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Across the Hudson river from the grubby harbor town of Bohegan little squares of light were coming on all over the seaport metropolis. The massive verticals of the skyline were softening into a continuous range of man-made mountains. Soon the dusk would darken into night, as night had closed in over the river some eighteen million times since this region was first split wide by the glacial mass cutting down from the north.
In the cities clustered around the harbor were men crowded together in the subways, men going home from work. But the workday on the river had no end. Directly across from Bohegan, on the old North River, as the Dutch once called it and longshoremen still call it, Pier 80 was alive with movement, like a city of ants, and with the same kind of chaotic order, thousands of passengers and friends, shouting, whispering, embracing, waving handkerchiefs in the ritual of leavetaking. For three hundred years the weeping and the panic and the laughter and the hope and the chancing of sea journeys through the Narrows from the great landlocked harbor of the Upper Bay. Mid-river there was more ordered confusion as the old-fashioned ferries, the tugs, the coastal freighters, the coal barges, a sweeping Queen and a solid Dutch three-stacker called, needled, warned and miraculously avoided each other.
Along one of the Bohegan docks a Portuguese freighter bound for Lisbon was working under lights, the winches humming and growling, and the longshoremen, fifty- and sixty-year-old Irishmen and Italians proudly able to keep up with the younger men, the thirty-year-olds out of World War II with wide shoulders and muscular arms and paunches not as big from beer as they were going to be after twenty years of bellying up to the bar after the shift or while waiting—the interminable waiting for work. Here in Bohegan—when they weren't short-ganged—they worked in teams of twenty-two, eight in the hold, eight on the dock, four on the deck, along with a couple of high-low drivers, and they knew each other's rhythms and ways like fellow-members of a football team. They worked at a regular, easy, knowing pace, making the most dangerous work in America—more fatalities than even the mines—look safe and casual. Steel girders seemed to be flying out of control as they swung out from the dock and over the forward hatches: an inch or two here and there and they'd slice off the top of a man's head like cheese, and if you don't get your feet out of the way in split-second time as the girders quickly lower onto the deck, it's good-bye toes. There's more than one longshoreman who can count his number of toes without using all his fingers, and more than one a little short on fingers too. It's all in a day's work. No wonder you see some of them cross themselves like miners or bullfighters as they climb down into the hatch.
Loading and unloading is an art and a fever. The dock boss is on you all the time. Unload, load and turn 'er around. The faster she puts a cargo down and picks up another, well, that's where the money is. Do a three-day job in two and there's your profit. Legitimate profit, that is. Oh, there's plenty of the other kind for the mob who's got the local and the Bohegan piers in its pocket. More ways to skin this fat cat than you ordinary citizens would ever dream. You take sixteen billion dollars' worth of cargo moving in and out all over the harbor every year and if the boys siphon off maybe sixty million of it in pilferage, shakedowns, kickbacks, bribes, short-gangs, numbers, trumped-up loading fees and a dozen other smart operations, why, who cares—the shipping companies? Not so you could notice it. The longshoremen? Most of them are happy or anyway willing just to keep working. The city fathers? That's a joke on the waterfront. The people, the public, you'n'me? All we do is pay the tab, the extra six or seven per cent passed on to the consumer because the greatest harbor of the greatest city of the greatest country in the world is run like a private grab-bag.
The harbor of New York makes the city of New York and the city of New York is the capital of America, no matter what our civics teachers say. Eight billion dollars of world trade makes this the heart-in-commerce of the Western world. Oh, you simple Hendrik Hudson in your simple little ship, the original wrong-way Corrigan looking for India along the palisades of Jersey, look at your harbor now!
There goes a truckload of coffee. Coffee's scarce these days. A checker routes it off to a warehouse, only not the one it was intended for. The trucker has a receipt to turn in, and who's to find out for at least six months it's a fake receipt? Thirty thousand dollars' worth of coffee. As easy as that. Nothing small on the waterfront. Not with that sixteen billion moving in and out. Now who'll miss one little truckload of coffee? Or by the time some eager beaver does, it's so long back that all he can do is pass it on to his supervisor who passes it on to the superintendent who passes it along two or three more echelons till it reaches a vice president who passes it on to the insurance company. Just tack it on to the cost, it's part of the business, all part of the game. Nobody really feels it except the consumer, you'n'me, and we're too dumb to complain.
