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  The Massachusetts Review, Summer 2003

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Diana Makes the Rounds

Sometimes the smell got so bad I was convinced it would never go away. I thought it was leaching into my skin, and that no amount of soap and water was going to wash it off. This is a common reaction for a new deckhand—as I was two years ago—on the New York Harbor garbage tug, Diana L. Moran.

For fourteen weeks I crewed on the Diana. Every day, as soon as I got off watch, I threw my rubber-coated gloves to the deck and went straight to the head, where I scrubbed with the thoroughness of a surgeon. It never did much good. Around-the-clock, all week long, I was a mere Hefty bag toss from barges hauling New York City’s trash—often five million pounds of it at a time.

The idea of working on a tug came in the summer of ’98. An acquaintance who shared my affinity for the Guinness and ambiance at Rocky Sullivan’s bar, encouraged me to apply for a “z-card.” He explained it was a Merchant Mariner’s document, a ticket that would grant me entry-level status as an Ordinary Seaman. He said he had pull at the union, he’d talk to “his people,” and put in a good word on my behalf. He assured me that in less than two months I’d be decking on a sand or stone tug, making over two bills a day and developing forearms the size of Popeye’s. “The yard can always use a real swinging dick with a good head on his shoulders,” he clapped my back and winked. “Aye, lad, that would be me then,” I responded in my best Irish brogue. But no sooner had the bubbles in my Guinness settled to the bottom, did I fantasize about my new existence as a modern-day Jack London: striding down a foggy dock with a duffel balanced on my shoulder, my back as taut as a sail against a gathering wind, and a brunette back in the car crying her eyes out. The fact was I had nothing to lose. I’d held one soul-killing job after another since college. The one exception was lumberjacking in southern Connecticut, but that affair was terminated when I got my right index finger mashed in a log-splitter—in spite of this, it was among the happiest times in my life.

The following day I went down to the U.S. Coast Guard’s office at South Ferry and filled out an application for a z-card. All they required was a physical and a clean urine sample; once they got those, they fingerprinted me and took my picture. With my new z-card in hand, I hopped on the Staten Island Ferry, then headed east on Bay St. to the Local 333-United Marine Division, to register with the union. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” the union official told me. I called about twice a week for the first six months, once a month the next year, and by the time Y2K hit, I’d completely lost hope. I guess that friend of a friend had limited pull. Or maybe I should’ve changed my last name to O’Levin. The call came in February 2000. The union official said he had an opening on a garbage tug. “Garbage?” I asked. “Garbage,” he said.

* * *

The “Lady Di,” as some of the crew called her, was one of three Moran tugboats whose sole mission was to tow the residential rubbish of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. (Staten Island only used trucks, and the Bronx sent theirs out-of-state by rail.) She picked up loaded barges at hanger-like, marine transfer stations located throughout the boroughs and escorted them past the world’s most memorable skyline, across the Kill Van Kull, down the Arthur Kill, to the base of the world’s largest mass of detritus, Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. At 3000 acres, Fresh Kills is more than three times the size of Central Park. Its rolling hills of garbage, which reach as high as 170 feet—higher than the Statue of Liberty—are monuments of disposability. But on March 22, 2001, the hills ceased to rise: Staten Island’s 55-year-old burden and toxic scourge accepted its last garbage barge.

* * *

“The line is not your friend!” was the first thing Diana’s captain, Chris McVeigh, said to me. “When it parts, it’s got the force of a .44 Magnum, point-blank.” Standing on Diana’s stern, he rolled up his sleeves and grabbed one of the heavy, six-inch-thick lines—called a “city line”—coiled at his feet. He heaved it like a discus thrower, letting out an Olympian grunt and following through. The braided eye of the line formed a perfect O and fell over a capstan twenty feet from us. He threw a curl into the line as if he detested it. It whipped off the stout steel cylinder like an angry snake. They call this exercise “throwing the lines,” a preparation for the real thing when you’re “making up to” or “letting go of” a garbage barge. McVeigh ordered me to try it. My effort fell ten feet shy of the target. I wouldn’t make that throw until the end of my second hitch, after a hundred attempts.

