With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
Whenever I go out with my father anywhere in San Pedro, we inevitably run into someone he knows, from his school days (a long time gone), from the Cabrillo Beach Polar Bear Club, or from years of work spent on the harbor. That’s when San Pedro, with a population of 56,000, feels like a small town.
My dad, now a retired longshore worker and marine clerk, Locals 13 and 63, remembers faces better than names, and a casual—someone who takes jobs out of the casual hall and isn’t a steady at a particular dock—comes up to my dad as we sit down for burgers on Gaffey Street, asks, “Jack, you still down at Pasha Stevedoring?”
“Retired three years now,” my dad says, and I can tell he’s searching for the name to go with the face. But names don’t always matter, because there are now two workers from the waterfront in one place, two brothers in the union, which means they can have a full conversation in the shared language of the docks.
The San Pedro Bay Port Complex, comprised of the combined Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, makes up the ninth largest port in the world (the top eight are all in Asia). Realizing its potential value, Los Angeles annexed San Pedro as a part of the City of Los Angeles in 1909, and the complex has since been given the moniker (and a National Geographic Channel show along with it) America’s Port, since it handles more than forty percent of all containerized cargo that enters the United States. However, this distinction has an uncertain future with the dredging and widening of the Panama Canal, the fully-automated barge port in Louisiana, or the megaships that can carry over 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit containers. These container ships have a beam of about 193 feet—compared with the 100-feet bow-to-stern total length of the San Salvador, the flagship galleon of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who in 1542 became the first European to scout the San Pedro Bay, inhabited by the Tongva, whose settlement in the bay was named Kiinkenga.
While waiting for our burgers, the longshore worker tells us, “I only get out three days a week now—work is down because of tariffs. There are no slabs at all.” Because I’m the daughter of a former longshore worker/marine clerk, I know that slabs are hunks of steel made from ingots rolled out on a belt in lengths between thirteen and forty-four feet, weighing between ten and twenty-seven tons. I know that the 1960 Modernization and Mechanization Agreement enabled containerized cargo, a move that prevented the union from rejecting any future technological advancements in the port but simultaneously negotiated the union’s ability to be trained on and operate the new technology. I know that my dad first got his start on the docks in 1959, just out of high school, and used a 9-inch metal hook to unload cargo onto pallets. I know the rhythms and the cadences of waterfront speak and its hopes and losses by heart.
The trade war is affecting everyone who isn’t currently pulling a retirement pension or already in the ground. A trade war means fewer ships in the harbor, fewer gangs called up for a shift—“Only two gangs ordered per ship!” our new friend tells us while we wait for our burgers, “And only two foremen now each for the day and night shifts, when before there were five!” I see both my dad’s relief at being out and guilt over getting the best deal out of his last contract before retirement.
Work on the waterfront has always been a tenuous balance between the members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—my dad’s union—and the shipping companies represented by the maritime association. Bloody Thursday honors the flashpoint of the 1934 West Coast Strike that involved scabs and hired goon squads beating up (and shooting) striking union members, killing two of them. It’s now commemorated every July 5th with a harbor shutdown and branded t-shirts. In 1960, the Modernization and Mechanization Agreement meant that companies could containerize cargo, reducing physical labor, but that the union had to handle the movement and stowage from ship to dock. The union would have to be allowed the chance to modernize with the technology. In 2002, there was the weeks-long lockout after the union was accused of a slow-down, during which the union leveraged its power to negotiate a favorable contract with the association representing the shipping companies (despite George W. Bush invoking the Taft Hartley Act as a means to weaken the union, attempting to render them unable to strike); in January of 2015, I marched alongside my dad and thousands of other ILWU families in support of the union’s contract negotiations; and earlier in 2019, the union rallied once again to protest shipping giant Maersk’s addition of 130 robotic vehicles to replace human-operated machines to sort and move cargo on the docks. A lopsided agreement was made; though the union can be trained on the new automation, jobs will still be reduced, and the union has been leveled a devastating blow. It’s not the Matrix or Skynet—but there’s a real fear that in two generations, with automation potentially replacing most of the workforce, there will be few who know what it meant to work on the waterfront. Reactions range anywhere on the spectrum between hysteria to excitement, depending on which side of the labor vs. management debate you’re on.
As for now—we don’t know what’s going to happen. Maersk uses microchips in the containers and even on the docks, plugged into robots to do the work my father spent hours of his week planning out. He’d come home, dusted yellow with spray chalk from marking steel slabs and coils, marking the yard for placing the steel slabs, coils, and plywood to be loaded onto trucks or rail cars, double checking bills of lading, somehow sorting cargo the way a conductor guides a symphony or the Sorcerer Supreme bends the world at his will.
The waterfront is the true official language of San Pedro, which otherwise has been a pidgin of Spanish, English, Croatian, Italian, and Japanese since Juan Domínguez was given the land grant by Spain for ranching in 1784 (and the subsequent US takeover of California after the Mexican-American War). Phineas Banning, an immigrant from the East Coast, dredged the harbor in 1871 to make it deep enough for ships to pass through, and two years later, as California State Senator, used government funds to build the first breakwater. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Croatia (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire), found his way to San Pedro in 1914 in his purse seiner, The Agram, after freezing on the waters of Puget Sound. San Pedro looked similar to the Adriatic coast, Catalina Island a more distant Krk, the harbor town a larger iteration of Crkvenica and Rijeka. Familiarity and echoes of home bays and fishing communities drew most of the families that came to San Pedro during the twentieth century.
