On the Waterfront

A Celebration of sailors’ dives, longshoremen’s vendettas, refineries, factories, giant ships, and fifty miles of dirt water.

July 1978By Comments

It was Memorial Day weekend and the pickings were slim. Most of the ships that normally would have been in port lay anchored in Galveston Bay so they wouldn’t have to pay time and a half to longshoremen. 

The old longshoreman they called Goat made his rounds, cadging drinks and looking for odd jobs at the Harbor Lights, the Athens, the Hong Kong, and the other bars on the Houston waterfront. When he was young and strong enough to work the docks, Goat had been especially fond of holidays. “We was iron men in wooden ships,” he said. “It weren’t nothing to make a hundred and twenty for a three-day weekend.” But now holidays were memories and memories depressed Goat.

Kim and two of her “sisters” were entertaining three young Australian seamen, and they paid no attention as Goat tipped his cap and hobbled inside the Hong Kong. Goat sat alone at the bar, playing with his lucky piece, an ivory carving of a rat clinging to a piece of driftwood. It was a gift from long ago. There were many different stories about Goat’s lucky piece. Kim had heard that it once belonged to a homosexual seaman from Malaysia. 

“I like all men except queers,” Kim told the seamen. “Norwegians are the best. I don’t care how much money a man has, only if he is nice.” She placed a hand on the knee of one of the Australians and said, “Do you like me and my sisters? Why don’t you buy us one round of drinks?” The seaman gave Kim $10. She kissed him and gave him $1 change. Kim appeared to be in her early thirties. She had a stunning body fully displayed in short shorts and a tank top. Her face was a flawless almond, unmistakably Chinese, and she looked at you with dark, hungry eyes. The other women, one from Thailand and one from Viet Nam, wore vaguely Oriental gowns and blank expressions. Kim did all the talking. She was very good and the seamen bought a second round of drinks without being asked. 

“You know what the old longshoreman told me?” she said, leaning close to the seaman’s ear. “A long time ago, before they invent nylon, they import human hair from China. You know why? For making filter cloth they use to make peanut butter!” She laughed, brushing her hair across the seaman’s face and saying, “Now we got the real thing.” 

All three had escaped from Saigon at roughly the same time — a few days before the Communist takeover. For longer than she could remember, Kim’s people had been escaping from someone somewhere. Her father had been a merchant in the East China seaport of Foochow before the Communists chased them to Taiwan, where Kim was born. When things became uncomfortable in Taiwan, the family went to Hanoi, then to Saigon when the French left in 1954, and finally to Houston. The three women met as waitresses at the Harbor Lights, where they became sisters and decided they would open their own place some day. When the Hong Kong around the corner became available, Koula Dadinis, owner of the Harbor Lights, helped them secure a lease and introduced them to the former owner, an old Vietnamese woman who knew how to cook. Now the mama-san ran the kitchen and the sisters waited tables and entertained the customers. 

It was well after midnight before business picked up at the Hong Kong. The three seamen who had been there earlier had gone, but a number of other seamen, most of them Oriental, had stopped for a meal before returning to their ships. Kim wrapped chopsticks in paper napkins while the others served steaming bowls of rice and vegetables. In the early evening the sisters had appeared fresh and saucy but now they looked like wilted flowers. Koula had told them it would not be easy, running their own place.

As usual, Koula was right. 

When he had dined sufficiently as a guest of some Korean seaman, Goat hobbled back down to the Harbor Lights to say good night to Koula and see if he could swap his lucky piece for a hard drink. Goat was a lot more serious about getting a drink than he was about getting rid of his lucky piece, and people on the waterfront seemed to appreciate that. 

It was a good place to be. Even on holidays. 

 

Koula Dadinis is the queen of the Port of Houston. Though she has lived there on the waterfront for thirty years, only a handful of people in Houston know her name or have sampled the pleasures of her establishment, the Harbor Lights Night Club, located on McCarty a few blocks from the Ship Channel and just around the corner from the Hong Kong and the much better known Athens Bar & Grill. But seamen from all over the world know Koula. She has bought them drinks and listened to their stories and paid postage due on their letters on the off chance that their lost lady loves might happen again into the Harbor Lights. Crewmen from a German freighter who used to call regularly on the Port of Houston faithfully wire New Year’s greetings. Not long ago a young Norwegian seaman off the Jarabella walked in and asked directions to the Harbor Lights. Koula said he was standing in it, at which time the sailor dropped to his knees and kissed the floor. He told her that he had heard of the Harbor Lights from his grandfather, then from his father.  

“He say to me, this place it is holy,” Koula recalls in her heavy Greek accent. In a sudden rush of modesty, she hides her face in her hands and giggles like a schoolgirl.

When Koula arrived here from her tiny Greek fishing village in 1948 to marry Harres Dadinis, a man she had never met, Houston was America. It was all she had dreamed it would be — “a bright place where people are wonderful.” Nothing has changed that evaluation. Koula has never had the time or money to travel: America is Houston and Houston is the waterfront and the waterfront is the Harbor Lights. In the early thirties when Harres Dadinis jumped ship and bought a dive then called the Gypsy Village (the name Harbor Lights was taken from the song), McCarty was a narrow asphalt passage between bars, tourist courts, and gypsy hovels. The gypsies have been gone for years. The tourist courts exist only as flophouses for down-and-out dockworkers and easy-access beds for waterfront hookers. The traffic along McCarty is almost exclusively trucks, bumper to bumper between the Ship Channel and Interstate 10. Only the Harbor Lights remains as a more or less permanent waterfront fixture. Koula has run it alone since her husband died in 1960. Even the Athens Bar & Grill, where Houston’s night crowd goes to slum and watch Greek sailors dance and throw money, is a fairly recent addition.