Chris McVeigh, 31, has skippered the Diana for the past three years, and was the youngest tugman ever to make captain in Moran Towing’s 143-year history. He’s a stickler for safety and is a crackerjack at the helm, which comforted the many deckhands I worked with. A deckhand, with nothing but his wits and experience to protect him when he’s standing on a slippery barge, can pay dearly for a captain’s carelessness or clumsy seamanship.

“A line starts singing before it parts,” McVeigh continued, “makes this high-pitch sound. You hear that song, drop everything, run the other way.” McVeigh lowered his tall frame and pressed his face into mine, the tips of our noses nearly touching. “Know this: it will decapitate your fucking ass; it will break you in two.” (Sensing my dread, he decided not to mention another hazard of the line, that a hand or foot can easily get snared in one as it pays out, snapping the appendage off like a twig or dragging the victim into the water—à la Captain Ahab. So we all carried on our hips sharp, serrated knives—though the thirty seconds or more it would take to cut your way free would likely be in vain.) Maybe it’s because he’s as brawny as a tackle for the Jets or that his gruff baritone resounded like Orson Welles’, but his voice played continuously in my head.

I later learned that McVeigh’s deceased father, a cautious, hard-working man, supervised the painting of many of New York’s magnificent bridges we passed under everyday. “My dad put his men first,” McVeigh said. “If there was a hint of foul weather on the horizon, none of his men mounted a bridge. I’d come home from school and he’d be there. ‘You’re home?’ I’d ask. He’d explain about the weather . . . but I was thinking, So there’s a few clouds, what’s the big deal? Now I get it. It was one of the most important things I took from him.”

* * *

The loaded barges attract a constant flock of keowing, shrieking sea gulls (as well as sparrows, starlings, pigeons, and egrets). Descending on the barges, they poke through netting used to keep garbage from flying away and rip open the plastic bags. They ungraciously relieve themselves with laser-guided accuracy when they take flight. These liquid droppings have an acrid, penetrating scent, like smelling salts. (It was the nitric acid in seagull excrement, not the toll of traffic, that destroyed the Manhattan Bridge.) At the height of summer, both loaded and empty barges alike are spawning grounds for maggots, which squish under your boots or stick to your life jacket like a gooey Velcro. The ones that survive the larval stage make life aboard the Diana a fly-blighted nightmare.

On the barges I saw: a toddler’s red sneaker in pristine condition, block of rotting cheddar, pantyhose draped over baby stroller with missing wheels, seven heads of good lettuce, bleeding uncooked meat, a PlayStation, a toaster, a SONY TV, a beheaded Barney, a baby rodent feasting on half-eaten hotdogs, a lone cowboy boot, moldy oranges submerged in crank case oil, CD’s—Cher, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Debbie Gibson—thousands of newspapers and few Times’ (when not a Manhattan barge), Mac For Dummies, used diapers, tampons, stained jockey shorts, hair brush, fast-food packaging, a watermelon carcass, chicken bones, Cheerios, Cap’n Crunch, an Alabama license plate, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, banana peels, rusted cans of Gillette shaving cream, and a plastic Richard Nixon mask overlaid with used condoms…

The barges that stank the worst were the empty ones; broiling under the summer sun for a few days, they emit an unexpungeable odor, a whiff of which could drop a circus elephant. The rankness comes from rainwater percolating through the trash and settling at the bottom in the form of black ooze—which contains toxic material like arsenic, lead, and ammonia—called leachate.

