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!

Library

Digital Isn’t Everything

Rare photo of Channel Street, San Francisco, formerly part of Mission Bay (when it was a real bay)

The library is like a candy store where everything is free.
Jamie Ford

When the San Francisco Public Library was recently padlocked as part of the city-wide shut-down, this disruption brought home the indiscriminate magnitude of the blight as it careens through society. The library — closed? I never imagined a time when there wouldn’t be a library, somewhere available. By pure luck, I went to the library before the shutdown.

I’ll be honest. I don’t go to the library nearly as often as I think about going to the library. At home, so many unread books are stacked up. It’s a short stroll to the local cafe, where paperbacks pile against the wall, free for borrowing or exchange, enticing my weak spot for serendipity and murder mysteries. That’s where I discovered two Nick Petrie books. Twenty-one blocks away is the library, a much longer hike. Nevertheless, once I get there, the same old thrill pops up: the library is better than free candy.

After hours spent online, I had not found what I was searching for. In fact, I found virtually nothing. There is a lot of information is online. Plenty of companies’ best interests lie in you believing that everything is online. And in these Virus Times, more is online than ever. But not everything; there is breadth online, but not depth.

I made my excursion ten days before they shut San Francisco down. Destination: the History Center. Real research was on the docket; I wanted more details and photos of “Sipp’s Creek” (as it is called in my book, Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir). Locally, Sipp’s Creek is a patch known as Mission Bay.

The History Center itself is another locale in Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir, where Marilyn the Librarian helps her friend Webbs, the intellectual spider, find answers to Murkey’s mystery. When she and Webbs get caught in the tunnels beneath the city, Marilyn manages to escape and bring back help. In a pinch, rely on a librarian.

After years of enjoying the District of Columbia Library in Washington, DC, I moved to San Francisco in 1995. Roommates had snagged a place to live (considered difficult then — in no way comparable to the difficulty today), but I had no job. Activities not directly linked to job hunting were deemed “having fun.” I held the (wrong-headed) idea that “having fun” would signal to the job gods that I was not serious in my job pursuit. At that time, my job search was in the field of commercial interior design.

Riding the bus down Divisadero Street, I spent my days at a copy shop. It sounds crazy now, but back then I didn’t own a computer. That took money. The nearest print/copy shop with public computers was at California and Fillmore. I wrote cover letters there. I printed up piles of resumes. I became familiar with the city, and with the offices I was applying at, by riding the bus around and hand-delivering my packets.

Peripherally, I was aware that the old Main Library was on its way out. I considered visiting, but that would have been “having fun.” Busy in my daily routine, I regret now that I never stopped by. Historic photographs show a grand old building; a visit to the Asian Art Museum, located in the building where the Main Library used to be, prove the building was a classic.

In contrast, the new library is an arty hodge-podge of stairways, misdirection and confusing circular floor plans. Signage is poor to non-existent. It’s worse than a trip to the downtown Macy’s Department Store. At least at Macy’s, each floor has a sign identifying your location.

The History Center is at the top, or sixth, floor. Previously, I took the elevator. The elevator goes to the sixth floor. This time, I took the public stair. Logically, I expected to exit on the sixth floor at the top of the stairs. Consequently, it did not occur to me to count each floor. Wrong! The stair ended, but what floor was I on? No signage. The main stair is in a completely different part of the floor than the elevator lobby. The circular nature of the building layout makes it impossible to relate where you are when you take the stair to where you were when you took that elevator last time.

I recognized the floor because I had spent time there on previous visits, making copies of sheet music. I didn’t remember what floor it was, but I knew one fact: it was not the floor with the History Center. How to get there? No indication.

Luckily, a music librarian was handy. They probably get this question on a regular basis. A friendly librarian told me we were on the fifth floor. The stair to the sixth floor? He pointed. Around the corner.

For inexplicable reasons, the route to the sixth floor incorporates two separate stairs. Picture a sixth floor, stuck on as an afterthought, with its own independent stair jammed over in a corner. In fact, I saw this adjunct stair as I exited the 1–5 stair. Of completely different design, it appeared to be private access to a staff area. No arrow, no sign advising, “This Way Be History” or, “Up to Sixth Floor.”

I took the stair. At the top, no clue as to which way to turn to reach the History Center. I turned the wrong way, my natural response to being lost. After a not quite complete circuit around the floor, through curious displays of artifacts, I chanced upon the History Center, tucked into a dark corner.

It is a small, unassuming room. There are five or six long rows of sturdy wooden tables and chairs, where patrons delve into their field of study. A mousy hobbit door is wedged in a corner behind the librarians’ counter. Through this door the librarians pop in and out, carrying forth documents from their sequestered trove. The imagination boggles when envisioning what all is stored behind their hobbit door.

To be assisted by thoughtful humans, whose eyes light up as they comprehend what you are looking for; to then be surrounded by the exact material you had spent empty hours not finding online — because these are documents found nowhere else —such are good times to be savored. And yes, it would have conserved time to walk to the library in the first place.

