Chapter V: Conned by a Whore and a Company
I found myself in a sleazy hotel in the French Quarter after paying the sum of $1.50 for a week's rent. I stowed my gear and headed for one of the restaurants in the area. A t-bone steak dinner cost 40 cents. I figured I had enough money to last two weeks and live comfortably, to boot. Since the area was adjacent to the whorehouse section, perhaps a look around would be in order.
They sat at the windows, their arms resting on the sashes, baking in the hot sunlight and talking to everyone who passed. "Hey, boy," one called out to me. "How about a trip around the world, only a dollar? Money back guaranteed. Hey, boy, you can't go wrong on that, huh? Come on in here and let Leila take you on a big trip."
I figured that perhaps this was the only `round the world trip I was ever going to take. Hell, why not, especially with a money-back guarantee? How could I go wrong? It's fair to say that every kid must get his fingers burned once or twice so he'll learn respect for fire. She demanded the dollar straight off. "Now, see that little ole clothes rack over there?" she pointed to the far end of the room. "You go hang your pants on that hook so they won't get all wrinkled up, then hurry back here."
It was several hours later at a coffeehouse when I discovered that my wallet was no longer weighted down with the small fortune I had earlier. Ten dollars were missing. The adrenaline pounded through my head. I mentally retraced my steps, then focused on the events at the whorehouse. Of course, that's where it had disappeared. Someone on the ship had told me about an experience he'd had once where a small door was rigged at the clothes rack. He had seen a hand reach out from the partition and rifle the pants hanging on the rack. That's exactly what had happened to me. I was furious--above all, at my own stupidity. To hell with it, I thought. I'll go back and demand my ten dollars. Off I stormed. En route I started to cool off. I concluded that the whore had a perfect right to roll me if I was that stupid. Hell, they barely made enough to live on why shouldn't they try for a little extra? Okay, then, I would work out a compromise with her: just give back five dollars, half the bundle.
She must have seen me coming, pulled in the shutters and closed the window. By the time I reached the door, a policeman was standing just a few feet away. I quickly realized that I was pursuing a lost cause. If I tried banging on the door or creating a scene, the cop would protect her interests; I would get stomped on and land in the slammer. Back in the hotel room, licking my wounds, I recounted my diminishing bundle. I was down to ten dollars and some change. The idea of sticking around New Orleans, waiting for another ship, no longer appealed to me. I knew that as soon as the last cent was gone I had to get out of town. Climbing aboard another string of boxcars held no more charm for me.
Two days later I was eating breakfast in a cheap restaurant when this red-headed guy, slightly older than me, sat down next to me. We quickly got into a conversation. He wanted to leave town quickly. He didn't care where he went, just so it was far away from New Orleans. I told him I was going down to one of the Morgan Line ships to try working passage to New York. He might try that, too.
The El Isleo was still discharging the last of her cargo when I climbed aboard, found the mate, and nearly begged him to take us on board to work our passage to New York. "Do you know how many men I already have on board doing just that?" he asked.
"Twelve. There's not enough spare bunks for them, and the steward is complaining about the cost of feeding so many extra hands."
I waited and listened to him talk. The more he talked the bigger my frown grew. "Well," he said finally, "what the hell. If seamen can't stick together and help each other out, then who can? Two more men won't sink the ship. Get your stuff and come aboard and find your own place to flop. We're sailing sometime tomorrow morning."
My new-found friend and I were happy that we had made the deal. I'm sure the mate was happy, too. For a few meals he had obtained the benefit of free labor. He would look good in the eyes of the company executives. This was a common practice during the depression, and it offered seamen the only transportation from one place to another with some security. However, with the employed men on the ship, it usually did not fit well. The "workaways," as they were called, remained a constant threat to their security. The mate or engineer could always remind the crew that enough professional seamen were always available to take over their jobs should they fail to carry out orders. Despite this, everyone usually got along fairly well, and no one was ever overworked or "worked to death."
It was by chance that my friend's coat lost a button and the front of it opened. Tucked between his shirt and trousers was the handle of a huge .44 pistol. I was stupefied. "What the hell are you doing with that gun?" I asked nervously.
"Some sonofabitch is trying to get me."
"Hell, man, you can go to jail for ten years if you're picked up by the law."
"Well, it beats having someone knock you off. Anyway, now that we're going up north, I'm gonna sell it tonight. I can use the money in New York."
I did not try to hide my nervousness. It wasn't every day that I traveled with a guy weighted down with a loaded .44.
"Look, I'll get my stuff and be aboard tonight," he said as we parted.
That night I bedded down on a smelly mattress on the aft deck and fell fast asleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke to noisy activity around me. I felt the vibration beneath me of a thousand feet jumping up and down on deck. When I awoke for breakfast, the mattress which I had set out for my friend had been slept on, but he was not in sight. In the mess room, the crew was deep in discussion about the events of the early morning. Each gave his own version of what he had seen or heard. I still couldn't get the full impact of what had happened until I reported to the bosun for my assignment. At that time the mate appeared. "What the hell kind of friends do you have?" he asked, grinning.
