A Writing Life: Sailing Into the Future

Sailing past the Bay Bridge, across the San Francisco Bay.

Connect the Dots

At one point in my life I got lucky. A job I took at a Marin County architectural firm. It involved a commute across the Bay from San Francisco. At first I went by land. A few months in, my borrowed Fiero developed an intractable electrical short: the engine quit at random and would not restart for hours. No one could figure it out. As I drove home to San Francisco one evening, the engine cut out just after I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. By pure luck, I was far enough off the bridge to roll out of traffic to the side of the road. That was it! I’d had enough. My next option: the vexing commute by bus.

Not long after, I was in my local bike store to buy a bike. A friend of the clerk burst through the door. He was so elated after taking the ferry to Marin County and riding his bike around the trails, he had to tell someone.

Ferry? Marin County? I promptly looked into it. A week later, commuting to work by ferry became the best part of my day.

Imagine a sparkling morning on deck, air fresh from the Pacific, the Bay beautiful in every direction. Sometimes I just appreciated being on a boat crossing the Bay. Other times, I pretended we were underway to more distant lands. A favorite “voyage” was to imagine we were steaming between Greek islands.

The Golden Gate Bridge and sunset on the Bay.

But never doubt: sunrise, fog, storm or flashy sunset, the Bay is beguiling, all by itself.

Then I got laid off. Ferry rides ceased, I needed a new job. It just so happened that an architect I knew in my neighborhood was starting up an office. shortly, I started my new job. Working with someone I liked, a two-minute commute, I was lucky again. Nonetheless, I missed my early morning “Gladiator” bike ride to the Ferry Building, blasting down empty Market Street to my escape on the Bay.

Yet and still, life works out in ways we are powerless to foresee. Several months into this great job, my boss’s husband made a lousy remark to me. No one else was around. I made the usual mistake: I was embarrassed; I said nothing. Like many before me, I hoped it wouldn’t happen again. After he made the second comment, I recognized that it wasn’t going to stop. I spoke up. Over the next few weeks, my job proceeded to disintegrate in a small-time, pre-#metoo debacle.

This was toward the end of the dot-com bust and it is at the end of downturns that architectural offices begin to run out of work. Back scouring want ads, printing out resumes and writing cover letters, I was getting no response. After two months of this, I was a teensy bit sorry for myself.

Well, I thought, Give it a break. How about a ferry ride? You haven’t been for a ferry ride in over a year. A cruise on the water will cheer you up.

I checked my old ferry schedule, hopped on my bike, and made the familiar ride down Market Street to the Ferry Building, a bit more prudent in the mid-day traffic. Waiting to board the ferry, I inhaled that exhilarating air that exists only near large bodies of water. Thrilled to be on board, sailing majestically through the Bay on one of the single-hull boats, I walked around the forward cabin and gazed out. On a cool grey day, the Bay was as captivating as ever.

Onboard that day, I had a double-happy feeling as I nodded hello to the same crew I knew from my commute days: two men and a woman. As the woman walked past, I realized something: She’s older than me! (I was in my mid 40s at the time). If she can work on the ferries, I can work on the ferries!

In that instant, my future set sail. As we returned to the city, I asked the lady deckhand a few questions about work on the ferries. It was all very encouraging. At the Ferry Building, I chatted with a ticket agent I knew from my commute days (back then there were helpful ticket agents, not the cranky ticket machines in use now). She gave me directions to the Union Hall, which wasn’t far, and encouraged me to go ahead. I went straight to the Hall. On my way there, I reminded myself that I was only “looking into the ferries”. The fact is, I had committed to this overhaul of my life as soon as the scheme hove into view.

At the Hall, I got the do’s and don’ts of joining the union and signed up for the required introductory class. Six months later (spent sending out a weekly pile of resumes that secured no replies), I found myself up early of an April morning and at the Union Hall, waiting for class to begin.

The consequences of this abrupt course change continue to ripple through my life. Number one, as mentioned, the first dot com bust was underway, and interior design/AutoCAD drafting jobs were sparse. In the union, jobs may be sparse at first, but this improves as you gain seniority. Initially you take jobs to replace a deckhand out sick or on vacation. As you progress up the seniority list, work becomes more stable year by year. In the architectural and design world there is no stability, no secure work.

Number two, deckhanding is a good union job. Unions aren’t perfect, but the options are worse. Deckhanding includes decent pay (full-time work equaling the same pay I received sitting at a desk); in the Inlandboatmen’s Union, health care is provided if you work at least 80 hours a month (previously? No health care); a pension (previously? No pension); you can also start a 401K.

Number three, instead of sitting at a desk all day, you get some exercise and meet a broad range of interesting, international co-workers. And there’s a lot to learn.

Number four, work can be flexible. You can take a planned break, if you need or want it, and come back with your same seniority.

