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WATERFRONT VISIT
January 24, 2004
 
The moon shining on ice is different from the moon shining on water: an icy surface is flat, a milky canvas for the moon. Water is deep: it receives the moon and pulls it down into its depths, so that we see it lengthening, moving with the moving of the water. Not so with ice: ice is still. Nothing moves in ice.

The sticks of abandoned finger piers point crazily in a dozen directions, bent by the weight of water trying to drag them away, now that their job is done. A working vessel is a rarity here, these days, but once these piers bustled with them: fishing boats, tugs, ferries, barges.

The ships are not completely gone. There is a light on in the window of a small fishing boat as I pass it along the shore: somebody is aboard. Somebody lives there, I bet, somebody who doesn't mind the tight quarters or the solitude. Somebody who wants to be left alone.

Hear your feet tap along the deck and pull open the heavy door. Step across the raised threshold into the accommodations. On this vessel, you'd be in the galley, and on this vessel, the galley would also be the mess and the sleeping quarters. Come in from the cold outside and fasten the door behind you. It is warm in here. Steam rises from the spout of a coffee pot on the two-burner stove. The tiny table is covered with oilcloth, and it is bolted to the floor. This room is a mess; the occupant doesn't put things away. There are not many places to put things if he did. And so his magazines are in a pile on the bench that will become his bed later on in the evening, and his jacket hangs on the back of the one chair, which is bolted to the floor across the table from the bench. His radio crackles a song from twenty years ago, and a bowl of chili sits in front of him. Suppertime.

On other vessels, this room is larger, and the crew sits together in it every night, talking, playing cards. On Filipino ships, there is a guitar and sometimes even a drum set in this room, so that the crew can sing. Here, there is only the radio. He does not sing to himself.

He is surprised at the visit, and not entirely pleased, you can tell, although he greets you politely. There is a reason that his vessel is so small: he is a lonely man by choice. It's all right with him. But he accepts the magazines, apologizes for the mess and offers coffee from the pot. You accept with thanks. The coffee is terrible.

You talk about the vessel and the business. Inquire after his health and any need he might have -- shopping? Drug store? Telephone? A lift somewhere? You make these inquiries offhandedly, without seeming concern -- he is not a person who likes to be fussed over. No, he needs nothing. His crewmate comes to the vessel each morning -- he has a wife and kids, and goes home at night after they come in. This man just stays on board. He has no one.

You leave your card and point out the telephone number to him. In case you ever need anything, you say, we're here. You have not mentioned God once in the entire visit, but now you say good-bye and God bless you. Be safe, you say, and he says thank you. And thanks for the magazines.

Outside, the moon is high in the black sky, and the frozen shore reflects it dully. Your feet tap along the deck, back the same way they came, and you take make the long step over the water to the dock. It is cold out here, next to the water. You car is cold. It starts promptly, though, and you turn on the headlights and begin to drive slowly away from the vessel, jolting along on the pitted ground -- there is no road down here. That's about it for today, you think. Time to go home.

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The Missions to Seafarers and many other maritime ministries serve mariners in more than 800 ports worldwide. http://www.missiontoseafarers.org/menu_index.php
North American Maritime Ministries
http://www.namma.org/links.htm
Seamens Church Institute of New York and New Jersey
http://www.seamenschurch.org/
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