By Laura Barlament
In the fall of 1967, an 18-year-old Austrian named Armin Thurnher took his first trip overseas, to spend the academic year at Wagner College.
Since then, Thurnher has become a celebrated writer and magazine editor in his home country, known for his sharp criticism of Austrian politics and media culture.
But he’s still thinking about that year in America. When his publisher suggested he write a book to be published in honor of his 70th birthday, he decided to return to that time. Ferry to Manhattan: My Year in America (Fähre nach Manhattan: Mein Jahr in Amerika) was published by Vienna’s Paul Zsolnay Verlag this year.
“The most important year of my life was when I came to the States in 1967, from a small town in Austria, to the world’s first city, New York City,” he said in a Skype interview I conducted with him this spring. “This was the year that changed my life completely.”
Combining research and memory, some elements of fiction based on fact, the book presents the young Thurnher confronting a different culture, new experiences, and the turmoil of American society in the late 1960s. It’s not all a pretty picture, but it is lively and colorful.
Thurnher grew up in Bregenz, a city where Wagner College had a campus abroad from 1962 to 1989. Thurnher knew Wagner students, and that connection explains how he learned about Wagner and received a scholarship to study there.
The book details his experiences learning about football and jockstraps, homecoming and dorm life, Abbie Hoffman and the hippies, subways and the Lower East Side, the anti-Vietnam War movement and racial injustice, and much more.
He joins the soccer team. He listens to Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin with his hallmates in Towers dormitory. He takes classes in British and American literature, art, and psychology. He goes to the bar at the foot of the hill, eats hamburgers, and drinks American beer. He meets girls.
His relationship with his politically radical roommate, Bruce, is the heart of the narrative. Through continual debates with Bruce and another nonconformist student, Brooke, his conservative worldview and idealism about America start to erode.
“I am a heap of shards,” he writes in one of the last chapters. “Or maybe I’m just noticing that that’s what I always was. I’ve been shaken like a kaleidoscope. I see the world in a new way, not with kaleidoscope eyes, but put together in a new way.”
The narrative ends in December of 1967. With enthusiastic reviews as encouragement, Thurnher is now working on volume two of the memoir, covering the winter and spring of 1968. He hopes to complete a trilogy, with the third volume focusing on his hitchhiking trip across America in the summer of 1968.
The book is only available in German, but working with Thurnher, I translated a few excerpts. (If you want to know more about my longtime relationship with the German language, read my editor’s note.)
Excerpts from Fähre nach Manhattan: Mein Jahr in Amerika (The Ferry to Manhattan: My Year in America) by Armin Thurnher, copyright 2019 Paul Zsolnay Verlag Ges.m.b.H., Wien. Translated by Laura Barlament. Published with permission.
Arrival on Campus and Introduction to Roommate, Bruce
from chapter 5
The taxi conquers the steep hill and drives up to a wide, neo-Gothic, three-story building. It has two small outer towers and two asymmetrical central towers. It doesn’t need a sign that says “Main Hall.” The huge doorway and broad stairway speak volumes. The epitome of college architecture, higher education in building form.
No one is visible. All of a sudden, I feel a bit tired as I watch the taxi drive away. By all rights, I should have received a tip instead of the driver, in exchange for listening to the entire family history of the good-humored Italian American, who knew from the start that he would be able to overcharge this greenhorn.
Where are the towers of Manhattan?
Nowhere to be seen.
What I see here is idyllic suburbia, sunny, peaceful, and green.
What I see here is idyllic suburbia, sunny, peaceful, and green. A patrol car with open windows slowly drives toward Main Hall, almost noiselessly and with an aura of vague threat. The police officer neither removes his mirrored sunglasses nor changes his facial expression, and glides by at a walking pace.
Behind Main Hall, there are several buildings, small cottages from the 19th century, a villa, modern buildings, and four six-story towers connected by hallways and made of glass, concrete, and red brick. A bridge leads to the main entrance. On the bridge is a small wooden bench.
A couple sits in the afternoon sun. It’s a beautiful late-summer day. The leaves of the giant oak and beech trees are already changing color. As I draw nearer, I see that it’s a pair of men, holding hands.
