The Staten Island ferry is one of the must-do New York tourist experiences, due to the views of the city skyline as you pull away from Manhattan and approach the Statue of Liberty.
Most tourists of course just turn right around, and go back again but I had decided to explore some of the island, the least “New York” part of New York with its patches of green woodland, weatherboard fishing village homes and solid New England brick. The island is home to a couple of intriguing oddities – among them the chillingly named “Fresh Kills” park built on a landfill site and something I wanted to explore, an eccentric museum of Tibetan art (one of two in New York, the other being the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in much more accessible Chelsea).
The museum was a a jolting 50 minute bus ride from the ferry terminal, passing through a surprisingly bad area. Expecting green pastoral suburbs, I was surprised to find myself passing through a gritty, all-black inner city ghetto until I remembered: weren’t the Wu-Tang Clan from Staten Island?
Soon though the bus moved on – all the black people got off (literally) and were replaced by tough-sounding, loud working-class folk as we trundled through to middle class and then finally wealthy suburbs. We were dropped off at a street of mock-Tudor mansions climbing up a little hill. Near the top we found the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art.
The museum was founded in the 1940s by the mysterious Jacques Marchais, a woman (despite her male moniker) who had been a Victorian child star on the stage before amassing an enormous interest in Tibetan art, which she exhibited in a blood red gallery in Manhattan decorated with leopard skins.
The eccentric benefactor had established her research and spirituality centre here in the peaceful environs of Staten Island where she maintained meditation cells (now abandoned and in decay), a collection of art pieces and one of the most extensive libraries of books (at that time) on Buddhism and Tibetan culture in the United States. You can still see these fascinating old 1930s titles on the shelves there today.
The collection fits all into a single room (where photography is not allowed) and includes a bowl made from a human skull, various intricate many-armed gods, boddhisatvas and fierce-faced ‘defenders of Buddhism’ as well as an intricate sand mandala.
Outside in a garden is a lotus pond, prayer wheels, a Buddha statue and the calming, resonant sounds of bells and windchimes. It is, all in all, quite an odd place.
After we left the museum we wanted to try another Staten Island ‘hotspot’ , a restaurant called Enotecta Maria which had recently come to prominence after being profile on NPR (National Public Radio). The restaurant employed a roster of Italian grandmothers who would each cook their own regional specialities on different days, (half a sheeps’ head baked in white wine, anyone?) It was full of local families, Danny Aiello types and their big, blustery wives and children, sharing plates and wine and the food was good – and the portions large.
But after the Tibetan art and Italian food, it was time to head back to Manhattan.