September 10, 2020
My Days as a Deckhand on the New York Water Taxi
Friend of QMS, Alex Lauer, reminisces about running the boats in the underdog fleet of the New York Harbor.
“Why do you smile so much?”
That’s a question I was never asked in Minnesota, where I grew up in a suburban lake town with three ice cream shops (well, two shops and a trolley). But in Red Hook at the homeport of the New York Water Taxi, my earnest, big-toothed grins were so out of place that they not only earned me the nickname “Smiley,” I later realized the crew stole the name from someone else and gave it to me.
Angel, a shy but skilled deckhand, had previously been called “Smiley,” due to the fact that he responded to most provocations — a crude joke, an order from the captain, our squat manager Rob ordering people to scrub the diesel soot off the taxi-liveried fleet — with a quiet smirk. Also, there was another deckhand we called “Big Angel,” as he was a head taller than everyone and maxed out the company-issued navy polos with the yellow flag logo on the left breast.
Despite those nicknames, and the admittedly quaint yellow boats of the Water Taxi fleet — which are best viewed from far away, say, the Brooklyn Bridge when you’re in an airport taxi driving into Manhattan for the first time, or the background of a Sex and the City episode — I quickly learned that being a deckhand on the underdog fleet in New York Harbor meant living life with a higher probability of disaster.
No subway lines run into Red Hook, the neighborhood where the Water Taxi docks its armada of diesel-powered catamarans. In order to get to work, over a distance of less than four miles, I took the subway from Sunset Park to the Prospect Avenue stop then hopped on the bus across the Gowanus Canal. On a good day it took just over 30 minutes. On a bad day I would jump off the bus and sprint in my oil-stained Target cargo pants because we were stuck in gridlock and I could not, under any circumstances, clock in late. Roberto was ostensibly fired after clocking in late too many times, but was probably more accurately fired because he didn’t respect the authority of the three white men in charge of the operation. He’d roll up 20 minutes late sulking behind aviator sunglasses he wore like a middle finger.
One night on the Zephyr, the three-level queen of the fleet, Roberto regaled us deckhands with graffiti war stories. It was our dinner break in between Statue of Liberty tours and the Saturday night dance cruise when we’d get tacos from the stand near Pier 16 where we tied up, the yacht undulating in the East River despite the three heavy mooring lines. We sat at the open doors near the bow that looked onto downtown Manhattan while Roberto told us about a friend of a friend, as all these stories go, who was tagging a subway tunnel when he was attacked by underground mole people. Other nights, with different crews, the conversation was considerably lighter, the tour guide who looked like Larry David would show us his demo reel on YouTube where he appeared with Mr. T, or we’d compete to see who could toss the heavy lines off the port side onto one of the bollards on the pier, our version of the putting green in the corner office.
Those were the best times on the harbor, when the pier was empty and the balm of twilight descended over Manhattan, sloughing off the day. During every shift, without fail, there was something I wish I could forget: climbing down the ladder into the engine room to make sure the black smoke isn’t getting thicker, watching a tourist family sprint and wave tickets in the air while we pull away from the pier, hucking the lead rope for the stern line only for Captain Morgan (yes, that was his real name) to scream in my earpiece when it falls short in the water. But during those breaks on Pier 16, sipping cold Keurig coffee out of my thermos and watching the velvety night sky meet the water, we’d hurl the eye onto that bollard and I’d listen to the other deckhands tell me what they were going to do after they paid their dues and I thought about how after I quit the Water Taxi I’d miss those moments, and I do.
Then night would fall. The DJ would roll his turntables up the gangplank onto the Zephyr’s dance floor, and stilettoed women would hobble down the wooden pier while Drake beckoned them aboard, and I’d tell rum and Coke drinkers with fresh fades to get off the railing on the top deck while the light from One World Trade Center dispersed into low-lying clouds, and then we’d dock at Red Hook at 1 a.m. and I’d carry sickly sweet trash bags full of plastic cups and beer cans and puke to the dumpster, and after clocking out underneath an American flag I’d see the NYPD stretcher, the one the police left on the pier after fishing a body out of the water that week, as I walked down to the bus stop.
Alex Lauer is Senior Editor at InsideHook, native Minnesotan and New Yorker at heart.