summer without A/C, a heavily-scented month without showers, and now a “pushed to its limit” sign on all but one Stairmaster. The building was just sold to developers, too, so it’s living out its sunset months while we all ignore the decline.
The real climb was darker and reminded me of the Statue’s size. From afar, she seems small; at her feet, she feels colossal; as a souvenir in your hand, she’s small again; in movies—from X-Men to Planet of the Apes to The Day After Tomorrow—she’s large again. From inside her cramped crown, she felt small with room for four comfortably and 10 uncomfortably. I looked out the tiny windows where I could see random parts of her body—a bit of arm here, a bit of tablet there, a ray. She seemed guillotined by my perspective.

“If you step down, you can see her eyes,” a ranger told me.

It’s a strange sensation to look into the back of a pair of sculpted eyes. They look dead, and ominous, like a painting of a dead person who’s still watching.

inside the Statue of Liberty eyes
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman
inside the Statue of Liberty
Photograph: Shutterstock

“You can see the waves of her hair, and the part in the middle,” the other ranger added, a proud hair stylist to Lady Liberty.

“These are the lights,” the other one pointed to, which get turned on at night.

Whether Lady Liberty is lighting the way or fanning the flames of revolution was a debate as the statue was being built. A small museum in her pedestal explained that while Lady Liberty was used as a symbol in France for a bloody revolution, Laboulaye and Bartholdi, the artists behind the Statue, were insistent that she’s lighting the way, not lighting things on fire. The museum showed images from her construction, the support from Mr. Eiffel in, well, support, funding from the fundraising efforts of Pulitzer, and the poem of “tired, huddled, masses” fame that eventually became synonymous with the Statue: Emma Lazarus’ “Mother of Exiles.”

The museum succinctly summarized the phases of Liberty’s life: “Liberty was born a celebrity, a towering monument to an historic friendship. While fame often fades quickly, Liberty has grown even more renowned as the ‘Mother of Exiles,’ welcoming a flood of immigrants, and as a symbol of America itself. The price of this fame has been exploited for commercial and political ends. Yet Liberty remains a proud and shining figure.”

The exploitation is on display in the gift shop on the island, serving Statues of Liberties every way: mini-figurines, coffee mugs, plush toys, snowglobes, keychains with names at the bottom, and foam green crown headpieces if you need to root for the Statues of Liberty in a football game. I asked the cashiers what the most popular item was. It was just a sweater. I opted for a souvenir coin, made of copper like the Lady, and allegedly the same thickness as the statute. It’s not legal tender and cost four dollars.

I read a small display about the Statue’s flame, which has gone through several renovations, while an employee taking her break on the ground behind me coughed in a way that sounded like she was exorcising some demon. I wondered what the Statue’s next act might be. She’s a rich symbol, a piece of scripture that can damn anyone to Hell, raise anyone to Heaven. Whether she will be abandoned as no longer relevant or have her dormant revolutionary spirit resurrected feels like a coin toss.
Before I left, I explored the odd, little island. There’s a small cafeteria, a few sculptures that seem like they’re lost, and placards reminding visitors this was once a military site.

A young lady asked me to take her picture and then asked me to take it again with a bit more sky above the statue. Seagulls kept watch above with ca-cas, and there were ducks in the waters below. An enterprising photographer had rubber torches and a photo studio on wheels. Others, just held their hands up holding an invisible torch, becoming a mini-Lady Liberty in the larger one.

There’s an actual mini-Statue of Liberty in Paris, a quarter-scale replica standing on a manmade island. A friend who is a runner suggested I jog to her while I was there last summer, so I ambitiously set out in the 100-degree heat of August, covered in sunscreen. Mini Lady Liberty was quaint, petite like everything else in Paris, but identical to her older, taller sister: surrounded by water and standing up for the same ideals: liberty, democracy, and revolution. I imagined a Clue-Esque secret passageway linking the two statues across the Atlantic.

In many ways, Paris is to blame for this mission to fall back in love with New York. After three weeks in the French capital becoming a croissant, I returned home and felt numb. It could have been Aperol withdrawal, post-vacation blues, or symptoms of something bigger. Nothing here felt as exciting as what was going on over there. I went to the grocery store and bought a fancy Wisconsin cheese I’d never gotten, hoping it might be as delicious as the grocery store cheese I’d made several nights of in Paris. It was so bad I cried. I bought a baguette from the bakery by my house. It couldn’t hold a torch to the French ones.

statue of liberty museum
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

I took a walk in Prospect Park that first week back, and the urge to make the moment feel more exciting caused me to hop a fence into an off-limits area. I felt an air of excitement, my time there now laced with the twin sisters of naughtiness and possibility. Deeper in, I saw what looked like a shelter built from trees and wondered if someone lived here, wondered if someone was here now. Adrenaline shot through me, my eyes focusing around me, the mundane and routine felt full of adventure and danger. I’m not advocating a life of crime, but it felt like it inspired me to defibrillate my love of New York, inject adventure, adrenaline, stress, and excitement into my time here, to make something old feel new by rediscovery if you’ve got the time and energy.

I rode Miss New York back to the dock and watched a squirrel eat a French fry over a trash can. The entire visit was charming, but it made me want more, not just for myself but for all of us. Though I arrived by boat to Liberty Island, I had taken a Lyft to the dock. The R train was over 10 minutes away, so I got a car to get me to the ferry on time. My driver was a Bay Ridger of 23 years, from China before that, who told me he takes people to the Statue all the time.

“Have you ever been?” I asked.

“Long time ago,” he said.

“Do you remember it?”

He paused before confessing no. “Mind too full,” he said with a wide smile.

I asked what he meant and he described his 10-hour days, six days a week, and his three kids at home—four, six, and seven. His mind had been pushed to the limit, it seemed, like so many overworked New Yorkers, who don’t have room to remember Liberty lighting the way, lighting the flame that snared Carnegie all those years ago.

Zach Zimmerman at Statue of Liberty
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

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