Dolores Vionis opened the Athens in 1961 after her friend Koula advised her to “marry a Greek who knows how to cook.” The Athens has taken a lot of play from the Harbor Lights, but Koula doesn’t mind. “I’m glad for everybody to have business,” Koula says. “If they have business, I have business, too.” As the Athens has become more of what Americans think of as authentic Greek, the Harbor Lights has become Koula’s idea of America. It no longer serves Greek (or any other) food — Koula never cared much for cooking — and the Greek folk songs on its jukebox have been replaced with country and Western. The decorations are classic Texas honky-tonk: beer advertisements, a few faded postcards showing what the port looked like in its younger days, and a sign that says: “America! Love It or Leave It!” The customers are mostly seamen, longshoremen, and a few truck drivers, but the place attracts an occasional celebrity such as Jimmy the Greek. And Koula remains convinced that a tramp who handed her $100 bills when he visited the Harbor Lights every other year for eighteen years was Howard Hughes.  

At first glance Koula Dadinis doesn’t look like queen of the port, but a royal spirit can be deceptive. She is a small, wiry woman with gray-flecked hair, a face like oiled leather, and a time-honored suspicion of outsiders. She has tried to tell the people downtown about conditions on the waterfront, but nobody listens. There are no sidewalks along Clinton or McCarty and few streetlights. Rats inhabit abandoned shacks and rusted auto chassis; mosquitoes thrive in open ditches. There is very little police protection and no public transportation along the waterfront. Several years ago a Greek sailor was hit by a truck and knocked eighty feet into a ditch, where he lay dying until one of Koula’s waitresses found him two days later. That’s when Koula had a friend draft a petition to Mayor Fred Hofheinz. She circulated it around the waterfront and personally carried it to city hall. “They tell me later that it’s too expensive, what I’m asking,” Koula says. “Why? We pay same taxes they pay at Galleria. They have sidewalks, why don’t we?” Some weeks later the city did install a traffic light on Clinton, right next to the Athens Bar & Grill, as fate would have it; but nothing further was ever done. 

The only publicity the Harbor Lights ever attracted has been bad. The local media have portrayed Koula’s place as a hothouse for vice and violence, when in fact much of the vice and all of the violence take place on the very streets that Koula petitioned the police to protect. 

“They come in here to have a good time, I can’t help what happen outside,” Koula says angrily. “Why they never say nothing good about me? I can’t read, I can’t write, I don’t have no school. But I’m good as anybody. I run this place ’cause it’s all I got. I raise four children running this place. Two of them finish college. One is in law school. They sleep in the storeroom and on beer boxes under the bar so I can watch out for them. How else I’m gonna raise four children if I don’t got this place? I’m proud of myself. Nobody else proud of me, but I’m proud of myself.”

An official with the Port Authority of Houston has termed the waterfront “the best kept secret in town.” It’s not hard to see why.

It looks great on paper. They talk about the $5 billion concentration of industry that has come to settle along the “fabulous fifty miles” of the Houston Ship Channel, about the 4500 ships flying the flags of 61 nations that haul 51 million tons of cargo to and from Houston each year, about the network of railroads, trucklines, and interstate highways that serve the port complex, and about all the other wondrous statistics that make the Port of Houston the third largest in the country, generating 33 cents out of every $1 in the Houston economy. Of course — but it takes talent to appreciate the waterfront: an adventurous eye, rubber ears, and a tolerant nose. Though it is an easy ten-minute drive from downtown, nobody ever just stumbles across the waterfront. Port Authority people hand out statistics and photographs of the Ship Channel but not maps showing how to get there. Except for a single high-rise bridge where Loop 610 crosses the channel just above the old Dickson Gun plant, the waterfront is invisible.

Port Authority publicity claims that that’s how it was planned, but it wasn’t. What early civic leaders had in mind was a ship channel starting downtown at the foot of Main, at a spot still known as Allen’s Landing, and following the narrow, tortuous path of Buffalo Bayou 25 miles to Galveston Bay, then another 25 miles across the bay to Bolivar Roads and the Gulf. It was the dream of those nineteenth-century visionaries that someday great ocean-going ships would commingle downtown with great skyscrapers like in New York and Boston. The stubbornness of that vision nearly kept Galveston the major port of Texas.  

When Texas declared its independence and formed its first government on March 2, 1836, Santa Anna’s army was already marching east across Texas. President David G. Burnet and Vice President Lorenzo de Zavala decided that the first order of business was to take refuge; they determined that the village of Harrisburg on Buffalo Bayou afforded them the best shot for the anticipated retreat by sea. Therefore, Harrisburg, located on the south side of an obscure bayou not far from the current Turning Basin, became the first capital of the Republic of Texas. When Santa Anna heard the news, he marched his troops to Harrisburg and burned it to the ground. While pursuing Burnet and Zavala down the bayou, Santa Anna had the bad fortune to encounter the army of General Sam Houston at a place we now celebrate as San Jacinto.

