Highbrows in hard hats
San Francisco — Outside the waterfront cafe, dawn rusts through a battleship sky. The clock over the door reads 6:55. We have kept Big Red waiting. He sits, hunched over a steaming white porcelain mug -- the brief breakfast calm before the Cyclone fence at the San Francisco Stevedore and Ballast Company on Pier 80 swings open for business.
Red is flanked by truckers spooning greasy hash browns from pink-rimmed plates. Across the table to longshoreman, sleeves rolled above the elbows, drowns a fried egg in ketchup.
"What kept ya?" Red asks us.
"Traffic on the bridge," I answer. Wishing I had a more compelling excuse, I take a seat among the square shoulders and brushcuts.
He grins. "Gave up my five-mile morning run for this, so let's get started."
Big Red, known off the San Francisco waterfront as Bob Carson, has worked as a longshoreman and ship's clerk for the last 16 years, and, while he is not particularly "big," his hair is red, a wavy cadmium. Carson is soft-spoken, with the hands of a piano player and a manner more common to a high school classics instructor than a life-long stevedore, but that's what makes Carson's story worth telling.
The longshoreman's son, born in Hunter's Point, an industrial ghetto south of San Francisco, holds a master's degree in creative writing, is a published poet, and is the editor of a book just released by Harper & Row entitled "The Waterfront Writers." The volume, which has headlined the NBC Nightly News and TV talks shows like "Good Morning America," is a collection of short stories, poems , screenplays, photographs, and sketches by a group of local dockworkers, which Carson helped organize.
The writers and artists are past or present members of Local 10 or Local 34 of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. The book grew out of a series of readings the dockworkers held in an old folkdance hall in the city's Sunset district.
"It's part of a strong working class literature that has been ignored in America," says Carson, staring out into the crowded cafe. "We've been conditioned to believe there is a barrier between work and art. Work is always something you do for money. It's about time America learned that there are faces behind those jobs.
"How long do we have to put with those encyclopedia ads with the guy in the the hard-hat and the caption: 'You don't want your child to grow up like this, do you?'"
In the introduction to the book, Carson writes that the waterfront writers group exists "in vigorous contradiction to the notion of 'artists' inhabiting an ivory tower highrise, isolated and insulated from any sordid grubbing for a livelihood or the mundane facts of life." They do defy the "hard-hat" image and Archie Bunker life-style that the image-mongers decree as role models for the American worker.
If "The Waterfront Writers" does anything, it shatters stereotypes. The selections represent nine writers, and there seems to be something for every reader. The writing is sensitive, though often surly and sententious. At times it is angry, passionate, bawdy, occasionally heavy-handed. The common thread is humanity on the docks. The poems are strongest when read aloud by the longshoremen themselves.
(From "Old Sailor Looking at a Container Ship," by Robert Carson)
"The Waterfront Writers" draws on the romance, danger, and sheer toil of dock work. Sometimes the writers wax nostalgic for the old days, before skycraping cranes and containerized box cars invaded the docks and took away jobs. A tractor, which ten years ago would have been loaded and unloaded by longshoremen , is now " containerized" at the factory and shipped through San Francisco's port and straight to Hong Kong without being touched by longshoremen's hands.
It is nearly 7:30 a.m., and the men in the cafe shuffle by the coffee pot for a final refill. "As workers, we stand between a colorful past and a mechanized future," says Carson. "My job is moving cargo, but I function as a person, not a piece of machinery. Down here you have a choice: become a zombie or create new ways to scale the wall." An older brother heard something In my own embroidered tale And said, What's A nice, educated boy like you Doing in a job like this? I said then, And pray it can be said at the end, I sold my body To save my mind.m
(From "A Bill of Sale" by Gene Dennis) Nothing Is too good For the workers. Fortunately We have plenty of it.m
Folk poem He remembers 60 years ago, Time cutting through him Like a knife. Silver blade clear as Light on the open sea; And against the horizon Canvas wings Beating down the sky.m
Over the last ten years Oakland has "stolen" the port from San Francisco. Oakland expanded its container facilities, while San Francisco ran out of land to accommodate the new technology. Automation of dockwork has also turned the brawny stevedore into an anachronism. In the bay area alone, the number of longshoremen has cut by two- thirds in the last 20 years. Two thousand remain, and precious few of those hand-load cargo anymore. According to a survey conducted by Herb Mills, secretary-treasurer of Local 10 and the waterfront writers' self-styled sociologist: Despite a guaranteed 36 hours of weekly wages, longshoremen, on the average get less than 17 hours of work each week. Like a chant, they cry "No work!" Twiddled thumbs and tapping fingers mingle With twitched eyelids, And the boredom sinks in LIKE THUNGER!m
(From "Slow Time in the Hiring Hall" by Ken Fox)
Flexible working hours, a strong union in a union town (the 1934 general strike in San Francisco was one of two in US history), and a cast of colorful characters on the waterfront are all part of the lure of working the docks. The port is peopled with guys like Strong Arm Louie, the Old Ranger, the Commander, Moaning Jack, Bicycle Larry, Shovel Mouth, and Hardrock. And there's a story behind every name.
"It's dangerous and hard work on the docks," say Brian Nelson, a ship's clerk whose drawings and photographs appear in "The Waterfront Writers." People from all over end up down on the waterfront -- immigrants, criminals, misfits, guys who were blacklisted. It's the sort of a place where you can make peace with society. You can hold a steady job without becoming a solid citizen."
Mike Vawter, another longshoreman-photographer, is a Stanford graduate and one of the last longshoremen brought into Local 10 in 1969, shortly before mechanization took over. He works on one of the few tradition dock crews left. During breaks between loading coffee sacks in the ship's hold, Vawter uses his camera to document this dying trade. "For some reason," he says, "creative people are continually drawn to the waterfront. It's an environment that stimulates and is constantly changing."
The waterfront writers and artists of San Francisco admit they are not the first in the tradition of literary longshoremen. There are, of course, political philosopher Eric Hoffer, and playwright Michael McClure. And there's George Benet, a San Francisco longshoreman-poet, who wrote "The Hoodlums," the 1953 potboiler paperback novel which sold half a million copies. And Jim Hamilton, another local dockworker who has written screenplays for director San Peckinpah. Both Benet and Hamilton appear in the Harper & Row volume.
According to Carson, who has worked in other ports along the West Coast, longshoremen's literary collectives have recently sprung up in Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver. But dockworkers don't have a monopoly on the "literature of work." Singlejack Press, a small "workers' press" in San Pedro, opened for business with the publication of a collection of George Benet's short stories and poetry. Since then it has moved away from the waterfront in search of other bluecollar writing. Singlejack's second book, "Steelmill Blues," was written by a steelworker from Gary, Indiana, and was shortly followed by "Directory Assistance -- The Story of a Telephone Worker," by an operator. Another small blue-collar press, Deep City Press in San Francisco, publishes a literary magazine written by and for taxi cab drivers.
"There is no reason for work to stifle art," says Carson, stuffing into his coat pocket a notebook he scribbles verse on during work breaks. The cafe is emptying onto Pier 80, and Carson joins the exodus toward the docks. "Why shouldn't work enrich the artist's vision? Aesthetics and work are work part of the daily experience. Why separate them?"