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The Sea Stumbles —The Bronx, 1999
The big morning finally arrived. My father and I did our sweeping checks of the room, the V.I.P. Suite at the State University of New York’s Maritime College in the Bronx. Thin industrial carpeting over a concrete floor, nautical prints, spartan and sturdy furniture; a state college’s idea of luxury. We peered under beds, searched every drawer and closet, even those we had never used, not wanting to leave anything behind, trying to be smart and thorough.
We wheeled our suitcases into the bright 7 a.m. mid-May sun- shine and across the Maritime campus. Mostly 1950s brick buildings, square and charmless, set in the shadow of the Throgs Neck Bridge, but also Fort Schuyler, an 1830s pentagonal stone structure built to defend Hell Gate against the British, with thick walls and gun slits and a parade ground. We walked toward the Empire State—our ship for the next month, sailing down the coast to the Caribbean and then across the Atlantic to Italy—gleaming white at the pier. The Empire State VI began her life as a freighter and, from a distance, had no elegant line, no graceful sweep. She seemed cobbled-together, a long expanse of bow in front topped with an elaborate nest of booms and cranes, a pair of lifeboats just ahead of the superstructure, then a clutter of decks. At the stern, a large shipping container and what looked like a pair of small orange submarines. The single smokestack was stubby, practical, yellowish beige, with the SUNY seal on it.
The pier was hectic with a festive, summer-camp sort of commotion, busy with families, girlfriends, boyfriends, and cadets—trim teens in bright whiteshirts and dark navy pants, their “salt-and-pepper” uniforms. They towered over their parents. Mothers held bunches of balloons. Fathers lugged big portable coolers, cases of soda, cases of juice. I worried that we were unprepared—we had no juice—and puzzled over the balloons. At least a dozen families had brought bunches of them. They seemed an odd, child’s birthday party touch.
My father stopped short and I ran thud into him, like a vaudeville act. Disentangling ourselves and our rolling luggage, I wondered, Is this how it’s going to be? Frick and Frack? I looked around to see if anybody had noticed.
Turning onto Dock 19, where the ship was tied up, I saw that the pier was named for A. F. Olivet, the no-nonsense captain during my father’s cruises. I paused to make note of that, and of the dinghies moored under a protective wooden roof leading to the ship. They had bold, forward-straining names: Courageous, Freedom, America, Magic.
Looking up, I saw that my father, the good New Yorker, had kept walking. I called to him—“Dad! Wait!”—and he turned. “I’ll go slow,” he shouted back. But he didn’t go slow. He strode toward the ship. I hurried after him, the luggage wheels humming against the concrete.
I got alongside the ship, almost to the gangway, just in time to see him go up without me, lugging his suitcase, a wide smile spread across his face. He said something pleasant to the officer at the top of the gangway and disappeared inside the Empire State. I stood on the pier a moment, shocked, then raced after him, hefting my suitcase in both hands and clattering up the awkward low metal steps. After months of arranging—the conversations, the phone calls, the formal letters, the visits—I had figured that our boarding the ship would be an obvious moment of high drama: an exchange of loving glances, a pat on the back, a shy filial smile, a fatherly ruffle of the hair, a deep breath and up we go together, arms linked. Ta-daaaaaaaah!
Not in this life.
“What’s your hurry, sailor?” I hissed, out of breath, catching up to him at the cabin, C1, marked by a note card reading “Mr. Stien- burg Sr.” and “Mr. Stienburg Jr.”
He offered this explanation: he wanted to get his suitcase aboard before the tide came in, raising the angle of the gangway, making it more difficult to walk up. He actually said this. Stunned, I turned away, puzzling whether his excuse was a mountainous lie or, worse, a sincere delusion.
I stood in the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror: how was I going to do this? Six weeks with my father. A month at sea, then ten days in Italy. We’d kill each other. Or I’d kill him. Or myself. Or he’d kill me. One way or another, somebody was going to be killed.
Then the anger, a hot fluid at the back of my brain, drained away and I almost laughed—the tide, so ridiculous—and I remembered that, up to this moment, I had been genuinely worried my father wouldn’t get on the ship at all. That despite his promises, when the moment finally came, he would freeze up on the gangway. Many times I had imagined, not entirely without pleasure, him grasping the handrails, white knuckled, rigid, me behind him, ramming the heel of my hand into the small of his back, forcing him forward. “Get on the goddamn ship, Dad!”
That had been the preconception. The reality was 180 degrees opposite. Instead of hanging back, fearful, needing a shove, he had raced ahead, excited, forgetting all about me. Realizing this shocked away the anger. It struck me that, after all these years, I didn’t know my father at all. Not a bit.
We stowed our luggage in the cabin. When we had seen it for the first time, the night before, it had seemed huge, but now it looked very small. Two single beds, bolted to the floor, nineteen inches apart. Between them, a single square window, facing forward, offering the vista of the foredeck, the length of a football field but half as wide. The window couldn’t open. Across from the window, a combination desk/dresser/counter, with a big mirror filling the wall above. One plastic desk chair and one padded chair, just fitting between the desk and the door. The walls were metal, painted an industrial green.
Remembering my father’s stories of his first roommate dictating who went where, I hung back and let him pick his bed and closet. Respect. He took bed number 1 and closet number 1. I took bed and closet number 2. That seemed fitting.
