A Letter from the Sea of Love
August 16, 1977
S.S. Overseas Alice
Hey Crazy Motherfucker. Greetings from the poop deck!
The sun is going down over the Gulf and I’m hiding between containers topside, getting stoned with a couple beers I hid behind an ox-tail in the galley icebox.
The sunsets are stunning, breathtaking even before you catch the heavy-heavy, so you can imagine how sweet they are with a nice buzz. I started sketching the stern of the ship (you can tape it above your bed next to the poster of buck-nekkid Duane Allman with his hands over his cock that your mother likes so much) in an old geometry notebook I threw in my bag when we left Baltimore. I took geometry three times, including summer school before those Xaverians let me go. You?
Geometry/Geography—what did Cheech and Chong say? It’s all the same, man.
I think I’m facing Haiti. We’re headed for New Orleans again, New Orleans every 12 days, coming in empty from Puerto Rico and going out with everything from frozen meatballs to disposable cameras. One of the containers just happened to “break open” and now everybody on the ship has a camera, taking pictures of each other doing dumb shit. Will send you some pix.
A little cranky cuz I’m coming down from tripping early this morning, couple hits of windowpane, didn’t get a wink. You know how when the flashes are over and that Morse code runs up and down your spine for hours? Reefer and beer took some of the edge off. Hoping to sleep before my shift rolls around again.
24 hours ago—I dropped about an hour before sunset, tied my ankles to the legs of the steel desk that’s bolted to the deck in my room and hung myself upside down out the porthole. They’re big and rectangular now, not the round kind like on the Titanic.
Secured my ass with a Baltimore knot. Know what that is, Took? Bosun named it after me. It’s a knot that’s never tied the same way twice!
Tripping my nuts off, hanging out the porthole, my head just a foot above the waterline as the ship pushed through, spray soaking my head as I stared up at the stack and the stars, everything twirling like flying lampshades. Oooh, oooh, ooooh—BLACK DIAMOND!
When the guy from the 12-to-4 came to get me to relieve him, he had to haul me back in. The Baltimore knots held fast, though. Wouldn’t be writing to you now if they didn’t.
I think my work (my work, Took, that’s what I’m learning, this gift was given to me) is getting better. I’ve been drawing the men in the steward department, their big faces poking into boiling pots, rolling out dough, all black or Puerto Rican. The cook looks like Ernest Borgnine only not as handsome! He sweats right through the paper of his cigarette and the ashes fall into the soup. Every ten seconds wipes his face with a filthy rag and says: “It’s a hot tamale today!”
What’s it been now, two months since we graduated? I’ve been to Goa and back but this run just shuttles between San Juan and New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. When we hit Beaumont, the other guys went out to find hookers and I looked up Johnny’s parents in the white pages — HA, the WHITE pages — and there was his old man, right in the book: John Dawson Winter, Jr. I grabbed a cab on the pier and had it park at the curb in front of Johnny’s childhood home, meter running and me sketching, sketching, sketching. Nobody even peeked out the window and I didn’t have the nerve to knock. It wasn’t like Johnny was gonna answer the door.
I guess you know that Elvis died today. How couldn’t you?
I was sitting in the galley waiting for chow and we were getting fuzzy reception out of the Dominican and there was Dave Marsh—I READ IT IN ROLLING STONE, IT MUST TRUE!—preaching with news anchors like it was Dallas or something. A black messman looked up at the TV—it’s screwed into the ceiling—and laughed real hard and ugly.
He really put some effort into it: HA! HA! HA!
I got this urge—like when I used to want to strangle my mother (Christ, Took, she’s gone five years now, never saw it coming)—to knock his teeth out, like when that redneck was hassling us at that dirt track near your house and we kicked his ass.
Weird thing is, me and the guy are sort of friends, catching a buzz in his focsle and listening to Parliament/Funkadelic and Sly. I turned him on to Frank and he said it sounded like “noise from some kind of monster movie.”
Doubt I’ll be partying with him anymore, which is a shame. But I learned something. Didn’t even know I gave a shit about Elvis. I always thought the Beatles gave birth to themselves.
• • •
“. . . rather than being pulled about by the promise of every flock of birds or knot of seaweed…[he] sensed the need for such a buttress against the paranoid imaginings of the mind at sea. . . ”
—The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books
• • •
Five hours later, Basilio in his bunk . . . unable to sleep. . .
Hey Took—The guy in the bunk below me said “all that goddamn pen scratching on paper” was keeping him up and “when are you going to turn off that goddamn light” but he’s snoring like a cow now so here I am, just a couple of hours before my 4-to-8 lookout shift on the bow.
Thanks for hanging with me in the union hall and bringing the heavy-heavy. Didn’t have too wait long. Graduate on Sunday, on a ship by Tuesday. Corned beef around the corner sure was good with raw onions. I can’t believe you told the woman behind the counter that you loved her. She laughed and gave us a free pickle and told us to get the hell out. Back to the union hall, stoned and happy with mustard on our chins.
I used to go to the hall with my father when I was a little kid before Mom died. One of the shipping agents—a real-old timer, some kind of socialist—said the building used to be a theater for live entertainment, vaudeville and boxing and speeches.
“Yeah,” he said, “us Yids was all over the place back then.”
