"I Cover the Waterfront"
AUSTIN F. CROSS
Life is a pageant buillded on drama down where the great ships say hail and farewell
Port of Montreal.
THE WHISKY BOTTLE decanted again, the press flimsies rustled, a snowflake coming in the porthole passed a cigar puff going out, and then from the crowded saloon wafted out the portentous words: “So, gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to declare the Port of Montreal open.”
The Port of Montreal extends all the way from the ship’s graveyard, where the harbor peters out into a mud flat up near Victoria Bridge, down to the oil docks in Montreal East, a distance of some ten waterfront miles. Those ten miles are the commercial front door to Canada; and so, from the time the Minister of Marine serves Scotland’s best distillations to go down some ol Montreal’s finest throats, while he declares the harbor open three times for the talkies and once for the official inaugural party aboard the icebreaker N.B. McLean in mid-March, till the last doughty freighter smashes her way through the river ice to the sea, far on in December, this stream of dirty water at the foot of Mount Royal is an interesting place to watch.
There’s a constant parade of celebrities and cargoes. The world’s figures vary all the way from prelates to palookas and from princesses to politicians, while the cargoes range from German canaries to New Zealand onions. Seashells from Labrador pass here on the way to become fertilizer upstream at Toronto. Copper sneaks silently through the sheds on its sinuous route to Germany. Coal mined at two-bits a ton by skin-and-bone coolies arrives here after a sixty-day journey from French Indo-China. The Russian ship, Kim, docks with a potash cargo, the first vessel in port to fly the Hammer and Sickle of the Soviet since 1923. The Blue Funnel Line, with its oversize, off-shade blue stacks, starts a service from Singapore, and arrives with crude rubber and a bonded Chinese crew that cannot go ashore during the thirty-day stop here.
There are honeymooners that run scurrying on to the gangplank amid a deluge of confetti, while the wedding guests linger around till sailing time in various shades of non-sobriety. These new victims of Hymen go down the river into the first hours of married life, and pass, humorously enough, a German freighter with cuckoo clocks for a Toronto departmental store. A strike breaks on the waterfront at noon, lasts during lunch hour, and the men are back on the ships by one o’clock. Toronto reports 6,000 out on strike here; lake shippers are in a panic till the rumor is scotched.
Word comes that Noel Coward, author of “Bitter Sweet” and “Cavalcade,” is coming on the Empress of Britain special train, and will be found in the viceregal car, and in the purple coach we subsequently found him. There’s a football club at the Catholic Sailors Club, where the ruddy-faced crew of the collier, Kafiristan—later in collision with the Empress of Britain—celebrate the winning of the waterfront soccer championship. Just an hour before the dinner, the writer is on the bridge of the King’s County, where the veteran skipper, Captain Orvig, is telling how he saw his bosun swept to death in a 100-foot wave. The Canadian National Railways telephones to say that some Australian wallabies are arriving for the Toronto zoo. You see that an
oiler of a Manchester Line freighter is billed to do a dance on roller skates at the sailors’ concert. News comes in that a man has ordered water at the seamen’s pub, the Neptune, and that is news. A third-class passenger misses the Duchess because he leaves his baggage on the dock and goes to look for a drug store, which he doesn’t find. The butcher on the Alaunia tells how he cured a seasick goldfish by stroking its belly and giving it aspirin.
Gentle readers, I beg to present the Port of Montreal.
An Ice-Breaker in Action
'“THE Port of Montreal is “opened” every year about midMarch, but ocean vessels do not usually arrive till about a month later. The early advent of the N.B. McLean isn’t so much to open a channel in mid-winter as to eliminate the floods that used to harass the city every spring. The official inaugural of the port is always quite an event. Every year the Minister of Marine sends out tastefully arranged invitations, asking you to be at the Imperial Oil dock, at the east end of Montreal, at a certain hour, usually about 2.30 p.m. It’s quite a sight to see the ice-breaker, tethered to the dock, in a typical winter background, with a half-blocked channel behind her and nothing but unbroken ice ahead. Aboard the ice-breaker, she is soon into the channel and battling the ice. The ship backs up a quarter-mile, goes full speed ahead, hits the ice, bites 200 feet into it, and then, with engines going full speed astern, backs out into the clear w’ater again.
