Chapter X: A Morgan Line; A New Orleans
Since I had sailed away, my mother had moved downtown to the waterfront. Things at home had changed. Brother Buck was working as a truck driver. At that time the driver examination was given orally, and he had no difficulties. He was saving to get married, so he became tight-fisted with his dough. Brother John had a hard time trying to bum cigarette money from him, a reversal of fortunes that caused John to resent his brother. It got so the two would slug it out whenever they got enough drink in them to forget they were brothers.
John had come home from the West flat broke. He had amassed a small fortune stringing up telephone poles across Wyoming and Oklahoma and, after that, drilling for oil. However, he had squandered and gambled away his loot long since and was forced to return to the poverty he had fought so hard to leave behind. His personality had changed drastically. Perhaps the keen competition he met in his life away from home had transformed him into the dour, nasty barroom brawler he had become, a guy who would hit you with little provocation. Out of work at the moment, he spent his nights at the local speakeasy, besotting himself with brew or the bathtub gin notorious in those days. He'd charge home late at night or early in the morning.
One particular cop on the beat in our neighborhood took a dislike to John. They ran into each other one day. Words were said. It came almost to a fight. A few weeks later they met again. This time they swung at each other. When the fight was broken up, John seemed to have bested the cop--who, incidentally, was considered a sweetheart by nobody in the neighborhood. From then on, the cop kept his distance, but bided his time. At three one morning John left a speakeasy, loaded to the gills and barely able to find his way home. The streets were deserted. As he came to within a few feet of the tenement door, he saw two cops standing nearby. One of them was the one with whom he had the beef. John smelled trouble. He couldn't have run even if he thought of it; and he was too drunk to yell. Instead he went right to both cops, hands raised for battle. They punched, clubbed and kicked him within an inch of his life.
Inside, my mother, always with an ear cocked for trouble, heard a strange noise. It sounded like a club being bounced off a head, or perhaps a head banging on pavement. She flew to a window and raised it. Hearing the sound of the window opening, the cops hightailed it from the scene, leaving John stretched out on the sidewalk, bloody and unconscious. Buck and I, aroused from sleep, went down and hauled John upstairs. Not an area on his face was without injury. He was bleeding profusely from at least six wounds in his skull. "Call an ambulance," demanded my mother.
Down at the corner, I contacted Bellevue Hospital. "You say you need an ambulance?" queried the hospital operator.
"Yes, right away. And a doctor, too."
"Is the ambulance for you?"
"No, it's for my brother. He's bleeding bad."
"And what happened to your brother?"
"He was beaten up."
"Beaten up? By whom?"
"I think by two policemen."
"Oh? Two policemen, you say?"
"Yes. Please hurry with the ambulance." I gave the operator my name and address and raced home. My mother was sponging John's head and face with towels and basins of water. The place looked like an army hospital operating room behind front lines. Two hours later my mother sent me back to the phone to find out what had happened to the ambulance. When the operator answered, she started with the questions. I broke in.
"I've answered all those questions before. Where the hell is the ambulance?"
"We're working on that, sir," was her reply.
Back at the house, John was still unconscious. His lips were puffed and his nose was clogged with coagulated blood. Although the bleeding had slowed, he was in pain, moaning fearfully as he tried to breathe. By noon, some nine hours after we had dragged him upstairs, he was resting. All bleeding had stopped. We had removed most of his clothes. Black and blue marks from the clubbing he had taken spotted his body all along its length. His groans and moans had ceased; he was snoring now. The ambulance, of course, never came. I understood that I shouldn't have mentioned the cops.
Within ten days John's aches and pains were gone. His wounds healed under my mother's good care. But bitterness, hostility and deep hatred were brewing inside him. He talked to Buck about seeking revenge. God only knows what might have happened to that cop; however, in the end justice triumphed independently of my brother. This cop had been involved in other nefarious activities. Things started closing in on him. Finally a small announcement appeared in the papers. He had been found dead, a bullet through his head. Suicide, the news story suggested. No one ever knew the real story; no one really cared. The bastard was dead. No further harm could come from him. John was happy--yet disappointed.
The mate on the Lake Gaither had been right. The money seeped through my fingers. I had been taking in two shows a day, stopping at every hotdog stand or ice cream parlor along the way. John was bumming me left and right. Finally I was down to loose change in my pockets. I started my waterfront tours, moving from shipping master to shipping master. There were jobs, but the favorites were getting them.
The crimps were spread out. It took all day, without rest, to go from one of them to the next, finding a few of them on the lower West Side of New York, more down on South Street, two or three along the East Side, then on to Brooklyn and to one in Staten Island. Finally I wound up at the American Export Line in Jersey City.
