John McPhee has taught David Remnick and Richard Stengel and a few other famous journalists to write, and apparently he is a fixture of The New Yorker, but his work is so much more interesting that those of his proteges, and I don’t ever remember having read his pieces in the New Yorker. I would have remembered any writing of his as his style is so much more readable, so much more enjoyable, than the sterile and staid and worthy pieces published in the dully venerable magazine (that said, their investigative journalism is fantastic).
And John McPhee seems to have an obsession with cargo. He has written two books about transportation: the first, Looking for a Ship, published in 1990 is about oceangoing ships, traveling down the Pacific coast of South America. The second, Uncommon Carriers, published in 2006, is a series of essays about inland US transportation,on rivers, canals, roads and rail, and via UPS. He is what any ethnographer should aspire to being: attentive, curious about EVERY detail, alive to the affect and labour of infrastructure, empathetic, up for trying what his interlocutors do as a matter of daily labour. And he has a way with language. Such beautiful style and more or less devoid of the kind of hyper-masculine tone that has become de rigeur among a certain kind of creative non-fiction writers.
First, Looking for a Ship.
By now, I am more or less familiar with the story of being aboard a ship and the stories seem to more or less indicate the same sense: of hierarchy, boredom, of gradual automation, of jobs lost, of a shipping industry that is shifting to East Asia. He tells a beautiful story about the gradual changes to and the decline in the US shipping industry. The book was written just before the end of the Cold War, and it is fascinating to read the account of Soviet ships doing cracking business in US ports and carrying more US goods than do US ships. He has wonderful accounts of the ocean floor and enters a beautiful conversation with Darwin who sailed the same route more than a hundred years before him.
He is a fabulous raconteur the language of the profession, conveying something of the richness and details of it. His account of the goods transported aboard the ship is like odd and strange and mismatched names strung together like a talisman. But the cargo he writes about is the invisible stuff of our lives. At every port he visits he sing-songs the goods shipped in and shipped out:
We brought very little cargo to Buenaventura, but we did bring the crew. We had eighteen thousand pounds of powdered graphite, twenty tons of used auto parts, ninety-one tons of polypropylene for making plastic furniture, ten tons of tiremaking machinery party, and two Ford trucks, but scarcely was the first of it in the air and dangling from cables over the dock when the gangway rattled with springy feet and the streets were full of sailors and mates (p 225).
Vitalists and New Materialists, take note of the way the goods, the solid objects, the stuff are so central to the detail and richness of this story. The same attentiveness also jumps off the page in his account of a hazmat truck driver in Uncommon Carriers:
Before San Diego, he had hauled a surfactant from Salt Lake to New Mexico. He had washed in Phoenix and deadheaded west. To Hill Air Force Base, in Ogden, Utah, he once hauled parts degreaser for F-16s. From Philadelphia to Superior, Wisconsin, he hauled a “secret ingredient” to the company that manufactures Spy Grease. After bouncing to Neenah to wash, he loaded at Appleton a soap used in the making and curing of bricks. It was bound for Dixon, California. He has hauled weed killers, paint thinners, defoaming agents that form a broth in the making of explosives, latex for sandwiching plywood, and dust suppressants that are “kind to horses’ hooves.” To Fresno he tool latex for a dye that turns brown cardboard white. Wood squeezings, or lingin liquor, is used in curing cement. He has carried it from Bellingham to Rancho Cucamonga -northern Washington to southern California He turns down a job maybe once a year. “I don’t want to haul any more cashew-nutshell oil -I believe it harms my barrel,” he said. Cashew-nutshell oil arrives in ships from Brazil. “You can’t make any fiction devices -clutches, brake shoes, brake pads- without it. It looks like creosote or asphalt. It’s a hard wash. It calls for a stripper [i.e. a corrosive soap]” (pp. 15-16).
I absolutely loved that passage for both its imagined map of the (still-)industrial hinterland of the US, and for its occult recitation of secret ingredients and strange components of the things we don’t see, think about, talk about. The things that make our lives, move us around, allow us shelter and furniture and god-knows-what.
But, back to Looking for a Ship, which is really -despite its absolutely wonderful account of being on a ship, and its beautiful portrait of the captain- a story about unemployment. Aboard the undermanned ships, when things are ordinary and the weather and the waves are not playing up, having a massively undermanned ship is an inconvenience. But the weather and waves don’t always obey:
On the Spray, Andy went through one hurricane three times. A thousand-pound piece of steel pipe broke its lashing and “became a proverbial loose cannon.” Ten crewmen -five on a side- held on to a line and eventually managed to control it, but they had almost no sleep for two days. The Spray once carried forty men. Reduced manning had cut the number to twenty. “Companies are trying to get it down to eleven or twelve by automating most functions,” he says. “When everything’s going right, four people can run a ship, but all the automation in the world can’t handle emergencies like that” (p. 139).
McPhee tells us that Columbus sailed on a 117-foot-long ship with 52 sailors. The Captain he portrays
is sailing with thirty-three on a merchant ship that is six-hundred and sixty-five feet long. [Captain] Washburn call this undermanning. Steaming between the Scylla of automation and Charybdis of bankruptcy, contemporary American shipping companies fund ways to get along without crewmen: they beach the purser, the second cook, the sous-chef, the extra third mate, a wiper or two, and various engineers. Many ships larger than Stella Lykes have scarcely twenty men aboard. If you are looking for large crews, you would look to a navy. [Charles] Darwin’s little warship had a crew of sixty-five. A modern United States Navy frigate, barely half the size of the Stella Lykes, will have two hundred and fifty men aboard, seven of them running shoulders at any one time on the bridge (pp. 108-109).