They barely had time to bury the dead before the speculators descended on Buffalo Bayou, buying land and promising the rise of great cities. The Allen brothers, Augustus and John, were relative latecomers but made up in zeal what they lacked in foresight. They first tried to buy Galveston, then Morgan’s Point, then Harrisburg, but the sites were either unavailable or the titles were in dispute. Although the bayou narrowed and became noticeably less attractive for navigation above Harrisburg, the Allens continued upstream until they found an available tract of land at the junction of Buffalo and White Oak bayous. Having signed the proper papers, they named the site after the hero of San Jacinto and took out newspaper ads proclaiming it to be “the head of navigation” all the way to the Gulf. To prove their contention the Allens arranged to have two steamboats, first the 85-foot Laura and later the 150-foot Constitution, ply the bayou all the way to Allen’s Landing. A plaque at the foot of Main now commemorates Allen’s Landing, and another plaque six miles downstream commemorates what is called Constitution Bend. The second plaque fails to mention that Constitution Bend marks how far the Constitution had to back down the bayou before she could turn. Today we know it as the Turning Basin of the Houston Ship Channel.

It took the leaders of Houston more than sixty years to give up the downtown port idea and start dredging downstream, not far from the old capital of Harrisburg. If they had started there in the first place the Ship Channel probably would have been completed well before 1914, the same year, incidentally, that the United States finished digging the Panama Canal. Had political art imitated life, we would now be following the adventures of the Harrisburg Astros and gossiping about the misadventures of Harrisburg cops. In its relentless reach for deep water Houston extended its city limits in 1926 to include Harrisburg, and today the first capital of Texas is a waterfront slum where the air smells of chemicals and raw sewage, staggering amounts of cargo are transferred daily, and schoolyard fences turn orange under a gray-green sky. 

Like their forefathers, modern leaders of Houston have an undaunted will to tear down and reshape their own dynamic image: that is what happened to Harrisburg. Grand old homes such as the Milby mansion are now pictures in a book, and the land where they used to stand is occupied by warehouses, truck terminals, and low-rent shanties. But Harrisburg remains a community. Just as downtown interests speak of the foot of Main, that historic place where Houston meets Buffalo Bayou, those indigenous to the waterfront speak of the foot of 75th, that stretch of 75th between Navigation and Wharf 41. Where large buffalo fish used to spawn in shallow, clear green water, the great ships of the world now moor in forty feet of indescribably foul liquid waste. The foot of 75th is inhabited mainly by black and brown longshoremen, a few stevedores, an occasional missionary, and some hookers who look as though they washed up from the bayou a long time ago. The foot of 75th is where you would go if you were looking for Red’s Waterfront Lounge, Betty’s, Irene’s, the Climax, or Both Sisters. It is not a practical place to include on a tourist map.  

Across the 69th Street bridge, on the north side of the bayou, conditions are more attractive, though it is still not an area you would select for a garden party. The newer, better-equipped wharves are on the north side of the channel and that’s where the majority of the large cargo ships dock. The main (in fact the only) artery is Clinton, which runs parallel to the port’s security fence all the way to the Loop 610 bridge, the line of demarcation separating the public wharves from the industrial docks downstream. The Clinton Street wharves are only technically public: except on Sunday, visitors are allowed only as far as the observation deck overlooking the Turning Basin. But you can feel the energy of the waterfront, the rumble of trucks and trains and forklifts, the clatter of cargo, the grumble of tugs: there is a rapture in this undercurrent of movement, a force almost as awesome as the sea itself. The dusty intersection where Clinton meets McCarty would be the waterfront’s Times Square — the Athens, Harbor Lights, Hong Kong, Beacon Light, Foxy Lady Topless, El Puerto, and Acropolis are all there. 

The best way to see the Ship Channel is aboard the Port Authority’s inspection boat, the Sam Houston, which departs its mooring near the Turning Basin twice daily for a 7 1/2-mile tour downstream. The trip is free, but it is necessary to make reservations two or three weeks in advance. Few citizens of Houston ever bother with the trip — maybe that’s why they call it “the best kept secret in town.” My fellow passengers were the Korean ambassador, five Saudi Arabians, a man and woman from the Port Authority of Inverness, Scotland, and members of the Iraan, Texas, High School Band. We glided past the Bia River (Nigeria), the Greenfield Monrovia (Liberia), the Ming Shine (Hong Kong), the Aristoteles (Amsterdam), the Jugolinija (Yugoslavia), the Finnbuilder (Helsinki), the Tennessee (would you believe Norway?). Somewhere along the way there was a blast in the front of my brain and I thought, great God, I am in Houston, Texas

The man and woman from Scotland didn’t seem impressed. Her nostrils flared, not an uncommon reflex on the Houston Ship Channel, but in her case it was an involuntary act of condescension directed not at the rampant abundance of technology but at the fact there wasn’t more of it. She told me, “Your channel at its deepest is only forty feet. The Cromarty Firth, which runs near Inverness, is a hundred feet. Even the largest supertankers can turn around.”

I told her it wasn’t my Ship Channel. 

“Are you primarily an industrialist or primarily an environmentalist?” she asked, closing off all other possibilities.

“Primarily an environmentalist, I guess.”

Her nostrils flared again at my answer, then she excused herself and went over to converse with the Saudi Arabians. 

Whitey Martin grew up in Harrisburg and wouldn’t live anywhere else. He lives on a quiet, thickly shaded street of upper-middle-class homes well away from the bustle, noise, and smell of the waterfront, and one of his great pleasures in life is showing outsiders what he calls “my Ship Channel.” Many people who work or grew up along the waterfront have an affinity for personal pronouns when discussing the Ship Channel. It’s an expression of pride, condescending Scottish women be damned. 

