Chapter XI: From Stowaway to Jailbird
I was on the beach again in New York, this time with less pay. I visited some of the old haunts, hoping to run into friends. The offices of most of the shipping crimps were crowded. In a few it was impossible to even get a foot in the doorway let alone an interview. President Coolidge was ending his term in office. A new president named Herbert Hoover was taking over. Some industries were doing okay, but the maritime industry was slacking off. Ships were laying off men, throwing them on the beach.
Now just about everywhere I went in New York City I would find someone mounting a soapbox. Uneasiness was in the air, but at the moment I was unable to pinpoint it. Within a few weeks my money had disappeared. I made a few trips to some of the crimps; it was hopeless. I went over to Brooklyn to visit "The Greek," who had the manning contract with most of the oil tankers. He ran a rooming house-whorehouse-clothing store, speakeasy and loan-shark racket. I met him leaving his office. "Hey, Parkas, how about a job?"
He looked at me and spit on the ground. "Why should I give you a job?" he wondered.
"Because I need one," I reasoned.
"Why should I give you a job before I take care of my own men? You don't eat in my restaurant, you don't sleep in my boarding house, you don't buy your clothes in my store, you don't drink my booze. Why, you don't even screw my girls. Now, tell me why I should give you a job?" I had no answer for that. I just looked at him glumly. He pushed a cigar into his mouth, bit off the tip and spit it at my feet. then he lit the thing. "You help me, I'll help you. See me after you spend a little time at my places." Away he walked.
If there's anything worse than being broke, it's being broke in New York City and living with a mother who keeps repeating that Patrick down the street loves his mother more than I do, because he got a job the other day. This message I was getting from the time I rose in the morning until I pulled the covers up over my head at night. Clearly, the less I stayed around the house, the less abuse I would have to listen to.
So, there I was in the Automat on West 42nd Street, sipping hot chocolate, when who should blow in but "West Coast Ed." I had met this guy a few years back. Ed Singer had done a little seagoing in his time, and some harvesting in Kansas wheat fields, but most of all he had done a lot of railroading--that is, riding freight trains. In fact, his nickname referred to the many trips he had made by boxcar to the West Coast. He knew and could reel off all the division and subdivision points in the far-flung railroad system of America. For the past three months he'd been here in New York, trying to ship out. Like me, he now felt the effort was futile.
"Two months ago, I was down in Tampa," he confided. "There were about three tankers that needed men. The weather down there is always warm and enjoyable. But the best thing is the Seamen's Institute there, which puts you up for at least two weeks--sometimes three, with two meals a day. You can't beat that with a stick." We finished our chocolate. "Tell you what," he started again, "if I don't make a ship by Friday, I'm gonna take off Saturday for Florida. Wanna come along?"
"Okay, then. Maybe. Maybe I'll see you Friday at the Port Mission."
The next few days proved as disappointing as the ones before: no jobs, more seamen hitting the beach, more ships laying up. The weather kept getting colder and nastier. Tampa began to look damn good. So when Friday rolled around, I was at the Port Mission, trying to keep warm while waiting for West Coast Ed. True to his word, he came marching up the stairs and saw me. "Coming along, then?"
"Yes, why not? When do we leave?"
He opened a newspaper to the shipping page. "Lessee. The Iroquois sails tomorrow for Jacksonville . . . but here's the Algonquin going to the same place on Monday. Maybe we should try the Iroquois first. We get dumped off her, we can always hit the Algonquin.
The Iroquois was a sleek passenger ship that sailed to warm, sunny Florida, a good two-and-a-half day run from New York. Of the Iroquois's two smokestacks, one was a dummy. Its only function was to enhance the ship's appearance. Its interior served as a storeroom for odds and ends.
We went aboard three hours before any passengers arrived, before it became hectic at the gangways. We pretended to be longshoremen going on board to work. No one noticed us. Once aboard we had to find a suitable hiding place. We began studying one spot; we'd okay it, then, a few minutes later, we'd realize it wasn't good enough. Off we'd go, seeking another. Most places that seemed likely also seemed like places that would be searched before departure. Soon passengers were boarding. We had to disappear quickly. Ed glanced at the dummy stack. It had enough junk in it to convince him that it was a good hideaway. "You go find another spot," he advised. "No sense both of us getting caught if they discover this one."
