I often walk down the asphalt path that runs the length of Manhattan, on the shore of the Hudson River, hoping to see Diana. When I was with her things were not so pleasant. She smelled awful, and she sapped my energy, working me all night long and half the day. For the fourteen weeks we were together, I had to share her with six rough, foul-mouthed men and one woman. Some guys put up with this for years. They get used to her rhythms, I guess. Funny thing is, now that she's out of my life, I can't get her out of my mind.
When I go looking for her I carry binoculars, because she's usually off in the distance and there are many who resemble her. Diana is a Moran tugboat: snub-nosed, roughly a hundred feet long, with a flaking red paint job, and a black smokestack emblazoned with a prominent white "M." When I was one of her deckhands, in the spring of 2000, she dealt exclusively with garbage. Twenty-four hours a day she picked up barges -- each one a 600-ton mosaic of soiled diapers, burnt mattresses, dismembered dolls, shattered TV's, pianos with missing keys and protruding wire strings -- at marine terminals located throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, and ferried them to Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. The job required a crew of eight -- captain, mate, engineer, cook, and four deckhands -- to live on board for seven days, then swap with another crew.
Privacy was nonexistent. When one guy sneezed, everyone got a cold. At first it was worth it because I was learning seamanship, a long-held dream of mine. (I also learned that living harmoniously with seven other people on a tugboat was far more challenging than enduring the stench of the surrounding garbage, which invited excretory seagulls and swarms of flies.) But I learned something else on Diana: how one unthinking comment can eventually come to haunt you.
On my first few hitches, the crew was less than charitable. The seasoned veterans seemed to resent my not knowing the routine, or, more likely, they enjoyed it, as they lorded their knowledge over me. The only one who never gave me flak was Maddy, the Puerto Rican cook. She was a stubby woman in her early-thirties, and the crew was savage to her.
When I was off shift I would read a paperback on the stern. The senior deckhand, Dave, who refused to break me in, would snicker. "The answer ain't in there," he said once. "Better you grow eyes in the back a' your head."
He was rumored to have put Visine in a former deckhand's food, and had body odor and oral hygiene befitting medieval times. The rest of the crew followed his lead, or at least never intervened. Whenever a new deckhand arrived, he became the object of Dave's hate. One large, doughy Irishman from Bay Ridge broke down under the hazing. After each shift he'd retire to his rack, press a pillow against his face, and cry until it was time to work again. He was one of five deckhands Diana chewed up during the time I was there.
None of the dropouts were as tough as Maddy, who toiled onward like the tug herself. When she burned our steak, which was often, the crew beaned her with the charred beef. Once, she was allowed to prepare her native arroz con pollo, and it was delicious. But the all-white crew claimed it was inedible "wet-back food," spat it out, and chanted, "Steak! Steak! Steak!"
She cooked with a frightened expression on her face, as if her next blunder might mean walking the plank. She couldn't afford to get fired; her family depended on her $80-a-day salary.
After she finished the dishes and cleaned the galley, she'd place a foot on the starboard gunwale and smoke a Newport. Her short legs and arms were thick, and her usual outfit, a purple sweatsuit, was unflattering.
One day I found myself next to her on deck while she took a post-dinner cigarette break. She offered me a butt. I declined but began a conversation.
"Purple's your color," I said. It was the only thing I could think of.
"Yeah? I been into Prince since forever."
A few minutes passed, but the silence wasn't awkward. She smiled at the sunset over Bayonne. We agreed that New Jersey had the best sunsets, due to all the pollutants. She pointed out that I was squinting, just as she was, and asked me if it was due to the sun, the diesel fumes, or the garbage.
"No," I said, grinning. "It's Dave."
"Same here." She giggled. We resolved to anonymously buy Dave a toiletry kit filled with all the essentials and an instant friendship was formed.
"Yo, Zach," she said before we parted. "You the first dude on this boat I ever said could get a cigarette."
Over the next few hitches, I was gradually accepted as one of the crew. I started spending more time in the wheelhouse than alone on the stern or talking with Maddy. Although I was appalled by the captain's treatment of her, his vast knowledge of the harbor drew me to him -- not only did he know its lore, but seemingly every bump and eddy of the surrounding waters. In time, he spoke freely with me, about everything from his days as a deckhand to his current woman troubles and I grew comfortable with him, maybe too comfortable.
Maddy and I stayed friends, though. Occasionally she put on lipstick and earrings. No one took notice, but I'd flatter her. "Whoa, if Prince saw you, you know he'd bust a move."
"You corny, man," she'd respond, her spirits clearly buoyed.
But Maddy had some nasty habits that had begun to bother me. Sometimes she'd swat a fly with her hands, wipe the remains on her apron, and continue to cook. I wondered if this was a mistake, or if she really didn't know the difference. I started observing her more closely and noticed her doing things like spitting down the sink drain when she thought no one was looking. Eventually, I broached my concern about her uncleanliness with the captain. We were a garbage tug, after all.
He bore down on me. "You see something I should know about?" he said.
I dodged, I hedged (was I completely sure she didn't wash her hands after killing a fly? And what if she preferred to wash in the head, or five minutes before I entered the galley?), but it was too late. The damage had been done. I would've given a week's salary to retrieve my words.
I pleaded with the captain to let me handle it, but he told me to take the wheel, and clambered down the ladder to the galley. He ripped into Maddy, told her she was fired and, worst of all, said that it was me -- "her pal" -- who reported her.
After that, I couldn't face her and began avoiding meals. Finally, she addressed me.
"They treat me like a animal," she said, "but I know where I stand with them. You got me."
It was the last time we ever spoke.
Fortunately, she wasn't fired. But life on Diana got worse. My conscience plagued me to the extent that I started dreaming of Maddy spitting in my food, thinking that it was my penance to eat it anyway. A few weeks later I gave my notice.
Now I sometimes walk along the shoreline, searching the Hudson, looking for my old tug and the figure in purple with a foot on the starboard gunwale, smoking a cigarette and watching the sunset.