Monday, July 26, 2021

Smiles and Miles

During one of my several rare and always ill-fated attempts to work indoors, a female co-worker said to the group around us that I always had a smile on my mug when talking to people, and as a European it made her wonder if I was simple-minded at first. 

    Cultures vary widely on how to get along in forced social interactions, I get that. Generally, I am someone who appreciates a positive atmosphere, so I tend to try to start off that way when dealing with people. Be friendly, you know?  Apparently, for certain cultures, that is off-putting. Someone who smiles too much is creepy in every culture, but 'too much' is a YMMV definition. 

       When I arrived at the Weed Palace, the rent-by-the-hour Brooklyn hotel that we use for crew change, I said hello to a prostitute and her pimp who were ahead of me in line, while we waited at the front desk for the woman behind the bulletproof glass to process their check-in. After dumping my bag in the room, I headed back downstairs to walk to a store for my caffeine fix, and ran into a very good friend and coworker, one of my former crew, in fact. D couldn't stay long as my 2nd man because he was too good at the job and was all ready for promotion when we met. That was 10 years ago, and we've been good friends since. In D's truck was a young guy with the same Mississippi accent, his nephew in fact, and introductions were passed. Turns out, D's nephew was getting ready for his first job on a boat, and day one was the next day. He was to be paired with an experienced deckhand who I know pretty well, and was excited to start.

   The next afternoon we sailed for our first load in Bayonne, NJ, a short hop, and our assist tug made up to us, and there was D's nephew on deck. We both grinned at each other. Me, for my part out of happiness for the guy, and also because I know full well that a friendly face and a few kind words on day one at a job make all the difference in the world career-wise. 

     The job itself was uneventful, except that it made me reflect on a few things I said. At some point I had to explain that we had no good heaving lines on board, as I got tired of making them after the first hundred or so got stolen. At this point I think I am known well enough as a somewhat curmudgeonly sailor when pressed, so it's rare that I hear much griping when I tell someone that I don't have the things they want.  As I do, I quickly made up a heaving line by tying a Franciscan Friar's Knot in the end of a length of rope, and performing an underhand throw like a softball pitcher, threw it with precision. 

 Experience counts. Years ago, during my first transit through the Panama Canal, I bought a switchblade knife with a mother-of-pearl handle from a linehandler, and overpaid him to teach me how they threw heaving lines with precision. The softball-fastball pitch for medium-distance throwing was the result. The Franciscan Friar's Knot is a makeshift workaround suggested by the WWII-era Merchant Seaman's manual. Worth reading even today. 

 Now, compare that with an interaction I had with a hardheaded deckhand a few weeks ago. A young and green-as-grass Ordinary Seaman of about 9-months experience. Fairly rugged, quiet kid. Reserved. 

     When I meet deckhands, we're on my barge, but when a tugboat is made up, for multiple smart reasons, the man on watch on the tug has to call the shots. Barring safety concerns, I am required to defer to the guy with his hands on the throttles and the TOAR in his little red book. My first concern, speaking honestly, is that the job go safely for all of us. My second concern is that the job goes smoothly and efficiently FOR ME, because the tugboat is only relevant for 10-15 minutes, the time  we're relying on his skillset and knowledge, and I will have the next 6-12 hours to do my job, which does not include the tug or any of the people on it. 

         I know what I am and what I'm not. My M.O. tends to be that I observe a lot, and tend to use the tug's deckhand like an extension of my own hands while I'm thinking about what I'm doing. The deckhand works for the tug, not for me, although ideally we all work as a team, and 95+ % of the time that is what we do. For that reason, and hopefully because I try not to be a prick, I am often given a bit of leeway when it comes to asking deckhands to do things that I am capable of doing myself while I'm thinking over what I want to do. I'm also not a 19-year old anymore, too. That's a hard truth.

  So, occasionally, all the smiles and goodwill in the world won't help with an obstinate, surly or unseamanlike tugboat deckhand, or one that just plain doesn't like me. 

   The kid I had an issue with hadn't yet picked up the ability to listen and talk at the same time. He wasn't someone I knew, and wasn't regular crew on the tug. He wasn't very polite, either. I really try to leave my ego at home, but politeness is important when strange men have to work together. In an environment where you can punch someone for pissing you off,  it's not as important, but my job is not one of those environments. Throwing a punch gets you fired and if unlucky, gets you referred to the Coast Guard. So no dispensing Great Justice in situ

Right away he had a habit of ignoring me, which while rude isn't a big deal, until it is. I mean, the job's not done until we're all fast and in the right place to my satisfaction.  After failing twice to listen to me (which was frustrating and irritating) when we were trying to pass a line to a ship  with a tricky current making the tug mate's life hell, the kid finally acknowledged my existence and said "I have to listen to  the mate, I don't have to listen to you." I had been speaking with the mate and I was OK with his plan for what we need to do, so I felt the kid was being rude unnecessarily. Well, no more smiles from me.

  I said something mild about needing to work as a team, which felt weak  to me, as I really wanted to kick him into the water. Not being a hardo in that case left me feeling pretty dissatisfied. Then the kid cussed out the Filipino AB's on the ship. Already feeling like I wanted to throw my weight around, I told him to be respectful of the poor pricks on the ship, as they were perfectly capable of throwing a shackle at either of us and caving in our skulls, and to satisfy the shameful little part of me that wanted to be shitty, I said that the ship's AB's knew twenty times more than he did anyhow. 

 When we finally did get a line up to the ship, the kid immediately went the wrong way with it. I don't know if he was being contrary or just got turned around. Doesn't really matter, I guess.  I called out, probably too sharply, that I didn't want the line running that way, and the kid said 'that's not what we're going to do.'  This being something simple that I've done thousands of times, the kid's rudeness coupled with poor seamanship finally made my cup runneth over. The whole time I was thinking, however, that if I said or did anything out of ego, rather than professionalism, I was going to get called up short or end up feeling bad over it, as kicking someone off your deck almost always ends up getting back to the office, and new hires don't always weather that well. 

       I'd like to tell you that I kicked his ass, or said something smart and pithy. I will occasionally swallow when given a mouthful of shit, though. Instead I just said "OK, get off my deck and go back to your tug, right now." He said something quietly about that being fine by him and I was an asshole anyways. I didn't even swear; I was that put out. Talking to the mate on the handheld radio, I worked alone to get us all fast, and the mate, to his credit, said nothing about my kicking the kid off. I can handle people being rude when it's just their nature. I am less able to handle disrespect. 

    The cool part of this was that when it came time to cast off the tug, the mate and I, who are on good terms, bantered back and forth briefly, ignoring the deckhand. He never came up at all. I'd like to think that the office never got wind of what happened and maybe the tug's mate or captain could get through to the kid that pissing off someone who gets along with almost everyone is a bad thing. Of the few people I truly don't like that I have to deal with, almost all of them are hated near universally, so it's not just me. It does make me wonder about who thinks of me in the same way I think of that small number of people, though, and that I've never been made to feel unwelcome when on someone else's deck. Is that a sign that not too many folks find me an asshole or that others are more professional than I? Hmmmm. 

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