On the Waterfront

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

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

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