See What You’ve Been Missing

You may be wondering if port cities come with seedy underbellies as implied by the 1980’s neon-splashed smash hit series Miami Vice (after which I’ve modeled most of my life). 

They do. 

The Usual Suspects, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter  – all take place in port cities. All reveal what goes on right underneath your nose but you’re too busy texting and fretting over your IG profile to notice. 

For shame.  

And not actually living in a port city is a lame excuse. 

I would know about this. Ports. Seediness and the like. I was once a Maritime Courier. 

I don’t put it on my resume out of fear of reprisal.

Maritime couriers service (you guessed it) Maritime Vessels which are fluvial or more generally waterborne transport for solid or liquid freight, specifically (in my case) things like grain, coal, rock, petroleum, heroin, truck-sized intermodal containers full of stuff we buy at Costco, and occasionally nuclear weapons.

You undoubtedly see the allure, as most do. But don’t go rushing to apply for the next Maritime Courier job you see in the newspaper. They don’t just let any geek off the street do the job. You have to be unemployed, know how to drive a Dodge Caravan and have a friend whose uncle owns the business. 

There’s more. Once you’ve broken through something I’ve coined “this glass ceiling,” you have to know someone within the organization to “vouch” for you, which is a huge deal.

If you pass the vouch, you promptly meet the boss at the bar at 10:00 a.m. and make him a really good Manhattan. 

Really good. 

If he likes it, your next step is to kill someone and dump the body. If you get away with it, you’re in. The whole process takes about a year, at the end of which they give you a hat!

They also give you a phone. Which is unfortunate as you’re on-call 24-hours a day. The Maritime Courier Industry never sleeps. It’s like working for Amazon.

I remember my first “job.” My friend and I had to go to Bank of America to receive the ship’s (don’t ever call it a boat, you get hazed if you call it a boat) payroll, which turned out to be about $80,000.00 in cash. It came in bricks!

Since the boat, er ship, wasn’t coming in until midnight, and it was about 1 p.m., my friend and I promptly went to a bar to play pool. The nice thing about pool tables is they have convenient empty spaces underneath with which to store backpacks filled with bricks of money while you get another schooner and more quarters. We weren’t worried about security, as the bar was packed with its regular retinue of trustworthy, albeit slightly stuporous, day-drinking professionals.   

After a harrowing drive we arrived at the (undisclosed port city in Washington State) and happily stumbled our way towards the berth (technical term – means “boat parking spot”) of the “M.T. Richa.” I know, right? That was its actual name. Merchant vessels frequently come with hilarious monikers like “P&O Nedloyd Senator” or “Marchen Maersk.” However, you should never point out the ridiculousness of this to the captain. 

Unfortunately, upon our arrival the berth distinctly lacked this outsized vessel, and in its stead we found a much smaller, much wobblier-seeming metal raft the harbor pilot described as a “Skiff,” which sounded way less sea worthy than the expected “1000-Foot Oil Tanker.”

Furthermore, the Skiff was filled to the brim with foreign language-speaking sailors who seemed all too eager to welcome aboard two land-lubbing losers, er, Maritime Couriers, who nervously tightened their backpack straps which undoubtedly weren’t filled with letters from home, books or anything short of cash money payroll. 

At risk of sounding xenophobic, whatever romance language these crewmembers spoke had no bearing on the sudden realization that perhaps standing on a wobbly boat in the middle of the night in the wind and the rain with currency that exceeded both our net worth’s combined and a slight hangover for $15.00/hour (albeit a windfall at the time) was not the best career or general well-being move.  

Inevitably the skiff launched across the oily black waters of the harbor, heading for the shadow of a ship one could barely make out through fought-back tears of cowardice. And blowing rain.

Typically when a ship is set to receive crew it magically deploys a gangway, or metal stairway set at 45-degrees to the ship’s profile for ease of access. It even has little handrails. Having survived the anticipated gangplank walk (sans money-laden backpacks) during our journey across the harbor, imagine our disappointment as our fellow travelers began to leap onto a dubiously constructed rope ladder dangling off the port side of the “M.T. Nightmare” and deftly scramble their way up the 30 or so feet to the working deck. 

I recall asking the pilot if anyone ever fell in. He said “Yes. Do you want a life jacket?” I said “Yes,” donned the jacket, and jumped.

I don’t remember what my friend did. I know he’s not dead.  

I do remember pulling myself up to what seemed like the bow of the ship and looking across a thousand feet of pipes and other gadgetry towards the looming-tower part of the tanker, you know, the part with the windows and the bridge and the smokestack where people do the driving. 

Maybe it’s not called a smokestack anymore. 

Assuming my friend was dead, I meandered across the slick deck fighting back sobs and wondering why I went to college. For how long this transpired, I know not, but like a blind pig stumbling upon a truffle, I eventually came across a metal hatchway, behind which lay the most beautiful flight of normal stairs I’ve ever seen, at the top of which sat a beautiful oak door inlaid with brass work, a portal so stunning I will not see the likes of again until I knock on St. Peter’s Gate, offering a false name and lots of explanatory half-truths.

The Captain obviously did not have cowards in his employ, for he looked at my tear-and-snot covered visage with a mix of confusion and disgust. He then proceeded to hastily count my share of the payroll, and, sensing he had a truly overmatched rookie on his hands, tortured me with harrowing tales of merchant marine lore, complete with introductory titles such as:

Last Week’s Gunfight Between Weapons Dealers at (undisclosed port in Washington State)

The Reason Most Couriers Drive Armored Cars Instead of Dodge Caravans

What Happened When Last Month’s Drug Shipment Got Interrupted at (undisclosed port in Washington State)

Why You Should at Least Have a “Snake or Something” When Delivering Merchant Vessel Payroll

How Bribes with Port Authorities and Shipping Agents Work at (undisclosed port in Washington State)

Tax Problems Port Authorities and Shipping Agents Face 

Security Guards at the Pier – Your Biggest Threat

You May Not Even Make It Home

Luckily my non-dead friend, similarly soaked, snot-covered and whimpering, interrupted this kind introduction of exactly what I had gotten myself into by pounding on the oak door and screaming “Let me in” as if being pursued by a pack of velociraptors from Jurassic Park. Which prevented my nervous breakdown. 

Jurassic Park, not coincidentally, takes place in a port city of sorts.  

I lasted a few more months on the job. My friend made it a year. It turns out the life expectancy of a Maritime Courier is similar to that of a mafioso, so after his year my friend actually qualified for his pension.

Ports, piers, pilings, waves – they’re all tainted to me now. But I’m glad it happened. It’s worth it. Because the next time you glance out the window of your downtown condo at that glimmering water view, maybe you’ll look for a tiny shivering figure on the bow of a skiff racing out to sea, bright blonde hair pushed into a lion’s mane by the nor’east wind, bottle of whisky in one hand, bag of money in the other, and you’ll know what it’s all for, you’ll see what you’ve been missing.