* * *

The galley is the social nucleus of the Diana. During downtime, it’s where the crew eats, watches movies and plays spades. Mostly, it’s where the bull sessions take place. Huddled around the galley-table, sitting on a bench with red leatherette padding or on flimsy chairs scavenged from the barges, the men regale each other throughout the night. Outside these diversions, the options are limited: there’s the cell phone or Walkman; there’s sleeping, reading or writing and there’s masturbation—a fact of life in the maritime trade. (Quality porn mags reign supreme on the boat’s black-market.) But an excessive amount of time spent at any of these solitary activities is frowned upon. I myself caught grief for choosing to be alone so often in the fo’c’sle—a dark, submarine grotto in which the deckhands and cook sleep. I would nest in my narrow rack with thick seafaring novels (Moby Dick and the works of Joseph Conrad and Jack London) I had never made time to read. One crew member expressed his disapproval by saying things like, “Yo, Kaczynski, when you gonna show us your bomb?”

Yet comments like these were not so much about my alienating myself from the others than they were about the utter oddity of my being there in the first place. “Who are you and what do you want?” was the tacit question put to me when I was first onboard. “What’s your angle?” Actually, it wasn’t always tacit. I was astonished when the captain himself suspected I was a “mole” from the company or the union, and asked me straight out if this was true. It took weeks of working together day-to-day before I laid his suspicions to rest.

I didn’t mention my growing desire to write about this experience until well into my tenure; I was more concerned with learning my job. I was there for the work and the paycheck. We worked 7 days on, seven days off; on meant living aboard the tug and not touching land. (I appreciated the way the money accrued so quickly: two six-hour watches a day and no place to spend it.) Still, there was a distinct separateness between the other deckhands and myself, some unbridgeable gap. It never manifested as tension, just an acknowledgement of our fundamental differences: education, religion, political leanings, and issues of taste.

That said, I admit I brought much of it upon myself. I struggled to sublimate “the writer” aspect to my personality. I came off as more an observer of life than a participant. I asked more questions than were welcome, be they technical or personal. I scribbled down copious notes, and asked people to repeat themselves when a phrase or expression caught my attention. Once, a volatile ex-Marine deckhand and I were watching the early morning broadcast of a tabloid news show. We were bleary and famished after a 12:00 AM-6:00 AM watch. A plastic blond with frosted highlights was reading the news. “She got a real dick-suck mouth on her, huh?” he said, seeming to be staring through the screen. The comment struck me as being the essence of him, vulgar without attempting to be, disassociated in that Travis Bickle way. Pen poised over paper, I asked him to say it again: “Was that suck-dick or dick-suck?” That’s good stuff, I thought. He turned his head slowly and looked at me, as if my face was vaguely familiar and he couldn’t quite place it. But others liked to be listened to closely and began to use me as their Boswell.

I enjoyed most listening to the tug’s preeminent raconteur, engineer Don Cheetham, a.k.a. “Chief.” Accompanying his nightly yarns were the sounds of gunfire, impalement, and bloodshed, as either Saving Private Ryan or Braveheart ran through the VCR at maximum volume. The gobbling of chips, fried eggs, sugared cereal and colossal sandwiches with melted cheese were part of the ritual as well. (Bellies loom large on the Diana: the weekly food stipend for the crew of eight is $600.)

Chief’s accent smacks of southern Massachusetts, where he still lives with his wife and four kids. Now 37, he has worked on boats ever since he joined the Navy a year after graduating high school. He has crabbed in Alaska in winter—“You work non-stop, and when you’re done you can’t close your hands, they’re frozen-stuck in that position like claws”—toured the world with the Merchant Marine, and worked on offshore and sand and stone tugs for several years. He comes from the world of rough-hewn Gloucester fishermen made famous in The Perfect Storm, and is quick to remark: “George Clooney ain’t a pimple on a Yankee swordfisherman’s ass.” No doubt Chief was the only one with an authentic mariner’s résumé who could sit in the galley and describe what 40-foot swells feel like on a flat-bottomed tug. Or reminisce about his hedonistic days when he was single and on-the-loose in various South American ports, and then wax knowledgeably on the dying state of the United States maritime industry.

