My Ship of Fools

NOT THE SMILE OF A VEGETARIAN

"I was up in New York, running dope for these Italian guys. For a while I went into business for myself, and then I came back here. I was sleeping under the bridge, down under the freeway, going around in the day getting copper wire and stuff. One morning I was sleeping and I had a dream. I saw Neptune, the god of the sea. He say, `What you doing on land? You a seaman!' I went back to the cruise ships I used to work on and filled out applications, but nothing ever happened. So I said, `Well, there's these Haitian boats. I'll try that.' I had about 30 pounds of wire. I put it on my back and walked down the river till I sold it, then I went around to two or three boats. One captain said, `Do you know how to steer a ship?' I said yes and he gave me a job. That was 1987, and since then I been going on these Haitian boats. Sometimes they pay me my money, but then again, sometimes they don't."

Clifton Easy, chief mate

Tom Cheatham looks like a Viking, and his son, Tom Jr., looks like a young, clean-shaven Viking. Both are born-again Christians. Over the years Tom Sr. has owned half a dozen freighters and made and lost several million dollars on the Miami River. He is planning to retire and turn his shipyard over to young Tom, but he hasn't done it yet. The boat business is a rough-and-tumble game. People don't pay their bills. People would weigh anchor and slip away in the night if you let them. Sometimes in life it takes two born-again Vikings to make a go of things.

Being a religious man, Tom Sr. steered me to the God Is Good, which had been tied up for two months on his patch of the river west of the 27th Avenue bridge. "These are God-fearing folk," he said. "You should be safe with them." He looked down the bank to where the Helena Sea was loading. Men were stumbling around on her deck, hanging wet clothes from the cargo booms; one appeared to be vomiting over the stern. A dog chased a rat up the gangplank, and a peal of drunken laughter came booming out of the hold. "I'd stay away from them if I were you," Cheatham said with a frown. "They resemble pirates."

It was all very polite. The owner of the God Is Good, a bowlegged man in a planter's sombrero, agreed to add me to the crew list. He gave me a tour of the ship. But when I showed up with a supply of drinking water, canned tuna, and Saltines, ready to ship out, the God Is Good was gone. "They seized her last night. Someone filed a lien for unpaid bills," Tom Sr. said.

"Did you get paid?" I asked.
"Ha!" he said jovially. "$11,000 down the drain!"
I went to see the pirates. Two of them were loading cases of Schaefer beer from the bed of a pickup truck onto the deck of the Helena Sea. The fat black pirate, drenched with sweat, seemed to be cursing the other pirate in French Creole; the other pirate, a scrawny man dressed in a greasy red jump suit, was screaming back in a strange mix of Spanish and English. Miraculously, each held a can of beer in his hand while he worked, throwing the cases onto the deck.

At first I couldn't tell whether the scrawny pirate was white or black or an albino with a deep tropical tan: his face and lips were so brown they were beyond any human flesh tone I had ever seen, but his eyes, rimmed with neon red, were a watery, electric blue. One ear appeared to have been chewed completely off. His eyebrows were a grown-together hedge of gray and white capable of great mobility, but the hair that flowed back from his forehead in an oily pompadour and forward into block sideburns was jet black. The bony feet that poked out from his undersize mechanic's suit were bright pink, and his hands were like that too. (Later I learned that half his skin had been burned away years ago in a chemical explosion in California.) A tattoo on his left forearm showed a bleeding heart with a commando knife stuck through it. A curling scroll emblazoned across the heart read "Love." He could have been any age at all; his face seemed old, but he moved like a large and violent cat. His smile was not the smile of a vegetarian. He looked like a man with nothing to lose, and his hands shook badly.

The fat pirate was the owner. The scrawny pirate was Johannis Connors, master of the 165-foot Helena Sea. They were finished loading the cargo and fuel, and now they were getting in the "groceries," they said. The crew was off in town, buying cigarettes and other oddments. As soon as they found a new chief engineer - the last one had jumped ship - they would depart for the Haitian port of Miragoane, about 600 miles to the southeast. The captain waved toward a sofa perched in the back of a Toyota pickup chained to the deck. "You can sleep up there," he said. "You want a beer?"

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