It was something I’d never done before. So last Thursday I worked as a day laborer at the Port of Providence. An unexpected phone call from a friend the day before informed me a 700’ ship was in port and help was needed loading.
I got up at 3:50 a.m. Had coffee. Drove to the address I was given, where I was told all the longshoremen and day laborers would meet. “Be there 0600.” I’d been told. It was dark when I arrived a half hour early. Not owning a smart phone or GPS, the dozens of cars running with their lights on led me to believe I was at “the right place”. I parked and sat and waited while dozens more cars pulled up. Yellow and orange reflective vests- like the one I’d bought the night before at Walmart- shown in the headlights on every person.
I felt like I was in the parking lot before the first day of high school. People smoked cigarettes. Slapped or shook hands. Smiled. I ran the heat on my feet and nervously waited.
2 minutes of six people started getting out of their cars and shuffled over to a paved area surrounded by a chain link fence adjoining a brick building with bars on the only two windows.
It was unclear what to do so I stood and wait. One thing that was clear was that my brand new, not-a-spec-of-dirt-on-it reflective vest stood out only slightly more than my complexion.
I told a lady next to me I had never been here before, and asked if I should go into the building or wait out here. She kindly told me they’ll call us in at 6.
The door opened and we all went inside the hall. It was a single room with a table and three bosses at the front. Pretty much immediately the bosses started talking to the room and then giving directions that I didn’t understand. Half a dozen people walked out, with purpose. Then the bosses asked a question I didn’t catch and about a dozen people raised their hands. An older black man behind me must have read my timid posture- or my brand-new vest- because he said to me, “Hey son, you never worked here before?”
“No.” I replied. He encouraged me, “you wanna work? Put your hand up!?” I did. “Get it up , get it up there high. Go a head step forward, get right up there. You wanna work, make sure they see you.”
The bosses were picking from the crowd of raised hands like they were assembling a kickball team.
The old man called out, “Here. This guy wants to work.” And pointed at me. The bosses had me come up in front of the whole room and give them my license. Told me to be at the ship at ten of 7.
On the way towards the door, the man who’d helped me asked, “You know where the port is?” I said “No, can I walk there?” He said “What the hell?! You’re on foot?” I said, “no. I have a car.” He shook his head, “Well then drive there. What the F.”
He started trying to give me directions, but reading my face he stopped midsentence, “No. I’ll get someone that you can follow… Ramon. Ramon, let this young man follow you to the port? Will you do that?”
I followed Ramon’s burgundy Acura to the port. Through security, who skeptically noted they’d never seen me before.
At the parking area, I asked a short black man, about 50, “What do we do next?” He chuckled and responded with an accent, “Never been here before, huh?” We walked side by side past scrap heaps, salt piles, and hundreds of broken cars. He walked with a limp as he motioned towards the wrecks, “In this country we think these are all junk. Over in Africa, people be happy to have them, say ‘that’s a nice car.’ ”
We went right down onto the pier. Where there were two ships. A 600 footer that had just finished discharging salt. And a towering 700 foot “roll on- roll off” car carrier. The size of the vessels was dizzying. Standing next to them gave me the feeling of peering over the edge of a cliff.
A cable operated ramp that had to be 80 feet wide led into the ship. Everyone gathered at the base of the ramp. I’d guess there were at least 50 or 60 men and women working. A lot of smiles. On three occasions people saying “Yeah! Gunna make some money! Making good money!” One man said to me, “This brother knows. He’s gunna make some money.” Then extended his fist for me to bump with a grin.
The bosses wasted no time. Shouting. “Drivers! All the drivers into the vans. Pushers go with the drivers. Lashers! Get on the ship. Batterymen onto the ship!”
Lashers were split into two gangs. I was sent to Deck 9 not even knowing what a lasher was. Told that the man with a limp would show me where to go and what to do.
The ship was like a giant multi-level parking garage. On the walls where thousands of “lashes,” a binding strap with 4 long tails, a foreign and confusing animal. The man with the limp bluntly explained to me how to “lash”: The deck of the ships has small holes about every 6 feet to anchor lashes. Anchor every car to the deck in 4 places; 2 front 2 back. Connect to steel not plastic. Hook the rim, a trailer hitch, or the frame and hook the floor. If a hub cap’s in the way; take it off.
No time wasted. The cars started pouring in. Some driven. Some pushed. Some loaded with a forklift. All busted. Dented. Wrecked in some fashion.
Bosses yelling directions over the echoing roar of poorly running cars, the bang clang of lashes hitting the floor and the ship’s engines. “Send that big one here. Send that little one there. Get me a car. Turn it to the right. No! The other right. Stop. I said STOP!” It was a high pressure real life game of Tetris. And these guys knew how to play.
At first, I bumbled and fumbled and got in people’s way. But I tried hard. Kept my head down and let the jibes and judgement roll off my back.
Cars were packed with just enough space to get between them to lash them down. Driver set the emergency brake. Pop the hood. Go get another car. Lashers begin securing the car. Batteryman disconnect the battery and cap the terminal. A woman with a roll of cellophane wrap the battery cable. Everyone stays out of the way of the boss and the incoming cars. Repeat a few thousand times.
Everyone was working hard. I mean really like a driven team. A lot of pride in their work. And clearly treating the job as though it was a privilege. People looking out for each other. Late in the day, one of the men I was working with asked, “Are you coming tomorrow.” I said “I have to work landscaping. Are you working tomorrow?” He said “Yes… Well, if I get picked”.
Toward the end of the day one of the batterymen who’d razzed me early in the day, leaned over as I was hunched on my knees strapping a car, raised his eye brows and kind of quietly said, “you want to come tomorrow don’t raise your hand. You’ll get any job you want.” I took it as a real compliment.
I have done some hard physical labor in my life. My first day of lashing cars was on par with the hardest. Probably some because I didn’t know what I was doing. Until you have figured out the tricks of how to be efficient, work is always harder than it needs to be. The pay was good. $22 or $28/hr depending on which job you got.
There aren’t many places where a person can show up with only basic skills and make $200 to $300 per day. For a person that needs extra income, or a person that is unable to sustain a conventional job that port and the union that runs it are an invaluable asset.
Communities surrounding ports bear an unfair burden, as NPR recently reported.
Felix Reyes Director of Development and Planning has made it clear Connecticut is not doing a good job correcting the imbalance.
I am dismayed that CT has displaced all conventional cargo and the ILA 1411 Longshoreman’s Union and chosen to focus State Pier in New London entirely on offshore wind. Offshore wind is going to create a relatively small number of highly skilled jobs at the expense of existing jobs. Many of the new wind jobs will be filled by people flown in from Europe, Texas, and Louisiana.
State Pier should be developed in a way that serves all socio-economic classes of people in the state. There should be special focus on creating opportunities for locals. Any remediation funds paid by the CT Port Authority associated with State Pier should be spent on projects in New London.
Blacker recently announced that he intends to run a write-in campaign for governor of Connecticut