“It used to be a profession,” Chief said of the deckhand position on a garbage tug. “Men supported their families on this work, put their kids through college. The days of making a career of it are over. Now it’s strictly entry-level. Any landlubber”—i.e. Me—“can climb aboard.” In 1987, a deckhand working on a Moran garbage tug earned $190 a day, plus overtime on weekends. They were paid “mud-scale” wages, which is top-notch in the harbor. But when Ronald Reagan’s assault on the unions trickled down to the eastern waterfront, it prompted a lengthy, fruitless strike by the Local 333 (the New York Harbor tugmen’s union). When it was over, “G-Man Duty” was deposited at the economic bottom of the harbor. I pulled down $135 a day ( or $11.25/hour) with no overtime. These days in Moran’s Staten Island shipyard, garbage tugs are regarded as the redheaded stepchildren of the tug-fleet.

The Diana, built in 1956, is not a state-of-the-art tug. She’s more like The Little Engine That Could. She’s single-screw diesel-electric, listed at 1,750 horsepower (but struggling to hold onto 1,400). She has a General Motors engine—the same propulsion system used in World War II submarines—that was bought at low cost off the government. Once seaworthy, she has a history that goes unrecognized by her current handlers: proud transatlantic trips, a regular route to Texas, quick runs up the Connecticut River. She then served as a harbor tug, docking oil tankers and great ships, before being relegated to shuttling garbage barges.

* * *

On a dismal mid-April night, sheets of rain pelted my back as I bent over a waterlogged city-line, setting it up for a “two-part” throw. The barge fought against a ripping ebb tide, making slow progress toward our mark, a rickety dock known as “The Deuce” used as a way-station for barges, that sits right outside 52nd Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. McVeigh aimed his spotlight at the target, illuminating a stout bitt; it stuck out like a steel thumb, about fifty yards in front of me. I looked back over my shoulder and waited for his instructions. Between us lay a football field’s worth of garbage. He would have to place the barge’s bow within a few feet of the bitt and hover over it. “I’m gonna get you close as I can to the dock there,” McVeigh said over his bullhorn. The wheelhouse was invisible to me: the captain was just a voice coming out of the darkness. “We may get only one shot at this. So throw that line like you got a pair.” The barge pitched and waves broke over the bow. My legs felt rubbery, unable to get a purchase on the slimy-slick surface. They were all in the wheelhouse—Chief and the other deckhands—waiting for me to bungle it.

On the previous hitch, things went badly for me at “The Deuce.” Attempting an overzealous barge-to-barge leap under similarly wet conditions, I fell in the drink at 4 AM on the mate’s watch. You’d be surprised how bitter cold the water still is in late spring. After the fifteen-foot fall, the shock of the water takes the breath out of you. I gasped for air and swallowed some briny water (which subsequently gave me a vicious case of the runs that lasted a week). I prayed someone had seen me fall or heard the splash. The tug’s propeller whirled near my face, kicking up white quick water. The barges bucked up and down with cruel intentions. I grabbed a line hanging over the side of the nearest barge and attempted to clamber back up with my hands. The combination of shock and cold had sapped my strength, so I opted for dog paddling and yelling for help. Finally, I heard my partner yell “man overboard!” Two minutes later I was holding onto a life ring, scissor-kicking my way to the portside stern. Later, squeezing my clothes dry in the rear of the tug, I tried to be glib: had no one come to my rescue, I crowed, I’d have pulled a McGyver and built a life-raft out of all the tampons and diapers and condoms floating round my head.

“Throw it,” commanded McVeigh, “—close as we’re gonna get!”

The line felt as heavy as a manhole cover. I took off my gloves for a better grip; tiny shards of glass and metal shavings, snarled in the frayed line, grated my hands. I pivoted, let go, watched it loop around the bitt. The next half-minute was pure anaerobic exertion. Hand over hand, I pulled the line until it was taut. I put a “scow-hitch” on the bitt (tugmen refer to barges as scows) and wrapped five clean turns around it with the furious dispatch of a calf-roper. It’s a maneuver that had eluded me in the past. I made a fist and raised it in the direction of the wheelhouse. “All fast!” I cried. My legs felt strong again; the jitters were gone.

