Buffalo BEAST - Buffalo's New Best Fiend

July 13 - 27, 2005

Issue #79

  .....Buffalo's Best Fiend

Tony Blair, Right Honourable Hypocrite
by Allan Uthman

Nailing the Interview
by Matt Taibbi
That's What I Said
by Stan Goff

100% Polled Asked Wrong Question

by Matt Taibbi


Summer Job Yields Unexpected Lessons
by Matt Higgins

TIMEly Features

For Scott McClellan


Numbers & Quotes


Mental Health Advice from the World's Foremost Expert


A Field Guide to Televangelists
by Nick Sorrenti







The Sports Blotter
The Week in Sports Crime

Cover Page
Buffalo in Briefs
Page 3
Separated at Birth?
Kino Korner: Movies
[sic] - Letters
The BEAST Blog


ISSUE#79 PDF FILE (right-click & "save target")


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The Joy of Sailing
A Summer Job Experience
by Matt Higgins

They say that time is money, which is only partially true, because if time were currency in the mid 1990s then I would have been rich. My problem was that I had free time. Therefore I was in need of cash.

So on a cold and rainy day in April, I drove down to Buffalo’s waterfront looking for work. I already had warmer, sunnier times in mind. Inspired by the trinity of The Old Man and the Sea, Jimmy Buffet albums, and the movie Captain Ron, I was determined to learn to sail. My plan was to work around boats, pick up the necessary knowledge, and get paid at the same time.

I could see my future very clearly. I would chart a course from dreary Buffalo, cruise out the St. Lawrence Seaway and down the East Coast to the Caribbean, where I would slip off the Matrix and survive by catching fish, occasionally anchoring in some salty port for a few nights of rum and debauchery. I pretty much had it all figured out.

Despite a total lack of experience I was hired immediately at a marina wedged between the Skyway and the General Mills plant, on the Ship Canal. The boss, a paunchy but pleasant man, sat me down and explained just one thing. He said, “Your predecessor may have had a drinking problem, I don’t know, but failing to show up for work – and not even calling – is untenable.” I stepped out of the office – actually, a trailer on blocks – with a new job.

The weather warmed and the busy season of getting the boats in the water began. Their owners constantly checked on maintenance, certain that the vermin working at the marina were slacking off or up to no good. They treated me, and the others, with contempt.

Still, I was on a mission, and I couldn’t help but learn something about boats. I began to understand the argot, and I could maybe pass myself off as a sailor for about a minute. The boss was helpful in tutoring me.

“What’s the big fin thing for on the bottom?” I would ask.

“You mean the keel? It acts as ballast to keep the boat from heeling too far and capsizing.”

“What’s heeling?”

In the end this was the extent of what I would learn about sailing during my nearly four months on the job. Mostly I pumped foul bilge water from old boats that wouldn’t be sailed until they had been sold to new owners. They were neglected at the very least, and in some cases despised.

They say the second happiest day of your life is when you buy your boat. The happiest is when you sell it. Also, a common crack among boating cognoscenti: “Look up the word ‘boat’ in the dictionary and it reads, ‘A hole in the water where you throw money.’”

I would ruminate on these folksy aphorisms and other things as I went about my lonely work. My equipment consisted of a ladder, a bucket, and a bilge pump. I would climb the ladder into the cockpit of various boats and open the hatch, sometimes disturbing a nest of angry wasps (not the boat owners, the insects). They would attack, and I would sprint to the bow and try to fend them off with my hat. In my most desperate scenes I would leap over the side 15 feet to the gravel below. I would then walk quickly and casually away, hoping no one had seen.

Later I would return and crouch in the stifling heat of the stinking cabin and pump stale rain water and leaked diesel from the bilges into a bucket, which I then dumped over the side. I repeated this routine for hours each week.

Also, I performed non-nautical tasks, like mowing the lawn. And, on the occasions when a boat did sell, I would bring its outboard engine aboard. This meant bear-hugging it across the yard and then balancing it on my shoulder while I climbed the ladder. I managed the whole maneuver on sheer nerve.

Still I persevered, my eyes on the prize. Things would get better and, I was sure, by the end of summer I would be a master sailor.

Also, this solitary work beat being anywhere near water, and the uptight owners. My first negative experience with them came almost immediately. I had been assigned to re-stain the teakwood deck work on a handsome cruiser. I began by taping off the deck so that stain wouldn’t spill onto the white surface. Soon I was deep into my work, and didn’t notice the gathering storm, the kind that creeps up suddenly and violently during summer near the lake. I was quickly caught in a downpour.

I sprinted to the office to get my foul-weather gear. While I was in the back room putting it on, I heard a commotion. Some lunatic was shrieking in the other room. I walked out and saw a skinny bearded guy, dripping wet. He fixed his eyes on me and shouted insane gibberish.

I was caught completely off guard, but my boss gently guided him into his office for a conference. Turned out the old fool was livid that I had put masking tape on his deck. Now wet it would be a bitch to get off. As I stood there kind of stunned, one of the mechanics walked up and said, “I would have sunk the claw end of a hammer into his skull,” injecting some much-needed levity into the situation.

If not for comic relief, there would have been real violence. Most of the workers were hardened, resentful types – refugees from some other industry. They were hardly employable, and prone to quick anger, because life had already been mean and unfair.

They were reminded constantly to be kind to the customers, however. “After all, they are the ones who pay our salaries.” This constant threat of unemployment and the sage guidance of the Cap kept things from getting out of hand.