The Morgan Line on the West Side offered the most promise for a job. So many of their ships ran from Boston to the Gulf ports that at least one was sure to arrive in New York each day. At times two would come in; there were even days when five would be tied up at the docks, loading cargo. Their shipping office was located on a pier. Usually 50 or more men would be waiting in the office for a friendly nod or wink that meant one or more of them would have a job. Three telephone booths stood against the wall, all in constant use when a ship was in.
While waiting for that nod or wink I would sneak into a booth, stuff the return coin slot with toilet paper, then sit down and await action. Cursing, then a banging of the receiver on the hook would soon resound. Another engineer or mate would storm out of the booth, slamming the door. That was my signal to return to the booth and pretend I was making a call while I worked the toilet paper stuffing back down. One day I pocketed $1.50. That took care of my immediate needs. The first few days around the office got me nowhere job-wise. I had to figure out a plan of action. I decided to make a complete nuisance of myself. So, every two hours, I'd walk into the crimp's private office unannounced and ask if there were any job openings. I'd be told to stay out in the waiting room. Two more hours and there I'd be again. When I saw the shipping master going home, I followed him a few feet with the same question: "When you gonna give me a job?"
This went on for a week. Several times I noticed the crimp trying to avoid me on his way out to lunch, but I caught up with him at the side door. Finally I was given the nod: an ordinary seaman's job on the El Lago.
This ship was quite different from the Lake Gaither. For one thing, it had no wooden hatch covers. Instead, there was one huge steel lid that had to be lifted at one end and stood straight up when cargo was being worked. Furthermore, this ship had a bow like a destroyer's--sharp, made for speed. Finally, everyone in the engine room except the engineers was black. On deck all hands were white; in the steward's department, all were black.
We pulled out of New York bound for New Orleans, a part of the country I had not yet seen. Every steamship line had some distinguishing feature. The Morgan Line, owned by the Southern Pacific Railway, was known for two things. The first was its food. "Morgan Line strawberries," as the men called the prunes that were served for breakfast, dinner and supper, were plentiful, but no one on their freighters ever saw an egg. Their staples were cheap cuts of meat, boiled potatoes, grits and fish. Their meals were interchangeable: breakfast could easily have been dinner or supper. A good set of teeth and a strong stomach constituted an advantage. Their second characteristic was the type of boatswains they were known for: real "super-dupers" famous for the amount of work they could get out of men.
Two days from the Mississippi River we ran smack into a well-developed hurricane. The captain decided to make for the pilot station. But as we approached the pilot boat, rocking from side to side and bobbing up and down, we could see that it would be impossible to launch a dory and row the pilot to our ship. We were waved off. "Go seaward until the hurricane blows over," came the faint, wind-tossed cry. Wind-battered, the El Lago took a nosedive into the mountainous waves, then rolled over almost onto her side. As she pitched, her propeller rose out of the water, then the bow came up out of the sea. Propeller still churning, the bow crashed back down at the other end, sending shudders from stem to stern. It was practically impossible to get around on deck. Working forward of the midship housing was ruled out because the winds and heavy seas crashing over the bow made passage impossible, despite life lines strung up everywhere. These winds were so strong that if you left your coat unbuttoned it would be ripped off your back. But that company-loving, faithful, loyal bastard of a boatswain saw to it that all the sailors kept right on working.
By morning I could not eat breakfast. I had had no sleep, having tied myself into my bunk for fear of being thrown out by violent pitching and rolling of the ship. I felt sicker by the minute. The mere smell of salty sea spray that permeated the entire ship was enough to make me dash for the toilet. Going to work that morning seemed a fate worse than death. The only place that felt right was my bunk. But that so-and-so boatswain had other ideas for me. "Get yourself a bucket and some rags and scrub the emergency steering wheel cover," he ordered as I faced him with my semi-blue countenance. I could have sworn that there was glee in his eyes when he saw how sick I was. I was sure I was preparing to meet my Maker.
I dug up some rags and a bucket and filled the bucket with fresh water. Inching around the after-housing, I saw a huge wooden wheel enclosed in tight-fitting canvas. Just then a big wave broke alongside, sending tons of water crashing over the deck. I dropped the bucket and rags, grabbing the first part of the steering wheel I could reach. Water washed up to my knees. The ship took a nosedive, leaving the deck clear again. Where was my bucket with the rags? The sea had washed them halfway down the deck. To retrieve them, I had to study the situation a moment and try to anticipate the ship's next roll. I let a few rolls and dips pass. Then, stomach in mouth, I made a dash of 50 feet, grabbed the bucket and scooted back. I was just in time to wrap my arms around the steering apparatus, clutching the empty bucket between my legs. Another wave washed over the deck.
An hour later the boatswain came by to check my work. He found me crouched in a small recess behind the steering wheel. I was soaked to the skin, so seasick I could hardly hold my head up. "Get off your ass!" he shouted. I looked at him forlornly, then struggled up. "I want this job finished before noon," he declared as he walked away.