I continued searching nervously. More and more faces bobbed past me. Departure time was drawing closer. I scanned the top deck, but saw nothing that offered shelter. One more small stairway remained and I'd be at the wheelhouse. I started to head back the way I'd come when I noticed a big box on deck. I opened it. Inside were a small cannon and a lot of line; it was the Lyle Gun, which is used for lifesaving missions. Here was a space just large enough for me if I lay atop the line with my knees pulled up. I got in, hoping no one would pull the lid back up. Inside, motionless, I started to get cold. Soon I imagined I heard voices and whistles. Then I dozed off into a fitful sleep.
Pitching, rolling, engine vibrations and the wind howling around the box awakened me on that chilly December afternoon. I pushed up the lid. My god, it was dark out there! I climbed out, glancing quickly around me. We were out in the open sea, past the point of return. I was safe from being sent ashore. For better or for worse, I was on my way to Florida . . . but that was a good thousand miles away. Right now I was freezing on a windswept deck, watching this French lady, the Statue of Liberty, blend into the darkness and into the ever more distant, unhappy past.
Above me bulked the bridge. Here was the point of authority, the officers' mountain peak, the captain's sanctuary. I would report to the first officer I met, give myself up. In the best tradition of the sea, the officer would see to it that I had a warm, secure shelter and was properly fed. I climbed the few steps to the bridge. The icy wind grew stronger with each step. I cursed loudly against the bitter cold. I couldn't see an officer out on the wing of the bridge. They were all enjoying the warmth of the wheelhouse. Only a fool would expose himself to this weather, I told myself.
As I opened the wheelhouse door, two officers and a quartermaster sat facing me. I braced myself against the door to prevent the wind from slamming it shut. "I wish to report myself as a stowaway, sir," I addressed all three. The mate regarded me with utter disgust. The quartermaster at the wheel didn't deign to look up from his compass. The junior mate just stared into space.
"Look, fellow," the mate finally intoned wearily. "You're about the fifth stowaway that's reported to this bridge in the last half hour. I suggest you go see the old man. Report to him."
I turned and headed for the crew's quarters, where I knew I'd feel more at home. I got myself a cup of hot coffee from the messroom. I wondered what happened to my partner; had he been discovered? I didn't see him around. The coffee made me feel better. Sitting right next to the engine room was cozy, too. Well, I had to see the captain. I climbed the steps from deck to deck until I came to his door. A knock brought his orderly. "I wish to report to the captain that I am a stowaway," I droned to the orderly, who started to mumble something.
At that instant a voice from another room asked, "What is it, Davis?"
"There's another stowaway here, sir. Wants to report."
The captain came charging into the drawing room. "Who wants to report what?" he shouted. He looked at me as I stood there with my cap in my hand, clad in a dirty sweater missing most of its buttons. "Who," he inquired, "are you, sir?"
"I'm a stowaway, sir," I replied rather proudly in what I thought was the tradition of seagoing stowaways. I waited, attentive and poised, for the captain to recognize another mariner in distress and offer me the comforts due me.
"Oh, you're a stowaway, are you?" he yelled. I took another quick look at this captain. He was small, about 65 years old, with a short crop of white hair on his small head. Obviously he was a man who was easily excited. My eyes traveled down to his patent leather shoes, up to tuxedo pants, suspenders and a white starched shirt which he had been buttoning when I knocked at his door.
"Yes, sir," I tossed back at him smartly.
He shook his fist at me. "I'll give you all the stowing away you're looking for by the time I've finished with you! You're the eighth stowaway so far."
"Tenth, sir," Davis amended.
"Ah, yes, tenth! What the hell is happening to this ship? Is there a sign on it somewhere stating that it's reserved for stowaways? Is there?"
"I don't think so, sir. See, I'm a seaman looking for work."
"Work, is it? Boy, I'm going to see that you get all the work you can handle! When I'm finished with you and all those other goddamn stowaways, one thing is for sure, you'll never again stow away on my ship! Now get off this deck. Go on, go below--and stay out of the passengers' sight. When we get to port, I'm turning the whole lot of you over to the police. Go on, I said; get away from here before you dirty the passageway."
