Hereabouts, habit is the province of all the good creatures who work on board. With the exception of the deckhands and the captain, everyone works a fixed schedule, which varies little. The ship’s work remains stolidly samey too. We load cargo at one dock and deposit it at another and we will continue to do so for 10 months until the locks close and the weather becomes too punitive. The hours on the ship blend together like dried herbs thrown into a soup of days, and unless something out of the ordinary occurs, looking back, it is difficult to discern one moment from the next, especially in the summer months when the weather remains so temperate.
On my first lake watch after returning from leave, when the wheel is locked in auto and there is nothing to do but for the mate and I to keep watch and shoot the shit, I will check out the trip list on the ship’s computer.
‘June is looking pretty cushy,’ I said to Denver, the first mate, as I scrolled down the list. My eyes lit on two new ports. ‘We have some new docks scheduled! I’m stoked.’
‘I saw that,’ he said. ‘I am too.’
I don’t know if its funny or depressing. The things that can get one excited out here.
It was just after 2100 when we prepared to tie up in the Soo. Denver, the deckhands and I waited up by the landing boom. We chatted and smoked. Killed time until the ship grew close enough for us to swing the boys ashore. Being at such a northerly latitude, the sun was still high. It lent the proceedings an early in the evening kind of a feel. As we inched closer to the dock we eyed up where we’d be securing the vessel. Mountains of coke and slag steamed on the dock and receded into the distant wastes of that sprawling industrial complex. At the water’s edge were derelict outbuildings and the corroding skeletons of gigantic industrial machines.
‘Land ‘em when its safe,’ said the captain on the VHF. There were no flies on Shannon, the new deckhand, that night. He was already up and in the seat and ready to swing ashore.
Safety, it is axiomatically stated, comes first, unless it turns out you are tying a ship up at Algoma Steel, west of the Export dock, in Sault Sainte Marie, in which case it comes third or fourth. While the best efforts can be made aboard to provide a safe working environment, this cannot be extended to the dock which was in a wretched state where the boys landed. Banks of loose scrabble and coke tumbled down a steep grade to the pier’s edge and made walking perilous. At times they had to downward dog it, scuttle sideways on their hands and feet to keep from falling in. The corrugated steel that clads the dock was bent and twisted out at dangerous angles, as though placed there purposefully to thwart an armies advance or at the very least send one of our crew to the emergency room for a tetanus shot. It also proved perfect for snagging mooring wires. There was a loader present but it was unable to assist with the wires due to the apocalyptic terrain and the position of the pile of iron ore on which we were to unload. The boys had to pull out hundreds of feet of wire unaided. By the time they made it back on board they were exhausted and sore and only an hour into what would turn into a 16-hour shift.
Since the deck hands had used up all their hours, I got sent down to the tunnel on my morning watch to help hose out the ore dust. In the process of unloading, dust flies off the cargo running on the belt and settles in the tunnel, from where it has to be hosed and/or shoveled out before it plugs up the gear. One thinks of dust as being light but ore dust is a fine and heavy particulate and in the places where the dust had settled inches thick it took more than a bit of persuasion with the steady blast of an 1.5inch hose to shift it. If I hit a pile at the wrong angle, flecks of dust would fly up and pelt me in the face, blinding me momentarily and leaving a taste not unlike blood in my mouth. Just holding on to an inch and a half hose is work enough. Dragging it through a confined space, soaking wet, sometimes standing, sometimes crawling is a real test of one’s physical mettle. For days after I was weeping iron tears and blowing magnetic bogeys. And no matter how much I scrubbed my head and hair my pillowcase was still coming up rust red in the morning.
There is an assumption among the crew, that I am so-far-left-leaning as to teeter on being a socialist. This does not provoke censure, just some gentle ribbing from their mostly conservative (some fiercely so) ranks.
E.g.: ‘I’d ask you to come with me Nick,’ said the captain last year, as he went off to cast an early vote, ‘but I don’t think there’s a communist ballot.’
‘UH-oh, Nicks here,’ said the first mate when I walked into the mess one lunchtime, ‘we better stop talking about his best buddy.’ The implication being that my best buddy is Justin Trudeau.
What I find curious is that, besides getting angry when people aboard use racial epithets, and being gravely concerned about climate change, I rarely get into political discussions here. As it happens, I think Justin Trudeau is smarmy and disingenuous and I’m not necessarily a lefty, I’ll just never, ever, ever, never vote conservative. This is all just to say that when I was relieved of my watch down in the tunnel at noon and the new 12-4 WM (wheelsman) approached me to take over, he had a big grin on his face.
