Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!


Final Voyage of The S.S. Seamen's

Prelude to true events...

            Although I was not an 'official' seaman, I lived at the Seamen's Church Institute located on the water’s edge of lower Manhattan during the 1960's.  To be sure, I'm referring to "South Street", as opposed to the later Institute located at Battery Park (which also has since closed).

The Institute was a hotel for seamen, very much self-contained, with cafeteria, rec facilities, library,  full-time RN, chapel, weekend dances and so on.  To me, it was a very beautiful building inside and out -- and by far my favorite of all homes in New York City. 

The primary attraction for me was its wonderful isolation, peacefulness and 'presence'.  It had the feel of Melville, touched by London, and shaded by ocean travelers both real and unreal.  Many of its characters still come to dance across my mind during the wee hours, and a joyful passage it is.

You might think that seamen, often being a carousing, hard drinking group, would be prone to disturbing the peace after a night of contests and boiler-makers, but not at the Seamen's.  The massive, ornate wooden doors of the Institute suggested entrance to a great saint's cathedral and instantly subdued the lost or inebriated soul.  Not once did I hear a pin, a loud voice or anything resembling a disturbance within the old walls of the Seamen's Church Institute.  Only ship's horn or the late night engines of ferry and tug called us away on journeys of dreams.  

Shall I'll tell you a bit more?   On the door of each room was a brass plaque, which read something like this; "This room donated by Mr. & Mrs. Ballard, friends of Seamen".  Of course, each plaque noted a different donor, and all were appreciated.  The rooms, like the entire building, were clean, yet modest; a wardrobe, small writing desk (w/bible), shaker-style chair, single bed and an overhead light.  On certain nights, though count many, at least one room had a slender leather case leaning by the door, poised with resting cue for battles next on distant felt tables.

Well, you've come this far, so I offer a little secret.  One late night, too cold for adventures outside, I passed the hours at the small writing table.  And you should know, no writer or reader was I.  But then, a scribbled page; "Did ‘I’  write that?  Guess so...and not too bad!"

So now I write...

"Final Voyage of the S.S. Seamen's"

It was, I believe, 1968 when I checked into the Seamen's for what was to be the last time...

Since I had been staying at the Seamen’s off and on for several years, the various desk clerks knew my face well.  No longer was I asked the standard questions, "What's your rating? - What ship? - How long will you be staying"?  Of course, I now suspect that they knew quite well that I was no sea-man, so travel back with me for a moment to the very first time I checked in.

I first passed through the oak doors of the Seamen's on a particularly cold February night.  But once inside, its warmth immediately cast off winter's coat.  So, relieved, I was astounded by the vastness and appearance of the lobby.  The polished floors seemed to be of marble, the seams inlaid with brass which disappeared under sprawling rugs and appointed furniture.  Although my faded memory fails to recall each detail, Roman columns also appeared to be in residence.  All in all, an entirely unexpected and impressive sight.

When I approached the small check-in area, I was still unsure about my chances; this place was for "seamen," not for ship-less subway travelers.  The two men registering in front of me looked like seamen, with duffel bags, wool skull caps, even one joyfully puffing on a corn-cob pipe.  Their presence was, however, an act of fate.  As I stood waiting my turn, the clerk asked each mariner the requisite questions; "What's your rating?"  "O-S" was the reply.  "What ship?"  "Esso Rico".  When the second merchant sailor was asked his rating, he replied "A-B", and gave the name of his ship.  Then it dawned on me; "O-S"; Ordinary Seaman! "A-B"; Able-Bodied Seaman! 

Though the clerk eyed me with feigned suspicion, it was not because of my quick responses, but rather my 16-year-old appearance.  Nonetheless, he dutifully entered my rating ("O-S") and ship ("Klondike") in the Seamen's register as I counted out the two dollars and fifty cents.  Then he handed me my key and said, "Cabin 752.... Captain."   As it turned out, "Captain" became my unofficial "rating" at the Institute, although it seemed to me more a flag of welcome than an obvious nickname.

During the several years that I subsequently stayed at the Seamen's, all the staff, mostly ex-seamen, quietly treated me like the too long away, but now returning son.  Big things, little things, seldom requested, but frequently offered.  Even in the cafeteria, where I once asked how far I could stretch my lonely dollar, the countermen silently consorted to assemble mountains of rice over hills of meat, then called me back; "Captain, here, you forgot your change...and your orange soda."      

So you see dear traveler, my unlabored affection for the Seamen's was born less of romance than of kindness.  Only there could I go, undisturbed, this calmest port of my inner sea.

"They've started moving us over to the Battery Park building," Pete, the white haired clerk said as he checked me in.  "They're down to the ninth floor, so I'll put you on the third; you should be okay there for a couple of weeks - it's the best I can do, Cap."

We had certainly known about the coming of the new Seamen's, but I was still startled by the sudden reality of this sad news.  Not for myself, a new vessel with oceans north and ahead, but for Pete and his mates, now docked on South Street till their final ship's bell.  

