Manhattan, by and large, is a grid. Except for some of the areas in the south of the island, navigation is by right and left turns. Street navigation then breaks down into east or west of Broadway. Or into what area you are going to; Meat Packer’s district, Mid-town, the Garment District. The turns then followed by passages of long blocks. On moving to coastal Maine, I discovered that adequate roads and bridges were modern phenomena. My father in law, the Cap’n, had vivid memories of taking ferries and small boats everywhere in the early twentieth century. There were many places without bridges, and streets and roads end at the water’s edge. In his father’s time, and his youth, a boat, not an automobile, was the essential item for transportation in many coastal communities. The Cap’n grew up with an oar in one hand and the sheet of a sail in the other. Spend a few minutes with a map of Maine, you’ll understand better. The cause of those long deep bays and river mouths was glacial advance and retreat. When people came along, they just had to deal with it. But, the waterways are like an obstacle course with obstructions to straight-line navigation. Ledges awash at low tide become capped by white water racing along their length. The parts just below the tide line are what will rip your hull open.
The Cap’n had spent most of his adult life out of soundings in merchant’s vessels. When he returned to home waters on retirement, he refreshed memories from a youth on the water. He could ghost along on light air in a deep fog using the sounds off the land and the currents of the tide to keep him from grounding on ledges. The waters of the river, harbor, and coves were the streets. Once, we made a bet to see who could get to the next town the fastest. I drove; he rowed. Forty-five minutes later, I pulled onto the wharf, and he handed me my coffee. His time over the water had been about twenty minutes. On Manhatten, you went uptown or downtown. On the coast of Maine, the Cap’n introduced me to a new direction of travel. We went over the water to the town. Or as the Cap’n said – ” we’ll go over town.”
The Cafe Why Not didn’t stand; it lurked below ground level opposite the Cafe Wha in New York’s Greenwich Village. The Wha took in crowds and lit up that corner of Bleecker and McDougal, the Why Not was, just what it appeared to be, a dark hole in the ground. I checked only a few years ago, and the location remains much the same as it was the last time I performed there in April of 1965. The stairs down just as dingy and dark. There were three rough tiers of Folk coffeehouses in the Village. At the upper range were places like Gerdes Folk City. The next level included the Wha. Near the bottom were places like the Why Not. Performing at places like those was not a living, but it was a way of life. In my day gig, I tried to sell timeclocks and supplies in the Garment District. Among ourselves, we didn’t share the details of those other lives. They weren’t real. Only our seven PM to six AM reality mattered. Between gigs, we assembled at places like Cafe Rienzi, Figaro, Kettle of Fish, or the bar at the Minetta Tavern. Conversations never featured mundane life, only how the songs we were working on were going. Real-life crept in in the form of where we were going to squat for the night if we were currently homeless, money because, at our tier, we always needed it, and, for some drugs- gaining access.
The Folk scene in Greenwich Village was my life from the fall of 1963 to just after the Easter of 1965. One night at Rienzi, I fell a bit too much in love with songs about being on the road. And, I decided to slip into another life. Back in the music room, I sang my last song in Greenwich Village, Fred Neil’s Blues on the Ceiling. By three AM, I was on my way to Boston. I didn’t return. One night about three years ago, I was noodling around with the guitar. My hands fell into a chord pattern and a pick that I once used frequently. What the hell was that song? The internet helped, and soon I was listening to Fred Neil’s album Bleecker and McDougall. Looking at the album cover, it seemed as though it was me walking with my guitar to the next gig in ’65.
I sealed Pint XXV shut last night, and that marked the close of another sapping season for the little sugarbush behind our house. Just a bit over three gallons of syrup, enough for family needs. This morning the dog, cat, and I went out to survey the slow opening of spring in our tiny woodland garden. Hepatica, still not quite in bloom, trout lily slowly emerging from last fall’s leaves. The opening of the maple buds and chorus of peepers marked the end of sapping, while the slow progress of the plants that we call spring ephemerals began the opening of the next phase of spring.
After the cat gets settled into her spot in my greenhouse workshop, and the dog wanders off to harass some early chipmunks, I settle down to woodcarving while listening to the radio.