Whitey is a veteran fire chief who pioneered the department’s Emergency Medical Services program. Years of dangerous, demanding work have rewarded Whitey and his family with the good life — a Cadillac, a motor home, a truck, two Jeeps, a large boat, and a weekend place near Baytown. But Whitey’s heart is rooted in Harrisburg. As a young man he fished Buffalo Bayou and hopes to again. He has worked as a longshoreman and as a deckhand on oceangoing tugs. A rough, hawk-nosed buffalo of a man, Whitey has put away his share of beer at the Harbor Lights and flattened a few noses on Clinton and McCarty. Whitey has three brothers, a sister, and a number of other relatives buried at the historic Glendale Cemetery, the one undisturbed relic of old Harrisburg; someday he plans to join them.

To some people the entire fifty miles of the ship Channel, every foul refinery and volatile grain elevator and reeking storage tank all the way to Galveston, is a blight. Whitey sees it more like a parade of lights marching in concert, a swell of earthly achievements too great to express in words.

One night last spring I rode with Whitey, his wife, and their youngest son, thirteen-year-old Philip, along the south rim of Buffalo Bayou as far as the San Jacinto Monument. It was a warm, pleasant night, and Whitey was, as usual, expansive. Whitey piloted his motor home and pointed out clusters of lights, identifying each one by the name of its owner — U.S. Steel, Stauffer Chemical, Phillips, Shell, Atlantic Richfield, Tenneco Chemicals, Diamond Shamrock, Union Carbide, Olin Corporation, Southwest Cryogenics, Bethlehem Steel. It was truly an amazing sight. At night the industrial districts appeared as Brave New World cities of vertical light, towers of some future colony of giants that runs silently off the calendar. 

“Right over there,” Whitey said, pointing to a sprig of lights that identified the Champion paper mill, “is where they captured ol’ Santa Anna.” Steering his motor home with a single finger, Whitey circled the San Jacinto Monument, then circled it again. “You ought to read the inscription carved on the sides,” he said. “It’s really something.” His son Phil, who had obviously been here many times before, pointed to a clump of brush near the monument and said, “Sam Houston camped somewhere over there.” Whitey talked about the Confederate gunboats that patrolled as far as Allen’s Landing, about the old Confederate dungeon that was now the basement of the M&M Building, and about the Twin Sisters, the little cannons that served Sam Houston so well at San Jacinto. The cannons were lost just after the Civil War, stashed by a group of Texas patriots who wanted to keep them away from marauding ex-Confederate soldiers. Embittered by war profiteers who shipped cotton and other goods to Northern ports, the recently discharged Confederate soldiers looted arsenals and warehouses all the way up the bayou, ending up at the Houston Arsenal, where they dumped what they couldn’t carry in the water. According to legend, the cannons were buried for safekeeping somewhere near Harrisburg, but nobody could ever remember just where. “Dredging crews still keep thinking they’re gonna turn them up,” Whitey said. “Wouldn’t it be something if they did!”

We ate at Lynchburg Landing, at a restaurant overlooking the junction of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River. A Nigerian freighter, its main mast lighted to signify the presence of a fat little tugboat nudging it along unseen in its shadow, slipped quietly toward Galveston Bay. Whitey told us that back in the 1840s vessels were lighted by two pine-knot bonfires extended in iron baskets on either side of the bow. You had to wonder how it looked 142 years ago when all Texas was on the run. Lynchburg Landing was a refugee camp swarming with men, women, children, slaves, cattle, mules. An early Texas explorer with a touch of poetry in his soul described the bayou here as an “enchanting little stream…bound in by timber and flowering shrubbery which overhang its grassy banks and dip and reflect their veriegated hues in its unruffled waters.” Alligators thrived on fish and waterfowl and perhaps an occasional Texian. It must have been a dark, rich place. Magnificent magnolias filtered the light, and cypress knees so closely placed that they resembled pilings secured the grassy banks against the tide. So in harmony with nature was this stretch of bayou that the old explorer-poet thought it looked like “an artificial canal.” He ought to see it now.  

After dinner we took the ferry across to the north side of the bayou and drove along a narrow highway about to be flooded by the rising tide. Work crews had recently elevated the highway but already the tide was gaining. “The sad truth is,” Whitey said, “this whole area is sinking. A little each year. All that swamp you see out there used to be high, dry ground. When the tides are high now, part of the San Jacinto battlefield is underwater. It’s the price we pay for progress. All those industries keep pumping water out of the ground and as the water table gets lower, we sink. And nobody knows what to do about it.” All those years, the bayou had been the lifeblood of Houston, the very reason for its existence, and now, badly used, she was creeping back to reclaim her bounty. The price of moving forward was slipping back. For decades the leaders of Houston had viewed the Ship Channel as one thing and the water as something else. 