Now that the library is closed for the duration, I am relieved that I made it to the sixth floor before the lights flicked out and the locks clicked. It was another piece of luck that I took photos of everything that looked useful. Now I have plenty of the past to dig into as I study up on fun facts to use in my next book.

Despite the indefensible botheration of navigating the building, a trip to our library winds up being as satisfying as a trip to any better-planned public library. Settling deep into your curiosity, librarians nearby, loaded up with centuries of tools and knowledge, who can ask for anything more. There is one question that will persist indefinitely: when will libraries be able to open their doors again?

How I Became A Deckhand

Lou traveling down the Alameda Estuary, delivering a ferry to the shipyard.

Outside the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific, the time is 7:45am. I haven’t been up this early for months, not since I joined the ranks of the unemployed. It’s a cool morning and the light breeze is humid. At Harrison and 2nd, we are on Rincon Hill, four blocks from the San Francisco Bay. Normally at this time I would be in bed, considering more sleep, a few added minutes of respite before another day of sending out resumes.

A handful of men mill about. We are all waiting for the union hall to open at 8:00 a.m. I wonder what has brought them here today. Are they all looking for work, too?

I am the lone waiting female, 80% awake after my twenty-minute bicycle ride from home. Desultory conversation floats by. I can’t tell if any of these men knew each other before this morning or if this camaraderie sprang up as they wait for the same thing.

Small snippets come to my ears:

“…got up at about 3:30, 3:45.”

“…pot of coffee.”

“I got that way drivin’ truck. Thirty years. Gotta built-in alarm clock.”

The truck driver has driven down from Ukiah. For the day. A trip of one hundred fifteen miles, one way. My twenty-minute bike ride shrinks to insignificance.

An inspection of and discussion about the nearby parking meters ensues. The meters are new and have a digital time readout rather than the tried and true printed dial meters. The new meters aren’t working. Does anyone know why? Do they have to get “turned on” to work?

They do. This is inconvenient and potentially expensive for the person who needs to start early and cannot wait around for meters to start.

The truck driver says something like “How bad can a ticket be?” to another guy who drove up and parked about the same time he did. They have been examining the meters together. The other guy informs the trucker that parking fines are $50 dollars. The truck driver is incredulous.

“Fif-ty dollars?”

The other man chuckles and replies, “This is San Francisco, man.”

They walk slowly to the loose group near the doors. There are two personal-size Playmate coolers; two red backpacks. One cell phone is extant. This is right before cell phones get big. Pagers are on the way out. As a result of joining the union, I will get my first cell phone, sooner than I expect. I will need be reachable for last minute deckhand jobs.

It nears 8:00 a.m. and the ‘stand and chat’ group edges toward the center door of the many doors arrayed across the grand building entry. A paper sign has been taped up: Use This Door.

I am a silent sitter on the cold stone steps that lead up to the doors. A fellow sitter off to my right watches the group hover near the door and mutters to himself, “…think it’s a rock concert, or somethin’.”

Some of these people are certainly here for the same reason I am — the 3–1/2 day class. To join the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific and work as a ferry or tugboat deckhand, you need to pass the class. To be in the class this morning, you would have visited the union hall in the past year or so and had your name and contact information written down on a page in a notebook. This is The List: interested potential deckhands.

I capitalize The List because of the way it is used. As in, “You have to get on The List first.” Or, “Are you on The List yet?” The List is step one in the process to work on boats. At the hall, they tell you that the union will mail out letters to notify the next 100 names on The List a month before the class. When? There is no set time for this. Letters are sent out from zero times a year to three. When jobs become difficult to fill, The List is opened. A very small percentage of the 100 ever show up at 8:00 a.m.

And here we are, on this April morning. Later I learn that some waited eight and nine months or more. I know of one person who waited a year and a half. And there are some who hardly wait at all. My wait was 6 months, much of it spent sending out resumes to companies advertising commercial interior design and/or Auto Cad drafting jobs.

8:00 a.m. The doors are unlocked. We sitters follow the standers inside. Those here for the class walk into a very large, double-height almost empty room. This is the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific hiring hall, a building completed in 1950. Our footsteps echo off the plaster walls and terrazzo floor. We take seats at beat-up round tables grouped at the far end. The end wall is filled with windows that have not been cleaned recently. They provide an uninspiring view of a dusty parking lot and downtown. The hall is lit by the grey light coming through these windows. In the near future, a large, dark apartment building will block what view there is.

We are: nine white guys — aged from 20-something to 40-something; a 20-something Asian man; a 40-something Latino; a 40-something African-American man; and one 40-something white female — me. We are joined shortly by another white female, looking to be in her 30’s.

The class moves into gear about 8:30. There are 3 late-comers: one at 9:05, a middle-aged African-American man, snarled in traffic. The second, a younger African-American man, arrives at about 9:10. He slides quietly in, saying nothing, choosing to sit in the instructor’s chair. He is informed of the fact and slides into a nearby chair. That one is also taken, though at that moment it is also empty. The meter feeders are out at the meters, which are now “on.”

