In the early 1970’s Eve worked on freighters on and off for five years
This is an excerpt from essay “Nine Bouquets from Nine Sailors” by Eve Joseph
In the year that Gloria, from All in the Family, discovers Women’s Lib and Jim Morrison is found dead in his bathtub, I am one of three women hired to work onboard the Besseggen. It is my job to set the tables in the crew’s mess and bring in platters of piping hot food from the galley for the twenty-five deckhands and engine-room crew. Cockroaches swarm, like a battalion of new recruits, out of the cutlery drawer in the small pantry where I work. Every afternoon the ship’s canteen opens and men line up to buy cartons of Marlboro for five dollars and twenty-sixers of vodka or rye for about fourteen kroner or seven dollars apiece. Alcohol is sometimes a problem. On a night when the sea is calm, and the engines steadily thrumming, I wake at 3:00 a.m. with a feeling that something is wrong, get dressed and make my way up to the bridge only to find the watchman passed out on the bridge wings and the Mate in a drink-induced stupor at the wheel. The ship is sailing itself. I wake the Captain who assumes control of the wheelhouse. In the morning I learn that we had sailed 180 miles off course and were headed straight towards the shores of San Diego.
I am surprised by the sea. By the flying fish that soar out of its depths like bluebirds and the pelicans that rest on the backs of sea-turtles hundreds of miles from land; by the albatross that glides behind us for days like a dirty angel and the dolphins that propel themselves like torpedoes toward the bow of the ship and criss-cross inches in front of the metal hull slicing through the water. I am frightened by it on stormy nights when the bow rises high on cresting waves and crashes down into the troughs and the armchairs in my cabin are tossed around like toys. There are days I carry two buckets: one to clean with and one to throw up in. Days I can’t wait to reach land.
Old seamen don’t like having women onboard. Bad luck, they say. Women on a ship make the sea angry; although a naked woman onboard will calm the sea. Thus the figureheads of naked women on the prows of old sailing vessels. Neruda collected figureheads; fourteen are said to hang from his ceiling like ghosts frozen in mid-flight. Tears, apparently, are sometimes seen running down the face of Marie Celeste, a figurehead from France. The poet scoffed at the experts who claimed condensation was responsible; rather, he insisted that she was weeping and her tears a miracle.
Neruda loved the sea and everything about it. He had over 700 seashells in his house: tucked in corners, lining book shelves, embedded in the floor like jewels. Once, when he was sitting at his window watching the waves roll in off the Pacific he saw what looked like a solid plank of wood floating in the distance. Upon seeing this he shouted to his wife “Matilde, Matilde, my desk is coming!”
In every port, in the dockyards of nearly every village or city we visit, working girls are waiting on the pier. Some, like the ones in Long Beach, California, in their late fifties, show up in heels and low cut dresses; rouged with bright red lipstick and thick blue eye shadow. They remind me of Bubulina in Zorba the Greek. These women often wait for one sailor whom they see every time the ship is in port; they have convinced themselves that they are “girlfriends” not whores and the men, accordingly, pay for their services with things like vacuum cleaners and television sets and when the ship departs, the women, like dutiful wives, stand waving goodbye. It is understood that the women have boyfriends on a number of different ships.
In El Salvador we drop anchor in Acajutla and I take a taxi boat ashore with Karin, two deckhands, Björn and Fedde, and the First Mate, Levorsen. We arrive shortly after a military coup by a group of young army officers led by Colonel Benjamin Mejia. It is Easter and the electricity has been turned off; the streets are lit by candles and there are small lanterns in ramshackle bars made of corrugated tin. Salsa music blares out into the night from the shacks; a little way down the road Tammy Wynette is singing Stand by Your Man.
“Hey mister,” calls a boy around fifteen years old.
He’s standing in a doorway with a thin girl in the shadows behind him.
“You buy my sister. You fuck her.”
We keep walking down the main street. In one of the bars we see five guys from the ship sitting at a table with girls on their laps. Of all the married men I work with over the years, Levorsen is the only one who stays faithful to his wife.
There is a fiesta at the end of the street with a ferris wheel powered by a generator. The wooden seats are full of people holding small candles. I look back after awhile, and all I can see is a wheel of light turning in the dark. When Karin and I arrive at the dock to catch the taxi boat, two guards with machine guns scream at me in Spanish. Karin is fair-haired and looks Scandinavian; my hair is dark brown and I am Mediterranean looking.
“Donde crees que vas?”
“I don’t understand,” I stammer
“Es madre de una puta!”
Amidst the stream of words I do not understand I hear “puta” and realize the guards think I am a whore trying to sneak on the ship. They won’t let me go until someone wakes the Captain and he comes to get me.
A few years ago, I went with my two daughters to Neruda’s home on Isla Negra. Carved in the beams of his house are the names of his dear friends, García Lorca, Paul Éluard, Nazim Hikmet, Miguel Hernández. Poets I have come to love. We walked through rooms filled with beetles and butterflies, miniature ships, masks, shells, musical instruments, glass slippers and crucifixes, in glass bottles, carved by Brazilian prisoners. On the desk, delivered by the sea, were a few sheets of paper, several pencils and pens and a jar of green ink. I need the sea, wrote the poet, with its shining suggestion of fishes and ships.
It was a house of the imagination, not unlike my mother’s house on East Sixth Street with its Fijian turtle shells, red bead curtains, seahorses, hidden white marble pathways, jukebox, monkeys, parrots and its attic where I lay listening to the rain falling on the wooden shingles – saddened by the sound, although I could not have said why.