My ship was considerably less impressive when passing the Narrows
It was mid-December, date lost to memory, and the ship left the dock in Brooklyn, moving out towards the sea, passing the Statue of Liberty and through the Verrazzano Narrows before the bridge was built, and out to open sea. 1962. I have the vaguest recollections of watching the city slip away, and feeling that something deeply fundamental in my life was occurring. In hindsight I’d have to say, yes, it had. The inchoate anger I had with America propelled me away, to somewhere else, to, it seemed, anywhere else. And, unknowingly, I seemed to have chosen my future, testified in a shiny new Bolex.
The ship was a Yugoslav quasi-freighter, carrying 50 passengers rather than the at-the-time usual 12. It was the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic then, and the passengers on board reflected that – an assortment of youths, blooming Bohemians, and other escapees from the world. One was a Yugoslav who’d taken the passage to look at America – he had no visa so his view was confined to what he could see from the deck. He also was a voyeur, prone to looking in the cabins of the females on board. In my cabin were two friends from Boston, self-declared artists, one of whom proved to be the ship’s Lothario, bedding whomever was available – in my cabin. I got tired of entering to the pounding of his bunk, and finally just ignored it. His habit ignited the biggest drama of the cruise.
There was another man, utterly forgotten, in the cabin which we shared for a month, four crammed into a small space bracketed by double bunk beds. Memory is selective. And you get what you pay for – in this case $150 for 3 meals a day, crossing the Atlantic, and when we arrived at our only stop, Casablanca, a cheap hotel. What was lost in amenities was made up for in the claustrophobic hot-house atmosphere of the ship, with the tone perhaps heightened by the world’s recent brush with imminent collective death. It was a compacted fare-well to the 50’s and blossoming of the 60’s, a veritable Ship of Fools. Little did we know. The film based on Katherine Anne Porter’s book would be released in 1965, around the historical corner.
For myself, still virgin and near broke – even then $50 could not be milked too far – my days were confined to chatting, drinking up the left-overs of the booze others bought, watching the winter sea glide by, and for the most part my journey has been lost in the smear of erased memory. I do recall absurdly and romantically proposing to a young lingerie model from New York jumping over-board holding hands, a proposition which I doubt held any appeal for her and certified me as yet another shipboard nutcase. Such was the folly of my youth. Despite the example of my cabin mate, I did not get laid.
Of other flickering memories, that of the Boston artist, with pictures of his so-so sculptures, and his ostentatious self-important airs. I doubt he went anywhere in that world, but he perhaps left his mark in me in the form of a life-long loathing of self-important pompous artist sorts, of whom I have met not a few: Peter Greenaway, Alexander Sokurov, and a few luminaries of the American underground cinema, among others.
Of the ship’s Lothario, in cruising the available girls, one he picked up was off on a vacation with her Boston Irish boyfriend, who at some juncture sussed out that girlfriend was bonking my cabin-mate. This led to a late-night Irish drunkard coming down the hallway of the cabins, opening each door looking for his lady, loudly slamming closed the doors, and coming clinically towards ours. However, cabin-mate had jumped if not ship, cabin, and when the door was flung open by the livid drunk he did not find the person he sought. Slam went the door. Shortly afterwards a burly sailor escorted the Bostonian to somewhere. In the following days none of the involved parties seemed to materialize for meals. When we arrived in Casablanca at New Years, the new couple absconded together and the Boston drunk was abandoned to his fate . I vaguely recall hearing from someone somehow that they were still together a year or so later. Romance.
Another shipmate was a black boxer from New York, who said he was going to his home-land, Africa. When we arrived in Casablanca he was at the rail as we pulled in, gesticulating wildly, greeting his brothers – none of whom, to his surprise, were black. They looked quizzically at him as he waved.
And another was a young woman who as I recall had gone to one of the fancy women’s schools in New England and saw herself as a rebellious free spirit. She left the ship in Casablanca, and returned to tell tales of her adventures. In one case she’d met someone with a Harley, and driving such a beast the first time, she’d come to a corner and plowed straight ahead into a field, and luckily was not hurt when it tipped over. As well she told of the weird toilet in the hotel where she was staying, that wasn’t like American ones. She’d taken a crap and tried to poke the mess down the drain. Of the bidet. Our young rebel had a few things to learn!
Having arrived on New Year’s, the ship was stalled a handful of days in harbor, thanks to the non-working stevedores, who listlessly hung on the pier smoking hashish. It gave time to wander the city though I recall almost nothing of it, except that the French colonial air still lingered, and the city was white and less seemingly entrancing than the film of its name suggested. I suspect my poverty kept things well out of view for me. Not a casino guy, then or now.
A few days after New Years, 1963, we set sail again for our destination, Genoa. After nearly 3 weeks on the ship those left were antsy, and some days later, arriving at the shore of Italy, eager to disembark. Except as happened, as was the nature of freighter travel then, there was no open pier for the ship, and we lingered off shore for two, then three, and then four days, the lights of the city beckoning, and the passengers getting ever more cabin crazed until finally a rebellion prompted the sending of a little packet ship to haul us to shore.
A final oblique lesson awaited me as we disembarked. Concerned about my precious new Bolex, rather than tucking it into my footlocker, I decided to carry it myself, wrapped in clothes in my backpack. Descending the gangplank stairway, the sea swell had the packet boat below rising and falling 5 or 6 feet, and one watched as it came up, a passenger stepped on board as it crested, and then went down. When my turn came I mis-timed my step, being perhaps less than a half-second late, and found myself plunging down, airborne. As the little boat hit the bottom of its wave and began its journey back upward I was still heading downward. The reward was a good sharp whack to my legs and a stumble. Crew hands were on me, and pulled me inward to the boat. I flashed in a nano-second a different scenario, of landing in the frigid water and following the laws of physics down, taken swiftly by the weight of my back pack. A little personal brush with perhaps-death, from which I learned to accede to not always, as is my inclination, doing things DIY.
Landed on Italian terra firma, the passengers dispersed, and I recall only a warren of narrow dark alleys and small streets, the bustle of humans and the sense of those “helping” being likely to relieve you of whatever possessions you had. Benvenuto a Genoa.