With the ice forty inches thick, in the midst of a blinding snowstorm, standing on the prow of the N.B. McLean is an
amazing experience. In the first place, there is the inevitable guy with the sense of humor who runs his motor car up and down the ice alongside you, not twenty feet from the open water. When the ship cracks the ice, she shudders, shivers and stops, while her propeller is going full speed astern to keep her from getting stuck up on the ice. Once lodged high and almost dry, it may take hours to get off again. Next, as the big floes are loosed from their winter lodging, fierce alligator teeth come up from the mouth of some invisible creature you cannot see. They shoot their serried fangs above the inky water just between the newlyformed floes, and then disappear into the depths for ever. It is a grisly phenomenon. If you look ahead from the prow of the ice-breaker, you will see a scene for all the world like the prairie in winter, while a bewildered horse looks on at this big hulk breaking up its winter road across the St. Lawrence to Longueuil, and the ubiquitous small boy on a bike dismounts to see an ice-breaker in action. The scene at the stern of the ship is a startling contrast to what you see at the bow. A river of ink flows out behind you from under the ship’s keel, mottled with ten thousand chunks of multishaped ice.
Quite apart from the bizarre scenery, however, out there in the river a stone’s throw from the car line and another pebble’s toss from a good winter motor highway, and waving aside the social aspects of a party which embraces the Who’s Who of the Canadian shipping world, the smashing through of the ice-breaker McLean symbolizes to Montreal the most important event which happens this city during the year. The arrival of the ice-breaker is to the port what the coming
Continued on page. 46
"\ Cover the Waterfront77
Continued from page 19
of the sun is up near the poles after the long Arctic night.
The Astonished Captain
' i 'HE FIRST ocean craft to reach port in 1935 was the Finnish tramp, Marisa Thorden, with rye from Danzig. She battered her way up among the small icebergs, risked the perils of an almost uncharted channel, and swung into the elevator jetty after dark, this past April, on a night when the wind blew in four directions and it was both raining and snowing at once. All the resources of Hollywood could nöt have produced worse weather for the opening scenes of a triple murder mystery. The delegation of welcoming officials all got drenched and one bit of pathetic comedy was lent by the proud father of a four-hours-old baby who was torn between paternal responsibility at the maternity hospital and the claims of commerce at the quay. While he was taking leave of his wife and newly acquired family, a fellow office-worker of his, trying to double up for him at the waterfront, fell on the wharf and split his nose. There were other minor casualties, and indeed all things considered it would be difficult to find a more wretched, watersoaked, wind-whipped group of unfortunates than the welcoming party that slithered around the slimy chaff down where the Marisa Thorden was docking.
Montreal’s winter-locked harbor always greets the captain of the first ship in port as it would the visit of an Oriental potentate, and the reception to this rosy-cheeked Finn was no exception. Bewildered, the Baltic skipper tried to answer reporters’ questions while he flinched through an epidemic of flashing cameras. But if he was surprised at the warmth of his welcome, he was astounded when he learned he was to have his picture appear in all the papers to the accompaniment of a double-column interview, and he was as delighted as he was dumbfounded to hear that the Harbor Commissioners were going to present him with a gold-headed cane. A day or so later, with pomp and camera, hurrahs and headlines, the still dazed skipper got his stick. No one has ever heard of him since.
Now that the port’s open, let’s have a look at this Montreal waterfront.
THE ARRIVAL of a passenger liner is a pageant of commerce. It is a thrill that never palls, a carnival of smiles and tears, a waterfront drama that goes on like a Chinese play—for ever. But to jump from Chinese plays to Duchess dockings, the reporter already has a pretty good idea what time his big liner is due, because by calling the Signal Service, Department of Marine, at Harbor 0545, he could have learned any hour of the day or night just about when the Duchess was expected. It’s a pretty sight to watch her in the earlier summer as her tall masts slip up past the sheds obliquely opposite, before she herself comes majestically past the quay, her fawn funnels incarnadined with the dying rays of the sun. By the time the tugs have her alongside and she is warping in, night has fallen. I always get a kick out of seeing this merry, shouting, shipboard community sliding past the aperture in the corrugated sheds at a mile an hour, i The landing whistle shrills, the longshoreJ men grab hold of the gangplank, and the ! privileged folk in the Customs enclosure j make ready to go aboard.
If you have got down early, you have had j a chance to look over this group of people ! whose work it is to get the Duchess in port. Leading the small crowd gathered round the j l shore side of the unadjusted gangplank is 1
“Big Jim” Kavanagh, ex-lacrosse player and now Customs superintendent. Behind him usually comes your correspondent while, in a compact but unarranged mass, are Canadian Pacific publicity representatives, the woman immigration official, the sweating longshoremen, distinguished people meeting relatives, the telegraph boys, a Canadian National ticket agent. C.P.R. rail and steamship men, port chaplains, and a dozen other types and classes from Sir Edward Beatty to a laundry agent. When the plank is in place those who have the entrée go aboard; the Government officials make a dive for the purser’s office, the telegraph and railway representatives scout around for business, while the baggage-toting stewards swing into their endless chain. The reporters meanwhile have got hold of a passenger list, have buttonholed the more amiable stewards and have kept on buttonholing until they have found one who knew Sir Marmaduck Custard by sight. Having found Sir Marmaduck, we consider it our traditional duty to keep the gentle knight talking, provided he has a good story, till they yell: “All passengers ashore.”