I watch the silent comedy as he tries another meter-feeder’s chair, and then finally chooses one which has not been claimed. A white man pops in about 9:30, with a stage whisper to the instructor that he called ahead to say he would be late.

The late-comers get the hand-outs and the class continues.

Class is stricter now. Late-comers are kicked out immediately. For a job where your “office” sails off on schedule, lateness is not tolerated. It will get you fired.

But on this Monday, we total fifteen students and three instructors. Two of the people I had thought were students are actually instructors. The older of the three runs things in a relaxed yet ship-shape style. This is Chuck. He has done this more than once. I learn later that he designed the class after more and more people without maritime experience began to join the union.

Chuck’s best tip of the week: a good crew makes your day a joy; an **shole on the crew makes the day a torture. Don’t be that **shole. Some years later, when I bid on a crew where Chuck is the lead deckhand, I learn that for me, Chuck makes a good crew mate. But not everybody would agree. A crew is like a bunch of chemicals: sometimes the strife on a crew is terrible. But a day on the water is always better than a day chained to a desk.

We begin with pages of vessel terminology. Throughout the week, we will spend a lot of time on fire classification, fire safety, fire prevention and fire extinguishment; learn to tie three basic knots; and generally get introduced to the life of the sailor through stories and examples.

Now and then, the other two instructors pipe up with comments or get up to do their own scenes. The echoey hiring hall makes it a challenge to hear. This union hall, at 450 Harrison, is home to several unions. People in between deep-sea jobs come here to hang out with their friends and wait for deep-sea jobs to be posted. They resent being asked to pipe down.

We watch the 10:15 job call. The “casual” IBU members, those without steady jobs, come in to “bid” for the jobs called in by the companies around the bay that hire union crews. A casual deckhand substitutes for the regular crew member, who is out for one of various reasons. Sick, on vacation or out on injury are the most common.

You start in the union as a D Card, an apprentice at the bottom of the shipping list. Above you are the A, B and C shipping cards. The hours you work build up into “deck time.”

With seven hundred and twenty hours of deck time, you join the union as a full book member and get your C Card. As you build up your deck time, you move up the shipping list. High shipping cards can work fairly steady through the winter months when jobs are scarcer.

Lou gets her “A” Card

After lunch break, the class goes down to the docks. We prowl around boats that are not in service. We study vessel layout, draw locations of fire safety equipment and rescue gear. We work with the m.o.b. (man overboard) equipment and practice tying up the lines. We go below to explore the engine room: two engines — just one of them is as big as my first car; two generators; steering gear; various valves, pumps, batteries and electrical panels.

We get further introduction to the sea life and hear more sailor stories. I am entranced by all of it.

Deck-handing is not for everyone. On Tuesday our group is 11. People have begun to self-deselect. The class moves to the library, a smaller room. It is much easier to hear. On Wednesday only 8 show.

Thursday, the last day, is the half day. We students are now seven: two white females, and five males: one Asian, one African-American, two whites and one Latino. We take the written test, prove we can tie our knots. Everybody passes.

We join the line at the 9 am registration session. We pay our first dues and get our D Cards. Each card is numbered. A date stamp shows when dues were paid. We can now bid for jobs at the daily job call.

Spring is a good time to join the union. ‘The Season’ is just starting. The Season runs roughly May through October. Ferry runs are added to handle the summer tourists coming to the Bay Area, and boats are chartered for summer parties.

After registration, there is one more class section. Labor union history. Mostly this is a video. The people deeply involved with unions speak of the importance of unions for working people. These rights are slowly being eroded, but just remember: unions brought us the eight-hour work day, two-day weekends, sick pay, holiday pay and more. (*see link below)

As I started this new life, I thought, if work is slow or I don’t like it, I can always go back to drafting and design work. But I never did. No fresh air, sitting all day at a computer, I couldn’t face it anymore. Working outside, rain or shine, suits me fine.

And every day, the San Francisco Bay is beautiful. On a day when my lead deckhand hates me and is making life miserable, I only have to stand outside on the deck and look around. The petty humors of humans recede in the sweep of time and beauty that is the bay.

That first year I made $13,000 and went through my savings. Unless I am on a job, I go to the 1015 job call five days a week. In the first six months, I work enough to get my C Card. Only a few members have done it faster. I am inordinately proud of this. And my new cell phone? Always on, waiting for last-minute calls to work.

On my very first job, my lead deckhand, who worked in a bank previous to decking, told me something his uncle, also a deckhand, had said: Sooner or later, all the crazies show up down at the wharf.

“Fabulous,” I thought, as I wiped off handrails and benches wet with dew. “Finally, someplace to fit in.”

*Working rights that unions fought for but which are slowly being eroded in the past decades for more and more people: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/5/15/1092027/-Thanks-a-Union-36-Ways-Unions-Have-Improved-Your-Life