You probably have a friend who, if you met them today, you’d never befriend. They’re lousy drunks, never help out, or have egos beyond description. Your friendship has that exclamation or wonderment factor: “why is this person, my friend?” On examination, you might understand that what irritates you most about them are the character flaws you have in common.
We met after grad school and bonded over beer and conversation at Dunster’s Pub in Harvard Square. Charlie’s family was well enough off that they paid for his grad school experience, his apartment, and upkeep. None of that compared to the sartorial standards I had experienced in Philly. There I regularly dinned on beurre de cacahuète et gelée and haricots et franks (*), while living in less than rarified digs in West Philadelphia. Charlie loved and coveted all things maritime, as did I. That mutual interest was probably the firm foundation of our friendship. There was a particularly interesting antique store on Charles Street that we would jointly haunt. The proprietor would have gladly asked me to leave, I never bought. But, Charlie would occasionally purchase for his “collection.”
I did have several things that Charlie envied: actual bluewater sailing experience, a family background that was really “wet” from Mercent and Naval service, and, most importantly, a collection of maritime carving. Charlie purchased his collection. If I wanted something, I had to get out the tools and carve it. In particular, I owned one eagle that Charles lusted over. It was a small one similar to those carved by Bellamy with a banner reading, “Don’t Give Up The Ship.” After one too many beers at Dunster’s, he would frequently suggest that a true friend would gift him this fantastic prize. After all, I could easily carve another.
I eventually decided to give him a duplicate of the eagle for his birthday and asked him to write out exactly what should be on the banner. On the evening of the birthday party, Charlie eagerly grabbed the eagle from the pile of presents. Ripping off the wrapping, he held the eagle up for all to see. The murmur of appreciation subsided and turned to giggles and laughter. Turning the eagle over, he read the banner: ” Free Trade & Semen’s Rights.” Those of us who had spell checked his articles ( in the days before spelling checkers) knew this about him – he was a notoriously bad speller, and he never caught his errors. I promptly handed him a second banner that read “Free Trade and Seaman’s Rights.” I don’t think he ever undid the two little screws that held the banner in place and allowed replacement with the non-joke banner. He took a bit of perverse pride in Semen’s Rights.
Call it what you will: hardtack, sea biscuit, pilot bread, pilot biscuit. It was once was a staple of a sailor’s life. Improvements in refrigeration and seagoing kitchens made soft tack ( leavened bread) available to seamen for longer than the time it took for the land to sink below the horizon. Probably a good thing also. My father, uncle, and other seamen I knew reliably always tapped their pilot bread to drive the weevils to the broken open bottom. The nasties would fall out, and you could eat the biscuit without the extra protein. Of course, by the time they came along, it was a mostly empty habit. But still, they did it religiously. It can take a long time for a sailor to change practices. My father once told me that it was a pilot biscuit that he’d give me when I was teething, to my mother’s dismay. Mom was afraid I choke on them. They, along with Spanish, Hungarian, and German dishes, were what I ate when I was young. Smeared with strawberry preserves, they can’t be beaten. When I came to New England, the only home like part of the cuisine was those hard four-inch round pucks. Being used to the thin tomatoey stuff we called chowder in New York, the presence of a pilot biscuit was a reassuring element as I transitioned to the real chowder.
When I began sailing on the Cap’ns 34 foot Ketch Psyche the favored lunch of sardines, biscuit, and tea was a home-like element, except that for Carreras’, the beverage was intensely strong and sometimes fortified coffee. The Cap’n was not a tapper.
The brand that we mostly bought was the Nabisco pilot biscuit. When the company made a move in the eighties to do away with the brand, There was a horrible uproar. Widespread outrage forced them to continue baking biscuits for New England. They gradually killed it off by decreasing the amount available, and then quietly ceasing production. For a while, I was buying a brand made in Hawaii, but then they stopped distributing in New England and I gave up hope—just once in a while haunting the cracker aisle in hopes of finding something not too salty, savory, sweet, or fat that would do.
Today, in desperation, I ordered an Alaskan biscuit that claims to be the real deal. Sorry, teeny oyster crackers on chowder won’t do. Soon I’ll be tapping a real biscuit again; I hope.