Whitey Martin had fought many Ship Channel fires, but the calamity that has stuck in his mind had to do not with the flames but with the bayou water being used to control them. “It was a blazing hot day and somebody had forgot to bring along drinking water,” he recalled. “Without thinking about it, some of our firemen started splashing hose water over their heads and in their mouths. I don’t remember how many we had to take to the hospital.” And yet there were signs of life, indications that the Ship Channel, or at least its lower reaches, was no longer a dead body of water. Detection of a few scrawny shrimp was cause for celebration, and the defenders of the channel used every opportunity to proclaim it. The captain of the Sam Houston never failed to point out to his passengers that a 28-pound redfish had been landed recently just below Houston Lighting and Power Company Deepwater Station. The most ingenious example of boosterism followed the discovery of shrimp feeding in the water directly below the outfall pipes of Armco Steel. Dale Henderson, a Houston publicity man, called a press conference, dipped shrimp from below the Armco dock, cooked them, and ate them. Henderson not only lived, he won an advertising award. 

The following morning Whitey took me on a tour of the general cargo wharves that run between the Turning Basin and the bridge. What was magic by night seemed surreal in the light of day. At least a dozen ships were moored along the docks, hatches open to the voracious web of cranes that move cargo between ship and dock. Coffee from Colombia, corned beef from Nebraska for shipment to Dakar, steel pipe and nails from Taiwan, rolls of steel from Japan, plywood from Korea, garbage trucks outbound for Poland. And foreign cars, an endless trail of little cars moving like ants from the hold of a Japanese freighter to a storage lot the size of ten football fields, a lot that already held more new cars than I had dreamed existed. Tired old trucks that would never again see a superslab, or even an inspection sticker, jockeying for openings, rattling and backfiring and slinging mud as they ferried cargo from dock to dock. A layer of odors, distinct and soulless as new merchandise — rubber, diesel oil, cow hides, rice, rope. A giant turbine generator from West Germany, so enormous that it came with its own specially built railroad flatcar. A rusting freighter bound for Ghana, listing badly under its cargo of used American cars. And the ultimate mystery — containers, some as large as boxcars, loaded and sealed in faraway places and delivered intact to the beds of eighteen-wheelers in the Port of Houston. Houston was the first port anywhere to use containers. Now a single crane could do the work of a dozen longshoremen, and do it without pilfering. From the standpoint of the sender and receiver, the beauty of containers was that nobody but a customs agent could look inside or know what was there. 

Whitey loved the great ships, loved their romance and the assurance they gave that man had a hold on the corridors of his planet. Men had been going down to the sea in ships longer than recorded history. There was something basic about the sea, something more than its staggering preponderance on the earth’s surface. Each time he drove up the entrance ramp of a Houston freeway and thought about the fact that every day 330 additional cars are registered in the city, Whitey envisioned a network of waterways connecting the cities of America. As usual, Houston had shown the way. 

But the vision had a raw edge. As a citizen, Whitey could look at his Ship Channel and see the world. But what he saw as a fire chief was the world’s largest time bomb. “That’s exactly what it reminds me of,” he had said many times. “One of those bombs shaped like bowling balls that you see in cartoons. The fuse is burning and it’s about to go off. You look at the concentration of refineries and petrochemical plants and grain elevators and all the other things almost solid for fifty miles. Nobody knows what could happen.” 

In 1955, eight years after the Texas City disaster, some of the larger corporations along the Ship Channel formed Channel Industries Mutual Aid (CIMA), a privately funded team of fire fighters trained to combat the volatile enigmas of the Ship Channel. But many of the industries along the channel are not members of CIMA, and even those who are can’t pretend to calculate the potential devastation in all that chemistry. No one will admit it, but the day may come when a fireman trains his hose on a blazing storage tank and watches incredulously as the fire races up his arm and engulfs the whole “fabulous fifty miles.”

The Delta Mar, all 890 feet of her, sits like a sleek city block, puffing black smoke from one of her several stacks and waiting helplessly beside the LASH terminal at Barbours Cut. Located near the Lynchburg ferry twenty some miles down the bayou, Barbours Cut is the pride and joy of the Houston Port Authority. LASH refers to the five-hundred-ton “lighter aboard ship” barges that are stacked like cordwood on the enormous deck of the Delta Mar: you might think of them as little boats aboard a big ship. Each barge is fully loaded and, unlike containers, capable of floating to New Orleans or anywhere else there’s an intracoastal waterway. The Port authority built this terminal — at the cost of $53 million — for ships like the Delta Mar that are too large to navigate the full channel. Since Barbours Cut is much closer to the sea than the Turning Basin (only two and a half hours, compared to six or more), and since LASH ships, like container ships, are much quicker to load and unload than the smaller vessels that carry general cargo, the turnaround time here is less than 24 hours. Computers do most of the work at Barbours Cut. An operator punches a button and a straddle hoist that looks like a ten-story, two-legged, one-armed spider latches on to a truck or boxcar or barge and deposits it in the desired place as quickly and easily as you might transfer a box of breakfast cereal from shelf to table. Other computers keep track of cargo, where it’s going, when, and for whom.  

But none of that is assisting the Delta Mar right now. This remote terminal may be the pride and joy of the Port Authority, but it’s Siberia for seamen, one of whom has decided to jump ship and fly home to New Orleans. A replacement is being flown in from New York and until he arrives everything will sit right where it is. Union rules.  