The Cap drove the crane that carried the boats from the cradles to the canal and back again. He was a veteran of Buffalo’s blue-collar industries, and he would stare wistfully at the Skyway, the hum of the traffic mocking him. Once he told me he knew Bethlehem Steel was destined to close after the Skyway was built with Japanese steel. He had worked at Bethlehem at the time, hauling slag out back by the shoreline and dumping it into an area that he described looking like the surface of the moon, with big bubbling craters of purple sulfur.

It was rare, though, for the Cap to act melancholy – or even serious. He mostly kept everyone loose with his steady commentary from the cab, where he leaned out the window, smoking cigarettes. To start, he was just funny looking.

He was short and stocky with a big belly and powerful arms and legs. He had jaundiced eyes and brown teeth, and he croaked when he talked, his voice ravaged from cigarettes and booze. Still, he talked constantly.

“Slow down,” the Cap would call. “Don’t work so hard.” Then he would take a drag from his cigarette and exhale. “You’ll bust a nut.” He would sort of chuckle to himself, and say, “You wanna fuck tonight, don’t’cha?”

The Cap was a master of milking company time, and conserving energy. When everyone finally slowed to his satisfaction, he would crack, “Hey, Jimmy (or whoever he was targeting that day), show me your union card!”

From his perch in the cab the Cap could see the whole yard, including the boss’ whereabouts, and he kept watch and warned us to pick up the pace or stop slacking, if necessary. For this and other reasons, the Cap was held in high esteem, like an old blues man who hasn’t learned any new licks in decades, but who can play the old ones better than anyone.

Another way we kept ourselves busy laughing so that we didn’t go crazy and attack one of the customers was by telling stories, usually about some mishap involving the customers.

Eventually I had a story to tell, too. It went like this: When my boss was indisposed I was sometimes asked to show potential buyers the boats for sale. I would open them up, air them out, pump the bilges, and stand around while they asked questions I couldn’t answer. This particular customer wanted to see some of the bigger, more expensive performance yachts.

He arrived late. He was a slightly overweight middle-aged guy, dressed completely wrong for boat inspection. He wore a pair of dark dress shoes, the kind with pointy toes and tassels, and dress pants, with a button down and suspenders.

Turned out he was from Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay area. He had a good ol’ boy Southern accent and he smoked a fragrant brand of specialty cigarettes. For the better part of an hour he jabbered at me, showing off all his knowledge. Finally he turned and asked what I sailed.

I told him I didn’t have one, adding in a friendly way that deflected from my obvious poverty that they were too much work.

“Awww, that’s why I got a B.N.,” he said. “Eve’body down’n Chess-peek got a B.N.”

“A what?”

“A B.N. You know, boat nigger. Someone to clean it – keep it in order.”

I gave him the slow inscrutable nod of the white Aryan brotherhood. I wondered if this fucker was just an ignorant redneck: Were we supposed to share this moment of racial superiority, or was he purposely trying to call me a boat nigger, or its white equivalent? Alas, the fine line between ignorance and stupidity is not always crystal clear. He gave no clues; he just smiled.

There was one more boat to show, and I was eager to get rid of this jackass. We climbed aboard. The customer casually lit a cigarette and began to say something while stepping across the cockpit. His shoe just grazed the bench on the other side. He reacted quickly, reaching for the boom, but it swung away before he could get a grip, and he headed downward. His sternum landed solidly on the edge of the molded bench and a great gasp escaped from his lungs. His cigarette was sent flying from his mouth as if blasted from a blow dart.

His arms had flailed, yet there was nothing to grab but the air, and his hand struck the deck hard, sending his watch skittering toward the bow, demonstrating the engineering principles that directs water from large waves overboard.

It was all over in a matter of seconds. He struggled to roll onto his back as the boom swayed gently overhead, and I noticed that his suspenders had come unfastened during his ordeal. Although his eyes were closed, he was breathing – like Darth Vader.

He rubbed his knee and flexed it to be sure the joint was still working. Meanwhile, he moaned. Which is about the time I started laughing. I skulked away toward the bow, my shoulders shaking the whole way. I tried to compose myself while picking up his watch. Finally I clenched my tongue between my teeth and walked back to the cockpit.

He was standing now, and with trembling hands trying to refasten his suspenders. The blood had risen up his neck like an outdoor thermometer and his face was purple. His shirt was soaked with blotches of sweat that looked like strange continents.

I handed him the watch. “Thanks,” he rasped. The band was broken, so he put it in his pocket.

“You all right?” I asked.

“Yeah… shoes,” he began to say. He sounded like an emphysema case. The blow to the lungs must have jarred all the tar from his air sacs. He coughed and wheezed, “Shoes… are… not good… on this… nonskid… surface.”

I bit on my tongue again. After a minute he summoned the energy to slowly climb down the ladder. I picked up his cigarette and flicked it over the side.

“Sure you’re all right?” I called. He just waved me off as he walked away. Then I went down into the cabin and laughed for five minutes.

I never did learn to sail that summer – or ever, for that matter, which is probably just as well. I did learn some other valuable things about life, however.

Although this may be unpopular (My colleagues at The Beast are not religious; they don’t even worship the devil. They are atheists.), experience has taught me that there is some higher power; sort of a cosmic connection – something like karma.

It is the guiding hand behind schadenfreude, and empirical evidence for it abounds. And most of the time it’s all we’ve got.

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