‘You look like Justin Trudeau,’ he said.
I thought this a strange, rather tone-deaf comment coming from a guy who had only just joined the ship a few days before. So far he’d seemed like a good fit, he was enthusiastic, asked the right questions and relieved the watch on time. He has one of those Abraham Lincoln beards which are popular with some of the guys out here and I always think lend the wearer an air of stern piety regardless how this might contrast with their actual temperament. Either way, we had definitely not reached the level of collegial intimacy that allows for friendly mockery, no matter how benign. Perhaps it was just him trying to clumsily fit in, taking a swipe at this dyed in the wool lefty. So I passed the hose to him, gave him the lowdown on what to do and went up to change out of my wet gear.
But the joke was on me. When I looked in the bathroom mirror I discovered my face was painted black with ore dust. Only the whites of my eyes were visible, although they too contained brand new metal freckles. I had been unwittingly black faced, and you know what, I did look like this country’s fearless leader in those embarrassing photos depicting his poor choice for a costume party, not just once, but twice (!), many years ago.
Good one, I thought. And I felt bad for being so quick to judge and suddenly liked the new WM more.
Westbound on Lake Superior, the lake was so calm as to appear almost oily. The surface betrayed just the barest sign of ripple. It was overcast, but still bright, such that I had to squint to look ahead. A confluence of warm and cold air and the position of the sun made the hull of a freighter sailing towards us appear inverted, a reflection of itself. This odd effect lasted for a long time and had a few of us up on the ship’s bridge bickering over who got to use the binoculars.
Yesterday I ran through the enlarged, arrhythmic heart of America in the dog day dead of an afternoon. Superior, Wisconsin. Symmetrical blocks with squat, century old brick buildings. Mom and Pop stores, old man bars and strip joints where broken neon signs’ siren blink promised what you’ll find in the dimly lit inside. Coors. Pabst. Billiards. Girls.
Two Harleys sat aslant outside one tavern. Their hindquarters decked out with bald eagle decals and stars and stripes stickers. Tassels dangled limply from their handlebars in the stagnant breeze. I passed a large beer garden where a stage had been set up and three men in their late 60’s -piano, bass and drums- were playing Margaritaville reduced to a geriatric shuffle. There were two people watching. In the shade of the building a bored-looking girl employee sat in the shade and stared at her phone.
We had a load of oats on board and were unloading at GM terminals. A 30-hour unload and a first for our ship. It was also the first cargo GM had received from a ship in 21 years, all of their cargo coming from the heartland by train.
‘Grain shortage,’ the foreman said. ‘This is a big deal for GM.’
I was struggling along. The dust that comes off grain makes me sick but this stuff was particularly pernicious. It made my skin break out, caused painful sores in my nostrils and gave me wicked reflux. I had a pain in my stomach too, though that could be from the 200 sit-ups I’d done the day before or from reading about the millions of dollars being spent on rescuing five rich guys from a submersible when hundreds of people are dying in the Mediterranean every week. I felt heavy as a Clydesdale. Acid rose in my throat and I spat but misjudged the wind and it blew back in my ear. I kept going. Spurred on by my 80’s running playlist. I didn’t see a soul on the streets except for a biker smoking outside a bar and a meth head lurching up the opposite sidewalk. Towards the end of my run I had to wait ten minutes for a train to pass before plodding back towards the grain dock after a measly 6km. On the homeward stretch Dancing in the Dark came on my playlist. There were train tracks on one side of me and the industrial expanse of General Mills’ formidable silos on the other and then mile upon mile of scrub and field. I felt a tingling in the back of my neck and thanked the algorithm that chose to place that song there. This feeling must be what makes evangelical’s dribble and moan and speak in made up tongues, I thought. Brings millions to Mecca every year. Sends hippies flocking to India. For a moment I thought religion can’t be such a bad thing. It has inspired such beauty after all, Tintoretto, the Requiems, Mahalia Jackson to name just a few from my narrow occidental purview. It has not all just been men killing the fuck out of each other for centuries.
A fire has taken out one of the other ships in our fleet for an unknown period of time, so we have absorbed some of their crew and have additional bums in seats as it were. This is a not a bad thing, especially when July looks to be a month of stone loads which are hard on everybody.
One of the new guys was walking around the other day with a t-shirt that had CHEER UP FUCKFACE writ large in varsity font across the front of it. I’m halfway through a six-week rotation. Right now, that seems as good advice as any.