I set my laptop computer on the desk. The newspaper had refused to grant me the leave I requested. Instead, they insisted I file my column from the sea. Still, given how I had botched my request, I was relieved they let me go at all.
Newspaper editors-in-chief are not famous for their bonhomie, and my boss at the Sun-Times, Nigel Wade, was perhaps more aloof than most. A large, ruddy, well-tailored New Zealander with a dramatic head of silvery hair, he was not given to long, friendly exchanges with the staff. Or even short friendly exchanges.
Granted, it would have been difficult to pick a worse moment to bring up the trip. I had written a column about not having an idea for a column—something I thought was very hip, very Seinfeld, and also happened to be true, always a plus in journalism. I enjoyed puncturing the notion of columnist-as-infallible-font-of-endless-wisdom and admired the portrait I painted of myself slumped before the computer, mouth open, head empty. “This must be what stupid people feel like all the time,” I wrote.
Nigel hated it. “If you can’t think of an idea for your coh-lum, then perhaps you should not be writing a coh-lum,” he said, after I was summoned to his office for a chewing out. At first I bristled—the column did have an idea behind it: not having an idea for a column. He just didn’t like my argument, didn’t like the suggestion that some days there is no insight to sell for 35 cents. That didn’t go over well, either. I tried a second approach: I was tired, working very hard, maybe the grind was getting to me, but I certainly still had something left to say. He liked that better. I was off the hook. The flames died down and we entered in that phase of relaxation that comes after a tense talk—the raking of embers, decompressing back into the workday, when I unwisely said something along the lines of, “Besides, I’ve got this ocean voyage with my dad coming up and will need to take off a few months from work; that should give me a chance to recharge my batteries.”
What could I have been expecting? “A nautical adventure? Jolly good! Splendid. Just the medicine for you. Don’t know why you waste your time on all this newspaper nonsense, anyway. We must lift a few brandies at the 410 Club before you sail.”
The actuality was different.
“Fuck off, then!” Nigel shouted, leaping up and waving me toward the door. “Fuck off! Get out of here! Go work for a newspaper that’ll put up with that shit!” I fled, backing out of the office, babbling apologies, hands spread in defensive entreaty, almost bowing. Not the heigh-ho send-off I might have hoped for.
Just before the Empire State sailed, my father and I went back down to the pier, to walk around on land one last time, more relaxed, without the physical and psychological burden of our luggage. People were hugging. A girl sat on the low concrete wall by the water and wept. Their own stories being forged, I thought. Would their unborn children someday be drawn to sea after them, sucked into the vortex of their parents’ romantic notions? I sent a mental message of solidarity to those unborn voyagers: good luck, kiddos, I’m with you!
Departure approached and we went back aboard, together. Officials from the college, alumni, all sorts of people crowded the officers’ lounge on the cabin deck and along the rails outside, picking at cheese and pretzels—a cocktail party without the cocktails. The school’s public relations man, Stan Melasky, showed us off: the newspaper columnist and his father, returning to his former ship, where Steinberg père had been a radio operator in the early 1950s. Dignitaries were going as far as Oyster Bay, then being taken off on a pilot boat. I enjoyed the burst of surprise and envy when I answered the inevitable question with “No, I’m not getting off at Oyster Bay. We’re taking the ship to Naples.”
Joe Gerson, a spry old gent in a baseball cap emblazoned empire state—1949–1999, had been on my father’s cruises and knew a lot of the same people, such as third mate Bill Hawley.
“Bill Hawley was my rabbi,” Gerson said. “He was a great guy. He was my rabbi, Mr. Hawley. Without Bill Hawley I would never have made it. I remember him telling me as if it were today, ‘Every stevedore carries a tin cup. Have a drink with him. You’ll get more with a little booze than with the vinegar. Remember: be a Third Mate and act the part. Always be in the swim. Never be out of the swim. . . .’ ”
At that moment the ship’s horn blasted and the pier began to move away. I checked my watch: 10 a.m. We were leaving. I clanged up the metal stairway to the bridge and scanned the huge crowd lining the shore. My friends had said they might take the bus up from Manhattan, but we hadn’t found each other. I couldn’t believe they’d actually make the trip, but waved energetically toward land anyway, just in case. Admiral David C. Brown, the head of the school, was leaning against the rail, watching the fort recede. “You will notice,” he observed, “that the ship left promptly at 10 a.m.”
I nodded, thinking: a complete anti-climax. The second dramatic high point of the morning shot to hell. I didn’t even know where my father was at the moment. That’s why it is bad to anticipate. The times you imagine are going to be significant fall flat, while excitement boils up where it isn’t expected. Whatever this trip is going to offer, I thought, won’t be in the departure. Still, I kept my eyes on the skyline of New York City as it waned, feeling very much out of the swim, wondering how things would be by the time Charleston—our first stop—loomed into sight. The people on the dock were tiny dots, interrupted by bunches of balloons. That’s what the balloons were for: so those on board could spot their families and loved ones, could cling to the sight of them as long as possible as the ship sailed away.
All the first day, my father and I explored the ship, at first together and then splitting up. Living in a world of general flimsiness, of thin sheet metal and plastic bumpers, all designed to just barely work and no more, I found a real thrill in the overengineering of a ship, basically a fifty-story building designed to lie on its side and be pounded by the might of the ocean.