There goes a sightseeing boat on its tourist-spiel circumnavigation of Manhattan. Now we're passing the famous luxury lines of the West Side, some of the two hundred ocean-going piers along this tremendous 750-mile shoreline from Brooklyn to Bohegan. There's the Liberté, she came in last night with Bernard Baruch aboard, and the Mayor back from another vacation, and Miss America of 1955, yes, sir, folks, more celebrities arriving and departing every fifty minutes twenty-four hours a day three hundred and sixty-five days a year than ever before in the history of the world. There goes the Andrea Doria, the new Italian dreamboat, one of the 10,000 ships a year coming in and going out, one every fifty minutes around the clock, year in year out. And just look around you at the traffic, why, we've got three thousand tugs and barges and lighters and railroad-car floats and ferries and floating cranes and pleasure craft, even canoes and kids on rafts in the middle of all this great going and coming as if they were Tom Sawyers on the Mississippi. Only Mark Twain never saw anything like this, I tell ya Mark would've flipped his wig if he had ever turned his side-wheeler into the harbor of New York.
At the river's edge on the Bohegan side where the ancient Hudson-American piers extended 300 yards into the great harbor, the water was brackish and thinly carpeted with bits of splintered wood, half-capsized beer bottles, oil slick, dead fish and an occasional contraceptive tossed away after some random joy. Midstream the river was deep and magnificent, but here at the edge it was a watery dump. On water-worn stilts over the shallow water, in the shadow of a great ocean liner at Pier B and an Egyptian freighter at Pier C, was a two-room boathouse that had belonged to the Bohegan Yacht Club in some distant, more elegant past. For years now Bohegan had been a working town, a waterfront commerce town and—it figures—a two-bit politician's town. The sportsmen with their narrow white ducks and their nautical caps had moved on to watering places where the river had not yet gone flat and sour as spoiled wine, and where there was ample room to turn a ketch.
Now the Bohegan Yacht Club was inhabited by sportsmen of another stripe. A sign over the door read Longshoremen's Local 447. Everyone knew what 447 stood for in Bohegan. Johnny Friendly. And everyone knew what Johnny Friendly stood for. Likewise Johnny Friendly. Johnny Friendly was president of the local, and vice-president, secretary, treasurer and delegate, for that matter, though he had some of his boys filling those slots. More than that he was a vice-president of the Longshoremen's District Council. More than that he was the way you got and kept a job in this section of the waterfront, the only way, except for some special-favor guys sent down from the Mayor's office. And then even more than that, Johnny Friendly had a better than nodding acquaintance with Tom McGovern, a man whose power was so great that his name was only a whisper on the waterfront. Mr. Big they called him in the press and in the bars, some fearing libel from his battery of Wall Street lawyers, others simply fearing for their lives and limbs. Mr. Big, Big Tom to his remarkable spectrum of friends, was a dear friend of the Mayor's, not just the joker pushed into the Bohegan City Hall by the Johnny Friendly votes, the Hudson-American and InterState (McGovern) Stevedore Company, but the Mayor of the big town itself, alongside which Hoboken, Weehawken, Bohegan, Port Newark and the rest of them were like the rich little mines around the Mother Lode. Tom McGovern was a big, self-made, selfful man, and while Johnny Friendly had these Bohegan piers in his pocket and was frequently described as doing very lovely, Tom McGovern had a whole brace of Johnny Friendlys from Brooklyn to Bohegan, north of Hoboken on the Jersey shore.
Johnny Friendly had the build of a two-hundred-year-old oak cut off a few inches short of six feet. He was big in the shoulders and he had strong arms and legs from his longshoremen days. He was what they call a black Irishman, with eyes like black marbles ten for a nickel, thinning hair that he worried about losing, a jaw that could shove forward at you when he wanted to bull you down. He had the kind of build the tough ones have when they've made a bundle or two and like their Heiniken beers and the five-dollar steaks garnished with fat fried onions and the oversized baked potatoes fondly embracing those little lakes of butter. There was a coating of fat over Johnny's muscles that didn't conceal their existence or the potential violence they represented.
Johnny Friendly was never alone, except when he slept. He moved with his boys and they were as much a part of him as the hundred legs of a centipede. The men around him—"on the muscle for Johnny Friendly" is the way they were usually described—were picked for three qualities; that is, they had to have two of the three. "I want 'em rough or brainy plus loyal." Actually Johnny Friendly, whose Christian name was Matthew J. Skelly, combined these three qualities and three more in addition: ruthlessness, ambition and benevolence. This last had a streak of softness, almost of effeminacy about it. No one dared voice it, dared even notice it in fact, but Johnny Friendly had a way of squeezing and patting your shoulder while he talked to you, if he liked you. And he took very strong, sudden, and, from his point of view, perceptive likes and dislikes. He wasn't merely good to his mother, though he did try to take that bewildered lady to church every Sunday. A fed-up longshoreman's wife could come to John Friendly with the familiar story of her old man's drinking up the week's pay on his way home from the docks and there I am with the five kids and nothing in the icebox. Then Johnny would see to it that the money went right from the company pay office into the house. A king in pre-constitutional days never had more power than Johnny Friendly, McGovern's fief, had along the docks and deep into Bohegan. And many a king written up in the history books had less feeling for his subjects. Johnny Friendly would go way out for them, way out. Not just Christmas baskets, though he did that too, usually through the Cleveland Democratic Club on Dock Street that he controlled. He was always good for fifties and C-notes peeled off the fat roll, and a pat on the back, and a gravelly voiced, "Aah, tha's all right, I understand ferget it!" A real big man around Bohegan, Johnny Friendly. A hundred per cent when he's for you. Zero when he's not.