This undermanning, unemployment and underemployment is the engine to the part of the story that most seduced me (in that way that grim stories seem to seduce me). The opening of the book is all about how his friend Andy is looking for a ship to board. It is extraordinary how much suspense, how much heart-breaking competition between the same union comrades, this “looking” entails. The qualified sailors and officers have to go to union offices in various ports to wait for a ship to come in and to post the positions opening aboard.
We had no idea where we would be going, if anywhere. We had gear for cool weather and gear for the tropics. Looking for a ship, Andy had once spent two months fruitlessly hanging around the union hall in Charleston. He had put in many weeks in New York with the same result. He once went as far as Puerto Rico. He spent two weeks there going to the hall. He got no ship. He tried Charleston on his way home and with great luck got a ship in two days. The ship he got in Charleston was called the Puerto Rican. He was on it for four months, sailing as third mate, coastwise. A chemical tanker, it blew up, out of San Fransisco , on a later voyage. It broke in half (pp 4-5).
This desperation for jobs puts the sailors in competition with each other. “There is so much hunger for work that no one is happy to see anybody else [in the union hall]. We are a brotherhood, so we hate each other,” one sailor says (pp. 5-6). The first mates sign up as able-bodied seamen.
To provide jobs of any kind for its increasingly distressed mariners, the Masters, Mates, and Pilots union arranged for five oceangoing tankers to be crewed with union members, right down to the last deckie. Licensed officers accepted jobs as ordinary seamen, able-bodied seamen, and bosuns because they could not get another work (p. 9).
The story of McPhee and Andy waiting for a ship to come in is breathtakingly suspenseful. You feel the intensity of despair, the pall of unemployment, the slow resentment building in the interstices of ostensibly fraternal relationships. And the pure luck that could play a role in denying someone a turn on a ship. The killer cards (union cards that are approaching a year but not just there, which gives you priority, because at a year, the card “rolls over” and you have to start anew).
And what McPhee is brilliant about is the give the human dimensions -the labour- of the businesses he studies (more on this in the next post on McPhee). His people, their practices, and the way they fit within the machinery of commerce, are acutely drawn. And the potted histories he gives of these commercial ventures are brilliant.
The United States Merchant Marine, the name of which suggests an assault on a valuable foreign beach, is not, as a good many people seem to think, a branch of military service. It is essentially a collective enterprise of competing private companies, flying the American flag on the stems of their ships, employing American-citizen crews, and transporting cargoes around the world. Sail and steam, the United States grew in rank among nations on the aggressive reach of its Merchant Marine. American merchant ships once numbered in the thousands… Diminishing rapidly, the number of American dry-cargo ships was already below two-hundred, and there were about as many tankers. Not one commercial vessel was under construction in an American shipyard (pp 10-11).
Again and again McPhee reminds me of Skula, though there are no explicit traces of the great poet of shipping here in McPhee’s books. To be fair, McPhee doesn’t quote any other scholar or writer on transport either. He is singlemindedly interested in the ethnographic details of what he studies rather than connecting the writings of others to his own. He also has a sense of the way all of this fits within the military landscape:
In time of war, the Merchant Marine is a prominent participant. This civilian job -risky enough at any time- becomes exceptionally dangerous… American merchant mariners were among those who built the bridge on the River Kwai. War, with its all-out sealifts -the Korean Sealift, the Vietnam Sealift- expands the merchant fleet. Afterwards, the ships go out of service more rapidly than the sailors, and jobs are hard to come by. The unions close their membership books until numbers level out. By the late nineteen-seventies, the Second World War crowd was gone, and much of the Vietnam crowd. Books opened…. In the mid-eighties, “everything slammed shut again” as the United States Merchant Marine was competitively outbid by ships under foreign flags and was reduced to carrying less than five percent of all oceangoing American cargo. One American company after another entered Chapter 11 [bankruptcy] with its keeps up and its screws in the air. Soon the Soviet merchant fleet was carrying at least ten times as much American cargo as the United States Merchant Marine, in direct trade between the two countries -a multiple that keeps growing through time.
In 1988, the National Maritime Union sold its nine story building at 346 West Seventeenth Street, Manhattan, which had medical facilities, a gymnasium, a sauna, a restaurant, a theater, and a school, and -with its porthole windows- suggested an upended ship. The N.M.U., of course, was a sailors’ union -the once very powerful organization of the unlicensed [i.e.non-officers]- and now it had lost a leveraged sellout, was called M.E.B.A/N.M.U., and had been merged with a branch of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, an organization of engine-room officers (pp 11-12).
Of course in a very roundabout way what this reminds me of is this horrible New York Times opinion piece by the shocking Tyler Cowen who argues “the very possibility of war focuses the attention of governments on getting some basic decisions right — whether investing in science or simply liberalizing the economy. Such focus ends up improving a nation’s longer-run prospects.” Oh yes, “innovation in science” and “liberalizing the economy” (i.e. putting people out of jobs) – the fantasies upon which capitalism floats. And again and again the unemployment that like cashew-nutshell oil greases the wheels of ever-downward wage pressures.