The Prison Point Bridge runs like an arrow across what once was Miller’s River. The water had, long ago, been filled in for railroad yards, an old glass factory, and a slaughterhouse. I was freshly back in Boston from Canada.
It was November now, and the last warm touches of October crimson had fled from the oaks in the parks. I arrived in Boston last week with my cat, a guitar, and a pack. Finding housing had been a chore.
A lead took me to a rundown Single Room Occupancy on Temple Street. The proprietor was a little shrimp named Bernie, who initially insisted that he had no rooms available but invited me in for coffee when he saw my cat. Over coffee, he explained that he ran the house primarily for his old Merchant Marine buddies and a few selected others. Unfortunately, his friends were beyond their “looking for a ship” days and needed homes. Bernie provided this for as low a price as you’d find. After coffee, he led me to the door, but as I left, he said, ” Hey, Carreras? Did I ever ship out with your dad? Nico, Nick, or some such?” I replied that my dad had been a Dollar Steamship Lines sailor and later American Presidents Line. “Carreras, come on back; your dad was a shipmate. I got a room at the top, but it’s warm.”
It was too warm. All the steam heat rose to the crows’ nest I occupied, and I had to leave the door and window open all winter. My cat loved this. He became a frequent visitor to all the rooms in the building and soon filled his scrawny kitten body out to a full muscular cathood from treats. Since he cleaned up the building’s rodent population in a week and terrorized a few small dogs in the neighboring buildings, he soon won the title of Grey Menace. No mouse, dog, or bare toe was safe from the Menace. The Grey Menace introduced me to the other tenants. If I was searching for him, he was with Jay, Tom, or Alfred.
As Bernie said, the residents were old sailors. The list of lines they had sailed for was long and glorious. But few had much to retire on, and none had family that wanted them for an extended stay. One described the situation, “Well, Carreras, we’re on the beach permanently.” A few worked as “lumpers” at the fish pier, helping to unload fish, but most just picked up odd jobs around the Haymarket. They cleaned the market stalls and replenished their food stocks with what they could scavenge.
On occasion, you’d get one of them talking; they’d transport you to pre-war Japan, China, or the Caribbean. They spoke of the ships they served on, what years, who cooked, and if the food was good. They did not recognize the urban landscape the way a landsman would. Most of us see our cities from the inside out.
Even if you grow up in a coastal town, the sea is a fringe. Not for them. It was a view from the docks. They recognized ports not by the landmarks you’d expect but from the harbor and its entrance, the navigational features, wharves, piers, waterside districts, and places they frequented.
Later on, when I learned sailing and coastal navigation, I realized how valuable this perspective was. A port looks entirely different from the water than from the pier. Distances are different. You go around to a location by the long path of roadways. On the water, you go over to the other side.
Perceptions are different; the optics of what you see and how you perceive it can vary daily and by the time of day.
Next time you take a cruise, whale watching, fishing trip, or harbor cruise, practice this alternate way of looking at your world. Your old and familiar will be different and new.
A change of perspective is a good thing now and then.