In maritime slang, Barbours Cut is what they call a RO/RO (roll on/roll off) and LO/LO (load on/load off) facility, terms that send cold chills down the spines of longshoremen and require constant attention at the union hall. Frank Waugh, who is the security officer for Barbours Cut, told me: “In the beginning the longshoremen fought it, but they’ve adjusted their contracts and everyone seems fairly happy. The barges and containers have almost eliminated pilfering. Used to, longshoremen were so poorly paid they had to pilfer.” Even with the computers and space-age cranes, there is still a need for longshoremen. “You should have seen them here a couple of weeks ago,” Waugh said. “We had twelve baby elephants from Mozambique. One to a crate. The longshoremen loved it.” Since there is little pilfering to investigate, Frank Waugh occupies much of his time researching the history of what he too calls “my Ship Channel.” Barbours Cut is much better known historically as Morgan’s Point, named for Colonel James Morgan, an early real estate developer and plantation owner, who once put a chain across Buffalo Bayou and collected tolls on the traffic. But it was Commodore Charles Morgan of New York City who first cut Morgan’s Point and opened a ship channel to steamers. A contemporary and worthy competitor of Commodore Vanderbilt, who despised him, Charles Morgan worked both sides during the Civil War, building ships for the Union Navy while running their blockades with his own ships bound from Havana to Confederate ports. After the war, the city of Houston paid Morgan $800,000 to dredge a cut across Morgan’s Point, deepen the bayou, and scoop out a turning basin. 

According to legend, Emily Morgan, the slave girl who distracted Santa Anna while his troops were being chopped up at San Jacinto, was once property of the James Morgan Plantation. When the Port Authority built the Barbours Cut facility a few years ago, they left untouched the small Morgan’s Point Cemetery. Supposedly that’s where Emily Morgan, “the Yellow Rose of Texas,” is buried. Frank Waugh has never discovered the grave of Emily or anyone else named Morgan, but he hasn’t given up trying.

Twenty years ago, when the old longshoreman they call Goat was breaking his back in the hold of ships, the hourly wage was $2.60. Now that they have machines do most of the hard work, the straight wage is $8.80 an hour. Overtime is $13.20. Straight time is eight to five, five days a week, and overtime is all the rest of the time. Except for Christmas and Labor Day, the docks work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Many longshoremen work only overtime, and it’s not unusual for them to pull down $660 for a 50-hour week.

“I’ve seen some drastic changes in my twenty-two years on the docks,” says Millard Barrington, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Deepsea Local 1273. “Back then almost all the work was done by hand. Now we have tow motors, forklifts, Paceco cranes. I’d say seventy-five to eighty-five percent of it is done by machines. I heard there are some ports in the Carolinas that are completely automated.” Though automation has reduced Local 1273’s membership from 3000 to about 1000 (plus another 500 “casuals”), Millard Barrington says there is always enough work to go around. Far from replacing the longshoremen, automation has spared them the fate of men like Goat. There is not a crane or tow motor or forklift on the docks without a member of ILA at the controls. Like Millard Barrington, who came to the docks right out of high school, most longshoremen have never had another job. “They like the pay and they like the freedom,” Millard says. “If you wanna take off two, three weeks and go fishing, you can go right ahead. We’re only required to work twelve hundred hours a year, which figured out about twenty-five-plus hours a week.” In Local 1273, jobs are passed out daily according to seniority. A gold star member (at least 25 years in Local 1273) is sure to spend his day in the cab of a crane or the control booth of a straddle hoist, while a class D member (one year or less) will probably end up in some ship’s non-air-conditioned cargo hold, handling cowhides or carbon black or dangerous chemicals known as “red label” cargo. 

Strange as it seems, there are two ILA locals at the Port of Houston. Local 1273 is for whites, and Local 872 is for blacks. According to a Port Authority spokesman, the two locals prefer to be segregated and are jointly fighting a federal suit that would require them to merge. But that’s not the story you hear around the 872 hiring hall at the foot of 75th. Joseph Kent, who has worked the docks for 25 years and is financial security of 872, told me: “The way I hear it from my grandfather and my uncle and my father, there was only one union [872] until around 1935. See, a long time ago the only place a black man could work and make any money was on the docks. Anyway, sometime in the thirties the people decided to split. To put it bluntly, the white folks didn’t want to be bothered with us, so they started their own local.” The two unions earn identical wages and supposedly share equally the available work. “It’s supposed to be fifty-fifty,” Kent says. “Let me put it that way.” Seniority rules in 872 are more flexible than those used by the white local and many blacks fear that a merger would send them to the bottom of the ladder, down with the cowhides and red label cargo. Joseph Kent doesn’t believe it will turn out that way. “We’ll merge seniority along with everything else,” he says. “I have no doubt the day is coming.” The joke around the waterfront is, it takes at least four longshoremen to make a work crew: two to fan flies and two to saw logs. “That’s not counting cotton,” a woman at the International Seamen’s Center told me. “They load cotton by the unit. Cotton fairly flies on board those ships. But you take hides where it smells like something dead down in that hold. It’ll take them half a day to put down two layers of pallets.” It is also claimed around the waterfront that longshoremen are the salt of the earth. The International Longshoremen’s Association can shut down the dock or docks of its choice quicker than Bob can load cotton and has been known to do it when somebody isn’t being treated right. “If they hear of a seaman not being paid, or being mistreated by one of the ship’s officers, they’ll shut down the dock until it gets straightened out,” says Jim Scott, one of the chaplains who works at the Seaman’s Center. “You hear a lot of jokes about longshoremen, but my guess is, most seamen feel kindly about them.”

