Woman on the Waterfront

Foghorns blast through the 7 AM San Francisco overcast. The only woman in the place, I saunter into the longshoreman’s union hall, trying to appear as if I did this every day. A few cigarette-scarred wooden tables offer a place for the men to gather and talk while waiting to be called to work. Billowing clouds of cigarette smoke hang ominously over everyone.

It’s the mid-70s, and I try to ignore the silence that cuts through the room after I enter. A few loud guffaws and an even louder patter of voices, all speculating on the broad who is challenging their stronghold and competing for work, follow it.

I amble over to a table set off in a corner and glance through some back issues of Psychology Today and McCall’s, surprised to see more female-oriented publications in this male-dominated place. I also am grateful for the diversion, a way to avoid the curious and mostly hostile eyes.

At first, it had seemed like a good idea when my friend’s husband—a 20-year waterfront veteran whose father had also worked there all his life—had urged me to find work there. “Look,” he said. “It’s time for women to bust into the docks. You can make at least $80 a day.”

The money convinced me, a sizeable sum at that time. I was a single parent trying to support my teenage son and myself while I went to college. The escapade also held the promise of adventure: all those romantic waterfront characters cascaded through my mind, not least of whom was Marlon Brando. I also knew that the area attracted artists and intellectuals, as well as those who were just barely making it—some from skid row.

Curious about this male bastion, I wondered if it was possible for a woman to be accepted there. Females were rare in that world, even in clerical positions. But I also wanted to know more about the culture, the interface between land and sea, a switching yard from all over the world where goods were transferred, labeled, transported, and disposed of. Why should men have a stranglehold on that sphere?

Temporarily on semester break from my graduate program at San Francisco State, and working part-time in an office, I had nothing to lose and much to gain. My friend’s husband paved the way by calling the dispatcher and letting him know I’d be there. He used whatever influence he had to increase the possibility that I would be called after the regulars had been taken care of.

And I did get sent out to a nearby wharf that first day. Hired as a clerk, my job was to oversee the movement of the containers on my list and keep track of where they were placed for unloading. That first day was relatively uneventful, and it seemed like an easy way to earn $80. Being the only female in a sea of men was not new to me. I had signed up for a drafting class in high school where I was the only girl and loved it.

At 7 AM the next morning, I appear again in the union hall. This time my presence doesn’t create as much of a stir. I post myself once more at the out-of-the-way table, glancing through magazines until my name finally is called along with two younger black guys, also university students. The dispatcher hands the three of us instructions of where to go, a wharf some distance away, and we take a bus to get there. They are lovely guys, clean cut and dressed in preppy clothes. We chat about school and waterfront work, this also being their first time there.

At the wharf, the boss tells us to board a massive cargo ship to see the hundreds of cars that we’ll be guiding into parking spaces on land. The ship has numerous levels, and we race from one to the other, amazed at how many vehicles are stored there. Finally we return to shore and are instructed to show the longshoremen where to park the cars.

I stand in front of a space, indicating with my arms that the driver should come forward to where I’m standing. A bearded longshoreman saunters over to me and says, “Hey, lady, do you want to get your legs broken?”

I don’t plan to leave the wharf with broken legs, and I tell him that, trying to make a joke. But his icy look silences me. He isn’t interested in banter. He says, “These guys are pissed to see a woman bossing them around. If you continue to stand where you are, you won’t have any legs to walk on. Stand to the side like this.” And he showed me where to position myself.

I followed his instructions and somehow got through the day intact. But I had heard enough. Though I consider myself a feminist, I didn’t burn with a desire to integrate the waterfront. Nor did I need to make a statement by having my legs broken. I just wanted to make enough money to support my son and myself as I worked my way through college. These men, however, didn’t know my intentions. They just saw me as a threat, someone who would alter their domain and change the balance of power there.

When I left that day, I realized my friend’s husband had used me for his own purposes, though I wasn’t totally clear about what they were. Was he genuinely interested in integrating the waterfront? Or was he just trying to test his own power. If the latter were true, he had abused our friendship and put me in great peril. After working at the docks for so long, he must have known what the men’s reaction to me would be. If the former were true, had I made any dent in the male prejudice against women in that line of work? I doubt it.

So my two days on the waterfront were just that: a time when I experienced directly and vividly the reaction some men have towards women in a world that they still dominate. I can see why, even today as enlightened as some of us might be, women continue to suffer from prejudice. I too had grown up assuming that men were the fairer and better sex. Certainly they seemed to hold all the cards. But I also went through the tremendous consciousness-raising period of the 60s and came out of that time with a much different view of womanhood and myself.

While my experience of working on the waterfront was brief and may not have changed the dockworkers’ lives, it did change mine. For the first time, I felt directly the physical threat that so many females face day in and day out. I had taken my gender and myself for granted, floating through life on a cloud of good will. And while I knew that women continued to be the second sex in spite of advances in numerous areas, I had never expected to face such bald hostility just because I happened to be female.

 

 

Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.


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