Sailors

Working on boats, you hear the best stories.

I have been working on the San Francisco Bay ferries for over 20 years. One of the perks of working the ferries is the ever-changing beauty of the view. Another is the stories. Sailors have a great stockpile of stories. Short or long, chances are you will be told a good story at some juncture of the day. There is a wide range of subjects: accidents, vessel breakdown, feuding crew-mates (we all have those stories), or humorous incidents. And sometimes, swearing.

Seagulls flying behind the ferry, San Francisco waterfront in the background.

I first discovered swearing at age 11, in the back of my friend’s family station wagon. Before that, the most ribald language I heard was Mom saying ‘Mercy Maude!’ in that tone of voice that said, “I’m at the end of my rope, and you better stop exasperating me this instant!”

My fancy was not sparked by ‘Mercy Maude.’ However,in the back of that station wagon, the intoxicating nature of prohibited word use was revealed. As we fooled around, my friend said, “Holy Moses.” The words I knew, but together they sounded intentionally naughty. We both glanced forward. No response from her mom. The car rolled on down the road. We proceeded to toss this fun new phrase around. Finally, her mother called back to us, “Enough, girls. I don’t want to hear that anymore.”

Why were two words, words heard in church, not to be uttered together? It was a mystery. Now that it was proscribed, ‘Holy Moses’ became more fun. I was thrilled. In addition, when I tried the phrase out in the hearing of my mother, I got censured immediately. Even better, she couldn’t explain why I shouldn’t say it.

I loved Holy Moses.

“Wow,” I thought, as I repeated the phrase silently to myself, “There must be others, equally fun.”

As I grew older and moved away, I found out I was right. Each new swear word I heard got tucked away for future use. In public, I held the juicy words back. Among my friends, we spiced up our conversations with abandon.

At work one day on the ferry, our crew was finishing up lunch, the Lead Deckhand, who had worked the ferries for forty years, chuckled. We looked at him, waiting.

“Have you heard of that time Carolyn came down to our boat to tell us we had to watch our language?”

Not swear? We all joined in his laughter.

“Yeah,” he continued. “We’re on break. We see Carolyn hustling down here from her office. She come aboard, says hello, and proceeds to tell us that she has gotten complaints, a number of complaints mind you, about our language. Apparently, someone wrote to the company, objecting to the “language” they overheard during a voyage.”

He smiled. None of us say anything. She stands there, looking around at us. When no one says anything, she asks, “What should we do about it?”

One of the guys speaks up. “That’s easy! There’s just one answer.”

She looks at him optimistically. “And what is that?”

With a straight face, he declares, “Stop hiring sailors!”

A Writing Life: Sailing Into the Future

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

Connect the Dots

I got lucky. I took a job at a Marin County architectural firm without realizing it would change my life. Now I needed to commute across the Bay from San Francisco. At first I drove a borrowed Fiero. A few months in, my borrowed car developed an intractable electrical short: the engine quit at random moments, leaving me stuck at the side of the road. The car then needed to sit for a few hours before it would restart. 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 commute track, still by land: the cross-town journey by bus to the transfer point for the Marin County bus to Larkspur.

Some months into this bus routine, I was in my local bike store, looking to buy a bike, mostly for getting around town and riding in nearby Golden Gate Park. A friend of the clerk burst through the door, completely elated. He had taken the ferry to Larkspur, in Marin County, and spent the afternoon exploring the bike trails of the Marin headlands.

My ears perked up. Ferry? Marin County? I promptly looked into it. After a trial run to Larkspur, and finding out how to ride from the ferry terminal to Larkspur, commuting to work by bike and ferry began. It soon became the best part of my day.

Imagine a sparkling morning, out on deck, air fresh from the Pacific, the Bay beautiful in every direction, and the boat going in the reverse commute direction, almost empty. Sometimes I just enjoyed being on the boat crossing the Bay, and seeing its many moods. Other times, I pretended I was 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. I came to really love the ferry, the view, the quiet moments on the water.

Then I got laid off. Ferry rides ceased. I focused on getting a new job. It just so happened that an architect I knew in my neighborhood was starting up an office shortly. Soon I started my new job, working with someone I liked, a two-minute commute to the next block. I was lucky again. But I couldn’t help missing my early morning “Gladiator” bike ride down Market Street to the Ferry Building, blasting through the empty downtown, to my escape on the Bay.

Yet and still, life works out in ways we are powerless to foresee. Some months into this great new 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. I was back scouring the want ads, writing cover letters and sending out resumes. And, 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, 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 when there still 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, my heart 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 continues 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, the jobs available are 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 other 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 most important, Number five: time to write. Looking back now, I realize my work on the ferries provided the background for Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir. From earliest days on the water, my working life contributed colorful ideas and detail to this story on the waterfront.

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 and his pals are the lively focus of their own universe. By the time my life as a deckhand began, I had already written several short stories starring Bunz and Webbs.

Bunz doesn’t think small. Late in 2004 Bunz said, “Bubb, I’m your long-eared Edward G. Robinson, see? Short stories are alright, but listen. Where’s my best-seller? Where’s my movie? 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. Bunzini was getting impatient. In a great moment of forethought, my friend and internet guru had already registered bunzini.com, preserving the name for the 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. Our first try is not perfect and there are plans afoot to redesign the site.)

Now that there was a website, I needed Content. Bunz said, “Star me in new story, Bubb. Make it noir this time.”

Okay!

I figured I would be able to squeeze in time to write a chapter a month for the new website. My decision process: if Charles Dickens could publish a chapter a month, why not me? Haha—I found out why not me, but in I jumped, starting with Chapter One of Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir.

The inspirational doodle.

The drawing at the left is my original inspiration: a little sketch of a donut floating above a cup of coffee. I imagined it was a doodle on a paper napkin from a diner named Murkey’s. Where should Murkey’s be located? On Pier 13 (which exists only in the story). 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? It was fun!

The story developed and plot lines interlaced. Three chapters in, it became quite clear (news flash) 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 took it off line and wrote when I could. Twelve (!) years flew by. My adventures on the ferries got woven in to the story: morning commute runs across the Bay, through fog so thick it obscures the Bay Bridge even 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 old 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 will 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 grew 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 certain stunt. Tunnels under the city? Perfect. I asked what stunt, but he only laughed and wouldn’t tell. I made up my own stunt in the tunnels for Webbs and his friend, Marilyn the Librarian to try.

This same captain also lent me two very useful books. Vanished Waters, by Nancy Olmstead, a local author he knew. This book describes Mission Bay as it once was, and the slow infill of it over the years, so that now it is only a place name. The other book, 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 and up the rivers that empty into 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, Nosey 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!

At work I met someone 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 mariner career, I figured, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to another desk job. Not a chance! I never looked back!

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