I’m not a great fan of “Lobsta”; don’t hate it. But don’t love it. In 1965 I was a waiter at the old Poland Springs Hotel. I carried a thousand platters of lobster with drawn butter into the main dining room. The trays filled with lobster leaked brine all over my waiter’s monkey jacket, and the drawn butter oozed down my arm and into my armpit. The reek put me off “Lobsta” for several years. By 1972 I could eat a lobster, but like the Melville character, I’d prefer not to.
Sunday dinner at my in-laws was always the same. Dinner served at 11:30 AM, two lobsters apiece, salad ( Kraft Thousand Island or French dressing), bread and butter or pilot biscuit, your choice of water or iced tea. The meal and timing were invariant over the years. My wife could not remember when it had not been thus. My not liking lobster was not reason enough to alter family tradition. Minor illness at the smell of the drawn butter was not sufficient reason to change.
My mother-in-law could not understand why anyone wouldn’t pick the last bit of flesh out of the least spinneret, nook or cranny of a lobster’s body: “Wes, Don’t you want to pick that ragged body? There’s still lots of meat on it!” No, you can have it, and I don’t want the tamale why don’t you take it? “Oh, Wes always leaves the best parts, Mommy,” says my wife. Tamale tastes worse than the rest of the lobster; if the cat won’t eat it, neither will I. “Wes? What’s wrong? Can’t eat your second lobster? You can’t get them this good in a restaurant.” – stated with a clever nod by my father in law the Cap’n . No matter how many Sundays pass, the lines are roughly the same. To them, it just seemed unnatural that I disliked the main course. Arguing did no good. After listening to a request for something different, I was looked at for a few minutes in a distracted fashion, my abnormal behavior noted, and the family proceeded to devour lobster.
I had grown up in a family where passionate arguments were the norm, but once won or lost the decision stuck. Discussions rarely ended in my wife’s family. If it was worthwhile having once, the second time around was better. You renegotiated your starting positions, but not your terms. The objective on Sundays was to get Wes to agree that lobster was nature’s best food. The exception to the endless rehashing of old discussions was the Cap’n, Daddy. In this family, Daddy was always right. If Daddy wanted “Lobsta,” everybody had “Lobsta.” It was the natural order of this small end of the coastal universe.
This particular Sunday, Mommy announced that after dinner, we would plan our summer trip. I had been on a few of these already. Like Sunday dinner, the excursions were patterned and predictable. Sail out past Sequin Light, a race up the Sassanoa River to shoot the Hell Gates, then an evening pause downriver from Bath. The next day there’d be a leisurely sail down to Popham. From Popham, it was out to Matinicus, Monhegan, or some other location, and then home. That year I was determined to suggest an alternative destination. So, after the last ragged body and swimmeret had been picked clean, dishes washed, and picnic table cleaned, the family gathered in the parlor to discuss the trip. Mommy began. “Daddy, where would you like to go this year?” while Mommy always introduced the topic, she hated sailing and would never join us, a rare never renegotiated item. The Cap’n did not expect Mommy to come and never suggested it. My wife and if he were present, my brother in law faithfully suggested the stalwart choices: Bath, Popham, Matinicus, and Monhegan. I decided to lower an oar into the water. “Well, I’ve never been to Mount Desert Island and never visited Bar Harbor. I’d love to go there.” A great stillness followed this pronouncement. Everyone looked toward Daddy. Daddy looked toward his pipe and the can of Holiday Pipe Tobacco ( the one with the black on blue illustration of a 1940’s cruise liner and tropical isle). Daddy filled his pipe, lit it, and, drawing on it, said, “Baah Habaah. We don’t do Baah Habaah. That’s just Sodom and Gomorrah on the Atlantic.” And so it was.
II The family billed the trip as a sort of” go where we want to go, get there when we get there” event. We’d wind up at Monhegan eventually. Truthfully, it was a paced exercise in tides, ground made good, efficient sail use and pilotage. The Cap’n was a real Master Mariner, had grown up in these waters, and knew what he was about.
One of the few pictures I have left from that part of my life is one of me looking quite salty at the helm of Psyche, the beautiful thirty four foot ketch the Captain owned. It’s a lovely photo until you notice the snaking crooked wake behind me. So, while the Cap’n was trying to calculate ground made good, the crew, me, was not holding the course. Despite being “wet from birth” as a member of a seagoing family, I was a near-total loss as a sailor. The family planned to make a mariner, boat repairman, and generally “useful” individual out of me. I was a study in frustration with the Cap’n.