“You learn well, grasshopper,” complimented McVeigh, inflecting his speech to sound like the guy on “Kung-Fu.” Then back to his natural Jersey-inflection: “Get outta the rain.”

* * *

One day in May we were tied up for a few hours next to a marine terminal at 59th Street in Manhattan. The crew was assembled in the galley, playing cards, reading the papers, and watching FOX News. A segment came on about a gay man suing the Boy Scouts for sexual discrimination. It kicked off a broad discussion about homosexuality: how do you define it? Does one incident make you gay? Is it inherited or learned? And what would you do if your kid turned out to be gay? “I’d love him,” Chief said, “but I wouldn’t respect him.” Maddy Roman, the cook and lone female on the tug, was off in the corner slicing onions. Generally she didn’t join in on the discussions, but this time she piped in: “None a you fellas never look at Antonio Banderas and maybe think, Muy guapo! he look nice?” In unison the crew chortled: “Get the fuck outta here!” Had I suggested that a slight homo-erotic subtext existed on our tug, I’d have surely been thrown back in the drink.

That evening, another deckhand named Jerry (this name has been changed) and I were leaning on the upper deck railing, relaxing, having just finished a detail in Flushing, Queens. The tug was free of barges and the air smelled sweet and warm on our faces. He smoked a menthol and watched the sun drop into the horizon. To our left was Shea Stadium, which occasionally erupted in cheers. Every minute or so a low-flying plane passed overhead, either landing at or taking off from LaGuardia Airport—bone-rattling roars that drowned out the Diana’s deafening engine. Next we pulled even with Rikers Island. Jerry flicked the cigarette into the water and absently rubbed his hand over an amateurish tattoo on his forearm. “See that,” he said, motioning to the gigantic Rikers complex, “that’s my home away from home. Been in and out of there a few times . . . late teens, early twenties, you know, the wild years. I was takin’ a shower once,” he continued, “and these two he-she’s was doin’ each other’s hair. Let me tell you, they smell and act just like broads. My dick got real hard. There was no hidin’ it. They laughed at me—saw the shame in my face. See, that shit don’t fly in my neighborhood—a Greenwich Village faggot, fuhgeddaboudit! You ain’t never welcome back.” He asked me for my sexual diagnosis. I assured him it was okay, nothing out of the ordinary, that Freud himself believed people were inherently bisexual, and that most men are far less secure about their sexuality than they let on. This did not help. He bent over the railing and cursed God. “What if I’m gay, man! What if I’m gay?”

* * *

Newtown Creek raised the hairs on the back of my neck. It’s an industrial waterway that defines the western border between Brooklyn and Queens, and which leads to a garbage transfer station in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Narrow, dark, still and foreboding, it’s an underworld, a habitat for both living and inanimate garbage, that, at night, spooked even the most grizzled deckhand. The tug crept along with its mast down and engine throttled back, leaving no wake. In the distance were the violent noises of industry: cars ground into scrap, trash being recycled. (At the turn of last century, one of the macabre industries along the creek’s shoreline was a wharf from which fat and bones were shipped, called Wissel’s Dead Animal Wharf.) Above us, on an overpass, crazy kids threw glass bottles and rocks at the tug. On the portside, wild junkyard dogs bared their teeth in desolate lots. On the starboard side, next to artists’ studios and parking lots, hookers went down on johns. One of the crew would shout: “Looks like a human vacuum!” or “Can I get next?” The johns would answer with threats—typically, “I’m gonna kick your ass, scumbag!”—for breaking their concentration. All the while, the pros would keep going like pistons. On the other hand, there was once a beautiful Asian model staring out the window of a photographer’s studio. She eyed a deckhand standing on the stern and smiled at him. The next time the tug passed by, he held up a piece of paper with his cell phone number written in magic marker. She actually called him, and they talked a few times.