"The old bastard!" I consoled myself as I made for the crew area. What a wrecker of tradition! What a captain! Well, I must have knocked at his door at the wrong time. I'd caught him dressing for dinner. On these passenger ships the officers dressed in tuxedos and sat at the passengers' tables. Big deal! They supplied salty tales which gave the passengers something to talk about when they got back ashore. Occasionally, you can bet, they were enticed to a stateroom by some cute hot passenger. That was prohibited, of course, but among the upper class anything can be overlooked. Captains are agents of The Company and must always be ready to act in its best interest. I suppose this captain was shaken up by the fact that his ship carried so many stowaways; that wouldn't look good in the top office. They were in business to haul money-paying passengers, not freeloaders who'd eat up all the food they could lay hands on.
I followed the captain's orders; I stayed out of the way of passengers and close to crew quarters. I found several burlap bags and piled them up close to the nice warm boiler room door. In the messroom, a large group of men sat around chatting. Most of them were my fellow stowaways. Ed turned up, too. Always alert, always intent on keeping one foot ahead of disaster, he knew how to take advantage of the situation. He'd been the second stowaway to appear before the captain, who had told him to go hang around the engine room entrance. Ed knew that if he performed any work on the ship it would be considered paying his passage, and he couldn't be arrested for stowing away. He'd gone directly to the engine room. There he found the engineer on watch and told him the captain had sent him down to work. The engineer picked up the phone. "Captain? This is Garber, engineer. Did you send a stowaway down to me to work?" Ed could hear a squawking coming out of the earpiece and the engineer half turned his head, keeping his beady eyes unwinkingly on him. There was a click. The engineer hadn't gotten another word out of his mouth. "All right," he told Ed wearily. "Get busy and earn your passage."
He put Ed to work polishing the brass around the engine room. Ed was overjoyed because, once more, he'd foiled those who hoped to send him to the slammer. Ed said that when the captain thought it over, he made the engineer appear before him, admonished him and even threatened to fire him.
One stowaway was a Negro. He'd been working in New York for the past year. He had saved up a hundred dollars, a sizable chunk of dough for those days. He was heading home to visit his wife and children in Florida and naturally didn't want to spend any of it on transportation. In a restaurant adjacent to the pier, he talked to a steward from the Iroquois. This man was also a Negro, like all the unlicensed members in the steward department. He had heard that the stowaway wanted to exchange $15 for a white steward's jacket. That was as good as a pass to get on or off the ship. Once the stowaway had come on board in this manner, word was passed that he had a few dollars. Enticed into a crooked card game by the same man who had rented him a jacket, he ultimately lost every penny. When the game ended, someone informed the officers that he was a stowaway and he was sent off to loll with the rest of the freeloaders.
Another two of the stowaways were young kids about 18 years old. Both dressed well and looked as neat as any of the passengers. They were going to work the Florida golf links as caddies. They walked aboard and mingled with the passengers. However, after most of the passengers had retired to their staterooms, these two guys were left drifting. That is how they attracted the suspicious eye of a steward, who turned them in.
I was getting ready to spread my potato sacks out on deck and go to sleep when the engineer approached me. As officers went in those days, he was a halfway decent guy. Maybe he felt sorry for me or liked me. "The whole ship is talking about the stowaways," he informed me. "That's all the passengers can talk about. A couple at my table are all excited about coming down here and meeting some. They look pretty well- loaded. What if I brought them down here and introduced them to you? Maybe you could pick up a few bucks. Any objections?"
"No," I told him. "Let `em all come down here. Who cares?"
Whatever dream I was having at two in the morning, stretched out there on the deck, was rudely interrupted. Someone shook my shoulder. From my tired eyes I looked up into the engineer's face. He was dressed in his tuxedo, looking like a penguin. Close behind him stood two passengers, a man and a woman. The woman looked down at me with parted lips, eyes wide. She held onto the man next to her. He studied me, a half-smile on his apprehensive face. The engineer, tilting his head slightly, gave me a quick wink. "These passengers wanted to see a stowaway."