 

If the longshoreman is the centurion of the waterfront, the seaman is the stud bullgoose. It is the seaman who accounts for the mystique of the waterfront, who gives it dimension and connects it to common history. Is there a man, woman, or child among us who has not once in life wanted to go to sea? Give that person a hook and send him or her to the ILA hiring hall. In recent years, at least two of the female volunteers have left the Seamen’s Center and gone to sea themselves. Two others have married sailors. Father Rivers Patout (pe-TOO), one of the chaplains who serves at the center, recently received his seaman’s papers and is jubilantly planning his new mission aboard ship. “There is something different about a seaman, something international,” Father Patout told me. “I think they see the world in a way other people don’t. Maybe it’s because they’re a long way from home.” The only two fights that Rivers Patout could remember involved a Turkish Cypriot and a Greek Cypriot, who got into it not over politics but money, and a seaman from Ceylon who decked a countryman for daring to speak his name in English. “Rabid politicians don’t sign up as seamen,” Jim Scott said. “Nor do Orthodox Jews. Jews are usually much too caught up in diet and ritual and family to become seamen.” Nobody from the Seamen’s Center was terribly surprised when a ship flying the flag of landlocked Switzerland docked recently at the Port of Houston. “I would imagine Swiss make damn good sailors,” Father Patout said. 

“Cowboys of the sea” is the way Betty Nagle, director of volunteers at the Seamen’s Center, describes them. Like the others at the center, Betty works without pay; she works because she likes to be around seamen. 

The Seamen’s Center operates much like a USO club, and for much the same reason. It’s a hangout for those who can’t afford the more visceral pleasures of the Athens or the Harbor Lights. It has a soccer field, track, volleyball court, Olympic-size swimming pool, ping-pong and pool tables, sauna, gift shop, short-order restaurant (almost all seamen eat and sleep aboard ship), and a bar that serves beer only. And, of course, a chapel, though the seven chaplains who operate the place are too busy solving problems to get pushy about attendance. The center shows whatever movies it can get for free (I was a Teenage Frankenstein is a frequent feature) and sponsors a dance every Friday night. On the Friday night I visited the center, seamen from fourteen of the sixteen ships in port had signed the registry. Pride in nationalism is not encouraged. The high-ceilinged dayroom is framed with flags proclaiming not the nationalities of those who gather there but what shiplines they sail under. Hellenic, China Union, Algerian, Lignes Centrafricaines, World Wide Hong Kong, United Arab, Venezuelan — even Baltic Shipping, one of the Russian lines that now calls on Houston. 

When the Russians are in port, part of the fun is trying to pick out the commissar, the ship’s political officer and chief head cracker. “You can always spot him,” says Betty Nagle. “He’ll be wearing a dark suit and tie and standing off by himself. If you look close, you’ll usually see another Russian watching him.” Russian seamen are said to favor the Port of Houston because of the city’s cultural advantages, particularly the Space Center. The Seamen’s Center provides bus tours of NASA, if approved by the commissar, but where the Russian seamen really intend to end up is the local K-Mart. A volunteer bus driver told me, “They tell the commissar they’re going to NASA, and we always stop by there and take a quick look, but most of the time they’re running around K-Mart. I have to blow a whistle to get them all back to the bus.”

From her vantage point behind the gift shop cash register, Betty has done an informal study of the buying habits of seamen. The Japanese prefer cow horns. Cowboy hats are big among the Norwegians. Oriental seamen invariably load up on Camay soap. Camay must have a special meaning among Orientals. Betty says, “I asked one Indian seaman what he did with all that Camay and he said he traded it for women. He figured a forty-five-cent bar of Camay was worth a dollar where he was going.” Betty has never figured out why, but the only colors that sell are blue, pink, and green. “They’ll take yellow or white, but only if that’s all that’s left,” she says. 

The Indian and Bangladesh sailors who make up the 38 ratings (crew positions) aboard the British cargo ship Forthbank had been at sea for seven months and it would be another five before they saw home. Almost all of them had wives and families. They sailed from England to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Houston, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela, Trinidad, Jamaica, then back to New Orleans and around again. All they saw of Houston was the Ship Channel and the Seamen’s Center and that was probably the best view of land they could expect. For their twelve months at sea each of them would earn about $4550, a sum negotiated by their own governments, and tidy packet by their own standards. In the meantime, they would live on good curry and tea, in sanitary double wardrooms, aboard a ship they were required to keep so spotlessly clean that you could lick water off the main shaft, getting by with each other and taking orders from fifteen British officers who referred to them affectionately as “greasers” and “donkeymen.”

Not all the cowboys of the sea are boys. A recent happening, peculiar mostly to American flag vessels, I gather, is the seaperson. Theresa Quinn, a pretty 27-year-old social dropout from a large blue-collar family in Philadelphia, told me: “I’ve always been a gypsy. I think I was born at the wrong time, in the wrong place. If I’d been more religious I probably would have been a missionary for the pure hell of going to darkest Africa and probably marrying a white doctor.” The crew aboard the Arco Enterprise consists of Theresa and 33 men. This suggests natural conflict owing to the imbalance of sexes, but Theresa was apparently doing fine, and so were the three or four shipmates who took turns buying her beer at the Seamen’s Center. “I do the same work the men do,” Theresa said. “And I expect to be treated the same way. I know that I’m a female, that I’m desirable, that I’m the only female on the ship. I treat a man according to the way he treats me. But I don’t go screaming to the captain. I’ve always been that way — able to handle myself and do what I had to. I’ve been a landscaper, a house painter, a governess, a mistress. I’ve lived high, I’ve lived low, I’ve tasted it and spit it out and gone back for more. All I’m looking for is inner peace and that’s what I find at sea.”

