The word Cumshaw derives from a Chinese word for “grateful thanks.” Cumshaw was a late 18th or early 19th century add to a sailor’s vocabulary picked up on voyages to China. It can reference a gift or payment for a service. I know that some people refer to it as a bribe. But the way I learned of it from my father and other mariners, it was a sort of lubricant between cooperating parties. Sometimes cash is exchanged, but often its goods or services. I need something, and you need something. We reciprocate after agreeing on the value of the goods or services we are exchanging. Something closer to a grateful gift than a blatant bribe.
I learned about this early in my life. I was my father’s weekend and summer apprentice at his primary job site, and a host of other smaller jobs that he always seemed to be asked to do. He had come ashore the year I was born after years at sea. There was little about marine power plants that he could not fix, and he put that knowledge to good use repairing and maintaining anything that needed power. This Included commercial power plants, apartment house heating systems, propulsion systems in fishing vessels, and anything for which he could find a service manual. Among my earliest memories are those of days spent handing him tools as we worked on fishing vessels, and re-tubing old boilers.
Lots of this was just straight pay for the job. But, by age nine, I had my sea legs because Nick Carreras and his son were out on those charter fishing boats we maintained. We rarely paid. Cumshaw.
Deep-sea fishing was the closest Nick Carreras was going to get to the sea, so we did lots of it. When things got bad at home, my father would tell mom that he was going down to the hiring hall and look for a ship; if he did, he never found one. Instead, we’d head out on a boat for a day of fishing — fair or foul weather.
As the years went on, my father worked his way into a working supervisory position for an owner of multiple offices and light industrial buildings. Now he could be all over the City. New York then was still THE premier seaport, and mariners from all over the world came ashore there. Where ever Nick Carreras went in New York City, there seemed to be a network of former shipmates or other mariners who had swallowed the anchor. They all established their curriculum vitae by mentioning which lines and ships they had served on, when and curious things about the ports they had visited. The particulars of their lives at sea set serious business could proceed.
More lucrative were the connections with the businesses located in the buildings. My father and his crew of workers maintained the buildings. But, as any New Yorker will tell you lots of little, and not so little things were optional and open to negotiation. My father was a master at this sort of negotiation, having learned the basics in the Merchant Marine. Now he set about polishing those skills in his home city. By the sixties, a pattern developed. My father left the house dressed for business in a tailored suit, silk tie, diamond-studded cuff links, and diamond pinky ring. He drove a late model car; he came to prefer Caddy’s then T-Birds. Once at work, he’d make the rounds, descend into the basement, and change into khaki shirt and pants. Then he was ready to commence his daily work routine. At the end of the day, he’d change back into the suit and drive home.
Almost every day had some time dedicated to checking in on some of his outside clients: Haberdashers, Jewelers, dentists, butchers, shoe stores, and more. Periodically, you’d hear, “Nick, could you do ( add the name of service here).” My father would take note and schedule the service for a Saturday, Sunday, or evening. When I was visiting home in New York, I’d participate in these activities. I never heard mere filthy lucre mentioned. Most of these were old established relationships, and they and my father understood each other. “Nick, drop by sometime, I have something new in stock that would look great on you.” “Nick, I have a brooch with rubies that would be wonderful for Mimi ( my mother).” everyone involved understood the quid pro quo.
You could fall off the cart with my father. Haggling was one way to do this, not keeping your word was the other. It was also not all economic. It could also be about years-long relationships. Once, I asked my dad about what he’d receive from a particular job we were doing – “it’s just a favor,” he replied.
When My Dad died, I was the one who went through his papers. The tax documents told one story, the Italian shotguns, bespoke suits, hand-stitched shoes, and other things told another. Via the informal economy, my father had done well. His actual annual income from his job was very modest.
The foundation for this life had been laid down just like a ship from the keel up. His first voyages as a teenager on the Dollar Steamship lines had taken him around the world. Before he turned twenty-one, He’d been on two round the world cruises and several shorter passages.
My father introduced me to the term cumshaw at about age nine; about the same time, I began to pick up Spanish curse words from him.
Cumshaw. It’s a useful word for a sailor.
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