Indeed, I was the crew, the only crew. “Wes! go forward and douse that jib!” and “Wes, get the lead line”, and “Wes, bear off a bit more.” It was a trial, but in my secret place, I also loved it. The Cap’n guessed it and put up with me because that love showed through whenever the sails set wing on wing or we ghosted on light air almost too faint to support a gull. The daughter was afraid of the boat; the wife was jealous of it, and the son avoided the topic altogether. Only the son in law grumbled but went with a hidden pleasure. The cruise was a pleasant torment.
Despite the crew’s errors, we continued at a respectable pace with the Captain gauging tides and currents. He took great pride in shooting the passage between the Hell Gates, and in having the right amount of water below and clearance above a nasty bridge further upriver. It was a favorite exercise in tide and timing. He then played chicken with the bridge keeper at Bath, who never gave anything more than scant excess in lifting his span above the ketch’s masts.
The Cap’n liked to tie up at a coal pier on the river in Bath, and take dinner ashore. After dinner, we spent a peaceful night anchored in a cove downriver from Bath. The Kennebec in the failing light with no other boats in sight looked like a wilderness until a scattering of lights came on in nearby cottages.
The next day we proceeded downriver. The Cap’n drilled the “crew” on tacking, jibing, and handling the puffs of wind coming off the land. This is where the snaky wake picture was taken. At Popham, we briefly stopped. I was all set to explore, but the Captain decided that it was too touristy a stop and off we went. I overheard a muttered crack about Bar Harbour.
III It as early enough to make a passage to Monhegan. The Captain calculated that we’d get there close to sunset. As was often the case with things nautical, he was close on the mark. The son of a friend was Harbor Master, and we thought we’d be able to get a mooring for “a fifth or a fiver.” But, the son of the friend couldn’t be found, and dark was coming on fast. The Cap’n reluctantly decided on the anchorage. It took five or six tries to get a purchase on the shingle and gravel bottom of the channel between Monhegan and Manana. It was 9:30 before we were sitting down for a favorite shipboard meal: sardines, sea biscuits, and tea. About the time we were finished with the “meal,” the tide turned, the wind shifted, and squalls moved in. Our boat began an uncomfortable arrhythmic roll in the channel between the two islands.
About 10:15, the Cap’n insisted on a game of cribbage. I hate cribbage so much that, to this day, I frequently cannot recall the name of the game. That distaste originated in playing with the Cap’n and his family. As is the case with many things disliked, they do not get done well. Every mistake I made became a gleeful pronouncement, every missed nuance or boneheaded play was chuckle-worthy. I left the game early. “But, Wes Daddy wants you to play some more.” I’d prefer not to. So off I went to study the lights list, warning to mariners and the 1941 edition of Bowditch. By midnight the roll was bad enough that my wife was looking jaundiced, and even the Cap’n looked bilious. Knowing that I’d soon join them, I did what my father ( Merchant Marine – Engine Room – Not Bridge!) had always advised and “hit the hammock.” Wife and father in law looked at me oddly as I brushed my teeth and climbed into the small forward berth. Doing this left the longer berths in the main cabin for them. After so much dousing of jibs, bearing off, coming about, and hauling sheets and anchors, I was so tired that little could have kept me awake. The crew was pooped.
The next morning I woke around 800 AM. There was a brisk wind from the east, and the unfortunate weather pattern of the previous night was breaking fast. The Cap’n and my wife looked worse than they had last night. After I’d gone to sleep, they couldn’t. The roll had played with those sardines and biscuits. Then the Cap’n had started worrying that the anchor might drag. Being unable to rouse me, an unhappy wife had gone on deck with Daddy to check the anchor. She then stayed up to keep Daddy company. She said little, but gave me looks that said: “why aren’t you feeling guilty?” Both looked seasick, tired, and peeved at me. I felt great and suggested a row ashore after some breakfast. They declined both. So I fired up the alcohol-fueled Shipmate stove and made eggs. Have I mentioned to those of you who never sailed with an alcohol-fueled Shipmate stove that many find the odor sickening? No?