The passengers all go then to their baggage, which has been placed under the initial of their last name. The reporters go likewise, taking up a journalistic stance, near the most likely interview. Incidentally, it is a good thing that the Smith family isn’t much for travel. Otherwise there would never be enough room under S for all of them, for the S’s get the same allowance as the R’s. However, X, Y and Z have to double up a bit—a situation which may become bad if Polish immigrants ever become numerous. Those who have mail coming to them can leave their baggage till the Customs men get around to it, and go to claim their mail at the steamship company’s temporary post-office kiosk on wheels. No matter where they are going in America they can pick up tickets for their destination even before they leave the bustling shed, and, with their transportation tangles straightened out, can start out properly for their first journey on the new continent.
The landing of passengers such as these, recruited as they are from the better class people of five continents, is pretty much a routine; with, it is true, an occasional squawk from a passenger who has been caught smuggling or whose baggage unfortunately was put off at Quebec by mistake. So this is all humdrum stuff compared to the human interest documents one may read over by the walls, where the quaint-costumed, mid-European peasants land. In a shed full of Paris creations and Bond Street models and therefore very dull if correct sartorially, these picturesque women with their shawl headdress, beautifully embroidered peasant blouses, fancy aprons, full flowing skirts atop stout legs that walk as if they had very little acquaintance with the oversized patent leather pumps on their feet —these women, I repeat, offer a delightful and charming contrast. Once they have cleared Customs, and contraband native wine is removed from their cloth bundles of baggage, further formalities are handled by the pleasant-faced, rosy-cheeked, Dominion immigration woman.
The latter lady, after having made sure no attempt has been made to bring in this young girl for immoral purposes—and if vigilance is relaxed for a moment, that is what happens—then the routine clearance starts. Quite often this routine is anything but a tranquil affair. First, the poor girl tries to make herself understood, and no one has the slightest idea what she is talking about. Finally, ineffectual haranguing leads to tears, as weepingly the heart-faced Slav girl tries to explain herself. This is a good time to locate a Sister of Mercy. These selfeffacing ladies with the nun-like mien make no fuss but are extremely efficient. Often the peasant girl is bawling when the Sister of Mercy gets there. A few soft syllables, and the Sister has picked up the newcomer’s nationality. The tears of anguish change to sobs of joy, and the Slav girl falls on the Sister of Mercy’s neck, blubbers half-comprehensible sentences in torrents, cools down
and in an hour is en route to join her folks in Saskatchewan.
Another woman who came in on the Cunarder, Antonia, defied all linguists—and there were a lot of them around that day— till a Cunard passenger man noticed that the near-hysterical woman was born in Bulgaria though not travelling on that nation’s passport. It so happened that in Montreal those who can speak Bulgarian cannot be picked up off the quay at a moment’s notice, but the authorities did manage to find a chap who could “savvy” a bit, and he tried his Bulgarian on her. It worked. Imagine his embarrassment when his fellow conversationist stroked his chin in gratitude.
After the last interview is secured and the final bit of human interest has been licked up, waterfront reporters, especially those covering Cunard arrivals, observe a fine old tradition called “slicing the mainbrace.” This consists of going to the purser’s office and waiting till he asks you what you’ll have.
Gaiety and Sadness
A PASSENGER ship sailing is at once the gayest and saddest occasion the harbor can produce. It is an event which draws mainly on the vocal chords and lachrymal glands, and generally produces the research laboratory phenomenon of mice running around in an oxygen jar—said mice being people and the aforementioned jar, the ship. The departure of any passenger ship is a compote of emotions, a conglomeration of semi-hvsterical energies. From the sullen deportee to the radiant bride, a wide human panorama parades before the reporter’s eyes. One day the orphanage band is down playing Premier Bennett away to England; another, a father and son sail on the same ship, the father on the crew, the son as a passenger. ! Young trade commissioners off to their fulltime post, exultant yet apprehensive; tiredeyed civil servants from India going back home for the last time; self-effacing financiers, bishops on ad limeña visits, tweedy golf stars away to title play at St. Andrews, sons going home to see their fathers die, English prostitutes returning because business is better at home, and four-year-old sons going unaccompanied to visit the grandmother they have never seen—all these and thousands more sail from Montreal each year. I have no more plumbed the depths in this caldron of human emotions than a man in mid-Atlantic could hit bottom with an oar.