I tried to dredge up a smile for them, but who can smile at two in the morning after having been awakened? They didn't put out their hands, so neither did I. They just stood there awkwardly. The man broke the silence. "And where are you going?" he wanted to know. The woman inched closer to his side. "To Tampa, or maybe St. Petersburg, to see if I can get a tanker and go to work."
"How does it feel to be a stowaway?" It was her turn to question me. I thought her eyes were going to bulge right out of their sockets. At that moment, I swear I was more afraid of her than she was of me. I had no idea whether she was going to scream or attack me. I hemmed and hawed for a few seconds, working up my act. Then I laid it on heavy. I told them how all my plans were being destroyed because the captain was so mean and nasty. He was going to send us to prison when we docked. I ended with how broke I was and how desperately I needed any kind of financial assistance.
Still grinning, his eyes never leaving my face, the man reached down into his pants' pockets, all the time making small talk about how lucky I was that I didn't have to pay to travel. "Why," he exclaimed, "I have to put out a bundle for myself and the little woman here." He handed me what he had in his fist. "Well, we have to go now," he explained. I thanked him and watched them disappear through the door to the passenger deck. I opened my fist, expecting to count at least two or three dollars in change. All that was there was a handful of pennies, 25 in all. The bastard! The cheap rotten bastard!
After a moment or two I cooled down. Aw, hell; that's what came from setting my expectations too high. I even considered the brighter side of the incident. I was twenty-five cents richer than I had been ten minutes earlier, and that was a lot of money--at least in comparison to some poor sonofabitch who didn't have that much.
A few hours before the ship reached Florida, the mate rounded up all the stowaways except for my friend West Coast Ed. We were locked in the mail room, where we could feel the engines vibrating as the Iroquois moved closer to the Jacksonville docks. Not long after, when all passengers had disembarked, the police arrived. We were handcuffed, and leg-irons were locked onto us, a chain running form leg-irons to handcuffs. If the police do this for a guy merely stowing away, I wondered, what the hell must happen if he's being held for murder?
The next day we appeared before a judge. Since there was no specific charge for stowing away, we were charged with vagrancy. "And what brings you to Florida?" asked the judge, having found out that we had all come from New York. We stood there, mute. "Well? Can't any of you speak?"
"To find work, sir." I found my tongue.
"Work?" snorted the judge. "Don't you realize that we have a lot of our own people out of work? Does it make sense that we should favor you people for jobs over our own unemployed?" Again we all stood silent. "You, Gibson," said the judge to the Negro stowaway, "seem to be the only Florida native in this group. You have any money?"
"In that case," declared the judge, "I will have to fine you $25 or sentence you to 30 days at the county prison. Unless, of course you have someone to sponsor you and pay your fine." He glanced over the people in court. "Is there someone who wants to sponsor this man?"
A hand was raised. A short, thin, middle-aged man stepped forward. "My name is Owens, sir. I run the gas station down on Beaver Street. I'll sponsor this man."
"This man wants to sponsor you," the judge told Gibson. "Is that all right with you? If you agree, it means you'll have to work for him for 30 days. You'll live at home with your family, but you'll be on your honor to work faithfully for 30 days. If there's any complaint of any kind about your work, you'll be sent to the county prison. Now, if agree to all this, you and Mr. Owens can get together and work out your schedule." Gibson agreed. He went to Owens and both of them left. Well, here was a neat racket!
Now the judge centered his attention on the rest of us. "Anyone here with any money that can pay a fine, before I sentence you to prison?" he asked.
The two would-be caddies raised their hands. "I have ten dollars," said one. "I have five dollars," added the other.
"Good," the judge said. "I fine you ten dollars or thirty days in jail. And you, I fine you five dollars or thirty days in jail." The two went over to the clerk and paid the fines. "The rest of you are sentenced to 30 days in the county prison."
"The Jacksonville Blue Jays," the prison was called. Later I remembered it when German concentration camps were described. It had three main buildings, all stone. One housed Negro prisoners, the second housed white prisoners and the third was for administrators. In my cell were packed 50 men; all slept on canvas bunks five high. Naturally, whoever came last got the top bunks. The cell had windows covered by steel bars with no glass. The sanitary arrangements were primitive. At one end of the cell water flowed from a pipe. Here is where one drank and washed. The water ran out of the cell at the other end of the wall, and that was the toilet. The water itself must have run through underground sulfur pits. It tasted horrible and stank. Try mixing sulfur water with urine and let the heat hit that; that will give you an idea of how that cell stank day and night.