I looked upward. The gray sky was filled with turbulent clouds. Holding tightly to the steering wheel, I prayed in the direction of those lowering mists: "If there really is a God up there, I demand at this very moment that You sink this ship and put us all out of our misery, especially the rotten boatswain." The ship continued its careening, the winds kept right on blowing--and the clouds stayed put. In fact, it was only after four more days and nights that we doggedly worked our way back to the mouth of the Mississippi. Then the strength of the hurricane abated. We tied up alongside the dock just a block from Canal Street, the main drag of New Orleans. My stomach began settling.
I went off for a walk, again in a new place. I walked from the foot of Canal Street, where the paddle-wheeling Mississippi steamboat was docked, straight up. After two hours in one direction I turned and was heading back toward the waterfront. I found myself on a street called Conti, the hub of the city's red light district. Every house on some six blocks of Conti Street was a whorehouse. Called "The French Quarter," the area was made up of small hotels, rooming houses, bars, small restaurants and dance halls. At night the street was alive with activity. Whores sat at open windows, soliciting trade from the passerby. Cops stood on corners or slowly walked their beats. Their main function, of course, was to protect the whores from violence from customers or other whores. If some guy was staggering drunkenly around the area making boisterous remarks, the cops quietly and quickly removed him from the neighborhood.
My clothes were sticking to my sweaty body from the long walk in the southern heat. I was tired and thirsty. I went into the first bar I came to. I wanted to sit in some shade and have a cool drink. The bar was empty except for a woman bartender. I ordered an orange soda with lots of ice. I sat back and relaxed, enjoying my drink. The woman looked me over for a while. Finally she moved closer to where I was sitting. "How about a nice hot woman to go with that cold drink, honey?" she suggested.
I gulped and got caught with a straw dangling from my lips as I lowered the glass. "Huh?" I answered blankly. She leaned on the bar in front of me, her breasts resting on the bar. "How about coming upstairs with me, heh?" I made a loud sucking noise as I drew up the last of the soda water. Then I worked the straw around in the ice, biding my time before replying. I had heard guys on board ship say that a guy should know what the price was before jaunting off with a trollop and, no matter what she asked, he should always make her back down on the price. That, they claimed, would make her keep the price within a sailor's reach. After this pause that felt like an hour, I said as matter-of-factly as I could, as though I were an experienced man, "How much?"
She smiled. "Three dollars for a short time."
"I ain't got three dollars," I told her.
"How much you-all got then, honey?"
"One dollar," I said.
"Is that all you got? A dollar? What you-all expect to get for a little ole dollar?" I didn't answer. I tried to suck the ice water up from the bottom of my glass. "Well, wait one little ole minute," she told me as she walked toward the door a few feet to the rear. "Lila Lee!" she shouted toward the door.
"Yeah, what is it?" came from the other side.
"There's a man here who wants to take me upstairs, but he only has a dollar. What do you want me to do?"
A pause. Then the voice floated out from the other side. "It's okay, honey. Take him upstairs. But remember: no `round the world stuff. Y'all hear me now?"
"Yes, Lila Lee," the bartender replied.
The room upstairs contained a bed, a small dresser, a wash bowl and a chamber pot. A curtained window overlooked a small courtyard. I stood in the center of the room like a bewildered sheep. She closed the door behind her and snapped a latch. She kicked off her shoes. I sat down on the edge of the bed and started to unlace my shoes. I felt trapped. "Oh, no you don't," she shrilled. "You heard what Lila Lee said. None of that `round the world stuff. Just keep those shoes on, honey."
I stopped fiddling with my shoes. I started unbuttoning my shirt. "Now stop all that," she ordered harshly. "You wanna get me in trouble?" I stopped unbuttoning my shirt. She pulled up her dress, slipped down her pants and worked her feet out of them. Then she lay down on the bed and pulled her dress up to her chest. "Well? C'mon now," she urged, holding the hem of her dress in both hands at her chest. "Whatcha all expect for a dollar, Clara Bow?"
I stepped out into the bright New Orleans sunshine, feeling a little bit weak. Little droplets trickled down my leg. I imagined that everyone I passed could tell that I had just been seduced. Slowly I returned to my ship. In the best tradition of the sea, I had done my part to keep the price down. That seemed important. But what the hell had she meant by "`round the world"? Well, I was still young--just 14, to be exact. I'd have plenty of time to find out.
The trip home was uneventful. We had nice sunny weather all the way. The boatswain got into a beef with the chief mate one day when both of them were boozing it up ashore. The argument ended with the mate telling the boatswain he was fired the minute the ship hit New York. After that, the boatswain became a sweet, lovable prince. Work was kept to a minimum. Whenever he showed up he was always ready to swap yarns. How simple it was, evidently, to change a loud-mouthed Simon Legree into a halfway decent person: just fire the bastard. With his security wiped out, he was cut down to the same size as the rest of us.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One