The stories of San Pedro are woven out of fishing nets, metal hooks, and family recipes. San Pedrans also retain their ties to cultural heritage—many of my friends still return to Croatia every summer—but even stronger is the Pedro heritage. Families remember who fished on the Sea Scout between 1950 and 1959, or how many owners the John R. had. The first boat my grandfather owned was also the first all-steel purse seiner on the coast, The Paramount. Starting in the 1930s, he spent months at a time off the Galapagos Islands fishing tuna, dropping off loads in Mexico, then motoring south again for another load. During World War II, he and the rest of the fishing fleet took turns patrolling the coast for submarines, then scooping up every last sardine and anchovy from the waters—whatever could be put in a can, stowed in musty holds, or shipped to the fronts. When the fishing dwindled, the men moved onshore, but not too far, from the boats to the docks, cargoes of bananas from Brazil, coffee from Colombia, sugar from Hawaii, cowhides from wherever it was the cowhides came in from. Bales of cotton loaded on pallets, hand-stowed, hand-offloaded, hand-sorted, with steel hooks in the hand to move the pulleys, separate the loads, throw the cargo onto trucks or railcars.
Some symphonies are played with violins and cellos and flutes—my family created them with hooks and pallets and the rhythms of human automation, smooth, choreographed, memorized, inherited. Water is in our blood and our bones, and our steps pulse with the low hum of the cranes that lift and pull cargo the way the moon pulls the tides and the way we pull stories from salt.
San Pedrans are wary, not necessarily of progress, not necessarily of being left behind, although that is a concern, but worse, of being erased altogether.
There’s a hole in my heart where Canetti’s Seafood Grotto used to be, down in the throat of 22nd Street, tucked behind the fish markets. It was an archive that sold fish, but the real draw was the characters inside, human libraries reciting their daily litanies, rimes of not-so-ancient mariners who didn’t measure days with coffee spoons but instead counted years by fishing boats: again, who fished on which boat and with whom, who partnered, who owned outright, was it longlining tuna or nets of sardines or anchovies or ligni—squid—conjured to the surface of the ocean with spotlights. After my grandfather died, I worked at Canetti’s for a time, absorbing the stories of other grandfathers, imbibing the sounds the way others who grieve sniff items of clothing. In the age of computer automation, this worked as a different kind of neural network, the individual stories binding us all in one greater story.
After sixty years, Canetti’s closed up shop, the larger-than-life Joe Canetti retired, and like my grandfather and so many others, he is now gone, lost to the tides of time. Canetti’s fish tacos and sandwiches were famous, but my dad and I often switched up our orders to get their burgers, a greasy-spoon diner type of burger, and the closest we can replicate (though still aren’t quite the same) we’ve tracked down to a sandwich shop on Gaffey Street. And here, just like at Canetti’s, the pulse of the harbor carries us to another thread of the collective story of the waterfront.
The man at lunch on Gaffey Street mentions a name I know, says this worker got laid off because work was so slow, and now had to take jobs out of the casual hall. “And he’s a good worker, too.”
A good worker. Akin to the title of Sorcerer Supreme, it’s the highest compliment you can give someone on the waterfront. Though it may sound Bolsheviky, the good worker plaudit is an apolitical mark of distinction that is carried down generations. At Canetti’s, people would recall good workers who had been dead for ten or twenty years. Prime table position was given to Ray Patricio, one of the “best bosses” to ever work down at the harbor.
My dad is one of the good workers, a trait that imbued every part of his life. “You know how lucky you are?” his coworkers would tell me at holiday parties or the occasional run-in at Canetti’s, the movie theater, the Target parking lot. My dad’s vice president (on the management side) said on multiple occasions that he’d retire when my dad retired. When my dad did retire—at the age of seventy-five—two workers filled his position. Fifty-seven years he spent on the waterfront. Eight-, ten-, sometimes fourteen-hour days. In that time, he clocked in almost twenty orthopedic surgeries, his body given over wholly to the job.
Having a good worker in the family is a sense of pride. I didn’t earn it, but it sticks to me, a benediction, a membership card for respect. It’s the story that has framed my entire life, just like my grandfather’s story framed my father’s.
The port complex currently provides 190,000 jobs to human beings who pay taxes, buy homes, shop locally, send their kids to little league and soccer. Automation will change the complexion of the entire town, and it’s already changing. San Pedrans look around at places like this sandwich hangout on Gaffey Street, wondering which of us gentrification will bump off first. Without the language of the waterfront and the people who speak it, what will happen to the rest of the town? Losing this language is personal. It’s akin to losing my grandfather all over again.
Now, perhaps, is the coda, but maybe not. Maybe as the workers shift to fit themselves into the narrower machinations, they’ll forge new shapes and new rhythms that will be just as beautiful, though different, perhaps a little melancholic. The stories will go on, and there will be enough of us left who know even a few words of the old language to tell the stories of those who have come and gone: break bulk, hooks, casual cards, A books, long on hours, a good worker, the best worker, my grandfather, my father, my father. I repeat it like a prayer, a chronicle of what was, saying it often so there will be no end to the echo.
Jennifer Carr frequently explores how our jobs reflect or inform our identities, and what happens when the jobs are threatened by time, automation, and politics. Her work has recently appeared in Baltimore Review, Origins Journal, and Panorama Journal, among others. Though she sometimes regrets not getting her union card, she loves teaching creative writing at Chapman University and spends the rest of her time as a ghostwriter. In the gaps, she is completing her novel set on the Los Angeles waterfront.
Copyright: © 2020 Jennifer Carr. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
- Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
- Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
- Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”