Theresa’s base pay is $850 a month. Counting overtime she’ll earn maybe $6000 for her current six-month tour. She’s trying to save, but it’s not easy. Today, for example, she took a cab to the Galleria and blew a bundle on gifts for friends. When her tour ends Theresa will visit friends in Germany and Holland. She’ll stay until her money runs out, then, if it seems right, go back to sea.

As they say in the burial service, “The sea giveth, and the sea taketh away.” To which the drunk at the front of the ranks responds, “I’ll kiss your ass if that ain’t a square deal!”

A fat Mexican saxophone player with a crooked nose is doing a bad imitation of Elvis Presley, but nobody cares. They didn’t come to the Harbor Lights for the quality of the music, they came for the intensity. In the blur of light, their faces appear abstract, texture and tone and national origin muddled by a universal drive. In boots, jeans, and open-neck shirts, the seamen could be any group of men at any dance hall in Texas. 

Oddly enough, it is the women who are distinctive. They come in all ages, sizes, and shapes. They wear jeans, cocktail dresses, sometimes evening gowns. A few of them are black, but a much larger number are shades of brown — Mexican border town, Indian, Argentine, Port-au-Prince brown. There are Orientals, Greeks, Scandinavians, and, of course, the basic Houston dirty-leg white.  

Koula Dadinis looked worn out. She had been on her feet for ten hours and there were still two to go. A drunk truck driver at the bar was giving her a lot of mouth. After a while he staggered back to the men’s room and three young British officers followed him. They came back but the drunk didn’t. This made Koula feel better and she brought a round of drinks. 

Three Norwegian seamen, who seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, were taking guesses at the nationality of the black girl at the bar, the classy one with the regal face and smooth lines. One guessed Jamaican and a second figured Port-au-Prince. The third seaman approached the girl, whose named turned out to be Hester. They talked for a while, then both laughed. “Just like I said,” he reported back to his comrades. “She’s from Houston.” Hester looked at the table and nodded that it was true. “It’s love at first sight,” the seaman told his comrades. 

I asked Roger Fitzhugh, a young bartender, who the girls were and where they came from. Roger would rather not say who they are — he doesn’t like categorizing people — but they come from everywhere. They come by ship, by plane, by bus. They come for the reason anyone else comes to Houston, for the action. For the dark thrill and the fast trade of the waterfront. It’s the paradox of the place that finally takes you in. It’s the deadly fascination, like drifting through the breath of a dragon, that pulls people to the waterfront, that reduces them until they are larger than life. It’s a parfait of monumental greed and technology and excursions into uncharted waters, topped off with a large, cherry-red time bomb; and yet, as Whitey Martin said, when you put it all together it sings you a song.  

Down the street at the Athens Bar & Grill, a young Greek seaman in tight bell-bottoms and a Mediterranean polo shirt had begun to dance. At first he danced alone, whirling and clapping his hands and unleashing his joyful Greek soul while the sultry blonde with the smoky washboard voice sang. You didn’t have to speak Greek to understand what she said. She said that the young man was beautiful and would die tragically. After a time the singer walked down from the stage, squatted motionless on the dance floor, and continued singing while the seaman danced around her and showered her with money. Then another Greek sailor started dancing, then another. Pretty soon all the seamen were dancing and showering themselves and each other with money. The usual weekend crowd of Houston night people and conventioneers sat back a little way from the dance floor, feeling the pull of the music but preferring to watch what they considered the real thing. Until it was remodeled a couple of years ago, the Athens resembled a warehouse. Now it was supposed to look and feel like the inside of a cave or the hollow of a tree trunk. It was something out of The Hobbit and the tourists seemed to like it. 

A very talented Greek musician named Eleftherios Zervas tucked a violin under his chin and began to play music so rich and sorrowful you wanted to cry. A shapeless middle-aged woman who looked like she was probably the secretary to the water commissioner of Ames, Iowa, whispered to her husband, who shook his head as though to say positively not! But the woman was clearly troubled. She watched the musician’s face and heard her fortune in his song, and when she could bear it no longer, the woman stood, smoothed out her tailored skirt, and walked stiffly toward he stage. Everyone was watching. When the woman was face to face with the young musician, she wavered slightly, then stuffed a handful of dollars down the waistband of his trousers, tamped them firmly, and smiled in a way Pat Nixon might under the same circumstances. Then she walked rigidly back to her table, looking at no one.  

It was almost curfew at the Harbor Lights. Koula was counting the day’s take and telling hungry seamen to try the food at the Hong Kong. Goat had long since passed out in Koula’s storeroom. Hester was leaving with one of the Norwegian seamen. An Oriental woman that Koula had never seen before had moved in between the other two Norwegians and was crawling all over them. The seamen obviously didn’t care for this overt show of affection, and neither did Koula. When she had had enough, Koula let it be known. “Enough!” she cried. “Out!”

The seamen ordered a final round and saluted Koula. One of them suggested that Koula should draw up her will, specifying that the Harbor Lights remain exactly as it is, in perpetuity.  

He spoke of the Harbor Lights as an institution. 

“What’s that mean…this…institution?” she asked. 

The seaman told her.

Koula hid her eyes with her hands and giggled like a schoolgirl.

I bought a final round of drinks. 

“To my Ship Channel,” I said. 

 

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