Monday, October 23, 2006

Lives in Letters: Postcards with Mystery

One of the fun things about reading postcards is that because the messages are often short, they create a mystery that is open to many different solutions.

Here's one like that.

The Commodore
"New York's Best Located Hotel"
Grand Central Terminal
New York, NY
February 19, 1938

Addressed to Mr. Elvin L-
Sea Girt, New Jersey

Staying here
a week or so --
in case the
ship's in.

Mary Alice

When I first read this, I thought "military ship," but then I saw the date. Although the U.S. was building its Naval force in the late 30's, we didn't have a large Navy yet in 1938. And as far as I can discover, military ships weren't coming in and out of New York unexpectedly. A few years later and a military ship would have been a more likely answer.

Perhaps it was a hired ship bringing back Americans who had gone to Spain to fight in their Civil War. That would have been about the right time. Maybe.

It was a year too early to be this sad ship, full of passengers doomed to return to Europe and the horrors that waited there.

It wasn't a cruise ship, like this one who was the Queen of her day (I visited her in California). These ocean liners ran on strict schedules, so Mary Alice would have known for sure when the ship was due, had it been a cruise ship.

Perhaps it was a cargo ship. These would have had much less definite schedules, and someone staying on in New York in case his or her [insert large item one might be excited to get as soon as possible] arrived might make sense.

Here's a nice write-up about the big-ship days of New York. From that piece:

It is hard to remember nowadays the permanent display that was the waterscape of New York in those days. The sea traffic was incessant, night and day, wherever you looked. Tall-funneled ferries chuffed determinedly across the Hudson. Lighters loaded with railway wagons plodded to and from the railway terminals at the New Jersey shore. Towboats hauled lines of barges loaded deep. The powerful Staten Island ferry steamers went by, and the dear old Circle Line pleasure craft, and pilot boats off to Sandy Hook, and police launches and fire floats and Moran tugs hastening seaward, and scows full of stinking rubbish for landfill, and even a few genuine fishing boats taking their catch directly to the Fulton Street fish market. Freighters waiting for quarantine inspection hung about dimly at the Narrows, and through it all the big ships patiently trod their way, majestic liners for the West Side piers, cargo ships making for Brooklyn, warships on their way to refit or to break-up at the Navy yard. It was one of the great maritime spectacles of the world: the seaport of New York, in the last years of its heyday, honoring the purposes that had brought the city into existence in the first place.

One last thought.... Perhaps Mary Alice was being metaphorical. Maybe she was saying, "if my dreams are coming true here" when she wrote "in case the ship's in."

If so, I wonder what the dreams were.

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