I didn’t know what a Yid was and when I asked my mother she said it wasn’t something I needed to know. Tookie Took—I NEED TO KNOW EVERYTHING!
So I asked my father and he told me and it made sense. He’s always been like that.
I remember big-turkey-dinner Christmas parties at the hall (and the smooth aluminum handrails—one day I’ll be able to paint that thin middle ground between gray and silver—and tiles in the floor shaped like stars and diamonds, big terrazzo stars and diamonds) when the tugboats went on strike. All the boys got GI Joes and the girls got Barbies. I gave mine to my little brother (he used to pretend they were trying to kill each other) cuz all I could think about was the flying Beatle doll I’d lost at my grandmother’s house the year before. You know she died right before I came aboard, right?
First my grandmother and now the King. Did I ever tell you about what I was doing the day she died? I’ll you later, enough scratching on paper. Tomorrow I’ll draw you a picture of Nils Lofgren drinking booze straight from the bottle in front of a circus tent.
Keith don’t go, motherfucker …
• • •
Breakfast after the 4-to-8 watch.
Alright, Took. I’m gonna finish this so I can mail it when we hit New Orleans tomorrow. The messman didn’t look at me when he took my order. Didn’t look at me when he set the plate down.
Okay, the Grandmom story. The morning we graduated from Transfiguration, in my white jacket and bow tie, before I came to get you, I went to Hopkins to visit her.
I don’t remember what I said, just that I was standing by the side of her bed knowing what time I had to be at the Cathedral and what time I had to be at the union hall the next day. Standing there, feeling awful, trying to forget it later when you and I raced up Charles Street getting high, trying to forget it now.
A couple days later, I was supposed to be in the hall—waiting, waiting, waiting, remember how long I sat there? Even you said “good luck,” after a week … and finally I’m home packing cuz a ship was waiting on Pratt Street and the phone rings, nobody home but me.
It’s Dad saying, “She’s gone.” I keep thinking he said, “We lost her,” but really he said, “She’s gone.”
And if I didn’t move my ass Alice was gonna be gone too and they sure weren’t going to wait for me. Dad gave me a choice—stay for the funeral or get on the ship. Either way, he said, it was fine by him and I knew he meant it but I got the idea he wanted me to take the job. If I didn’t take the job then I might not get another.
It was the first time I was aware that I was making a big decision. Everything else I did without thinking about it very much. And when I thought that I didn’t want to see her dead, the decision made itself. I’m the only one, Took, the only one in the family whose last image of her is alive and not at Zannino’s.
In the margins, Basilio draws a picture of his grandmother before she became ill and one of Elvis before he let himself go . . .
You know how I figured out that Elvis was important, Took? I mean really important? A guy named Howie Wyeth.
Remember the blizzard in our senior year when we went down the waterfront to see Mr. Orlo and bought that old Meerschaum? I almost pissed myself laughing when you called your parents after we got stuck down on Clinton Street: “Hi Pop, me and Basilio went to the library . . .”
YOU FORGOT ALL ABOUT THE LIBRARY LIKE YOU TOLD YOUR OLD MAN NOW!
We were making fun of Rolling Stone for putting Dylan and Joan on the cover. That magazine got mixed in with all the shit I threw in my bag when I shipped out. Finally got around to reading it.
Howie played piano on that Rolling Thunder tour—me and you asking our parents for money to go see Foghat at the Civic Center while Dylan’s putting on Ziggy make-up and rocking out with Ronson and McGuinn and a gorgeous fiddle player named Scarlet. (Gonna draw her too, Took—gonna, gonna, gonna!)
Here’s the line that stayed with me from that article. Somebody was talking about Elvis and then somebody pointed across the dressing room to Howie and said he played a piano that was “ancient, holy and American.”
Man, I even like the way those words look on paper: ancient—holy—American.
Wanted to find him right away, in New Orleans you can find anything; maybe ask him about his grandfather, see if I could pick up a couple of tricks, but the closest I’ve gotten so far is a new album by a guy out of D.C. named Robert Gordon and Link Wray!
I bought it on vinyl and one of the engineers (one of the guys who took the Elvis news hard, told the messman to shut his goddamn mouth) has a turntable in his room and copied it onto a cassette for me before we shoved off.
Then I was looking through some other magazine, some newsprint rag they were giving away on Decatur, and they quote a New York guitar guy named Robert Ross who said Howie used to play drums for him.
“If you ain’t at your best,” said Ross. “Howie’s gonna bury you in a barrage of brilliance on a yard sale kit made out of trash can lids and spaghetti pots . . . very rare.”
When I find him, Took, I’m going to ask him for both of us: What the fuck was Mick Ronson doing on tour with Bob Dylan?
Musicians are different from me and you, Took. You think Robin Trower wrote “Rock Me Baby?” Start reading the credits and you’ll find out who the real cats are. Everybody wrote that song, even some goof named Johnny Cymbal. JOHNNY CYMBAL!
Learning so much stuff out here, Took. Not about being a seaman, I’m faking my way through most of that. But I like it and I don’t think I’m coming back to go to college. How about you? I got a cheap room near the union hall in New Orleans and between ships, I stay in and paint. I don’t even get high that much (not too much) when we’re in port. Me and a hot plate, my brushes in vegetable cans.
Is it really running away from home if you’re already gone but you just don’t come back?
The extraordinary ordinary . . .