After a generous breakfast, I offered a row ashore and a stroll. My wife declined and told me, with a little lift in her chin, that she’d stay with Daddy. I returned in about an hour because from the shore, I could see signs aboard the ketch that the Captain was preparing to depart. Being the son of a merchant mariner, I couldn’t see the sense of visiting a port and not sampling its wares. As a former Navy man, I was anxious not to miss the ship’s movement, and so I hurried back aboard. Onboard the ketch, both wife and Captain looked green. The Cap’n told me that he was all for breaking the anchor free now. That meant I was to go forward to achieve that while my wife reluctantly took the wheel under the Captain’s direction.
The sail back to home was breakneck, which did little to ease the tender stomachs aboard. I went below to make coffee, and to fry some bacon for sandwiches. That action drove my wife on deck. Both the Cap’n and my wife began talking about how it must have been something terrible they ate on the trip that made them ill. “Well, Wes was mess cook,” stated my loyal wife. How much cooking was involved in serving you your sardines and sea biscuits, said I. I was sure that the Captain was miffed that I hadn’t been sick when he, with years of sea time, had been.
IV When we took up our mooring at home, we all agreed that we’d unload trip gear the following day. My wife stated that Daddy would be his old self after Sunday night in his bed. I agreed and rowed them ashore.
The walk up from the cove was silent. It had not been the best trip. My wife was fuming mad at me, and I had been peppered by comments on my seamanship all the way home. “watch your luff…head up…mind your helm!…bear off…watch your luff!” As we approached the house, out came Mommy. With a big welcoming smile, she exclaimed, “welcome home. I saved dinner for you! I knew you’d want your lobster dinner. I’ve got a salad, biscuit, and some drawn butter!” My companions turned green.
Saint Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of children, sailors, thieves, bankers ( wait that seems to be real close to thieves), pawnbrokers, scholars, travelers, perfumers, and a multitude of others. As most of you may know Nick is linked to the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas, and to the chimney sliding olympics. This last bit was evidently due to his dropping coins down a chimney. It’s amazing what can develop from a simple act of charity and kindness. Our family connection may come from seafaring over the generations. My father ( a Nicholas of course) was an “Easter and Christmas Christian,” and my mother was about the same. Dad did note that there was a tradition of naming boys in the family Nicholas after the Saint. And, when I started researching the Carreras family history, Nicholas’ were everywhere. Our Carreras’ originate in Girona, Catalonia. So many Nicholas Carreras’ were baptized in the same churches that it becomes challenging to differentiate potential ancestors. I have a personal attachment to Saint Nicholas, being I am Louis Nicholas Carreras, and although woodcarvers got neglected in the calendar of saints, I would nominate Nicholas patron saint of sailors and woodcarvers.
The photo accompanying this post is of our family Santa. This Saint Nick dates to the early 1940s, and I don’t recall a Christmas in our house without it. Note that it is not a jolly richly attired Clement Clarke Moore Santa, nor a Coke swizzling, cooking slurping overweight Saint Nick. It’s a tired older man with a walking stick and a basket full of presents. It is a type of Saint Nick that could found in German, or my Grandmother’s case, German- Hungarian homes. And, that is where the preference for this Santa comes. My father bought it in a German delicatessen in New York one Christmas, and no Christmas in the Carreras home would have been complete without it. My Grandmother, who could get most of whatever she wanted from my Dad, tried without luck to get it for her apartment. There would have been an instant mutiny if it had changed households. If Grandma wanted to appreciate it, she had to come to our house to do so. After my father died, Santa migrated to Virginia. It was at my sister’s house for many years. But, a few years ago, Santa came north to New England and now graces our home at Christmas. Note that Santa is not richly attired in plush or velvet, does not have a vast flowing beard – and has no magic sled pulled by flying deer. He’s the sort of Santa that complains about his aching feet after a trudge through the snow getting your kids their presents. He has no Santa Hot Line, and NORAD does not track him. He represents simple goodwill and love. We do not need more during his feast day or at Christmas.