Welcome to New York. It’s hard to believe of someone who grew up close to the Catholic Church, but I had no idea about homosexuality. I accept the sight and, eager to get rid of my heavy suitcase, I introduce myself.
One is the hall administrator, Mr. Applebaum. He explains that I am standing in front of my living quarters for the next 10 months, but I have arrived too early. The college is expecting the freshmen to arrive next week.
I did write a letter, I say.
Mr. Applebaum goes into his office and looks for it.
I didn’t find your letter, but I do have your name. All right then, since you’re here already. Welcome to Towers Dormitory! Your room number is B 607, just to the right, on the sixth floor.
He gives me the key. Indeed, a room with two beds. The bed is made.
Who will be my roommate?
Bruce, who else?
That is good news. Bruce is the first American I met in my hometown. Bruce is a bit off-beat, a little crazy, not like the other Americans. He always made an effort to speak German, loudly, roughly, incorrectly, and — unlike me — without any concern about his errors. Bruce takes me seriously. When my family invited him to dinner, he started calling my mother “Mom” right away, which she liked. Bruce is, in some respects, a freak. Always curious about how life works wherever he is. Always on the side of the little guys. Always away from the horde of Americans. Always off the beaten track, always right in the middle of things.
First Trip to Manhattan and Ferry Ride, with Brooke
from chapter 10
Vince, I need to go to Manhattan. How do I do it?
Take the bus on Victory Boulevard to the ferry. The bus stop is right down there, you can’t miss it. The ferry is at the end of the bus line. Take it to Manhattan.
Then take the subway to go uptown. You’ll figure it out.
I bravely sit in the bus and look at the cute little wooden houses, the strangely atavistic cables on wooden telephone poles and utility poles, and the huge cars, moving slowly. There are few people along the street. As we go down the hill, the buildings become larger and closer together. Traffic increases. Last stop.
The ferry terminal is gigantic. There are dozens of turnstiles, opened by throwing a nickel into a plastic chute. People are continually pouring through, moving quickly toward or away from the ferries, continuous metallic noise from coins upon coins, and behind it the noise of street traffic on one side and of the sea on the other.
I stand amidst the turmoil. I’m the only one standing and staring, which makes me stand out.
Brooke walks forward toward the darkness of the subway, pulling me behind her since I can’t stop staring in amazement.
We look at each other in astonishment. Then we hug. I know lovely Brooke from my hometown. But she looks completely different. She still has her bobbed hair. But she’s wearing delicate leather sandals on her bare feet, silver bells around her ankles, straps tied high up her calves, a short, striped skirt showing off her fantastic legs, and a loose, low-cut silk blouse that makes it no secret that she is not wearing a bra. To me she looks exotic, in some indecipherable way. Strange and beautiful. She also has spiral-shaped ornament on her cheek.
What are you doing here? We ask each other simultaneously.
I got the scholarship.
I’m going to Manhattan to buy beads. Would you like to come along?
I nod. I stand and can’t stop looking at Brooke. Of all the beautiful American girls, she always seemed to me to be the strangest one, because she was the least approachable. Witty, sharp-tongued, intellectually superior. In my hometown she dressed in cashmere pullovers and narrow-legged wool pants in discreet colors, gray-brown, with horn-rimmed glasses on her snub nose, which made her look especially sexy. The glasses have disappeared.
I stand and look. Brooke takes me by the hand like a child, pulls me through the turnstile and onto the ferry. She finds a seat on the front left side of the top level, because she knows what I need. Exactly, we are passing the Statue of Liberty, my first time. The best part is that I know, when I see the bluish-green symbol of world power — famous, but neither especially charming nor impressive — that I will see it on every trip from now on. Meaning, often.
Brooke points forward. We are walking on the platform of the ferry’s bow, separated from the blue water by only a folding grille. Over the grille we see the southern tip of Manhattan. Slowly the skyscrapers appear. The familiar, never-seen skyline, dominated by the Empire State Building, is finally visible, coming ever closer, rising out of the water with threatening speed and size.
The sea becomes white with foam between the pier, with its wooden piles, and the boat. Then the boat docks with a jerk, ropes are lashed, steel ramps are extended over the gap. Brooke walks forward toward the darkness of the subway, pulling me behind her since I can’t stop staring in amazement.