The first guests have hardly arrived to see their friends off before the stewards start droning. “All Visitors ashore.” It’s in their blood and they’ve got to yell it, even if the vessel won’t go for two hours yet. They regard every non-passenger as a menace of some sort; they play a sort of game appar! ently, and score one up for themselves every time they rid the ship of a non-paying guest. About five per cent of the non-voyaging folk aboard are kidded into action by the first call to shore. The half-hour whistle, a terrible thing on the eardrums, also scares a few more people ashore, and the quarterhour blast sends many scurrying. Then they blow bugles, there is still more exhortation, and finally by sheer dint of noise the last shore-going victim is driven to the quiet and calm of the beach. It is indeed a sad reflection on human beings that the method used for herding cows is most suited for handling ¡ crowds on ships.
Before sailing time, the vessel really takes on a gala appearance. The company’s house flag is up on the mast, and the Blue Peter is fluttering in whatever breeze there is. When you see the Blue Peter flying, it means the ship is sailing that day. Meanwhile, the stewards go along the decks, carrying trays full of streamers, or serpentines, and you can have all you want. These are to be thrown at anybody on shore, preferably somebody ! you like, and if the passengers you like also ! like you particularly well, they will throw any unravelled streamers they get right back at you. It’s childish, but great fun. If you hit your friend, that’s a great sign of friendship, and it is his turn to hit you. The trick, therefore, is to hold on to as many streamers as possible, and if you have four or more,
you give a simulation of appearance of holding the ribbands while driving a four-inhand.
Inside the ship, the bar flies have already congregated in what by courtesy is called the Smoke Room, and they have begun to ask when the bar will be opened. It is a long trip for them till the wine steward can get to work. Usually, you can get a drink by the time the ship is passing the Vickers drydock.
/'“ANCE a year, a scene only possible in the G' Province of Quebec is enacted, as a dozen or more missionaries leave for Basutoland. The Elder Dempster Liner Mattawin has accommodation for about a dozen people, and when this ship is in port for its midsummer sailing, bookings are made on it annually for the priests, nuns and brothers to go on the Mattawin to Basutoland. Although the passengers are on the Elder Dempster Liner for more than five weeks, they say they take as long over land again before they reach their isolated posts in densest, darkest Africa. It will, therefore, be seen that this annual departure is something of an event. Thus you find down at the wharf about 300 priests, nuns, Christian brothers, and the friends as well as relatives of the departing holy folk, wishing them adieu. Priests in their cassocks, which by law they must wear in Quebec, nuns in their flowing garb, and teaching brothers in their skirts, all lend a touch of the picturesque to these rather sad farewells. Some never come back; but those who do bring wonderful stories—stories which the English papers never get and the French papers rarely write.
The most poignant scenes of all are enacted on the faces of the Westerners. Just a hundred seconds or so before ten o’clock, with only one gangplank left connecting the wharf with the sailing Duchess, the Western passengers and their baggage are rushed down to the water’s edge. Most of these people have planned to go “home” for at least ten years, maybe more. This is the voyage of a lifetime. On Wednesday or perhaps Tuesday—the sailing day being Friday—they are rattling over some prairie trail. The ocean seems as far away as the moon and less easily visualized. Then Wednesday night, and the train dives into the rocks and Christmas trees of New Ontario, the long day passes monotonously in the hot coach, and they seem no nearer the sea at sundown than at sunrise. But they wake next day to a land of green fields and lush farms the like of which they have not seen since they left the Old Country and did not till now believe existed in Canada, and they have only just settled back after an early breakfast to enjoy all this hitherto unsuspected touch of home in their adopted country when the train roars into Montreal.
They are bustled into buses, and rushed bewilderingly through streets, down narrow lanes, and then out into the open again, only to dive into a shed. They see at last, through the squares that open out to the water, the name of the ship—the same name that is on the ticket they clutch in their purse or pocket. Off the bus they scramble and start up the gangplank. It is at the shore end of the gangplank that I stand every Friday and watch their faces. There is the ship right in front of them, to the left of them, the right of them, in front of them, high above them, in all its majesty. To them it, symbolizes the sea—then home! A lump rises in their throats, and tears come to their eyes. It’s the end of the trail. England’s at the other end of the voyage.
The Westerners blink their way up the Duchess gangplank, the telephone is taken off the ship, the ropes are loosed from shore, she starts to move, the orchestra strikes up something inappropriate like Home On the Range, the tugs get the ship under way, and as she puts a ship-width of water between herself and the berth, the cursing dock hands start to sweep up the streamers.
Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of articles by Mr. Cross. The second will appear in an early issue.