Sunday at a Farmer’s Market, I discussed smoked vacuum-packed haddock with a vendor. While she extolled the virtues of her process, I merely proclaimed sotto vocce ” finnan haddie.” She caught my reverential whisper. The promise in her look implied that with the tiny vacuum-packed candy bar sized piece of haddock encased in plastic, this sacrament of coastal eating could be mine. I resisted sneering as I turned away. I had been used to servings of smoked haddock cooked slowly in cream, browned nicely, that tested your capability to push the dish away. This tiny piece was not going to do it.
I was not always enamored of things like Finnan Haddie. I grew up in New York City where they made soup – I can no longer refer to it as Chowder- out of clams in a tomatoey base. Being allergic to bivalves ( clams, oysters, scallops – you know), I couldn’t touch the stuff. But I never knew about fish chowder. So, I got a real education when I left “The City” for points north.
I learned rapidly that from an old New Englander that Chowder had initially been the term for the pot in which you cooked the soup. That person, from Sargentville on the Blue Hill peninsula, affirmed that no chowder would be authentic without the head of the fish included in the pot. Getting the eye in your bowl was great luck, and the cheeks and tongue delicacies. I also learned that the head, eyes, cheeks, and tongues were not universal to everyone’s recipe. To diverge a bit, I learned that tongues and cheeks were a specialty dish of their own. The cod cheeks can be about the size of chicken thighs, but much more tasty, and the best part of the fish. Not everyone gets enthused about tongues; they can be a bit slimy and not to everyone’s taste. I rarely found anyone who had kind words about the eyes. Now you’ll find me tucked away in someplace like Gordon’s in Portland, or maybe Bob Lobster in Newburyport inhaling a heaping bowl of Chowder. But the first time that dish was put in front of me, I was so impolite as to ask, “what’s the main course?” Of course, the Chowder was the main course, with ample addition of sea biscuit. I was taken aback. In New York, my experience was that a cup of Chowder was an appetizer. Here was a massive bowl with a mountain of fish heaped in the middle.
With regards to finnan haddie, it seems to have originated in the area of Aberdeen, Scotland and spread widely throughout England. With good haddock stocks available offshore in New England, it became a popular dish on the coast. I became familiar with it as a dinner item, but I understand that some in England prefer it as a breakfast food. Like the saying:” You can’t get there from here” you can’t get suitable ingredients for a great finnan Haddie out of a supermarket. That thin stuff they sell has been injected with water and been coated with something called “liquid smoke” rather than being correctly smoked. It’s an abomination.
Search for the real deal. As the saying goes, accept no substitutions. You won’t be sorry.
Many of my ancestors, including my father, were merchant seamen. Every Veteran’s Day, I stand with a camera recording memorial events at which not a word is said about the mariners who gave up their lives serving their country. In World War Two, 1 in 26 American seaman serving lost their lives. Over 1,500 vessels sank in the conflict. My father served on two of them and survived.
Two memories come down in my family regarding those sinkings. The first are memories I have of the sinking of a tanker. One afternoon, for whatever reason, my dad decided to tell me ( about ten at the time) how to survive the sinking of a tanker, it’s fires, inflammable oil slicks, and especially the sight of flames on the water — also, the concussion of the explosions through the water. He never spoke of it again. I, however, will forever recall these whenever I watch fireworks on the water.
The second memory came to me through my sister. While getting ready for Dad’s funeral, my sister and I went shopping for dinner supplies. While in the frozen foods aisle, my sister pointed to the bags of succotash in the freezer. “Louis, do you know why we never had succotash growing up? It was because that’s what “Cookie” had just served the crew with dinner when Daddy’s second ship was torpedoed.”
Here are the words of the 23rd Psalm – Mariners Version
The Lord is my pilot. I shall not drift.
He lighteth me across the dark waters;
He steereth me in the deep channels.
He keepeth my log.
He guideth me by the star of holiness for his namesake.
Yea though I sail mid the thunders and tempests of life, I shall dread no danger, for thou art near me.
Thy love and care, they shelter me.
Thou preparest a harbor before me in the homeland of eternity.
Thou anointest the waves with oil, my ship rideth calmly.
Surely sunlight and starlight shall favor me on the voyage I take,
And I will rest in the port of my God forever.
Capt John H Rogers, 1874
Next Veteran’s Day please think of the merchant seamen.