A shrill, noisy, rusty monster, a steel worm on wheels pushes around the curve, emitting thunder and lightning at earsplitting volume. Talk is impossible in this noise. The worm is the subway. The doors open, Brooke pulls me in after her. My mind is wheeling. My defenses destroyed by the sight of the skyscrapers, overwhelmed by the rusty ruckus, I just stand, holding on to a pole, and submit to being completely rattled.
Meeting Dean Stern
from chapter 16
Students hurry across the campus, trampling the quiet of the late summer day. Dean Stern inquires after me. I, of course, didn’t realize what was proper, and I neglected to introduce myself on the first day of registration, even though I had corresponded with him from Bregenz. He doesn’t mention it.
A gracious white-haired man receives me in one of those old-fashioned little wooden cottages, which even has half-timbered gables. Adolph Stern is a German Jewish chemist. He didn’t leave Germany until 1940, presumably tolerated longer than other Jews because of his scientific importance. But, such questions never occurred to me; the persecution of Jews, emigration, and Jewish life were never discussed at home or in school. The magazines we read were full of soldiers’ stories, and not much about Jews.
I’m ignorant of such matters and don’t regard people based on their heritage. I never asked myself if someone was a Jew, if someone was at a higher or lower social position. It’s always other people who make me aware of such distinctions. I pride myself on reading people based on their words and not on superficialities. To speak more truthfully, you could say that I have a lack of social awareness.
So, I see before me a friendly older gentleman, who greets me kindly. If I had accurately interpreted the behavior of the assistants, secretaries, and other students, then I would have realized that I’m standing before one of the most powerful people at the College, and that he has invited me to take a seat in front of his desk.
Dean Stern has a folder on his desk; he knows about me, but he wants to know more. What are my special interests, and what do I want to do later in life? Probably not the sciences.
No, I say, I’m drawn to literature. I would like to do something with writing, but I don’t know in what way. Psychology interests me too. In school, I had a class called Psychology and Philosophy for two years. I didn’t learn anything about either one, except that they interested me.
Dean Stern advises me to take English and American literature, and psychology as a minor. I can take a look. There are other options, too, in the departments for art, music, and media. Because I passed the university entrance exam in Austria, I am considered a junior, my third college year. My scholarship includes room and board as well as textbooks. I’ll have to provide for myself for other books, writing materials, and pocket money. As we discussed in our correspondence, I can have a job in the language lab. I’ll be able to handle that.
I am not prepared for academic life. No one explained to me how to register for courses, how you get that information. At my high school, a humanities-focused Gymnasium, you were given your course schedule, you showed up in the morning, and that was it. Here, I have to create my own course schedule.
Dean Stern says he has heard that I am an athlete.
Tennis is my favorite, I say.
Unfortunately, this year the tennis courts have been removed to make way for a new building.
At home, I had seen how a moderately talented player a few years older than I was able to demolish his competition on the clay courts of his homeland after a year in America. Having seen his newly developed crack serve, play at the net, and mighty lobs, not to mention his tan and his crew cut, I had hopes of also returning from the USA as a champion. No hopes of that now.
Have you practiced with the football team?
Yes, I say, but I don’t really understand football.
Do you know the soccer coach?
No, but I’m eager to meet him.
At home I enjoyed playing soccer, but my parents paid for my tennis club membership in order to keep me away from the bad boys of the soccer club. That’s why I became a tennis player. But it didn’t prevent me from having contact with the boys of the soccer club. On the contrary, my tennis playing even allowed me to meet the great players of the professional soccer team, who would stop and watch me play on their way to practice. That opened the door to playing with them at the beach, which gave me a special status among my friends. After one of those games, Ilijas Pasic, who was once the forward for the Yugoslavian national team and whom I revered, said to me, “I wish I could play tennis like you play soccer.” A word of praise I treasure to this day.
Dean Stern asks his secretary to get the soccer coach on the line.
from chapter 17
In the bathroom, everyone shaves in front of a row of mirrors; it doesn’t take me long to style my hair. Bruce needs more time for his, as do most of the others. Acne care. Cologne. Deodorants. Shaving cream out of a can. Most of that is new to me. On TV I see how they make it look important. A world of rich, creamy shaving cream and perfumed, shaved armpits. For this, they interrupt every program.