Eating conditions were just as elementary. Adjoining the cell block was the dining room. It boasted several long, solid wood tables about a foot wide. Every two feet or so there was a depression in the table itself which served as a bowl. Into this your vittles were poured. Breakfast was beans and grits; lunch was grits and beans; supper was beans and grits again. That went on for six out of seven days. For whatever reason, on Fridays we were served fish, fried stiff as an ear of corn. So happy were the prisoners to have a change in menu that they stuffed fish into their blouses and smuggled it into the cell block. To the stinking sulfur water and urine-soaked wall smell was added the stench of greasy fish.
The Blue Jays was no rest camp. After breakfast the guards lined us up outside the mess hall and marched us off to work. The are where we stopped was a proposed site for an airfield. Our job was to dig all the sand and dirt from around and beneath trees. Then we had to chop the trees down in sections so they would burn easily. There was no end of trees. The area was dense with small sturdy oaks. The guards gave us orders, then stood off and watched us work. While the Blue Jays was a chain gang, none of the men in my unit wore chains. These were used only on men doing six months or more. They were considered the most likely to haul ass the first chance they got.
Once while I was there, an argument arose between one of the guards and a prisoner. This wound up with the prisoner getting 24 hours in the "sweatbox." This box was about 50 feet from the cell block, where everyone could see it from the glassless, barred windows. A man inside this box could not stand up, bend down, sit or squat. Those 24 hours subjected him to constant pain. Sleep was impossible. The night chill merely added one more misery. When a man goes into the sweatbox the other prisoners watch. Usually the man going in needs no persuasion. He walks to the box; his body is fitted to its curves, and the door is slammed shut. When he comes out, the prisoners again watch. The guard opens the box door. Now the prisoner falls out like a sack of potatoes. He's left on the ground for a few minutes. Then a few prisoners get him on his feet and walk him to his cell block. In very few cases did such a prisoner ever repeat an offense against a guard.
One thing can be said about living in close quarters: when anyone tells a story, everyone is bound to hear it. Many of the guys in my cell block were guys on the road. They were easy victims, picked up by local sheriffs at will and given the usual 30 or 60 days for vag. Whenever a road-building project was under way, roundup of vagrants was widespread. Another typical time for the dragnet was during harvest time on state or county farms. The twice-burned veteran and road-wise old timer could both tell you what states and areas to steer clear of and when. In this part of the country, the airport was number one on the county's list. Most of the men in my cell block were victims of that round up. They came from all over the country, but most of them were from the West, especially California and Oregon. To me, California meant "the West." It had a magic ring to it. The mere sound of names like Black Bart, Pony Express, Death Valley, Golden Gate, and, above all, San Francisco and the Barbary Coast was music to my ears. Every night, new stories went around of the West and all the strange country that stretched out beyond the state of Florida.
These men were not your traditional hoboes with "bindle" on back, walking the tracks from town to town. They were farmers, cowboys, steel workers, teamsters and just about any other laborer imaginable. They were following up on rumors of jobs, any kind of jobs. While pursuing that goal they had to steer clear of every sheriff or deputy who was looking for convict labor. It was no time for a hobo to do any fuzzy thinking. He had to keep his eyes open and his head revolving to outwit the law.
If any of us asked an old timer about some particular spot, he would patiently devote as long as needed to brief us. "Watch out for Baseball Bat Gannon this side of El Paso," one of them would warn. Gannon was a railroad detective who specialized in beating up riders with a baseball bat. Many a prayer was said for his demise, but the bastard lived to a ripe old age. "If you make it to Tucson, the jungle is one mile east of the city. The stew pot is always on the fire, but you better bring along something to put into it," another would advise.
I felt pretty comfortable among my cell mates by the time Liberation Day arrived. One of the more concerned officers warned me, "Better walk back to Jacksonville instead of trying to hitch. You take a chance that way of being picked up by the law and you'll wind up back here."
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One