Right now Johnny Friendly's emotional state was pushing zero. His patience, of which he liked to think he had a great store, was all used up. That Doyle kid. That fresh-nosed little son-of-a-bitchin' Doyle kid. Troublemaker. It seemed to run in the family. The uncle, Eddie, used to go around with petitions and stuff like that way back when the local was just getting started. Johnny had been a kid himself then. They had fixed Eddie Doyle's wagon and roughed up Joey's old man a little bit. Old man Doyle's leg always stiffened up in the wintertime from where the bullet was. At least he seemed to have learned his lesson.
For years now he had gone along with the set-up, content to pick up his two three days and his forty fifty dollars a week. Always ready with a buck for the collection which went in (and quickly out of) 447's welfare fund. Once in a while when some crumb forced a meeting of the local, Pop Doyle had the good sense to stay away. Pop was all right. Johnny Friendly didn't mind him. But this wet-behind-the-ears pink-faced kid of his. Two years in the Navy and he comes out a regular sea lawyer: The constitution of the local calls for bi-monthly meetings. How do you like that, in the small print he finds bi-monthly. The kid has the nerve to actually go read the constitution. That's the kind we can do without around here. Very nicely. Give me the guys who can't read anything but a Racing Form and go get their load on after work. Peaceable citizens, that's what we want around here. Well, we gave them their meeting. We called it on twenty-four-hours' notice after posting it on the bulletin board here in the office. Sure the notice was on a scrap of paper one inch high but the constitution doesn't say what kind of notice; it just says adequate notice must be given. I gave them their adequate. Only about fifty showed up. Fifty out of a possible fifteen hundred. And half of them was ours. You know, especially loyal members of 447. We all got elected for four more years. This Joey Doyle put up a squawk and Truck whose neck is as wide as some men's shoulders, Truck had to take him outside and quiet him down. He's a tough monkey, Joey Doyle. Doesn't look it, but he's there with the moxie and this trade-union bug has got him bad. Like his Uncle Eddie before him he's hard to discourage. And then comes the clincher. The Governor's got a bunch of stiffs he calls the State Crime Commission. A bunch of stuffed-shirt hypocrites who probably sponged it up good when they needed it. Now they get headlines about investigating waterfront crime. The Governor did plenty favors for Tom McGovern in his time, but it's an election year and the Governor wants to score. First that clown Kefauver and then these jokers want to get in on the act. Well, of course, it's for laughs. Who's going to go blabbing to that bunch of striped-pants bums? Only we start hearing things about Joey Doyle. He's been seen going in and out of the Court House where they sit around jacking off or whatever they do. I'm patient. On the District Council, ask anyone, they'll tell you I'm one of the saner heads. I don't go off half-cocked like my old pal Cockeye Hearn, God've mercy on his soul. You don't see me going around giving it to them in broad daylight just because I don't like the part in their hair. Cockeye down there in the Village had his good points and his partner Wally (Slicker) McGhee is still as quick a trick as you ever want to meet, but you have to be pretty stupid to blow somebody off the waterfront and wind up on the wrong end of the switch. Anyway, before I move Joey out of my way with muscle I look to con him out of my way with some soft soap. For that I've got Charley Malloy. Charley aint called the Gent for nothing. He's got a lot better education than the rest of us got. He did two years in Fordham, believe it or no. And the reason he was bounced wasn't because he wasn't smart enough. He was a little too smart. Charley's got brains to burn. He got caught selling examination answers, that's all. Charley was always smart. Would've been a helluva lawyer. He can talk up a breeze like That matter to which you have reference to which and stuff like that. So I sent my trouble-shooter to my trouble-maker. Charley talks sense. He says he likes Joey and wants to help him, which he does. There might even be a place in the set-up for a bright kid like Joey. We don't hold grudges. I've taken in plenty guys who started in bucking me. It shows they got spirit. I can use spirit. But when Charley wastes his best arguments and comes back with no dice and the scuttlebutt has the Doyle punk blowing his nose for the Crime Commission, which no respectable longshoreman would be caught dead in their company, what am I supposed to do, hang a medal on him? I worked too hard for what I got to frig around with a cheese-eater. Know what I mean?
Excerpted from On the Waterfront by Budd Schulberg. Copyright © 1983 Budd Schulberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 7, 2013