Yet, progress reached to disturb my port-side friends, this fiscal demon rising from the harbor to cast these aging souls out onto a mate-less land.  The new Seamen's would double their rents, and limit the stays.  No longer could anchored mariners live out their days by beloved seas, but instead to settle their last in breeze-less rooms on forgotten deserts.

Walking the halls, not much to say, nor the wisdom to ask -  I, but a  drop, could not reverse the incoming tides. 

Then, the vacated rooms had descended far enough, so I gathered up to be on my rudderless way.  With small worn suitcase and cue-sword under my arm, I reluctantly headed for the lobby.  For days I had heard and offered good-byes, but now I wished to go unnoticed, as if these South Street doors had never swung open.

The halls were quiet, the lobby empty, but no use!  "Cap, where the hell do think you're going?"  It was old Tom, and Two-Dans. 

I have to pause here to  report that Two-Dans wasn't crazy, though you may not agree.  Unlike the average untreated schizophrenic, Two-Dan's conversations with the unseen were totally convincing.  When he was alone, he was not alone.  From flailing gestures to hushed whispers, the dialogues, once started, rarely ended.  In the cafeteria, a cup for himself, a cup for his alter unseen.  Then, he joins my table, normal in every way, except to quietly discuss his invisible, coffee drinking companion - sitting, with cup, three tables over.

"Here Cap, I wanted to give you this" old Tom said as he offered me a small object.  I could see that it was a pocket watch, that is, until I opened the case.  "Cap, it'll keep your course, day and night, and clear of the shallows," Tom said softly as I peered at the undulating needle.  "Tom, I can't take this!" as I reached to give it back.  But my outstretched hand was met by Two-Dan's massive paws, which effortlessly rolled my fingers back around the shiny brass compass.  With that, old Tom bid, "Take care boy, and remember, when she points east, look for our ship!" Then he turned and walked away, balancing himself on Two-Dans arm.  And.... no tears..... except on hearts briefly opened.   

I watched as they disappeared into the recesses, no doubt headed for the bridge and voyages unknown.  But I can't leave them go just yet, not until I tell you this.  Old Tom, merchant seaman for seventy years and survivor of three ships struck by torpedoes, came to this South Street port not a year ago with Two-Dans in tow.  An unlikely pair, though I'm not clear on just how this came to be.  Yet, I do know Two-Dans hadn’t stepped from Melville's pages, though the writer may wish he had. 

Two-Dan's 'exotic' origins had been Ireland, Tom said, though my eyes doubted this seemingly contrarian detail.  Yes, he had fiery red hair, but also red skin, I mean deep, permanent red.  Except for those emerald eyes, his island home was surely uncharted on any known map.  Otherwise, I can only describe Two-Dans this way; a shaved gorilla, red, massive, almost a human contradiction.  If not too frightened though, you could see beyond this startling impression and into a gentler, though often tormented soul. 

So it was that one looked after the other.  Old Tom and Two-Dans traveled together, and that was simply that.  Tom spoke, Two-Dan listened, though they mostly sat or moved in silence.  Only when Tom slept the afternoons did Two-Dan converse with ghostly companions, and they to agitate his sleepless state.  But in the company of old Tom, always at peace, released from fires we couldn't know.  And for Tom, alert in mind, frail in body, a freedom of considerable sorts in the strength and devotion of Two-Dans.

I'll digress no more, as I finally exit the Seamen's Church Institute.  Out on South Street, another call from the decks above, "HEY CAP!  TAKE THE CURRENT!"  It's Pete, and I wave back.  A few moments later I disappear into the subway and roll my way up to the neon destinies of mid-town.  Not easy, this trip, metal screeching through hellish tunnels, yet hardly enough to distract the images crossing my mind. 

Somehow my eyes drew briefly closed, and enough to view this little dream; the S.S. Seamen's, the building breaks loose, as orders shout from the bridge.  Into the bay it strains to move, road and cement tumbling in its gathering wake.  All hands are up, able again to guide this worthy ship.  All but one, as I spot Two-Dans push and heave the final inch, then leap to dangling rope and scurry back up deck.  Great plumes of steam as she comes aft,   "TURN HER OUT LADS, OUT TO SEA!"  Ship's flag unfurled as her deafening horn calls all vessels to clear her course.  From every portal, present and past, her seamen rise again to sea.   (S.S. Seamen's; final entry)

Land Captain's log:

Now, choose the history you like, but I'll tell you this;  when the wrecking ball showed up next early morn, no Seamen's ship was left to hit.  Not a hull, a plank, or roof-top deck in sight.  No truck would carry off a single piece, only collapsed chunks of South Street roadway.  Swirling water and collapsed sidewalks in its rectangular space, late last night the S.S. Seamen cut the harbor and steamed out to sea.

© 1997/2004 by David M. Molloy (a//k/a David Baker/D.B. Boulanger)


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