"Don't know what you mean," I replied.
"You ain't seen what happened early this morning?"
"No, sir. I was asleep."
"Well, it took more than ten cops to come on board and arrest your friend. He is your friend, right?" asked the mate.
"Not really. I just met him a short time ago. I don't even remember his last name."
"One sure thing," the mate said, "he won't have to worry about going north for some time. Seems your new-found friend took a gun and shot down two men. Killed both of them in cold blood, said the police. He made one mistake. He took a taxicab to the ship, then sold the pistol to the cab driver. They almost had to carry him ashore, he had so many chains and handcuffs on him."
We sailed within the hour. I never did find out what the shooting had been all about. I became so preoccupied with making my own way that I forgot the incident. The trip up north was uneventful. The work was easy; there was no pressure. The food was nothing to write home about. The second mate told me he had a cousin working with the shipping master of the Munson Line in New York. Maybe if he were to write a few words on my behalf it might do some good?
Upon arrival in New York my luck started to take a turn for the better. With the note in my hand I headed for Brooklyn and the Munson Line shipping office. The note worked wonders. I was assigned to a fireman's job on the Southern Cross, one of three passenger liners that ran from New York to Bermuda, Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Trinidad. A new world was opening up for me.
The Southern Cross carried more than 40 men in the engine department, most of them Filipinos and Portuguese. In my forecastle of 20 men, I was the only native-born English-speaking person. I replaced a Filipino fireman who had to enter the hospital. The first few days aboard I was scrutinized by my roommates. Of course, many of the crew members would have preferred another Filipino, but my letter of introduction upset someone's plans. Since no one aboard ship knew me, I was viewed with suspicion. I could have been a "plant," set to catch many of the crew members who were small-time smugglers who brought small amounts of marijuana and jewelry into the country. Tobacco, cheap clothing and tools were some of the items they took out of the United States to sell in other countries.
One thing became clear on this ship. No one was going to get a draw in each port as is customary on most ships. This company was always on the verge of bankruptcy, or so they claimed. Wages were far below scale ($35 a month for firemen). The conditions were below standards, too. The company held on tight to its money and allowed only one draw per trip, and that was for only five dollars, in the port of Buenos Aires. It became obvious why many crew members resorted to petty smuggling
Having been briefed by the crew on the money situation and the best items to sell in South America, I used the few remaining hours before sailing to accumulate some tradable items. In addition to the huge soup lines forming all over New York City, clothing depots were popping up in all the working-class neighborhoods. A person went in, registered and received a carton. It contained three pairs of socks, a pair of blue bib overalls, two blue work shirts, underwear and a pair of cotton gloves--all new. People were more interested in jobs and food than in obtaining work clothes, especially clothes with bibs. Heck, they were the trademark of farmers. Nonetheless, they were there for the asking. I made three clothing depots, giving a different name at each. The clothes would prove valuable in the South American ports, where longshoremen would buy them up eagerly.
At every port I discovered new beauty. Pulling into Rio de Janeiro was an experience in itself. Sugar Loaf Mountain, topped by a tall statue of Christ, held me spellbound. But while the city was filled with magical scenes of awe-inspiring wonder, it was also overflowing with human misery. I walked from one end of the city to the other. If the United States was deep in a depression, Rio was sunk in the mire of extreme poverty. Unlike in the United States, which did offer some means of relief, in Rio the people could find no help from the government. Their most valuable asset, coffee, was a glut on the market and was now being used as fuel for locomotives. In spite of the deprivation and lack of essentials, the people were kind and friendly. This mixture of human warmth and the beauty of the city made me think that this would be an ideal port for me to drop anchor. I made up my mind shortly thereafter that the next trip down I would jump ship and spend some time in Rio.
Santos and Montevideo passed quickly into oblivion as we steamed up the river to Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires loomed slightly larger than Rio. It had a well-laid-out harbor with ships of many nations busy loading or discharging cargo. The tall buildings in the downtown business area were magnificent, stately structures, with a touch of old Spain. As I did in other ports when I was discovering something new, I walked through most of the city. Some parts of the city appeared to be filled with cafe/dancing halls and restaurants and, in several areas, a noticeable share of whores. Wherever drinks were sold or a band played, they appeared in large numbers. As soon as you sat down in any of the cafes for a drink, three or four would vie for a seat next to you--providing you bought them a drink. Once you chose one, you were never bothered again. The competition was keen, and to avoid fights, the girls devised their own working rules to which they strictly adhered.
