Friday, April 13, 2007

A Woman in Every Port?

Popular lore holds that sailors have a woman in every port. Is that true today?

San Francisco
My first stab at answering the question came back in 2003 when I sailed from Los Angeles to Cape Town on two cargo ships. Along the way, we berthed in 14 ports and I got to see how the seamen behaved. Here's how I wrote about my evening in Oakland & San Francisco:

I start primping myself for a wild night out with the sailors. I spike my hair with gel, lube my pits with Right Guard, disguise my liver breath with Binaca, splash my cheeks with Old Spice, and wink at myself in the full-length mirror. Oh you dog you!

As it turns out, just a few of the sailors plan to hit the town: three Tuvaluan crewmen and the Estonian cook. I size ‘em up. The Islanders are young and imposing, more than able to handle themselves. The cook is wizened and of doubtful vigor, but his wry countenance betrays a crafty intelligence beyond calculation. Probably the most dangerous of the bunch.

As we disembark from the ship, I see that there are no ladies waiting for us at the docks. Surely they're waiting somewhere else for us.

We call a taxi. An Indian guy picks us up, mentioning that he almost never comes to the docks. Sailors are scarce. He drops us at the nearest BART station, where we jump on a train to San Francisco. As we travel under the bay, I’m assaulted by the smell of mildew and urine. I look down: Some genius decided to carpet the trains! An incredibly stupid idea, as the train seems the last refuge of hobos, juvenile runaways, and stray dogs whose bladders are finite.

When we get off at one of the downtown stations, I rub my hands in anticipation. With a gleam in my eye, I ask, “So, what did you guys do last time you were here? Make the rounds of the seamen's dives?”

They look at each other hesitantly, “This is our first time getting off here.”

I blanch. “What?! But haven’t you guys docked here before?”

“Yah, but we never went ashore.”

“Huh?” I’m confused. These sailors had never even explored the port!

But I’m too excited about my prospective initiation into the hallowed rites of seamen’s culture to consider the implications. “OK, well, no matter. So what do you guys wanna do? The night is young! We’re sure to find plenty of action nearby.” I’m imagining an evening of grinding lap dances, g-stringed booties and greasy poles, fights with the locals, tattoos from the steady hand of Chainsaw Bob, and waking up under the Bay Bridge in the arms of someone who may or may not have an Adam’s apple.

Golden Gate Bridge tote bag
Then the sailors say what they want to do:

“I want to buy an
I Love San Francisco t-shirt for my girlfriend in Tuvalu.”

“I want to get a Golden Gate Bridge tote bag for my papa.”

“I want to find a teddy bear for my newborn.”

“I want to call my wife in Estonia from a payphone.”

It took me a minute to register these desires. I just stared at their faces. I didn’t hear any of the words I expected to hear, like “hookers, liquor, marijuana, penicillin,” the key elements of my imagined maritime world. I was so sure that these bastards would be wild som’bitches, ready to release me from my life of teetotaling prudery.

As we walk to the nearest Taiwanese-owned tourist shop, I ask myself, “Whatever happened to the rip-roaring, brawling, whoring, disreputable dockside culture that I had so hoped to find?! Where were all the taverns that catered to seamen, the pros that awaited the arrival of te next cargo ship, the jazz clubs that would make space on stage for a sailor with his horn, and the thugs who preyed upon unsuspecting seafarers?”

Popeye and Olive Oyl
I knew that the peg-legged sea-dogs and talking parrots were the stuff of legend, but it wasn’t so long ago that that seamen truly did have a woman in every port. Whole dockside communities made their livings by the presence of sailors. Today, that world has largely vanished. With no more Brutuses to fight, today’s Popeyes spend just a few hours (if any) at any given port searching out touristy t-shirts for their Olive Oyls and Swee'Peas. Then it’s back to work, on to the next port before 20 hours have even passed.

They were so excited by the idea of getting little trinkets for their loved ones at home, something to show that they were thinking of them while away. But, but…damn them!

What a disappointingly respectable lot, so responsible and conscientious. Like accountants and bureaucrats in a floating office. Already thinking of their duties for the company.

Rounding out the evening, we ate a soggy meal at Burger King and rode the train back to Oakland. One of the sailors pissed on the side of the ship when we got back. Then we climbed up the gangway, heading to our respective rooms. I read myself to sleep while the crew watched soft-core porn in the recreation room.

Seamen's Club Sign
In years after this voyage, I've learned that there are still outposts for maritime sexual recreation in different ports. Cape Town and Durban still have them, but not in the strength or capacity that they used to. By all accounts, the numbers of women available for seamen has greatly diminished over the last few decades.

So, a woman in every port? No way. In some ports? Sure.

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