And right at the top is Number five: time to write. Looking back now, I realize my work on the ferries set the scene for Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir. From earliest days on the water, my working life contributed colorful ideas and detail to my writing.

Bunzini, the Noir Rabbit.

One earlier stroke of luck must be mentioned. Bunzini the rabbit, star of Murkey’s, entered my life shortly after I moved to San Francisco. Around Halloween of the same year, his pal Webster, the intellectual spider, joined us. This rabbit is the lively focus of his own universe. Starring in a story? ”Right up my alley, Bubb! Get to work!” By the time life as a deckhand began, several short stories starring Bunz were written.

Late in 2004 Bunz said, “Bubb, I’m the long-eared Edward G. Robinson, see? Short stories are alright, Bubb, but listen. Where’s my movie? Where’s my best-seller? Where’s my-y website?”

Where was his website, indeed. Personal websites were more common by then, and Bunz knew several artists and musicians with their own websites. Since we couldn’t afford to hire a designer, I resolved to teach myself CSS and HTML. When I wasn’t at work on the ferries, I learned basic HTML. But it was slow going. Bunzini was getting impatient.

In a great moment of forethought, my multi-talented friend and internet guru had registered bunzini.com several years back, preserving the name for a future website. Had I ever looked at the website where he had registered it? No. It turned out that the registration company had a ‘drag and drop’ website builder. Voila! In few months, the basic website was up. (Haha—putting your first website together is more frustrating than that sentence implies, but after a few websites, one starts to get the hang of it.)

Now I needed stuff: Content. Bunz said, “Star me in another story, Bubb. Make it noir this time.”

Okay!

I figured I could squeeze in enough time to write a chapter a month for the website. My rationalization: if Charles Dickens could publish a chapter a month (sometimes more!), why not me? Haha—I jumped right in with Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir, Chapter One.

The inspirational doodle.

At the left is my original inspiration: a little sketch of a donut floating above a cup of coffee, by my multi-talented friend. I fancied it into a doodle on a paper napkin from a diner named Murkey’s. Where should Murkey’s be located? On Pier 13 (which does not exist). Next, Bunz came walking along the San Francisco Bay waterfront on the foggiest night of the year, in his fedora and trench coat. Why was he out there? Where was his pal Webbs? Who were the mysterious moose asking suspicious questions about Murkey’s Diner? This was fun!

The story developed and plot lines interlaced. Three chapters in, it became quite clear that I was not Charles Dickens. Without a blueprint for the plot, writing the story straight through was a can of worms.

So it began. I wrote when I could. Twelve years flew by. My livelihood on the ferries got woven in to the story: morning commute runs across the Bay, through fog so thick it can bury the Bay Bridge as you sail beneath it. Currents so strong, boat engines struggle against their dominance. Daily tides receding, to reveal the dark forest of ancient pilings crowding the undersides of the piers along the city front; people rowing their tricky-to-see wooden boats, traversing the same waterways as speeding ferries and huge container ships, neither of which can stop on a dime. Without a sharp lookout, how easily that insignificant blip on the radar can be steamed right over—in the night, in the fog!

A captain I work with had grown up sailing the Bay. When I was looking for a hideout for the bad Guys, I asked him if he had an idea. He suggested “Sh*t’s Creek.” I laughed. “It’s called that because it used to be totally polluted,” he said. Perfect! Otherwise known as Channel Street or Mission Creek Channel, I adapted the nickname to Sipp’s Creek and dreamed up a prohibition story to go with it.

Another ferry Captain had lived a thousand stories while sailing all over the world. He told one about escaping through the tunnels under the city, to avoid the cops after he and a friend had pulled a stunt. Tunnels? Perfect. I asked what stunt, but he only laughed and wouldn’t tell. I made up a stunt in the tunnels for Webbs and his friend, Marilyn the Librarian.

This same captain also lent me two very useful books. Vanished Waters, by Nancy Olmstead, a local author he knew, describes the slow infill of Mission Bay. The other, Recollections of a Tule Sailor, was written by Captain John Leale. While still a boy, Captain Leale sailed into San Francisco and landed at Mission Bay, when it was still a bay. He grew up to sail ferries across the Bay, to places no longer accessible by anything larger than a small canoe.

Nosey Parker with his fork.

The seagulls who make their living at Pier 41 gave me the idea for another character, Nosey Parker. Like all seagulls, he pays aggressive attention to everything around him, and he is invariably hungry. He earns his bread and butter by flying around the Bay, picking up information to trade for snacks. He always carries his fork!

I met someone at work who had run her own fishing boat. Her story became woven in with Captain G.G.’s story—a sea dog down on her luck. The Coast Guard boat, the fire truck, so many story ideas began as events and people and birds I’ve seen along the waterfront or sailing around the Bay.

Early on in my new career I figured, if it didn’t work out, I could always get another desk job. Not a chance! I never looked back!

Author: Lou Cook

Lou Cook lives and writes in San Francisco, California.

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