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August 01, 2003  

Harbor Master

When I was 12, they made me the yacht club's Harbor Master: keep track of boats from other clubs tying up to our piers; collect a little rent; extend the glad hand. I have no idea why they let me do this...p'bly because I was hanging around so much, looking so eager to do something, being a pain in the ass ;-)

One of the worst things about being smart is how much bigger it makes your stupidity look. This was certainly my summer for being "smart".... From the scant records that accompanied the Harbor Master's cashbox, it was obvious that the position had been ignored for a couple of years. The tiny budget had apparently been spent at the bar, and there had obviously been no attempt to systematically collect slip fees. So, time to whip things into shape....

Collecting fees was fun -- I got to meet every boat that came in, talk to the skippers, ogle the gear (and any young daughters ;-), and act as first-tier tour guide to folks who had never visited before. For big events -- regattas of 50 or more boats, for instance -- I started a registry, and made up a dopey "rule" that no one could use the bar until their boat had "reported" (i.e. paid a slip fee) to the Harbor Master. It became a cute little thing -- the bartender would point new arrivals to an old wooden keg at the end of the bar, where they dropped in their money and signed the register. Later, I would visit the boat with a "Hello" and a simple safety look-see, and check their mooring.

The regattas were so cool... due to not enough piers, we often had to raft boats out from the main breakwall in front of the club. For some events this meant rafting people six or seven boats out, which was a total headache in terms of getting boats in and out. But the lights at night, the laughter, the music, the rhythms of people crossing bows to get from ship to shore to ship... that was magical.


Regattas also meant lottsa hungry people in the morning. The club served late lunch and dinner, but never breakfast. For that, there were two choices: Point West about a mile away, and the Galley, a tad over a quarter mile away. Point West was classy to the point where only neighborhood locals felt at ease wearing any old thing... to go to the Point, you got dressed at least a little. When you've passed out in a curved bunk on a rocking 32-footer, getting "dressed" in the morning is not high on your list; you just want to take a piss and get off the boat.

The Galley was pretty much the opposite of the Point. The food was serviceable, but nothing to recommend. The operator was Martha, and Martha didn't take any shit from anybody. You got what you got when you got it, get it? Prices were clip-joint level in the summer, but you could go there looking like a dog's breakfast and smelling like a goat, and it wasn't a problem. A counter, two tables, three booths, and water cost a nickel.

It occurred to me that there was a profitable service to be made with breakfast at the club. How hard could it be?

Initial stock came from the IGA, delivered by bike, paid for from the registry. Eggs, toast, bacon, suasage, pancakes. Cheese, fruit, and juice were "borrowed" from the club's regular stock. I cooked and served; bills were handled honor-system in the registry. I did it from 7 to 8, serving maybe 30 light meals.

I was instructed in all this by the dawn cleaning crew. The club was somehow able to get around health regs on nightly cleanup (no point in keeping Negroes and low-class climbers from being on the grounds any longer than they had to be, you see), and took care of the night before on the next morning. This crew came in around 6 in the morning, and got the kitchen ready for the noon lunch opening. This meant cleaning -- all the dishes, pots, pans, utensils; all the hardware, vent hoods, grills, counters; the floors. It meant taking out yesterday's trash, and taking delivery of the day's food. It meant prepping for lunch and dinner -- salads, potatoes, breads, desserts, sauce and rue bases, soups...everything.

The dawn crew then prepared and served lunch from noon until 2. Then they cleaned it up and turned it all over to the night crew. They did this every day. They were all Negroes.

What a strange word to say today. Back then, 1968, it was kinda cutting-edge to the folks around the lake. Like being able to say "breast" in the '70s without tittering -- it was "grown up." Anyway, the dawn crew was made up of seven Negroes. All of them held at least Master's degrees; all of them were unable to find work teaching or researching, and so they hung out together doing this. This was a way of staying strong they had learned from their families, from the Pullman cars, from harder times slowly going by.... All of them became my friends.

I met them by meeting them. I showed up on a Monday morning and said, "Hi" -- outlined my breakfast plan; asked if it made any sense; asked if it was O.K. with them. No one seemed nonplussed by this, and they took me seriously and treated me graciously. I'm still blown away by it today. I just walked in there and started treating them like people, and they did the same to me.

I had never before spoken to an Arican-American; I had only ever seen a couple before then, up close. I had just hit the age where "adult" men -- fathers, family friends -- would tell "nigger" jokes when we were around. I had been indoctrinated against civil rights capitulation (I understood the silent message as, "Give 'em something, but they can't expect real equality."), and generally understood the "inferiority" of people of color. I had doubts about it all, and excitement.

When I came into the kitchen that morning, Doc took care of me. Treated me like a real "little man," and talked business; none of the slow-growing flora that had to be tended in conversations with other adults. I'm impressed to this day that he kept a straight face. Everyone got together, and we worked out a way to get the place ready for breakfasts by 7. Two grills, one counter, plates and cups, some trays, one oven. The floor. The chairs and tables outside, all ready by 7.

In exchange for this from them, my part was to do my own prep work, and to help out a little afterwards, usually just cleaning up after myself. As it worked out though, I spent almost every day in and out of the kitchen until the dawn crew left... just helping, talking, and learning.

I was so stupid...loaded with "facts" born all too often from prejudice or dumb inertia, still very one-dimensional in my view of how the world worked, still very programmed by parents and public school. The crew was so patient with me, so forgiving, so caring, so generous.

Don't know why, but I can't remember everyone's names. I remember "Doc" and "Glad" and "Main" and "Dor" and "Stevie" and that's it; but I remember everyone's face. They were magnificent people -- learned, wise, wicked, and serenely human. They told me things about sociology, psychology, modern literature, science, history, and politics. They told me about black people, and white people, and about trouble. They told me about racism, and the Klan in Michigan, and in the South, and about lynchings and auctions and 40 acres. They told me about Modernism and World War One and France. They told me about the Orient, and Hinduism, and Buddhism. They told me about Japan, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They told me about Missisppi and Alabama and Georgia. They told me about the blues, and jazz, and spirituals, and finger pianos. They told me about the NAACP, and the Panthers, and Malcolm, and Elijah Mohammed, and SNIC, and the Freedom Riders. They told me about the Crusades, and the Elightenment, and Locke, and Hume. They told me about Communism, Socialism, Colonialism, , and the Cold War. They told me about Freud, and Adler, and Jung. They told me about Einstein, and Napier, and al-jabr. They told me about women, and men, and the sexes, and about trouble. They told me whatever I asked. And they asked about what I had learned. It was the first time I had seen Plato in action, and my head was turned.

That summer passed like a dream that I've spent my life trying to recall. More than anything, I learned the value of an education, and had my first taste of what "lifelong learning" meant. I saw actual tolerance, not just re-coded bigotry. I saw actual faith and forgiveness, not just a pantomime of principle. Most importantly, I learned on my own (Thank You, Doc!) to be alert for walls going up, within me and without me, that would attempt to limit or deflect my ideas from their natural course -- Sapere Aude!

That, and Doc taught me how to mop a floor.