In the dorm, I have an exotic appeal. I come from far away, and yet I belong. I add in the charm of cluelessness. I’m able to marvel at a lot of things that no one else marvels at. I learn with my mouth wide open. It takes a while for me to learn not to look astonished. My Americanization consists in learning to hide my amazement. To astonish others with my lack of astonishment.
Coolness: I don’t know this concept. To hide your excitement from others. Bruce is not cool, not to mention me. Ray is cool, the only black man on our floor, in our entire tower. A basketball star, he’s the true exotic. His room, B 615, might as well be on another planet, he’s so far away from us.
Bob Dylan is the prophet of room B 608, on a rotating basis with Grace Slick, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.
Bill and Keith live next door in B 608. Bill is a massive Scandinavian, with oily blond shaggy hair. Keith has a smaller build, with rosy Anglo-Saxon skin and brown curly hair. Both apparently come from wealthy families, especially Keith. I’m amazed at his expensive stereo, which consists of a Garrard turntable, a Fisher amplifier and speakers, all in tasteful walnut. Keith never takes advantage of his privilege, except that he doesn’t allow anyone else to touch the turntable; neither does Bill, who owns most of the records.
Keith probably would have fit in at one of those New England colleges. He’s from a WASP family, as you can see from the discreet way in which he is completely unpretentious. Bruce indiscreetly explains to me that WASP means “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” That’s the ruling class in our fair land, where everyone is equal, he says.
Apparently Keith didn’t quite meet the enrollment criteria for Harvard or Yale. This here is a small college for “sorry-no” elite college students. Second-hand elite. I fit in well.
Listening to records is far superior for getting to know one’s contemporaries than is watching TV or reading newspapers. Bob Dylan is the prophet of room B 608, on a rotating basis with Grace Slick, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. Dylan sings of New York, poses in the streets of New York. During my entire stay, he performed only once in New York, in Carnegie Hall, which is beyond me. Dylan sounds different here in his proximity than he did from the distance of Europe, where Radio Luxembourg may have played a song or two.
Literary Education and the Hawk’s Nest
from chapter 22
In contrast to Kentridge, Instructor Wilkins is no lecturer. He is younger, he wants to talk with us. I am clueless about both poetry and prose. I have only read some Salinger. I have never heard of William Carlos Williams, for example. Wilkins immediately gives me a copy of Williams’ In the American Grain. Not the famous gem-like poems, short or long, “No ideas but in things” and so forth. No, this is historical prose, historical-American prose, dense, and in parts poetic. American portraits. “I want to give the impression, an inclusive definition, of what these men of whom I am writing have come to be for us. That they have made themselves part of us,” said the physician-poet Williams in his autobiography. “They are us,” he wrote.
At Wagner, literature classes are about identity. Literature is not viewed as irrelevant, but as a medium of ascertaining one's self. As the scientific study of what America is and what it should be. As a continuation of civics. As the science of the passionate struggle for America. If there ever was political passion in Europe, it was stamped out of our generation. We are just now learning to regain it.
I struggle with this book, with this feeling of “us.” The language is simple but dense, and I fill its pages with annotations, in merciless red felt-tip pen. I underline sentences about the Pilgrims, the Puritans, who came to New England. And their morals. Written in the 1920s, the book is a celebration of the Natives, the Indians, the white heroes, the black people, but it’s also sympathetic to the conquistadores, driven by their passions. Puritanism is what Williams considers to be the American illness par excellence.
Another American initiation. I feel like a layer cake of American initiations; new layers are constantly being added. In the Hawk’s Nest, for example, the new thing is the piles of hero sandwiches, wrapped in cellophane, lying on the counter. (“Hero,” because they are gigantic.) There are milkshakes (a scoop or two of ice cream mixed with milk, new to me), tender donuts (never had them before), and weak but burning hot coffee.
‘If you want this little Austrian to understand America, why don’t you introduce him to a few contemporary writers?’
We sit on cheap chairs at plastic tables and talk. While other campus buildings feature the modern Brutalist style, lack of style is part of the charm of this place. People smoke, talk about classes, talking at and over each other. Homecoming is on the horizon. Papers are stacked up on the tables next to the new Wagnerians, the internal college newspaper.