The memory that haunts me, though, came in the form of a story told to me by a deckhand named Freddy. He had seen a dog being hanged. It was high tide, he said, and the dog was paddling for its life but growing tired. He guessed it was an old fighting dog or an injured one, no longer useful to its owner. As the tide lowered, the noose—tethered to an overhanging branch—tightened around its neck. The next time he saw the dog, it hung limp, its tongue lolling from its mouth. Over weeks and months, he observed the ravage exacted by time and the elements on the carcass. Eventually, only a wispy skeleton remained. So that by the time he told me the story and pointed to the skeleton, which he seemed to see and I could not, there was only a rope.

* * *

Late June is a time when deckhands work on their tans as they chip and paint. When the Diana’s reddish sheen and the whiteness of the legendary “M” emblazoned on her smokestack are restored, she looks almost virginal. The odors notwithstanding, the stern becomes something akin to a beach party, with barbecued steaks, chin up contests, and a chance to laze with a book while plopped inside the hole of a huge tractor tire. However, I quit while the getting was good, sparing myself the cruel August sun and the mounting stench that accompanies it.

Now the majority of the city’s 13,000 tons of daily residential trash is trucked to landfills and incinerators in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia—the Bronx still transports theirs by rail to a landfill in Waverly, VA. 550 city trash trucks a day clog the New Jersey Turnpike, to the tune of $200 million a year in new costs to taxpayers. Meanwhile, Moran garbage tugs are in limbo. They still take barges filled with paper to a recycling plant in Staten Island, but as an old crewmate of mine put it, “The downtime we got, we’re like a bunch of floating Teamsters.”

But after 9/11 the garbage tugs got busy again, transferring the wreckage from the World Trade Center to Fresh Kills Landfill. When the last piece of debris had been sorted, inspected, and blessed, the tugs were assigned to tow barges filled with millings to the landfill; it’s expected to be a yearlong job in which 5 feet of topsoil will be packed onto the landfill—the former pallbearers of trash will help seal the tomb. When this detail is done, it’s unclear what the fate of Moran garbage tugs and crews will be. A barge-to-rail system in Linden, New Jersey has been proposed, but will not begin operating until at least 2004. And Moran lost the enormous contract to an outfit called K-Sea Towing.

Presumably, some Moran workers will jump ship to K-Sea, while others will seek promotion within the company. Others may abandon the harbor altogether. A tug like the Diana—or her two garbage mates, the Eugene and the Nancy—could feasibly end up as scrap. And many that crew these tugs are neophytes, lacking the training to work on craft higher up on the maritime food chain. Such jobs are nearly impossible to get, in any case. Then there are the old-salts being phased out by “the company.” Many don’t have the competence for the more dangerous, higher-stakes work on, say, offshore tugs. (One garbage tug pilot in his fifties was supposedly demoted to his present status after a near-disastrous collision; he smashed his cargo into an oil tanker—no oil spilled, but it’s a blunder he may never transcend.)

* * *

On my last hitch I witnessed something that concluded my experience on the Diana. A flock of rapacious seagulls scoured the contents of a barge, and then in unison dived headlong into the refuse. They ripped at the netting and tore open a gaping hole. A towering helix of trash formed and, like a twister, moved this way and that, with no regard to its surroundings. Some flew into the East River, but most of it—hundreds of unsullied pages (excepting a few coated in what appeared to be anchovy paste)—swirled above the tug’s stern and then fell gently at my feet. Portentous, biblical-seeming, more beautiful than the videotaped plastic bag in American Beauty! The gulls vanished and no more debris escaped through the netting. I gathered the pages and commenced to read.

Most of the pages were from an individual garbage bag holding one family’s garbage. It was an amazing mosaic of artifacts from a family’s life. Shopping lists, parents’ notes reminding the kids to feed the cats and fill the water bowls, birthday cards, Chinese restaurant menus, credit card bills, old report cards and, most engaging of all, dated pages from a child’s journal. “April 3, 1999—Today we went on a class-trip to the park,” was scrawled in green crayon. “I planted a tree. Ms. K said mine was maple. Mom said our dinner table is maple. I hope my tree will never be a table.” Reading those sentences helped me forget where I was for the first time since I’d been on the Diana. For a brief moment, even the smells seemed to have gone away.


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