Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Once A Sailor, Always A... Writer?

I’m in the mood to write now, as I often am, but too often agonize over how to tie my words into my existing blog, which is why I have not completed a log entry since last July.  Seeing as how my life has changed from when I originally kept my blog, it’s time for me to continue writing my experiences as they come, sailing related or not, though I do have some exciting sailing-related news in the very near future. (!)

Miami River, looking west to 27th Ave Bridge
Some of you have asked what life is like on the Miami River. I’d have to say that having lived directly on the river, it’d be hard to imagine living anywhere else in the city.  It hardly feels like a city of 2.5 million when I’m on the boat (it does, however, feel exactly like living 3.6 miles from Miami International Airport).  Away from the shadows of downtown high rises, and the uniformity of the suburbs, it’s an ever-changing landscape of sailboats and cruisers heading out to Biscayne Bay to make weekend memories, tugboats, commercial shipping, kayakers, and passionate boat owners toiling over their labors of love (or, instead, paying someone else to do it) in the boatyard directly across the river.  The best show of all is watching the skill of the local tugboat captains as they expertly maneuver huge freighters up and down the narrow river.  Sometimes while texting.  It’s truly impressive.
Hempstead Marine's tug Atlas tailing Betty K VI
I can’t get enough of the local history surrounding the river, yet have managed to find few resources.  The best so far is a book that was originally on loan from my friend, but it’s now mine (according to my interpretation of Florida Law, if I pay the taxes on it, 6% of $9.99, then I can claim it). Sorry Eric, but to see the law in action, just Google ‘Boca Raton mansion squatter’.  See?  Your $0.60, in the form of a check, is on its way. Thanks for an awesome book Eric, you’re a true friend.

The river has changed somewhat from the Cocaine Cowboy days of the early 1980’s, when Miami boasted the highest homicide rate in the world.  One of the victims washed up at the stern of my friends boat, at the very dock Annie Laurie now calls home.  Thirty years later however, the river is now a relatively safe place to find yourself, though I still see things I’d rather not, thanks to the religion of Santeria.  Some who practice it seek out areas like rivers, or train tracks, where either the current or a passing train will presumably carry away their sins with the sacrifice they've offered.  Sometimes it’s roses, sunflowers, and butternut squash, and other times it’s not. In 1993, a case in Miami was taken to the Supreme Court, and it was ruled that animal cruelty laws didn’t apply to their religious practices.
Manatees swimming under SW 1st St Bridge

Despite the River being a fairly industrial area, the water is still sufficiently clean to support wildlife: numerous types of fish such as mullet and tarpon, manatees, dolphin (almost daily lately), all of which I pause to watch if I’m working away on the sailboat. Which, I usually am.

Joys of wooden boat ownership
Annie Laurie has been socking it to me for the last 18 months or so.  Water in the transmission, bad leak in the fuel pump, rotten floor down below, a couple of rotten planks and areas of adjacent decking (though it’s been a manageable dockside repair).  As I near completion on the starboard side, it’ll soon be time to turn my attention to the port side.  Yes, having a wooden boat in the tropics is like painting a bridge.  Just when you think you’re finished, it’s time to start all over again.

Funny the topic of bridges should come up!

Bridge controls
Since returning from Nova Scotia last September, I’ve been working on the Miami River as a bridge tender.  There are 10 bridges on the main river, and I work in the oldest (circa 1929) bridge house, thanks to the Flagler bridge house collapsing, without warning, with the tender inside a few years ago.  I stand in a little 10’ by 10’ box, and push a series of buttons that stop vehicular traffic, drop gates, and lift the spans of the bascule bridge, allowing various vessels to head up and down the river.  I’ve been reassured that despite the age of the house, it’s not going to fall.  I sometimes have dreams at night of one of the tugboats experiencing an engine failure as it’s pulling a freighter, and I have to say, the dream never ends the way I’d hope it would.

Flagler Street Bridge
In my first day of training, the bridge tender told me I looked a lot like another tender she once knew “before she went and got fat”. Duly noted.  An 8-hour shift, and unable to leave the bridge house unattended, you’d think it’d be easy to stay skinny there. In the beginning I packed a healthy lunch of apples, oranges, yogurt, and salads.  But a few weeks in, for some mysterious reason, I had an urge to pick up a box of Oreos on my way to the bridge, literally having not touched a store-bought cookie since childhood.  This behavior quickly escalated, as I began to take notice of other easily snack-able items produced with high fructose corn syrup, palm oil, and a selection of preservatives making expiration dates irrelevant, and expiration itself virtually impossible.  And despite the boredom and temptation, I was adamant about keeping the television off, which I succeeded at for the first few months. Gradually, though, I succumbed to its siren song.  So, my favorite new shows in descending order are: The Mentalist, Big Bang Theory, Law and Order: SVU, CSI Miami, Bones, How I Met Your Mother, Burn Notice, and Fox News no just kidding.

Under the bridge, where I park my car, live a dozen or so homeless people.  I was wary at first, descending the stairs to the dark lower street following my shift at 11pm (wouldn’t you be after the Miami Zombie?).  From the pregnant crack-head who repeatedly ensures her own chemical imbalance, and who manically rinses her clothes in a Home depot Homer bucket with river water, to the tall, fit Haitian who paces as he shouts quotes from the Bible, I was initially instilled with the proclivity to walk fast with my head down.  But as I got to know a few others, I became much more at ease. 

What I wish the Beetle looked like
Rafael admires my ’69 Beetle, and pleads with me everyday to never sell it for a penny less than it’s worth, because I “wouldn’t believe what those cars go for in Puerto Rico!”  I’m not sure mine would fall into the category of others he may have seen back home, considering my feet get wet when it’s raining, the windshield is opaque when met with oncoming headlights, and when my horn makes it’s own decisions of when it’s appropriate to sound.

Then there’s Reggie, who speaks and carries himself like a retired professor. Always pleasant, always smiling.  It’s natural to wonder how many of them have family somewhere, why they aren’t with them, and if maybe their family and friends are wondering where they are and have given them up for lost. Like Wizard, whose real name I don’t know because he doesn’t speak, who spends many an afternoon chain-sawing his way through invisible forests, and stacking invisible bottles from the sidewalk onto invisible shelves in the bushes.

What the Beetle actually looks like
I saw many of their true colors one day when someone tried to break into my Beetle. I stood up from my seat to see what all the hollering was about, and a man had the hood and rear of my car open, and was trying to open the passenger door.   The homeless guys were converging on the location like flies to honey, except for two, one of whom was running up the stairs to ring the bell of the bridge house to let me know what was happening, and Wizard, who just continued to trim trees.  Knowing there was nothing worth stealing, I just stood back and observed, and smiled.   These guys, many with nothing more to their name than the clothes on their backs, had my back.  My homeless homeboys.

In my next update, I'll share news of my upcoming sailing adventure.  Standby!
Approaching the top of the Miami River