Wilkins is here as well. Thick horn-rimmed glasses, blond hair, crew cut, no tie. And Brooke. On campus, she sometimes wears her glasses, pants, and pullover. Here you can meet people who don’t live on campus; they don’t go to the cafeteria, they go to the Hawk’s Nest.
Wilkins asks me how my classes are going. I think the classes are too much like high school. But his classes are different, with fewer students. That’s why I can talk freely with him. He’s equally curious about me, the young European. I think the exams graded on the point system are laughable. At home, we write essays, and midterm exams are oral. I think that’s better than quantifying each and every little thing, I tell him with a bit too much confidence.
You’re going to have to write, he retorts, when you work on my paper. How is it going with the Williams?
It’s difficult, I say. The way he delves linguistically into the psyche of each historical person is great, but for me it’s not easy. I don’t know who these people are. Or I just know their names, like George Washington.
Yes, Wilkins says. But I wouldn’t say “psyche,” I think you mean “character,” right?
It seems to me like a poetic form of empathy.
You should read a normal history book, Wilkins recommends. You’ll appreciate how sensitively Williams describes these people. And how he defends them against their depiction by the historical-patriotic mainstream. Aaron Burr, for example, the vice president who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and has suffered a terrible reputation ever since. Not the least because Hamilton defamed him in the worst way in order to prevent him from becoming president. Williams isn’t blinded by that. Or take his portrayal of Daniel Boone.
I’ve read Cooper. Boone seems to have been a model for Leatherstocking, I say self-importantly, happy for the prompt.
You and your stories about men, Brooke complains after listening in. Williams is just a bland, solicitous grandpa. And his name dropping about people he knew, from Duchamp to Pound, from T. S. Eliot to Valery Larbaud, is insufferable. He can barely hide his insecurity complex about them. If you want this little Austrian to understand America, why don’t you introduce him to a few contemporary writers? But you’re scared to stray that far from the English department, aren’t you?
Please don’t pour salt into my wound, Wilkins says.
Brooke keeps on pouring. It’s well known that your department has a problem with the present.
Before I can ask what is so well known, Bruce shows up with a flyer. It’s protesting against the watering down of the proposed College bylaws. He blithely reads aloud: “The College management spent the whole summer in special meetings, brought people to campus from all over the place, and even hired extra security — all this, only to propose ‘minor changes’?”
There’s little reaction to his announcement at our table. I’m a little embarrassed for Bruce. Brooke wanders off. Bruce gets on her nerves.
We’re going to write on our ballots that we are against the changes. He has another flyer, featuring a caricature. A couple of students are standing in front of a Wagner College bureaucrat, protesting against the new bylaws. The bureaucrat says, “Yes, but a college is no place for ideas! It’s a business!” Bruce places his flyers on the table.
Wilkins is thinking, “Someone has to pay my salary.” But he doesn’t say anything.
It’s time for soccer practice.
A Library Where Books Are Celebrated
from chapter 39
The Horrmann Library is a modern red brick building with eight large plate-glass windows on the south side, which bring light into the three-story building and through which one enters it. It is a reference library. The books are on open shelves on all three floors, and there is plenty of space in the ground floor. There are more than a dozen round tables for five to six people; in front of the windows, there are shelves with the latest magazines and newspapers. I go there to read the New York Times, which is always available because there are several copies, as well as Time and Newsweek. I go there to see what the Staten Island Advance has written about our soccer team, perplexed by the attention it pays to a better high school team. You can just take books off the shelves and put them back when you’re done. You’re not allowed to check them out. What a contrast to the libraries I’m used to! Narrow, musty, with a librarian who views himself as someone who’s there to scare you away from books rather than enchant you with books. In my church library, you paid a schilling to borrow a Karl May novel for a week, packed up in brown paper and given to you through a narrow slot. In the tiny school library, a grumpy curator acted like every question was a personal affront. The cloister libraries in Baroque monasteries flaunted their untouchable showpieces, sumptuous volumes in stiff white leather that no layperson could ever open. Here, on the other hand, books were celebrated. Here, they were read communally. Here there is light, air, openness. The library is one of the prettiest spots at the college.