The three days in Buenos Aires were hectic. Lots of work had to be done in the boiler room to prepare the ship for her return voyage. From eight to five we worked hard, scaling boiler tubes, scraping and cleaning bilges, overhauling pumps and doing a dozen other jobs necessary to keep the ship in excellent running shape. After a hard day's work and a quick shower, the crew dressed and headed for shore and the hundreds of nightclubs, gin mills and whorehouses for which the Buenos Aires waterfront was know. After drinking and whoring all night, we would struggle back to the ship in the early hours of the morning, hoping to catch an hour or two of sleep before beginning the old routine. After three days we were happy to have the ship nose away from the dock and head homeward, stopping at the same ports we made on our way south. The ports in South America were a country made for youth. One had to be young to put his body through the kind of punishment we subjected ours to. Reflecting on what I had seen, South America was a continent of abject poverty populated by beautiful people--kind, considerate, friendly.
In those days of seagoing, it was easy for seamen to "jump" ship. The sailor forfeited his wages and many times his personal gear. But once ashore he could remain as long as he wanted--provided he kept his nose clean, stayed away from the attention of the police and did not become a begging derelict. If he did step out of line and was arrested, he was held in jail until the next available ship arrived. He was placed aboard and forced to work his passage home. There were always dozens of beachcombers in most of the ports who managed to discreetly and comfortably subsist by visiting American ships and bumming what they could from the crew. You could always tell by the number of beachcombers whether or not the port was a good one. You found few beachcombers in ports where the cops were nasty and the food hard to get.
We had just pulled out of Bermuda; our next port was New York. I had purchased two parakeets in Rio as a present for my mother. Most of the crew had pets of some kind, including some monkeys. It was a daily ritual to take our pets to the upper forward deck for airing and grooming. We had to climb an almost perpendicular steel ladder with some 60 steps. I was on my way down to the crew's quarters when I misjudged one step and came crashing down with my back scraping every rung on the way. Parakeets and cage went bouncing a few feet away, with the birds screaming bloody murder. I lay on the deck dazed, wondering how many bones I had broken, when a fellow crew member came rushing toward me. He picked up the bird cage, then looked at me. "Are you crazy?" he said. "You could have killed those poor birds."
The next day I could barely get out of my bunk to go to work. Each vertebra hurt, as did my knees and instep. However, I managed to limp to work and make the day. In the meantime, some stoolpigeon bastard had informed the engineer that I was contemplating jumping ship next time in Rio. It was my fault for telling too many people my plans. No engineer looks forward to sailing short-handed.
As we pulled into New York, the crew was handed their boarding passes, as was customary. I looked at my pass. It said simply: "Pass the bearer with his personal belongings from the above-named vessel to the exit door of the pier. This pass is good for one passage only." That was the message, a nice way of saying you were fired without any confrontation with the engineer. The dream of loafing on the warm beaches of Rio was stillborn.
The next day I limped downtown to the Marine Hospital clinic to have my back x-rayed and bandaged. There were no broken bones, just a lot of chipped vertebrae. Two days later I received a letter from the company lawyer. He wanted to see me immediately. The con game was starting. As I entered his office, he greeted me like a long-lost relative, directed me to a plush chair, handed me a cigarette and even extended a light. "Sorry to hear about you getting injured on the Southern Cross," he said with a pained look on his face. "But, I have good news for you. The report from the doctor says there's nothing broken, and you'll be all right in a few days. Now, I know you're the type of guy that doesn't want to be pestered by lawyers or courts. I can tell by looking at you that you're a hard-working guy that just wants a fair shake of the dice. Am I right?"
"Yeah," I nodded.
"That's what I thought," he said. "Tell you what I'm going to do for you, since you're such a nice guy. I'm going to stick my neck out further than I ever have before. It's against company policy to settle up right away, but I had a talk with the shipping master just before you arrived. He tells me you're tops with the company because you're a hard worker. I told him it's company policy to take care of the good guys, the hard-working guys. I insisted that you be given first preference in hiring on any of our ships for the rest of your life. He agreed.
"Besides that," he said as he opened a drawer and took out a stack of bills and placed them on the desk, "I'm going to settle up with you right here on the spot because I know you'll need the money while you're recuperating. Now all we need is your signature."
The stack of bills, plus the promise of a "lifetime job" seemed too good to pass up. After all, there were no broken bones. I gladly signed a series of papers, picked up the bundle of one-dollar bills, which totaled fifty dollars, stuffed it in my pocket and limped out of his office.
Two days later the Pan American, a sister ship of the Southern Cross, arrived in port. Since I had preference with the company, I decided to visit the shipping master and exercise my new status by asking to be placed a board. The shipping master greeted me coolly. "So you're the guy who can't climb down a ladder without falling on his head. Sorry. No more jobs with this company."
"Wait," I said excitedly. "The company lawyer said I had preference in hiring."
"Bullshit," he said. "That lawyer tells that to everybody. We want men who can handle boilers, not a cage full of canaries. Besides, we hear you were intending to use one of our ships as a ferry boat and jump off in Rio. So get lost."
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two