By the time Otis Redding’s song, “Dock of the Bay” was released in 1968, the Sausalito, California waterfront was a distant memory for me. Still, I strongly identify with the song. I didn’t have his song-claimed experienced of having moved all the way from Georgia only to find lethargy and loneliness awaiting me on San Francisco area docks. But it was those very docks, the smells of sea and harbour, the sounds of sloshing water, the shrieks of gulls, the warning bells of buoys and the hull-deep sounds of big ships blasting awareness of their presence that come tumbling back into memory whenever I hear that song.
In part too, I identify with the song not because of my lack of labour success, I was only a kid when I lived on the waterfront. But the loneliness and lethargy he describes, the feeling of not being wanted by anyone for anything and just having to waste time as a result – that was it for me.
In the aftermath of World War II, as the shipyards were closing down, my mom found a houseboat she could rent for very little money. Those were very different times than what might possibly be there today. Back then, the rich folks lived up the hill. Poor folks and water rats lived at the waterfront. My mom struggled to make ends meet. She worked as a part-time bar tender at a waterfront dive and she often asked me to be absent from home as she entertained gentlemen in the houseboat.
While we rented the houseboat, mom was pretty good about letting me sleep at night. She told me she could do at least that much for me. But she would often be out all night and during the day she’d tell me I’d have to leave until she hung a certain striped towel out the window.
I spent a lot of time outdoors, just sitting on the dock of the bay, so to speak.
I’d often head out with some of the boys from the neighbourhood. There didn’t seem to be many girls around and the girls I knew I mostly hated, so I tried to fit in with the boys. But sooner or later they’d either try to get fresh with me, or they would reject me as being too wimpy to tolerate. I wouldn’t try to do things like swim all the way underneath docked freighters and such idiotic nonsense as that. Why do boys do shit like that anyway?
I can remember being what was then called “brown as a berry,” by summer’s end from having been outdoors so much. I remember looking out at the bay through many a summer’s haze to see that blue-grey monument to morality, the distant and foreboding island of Alcatraz, the rock, where generations of bad men had done generations of bad time, isolated, held apart from the rest of us.
Occasionally, I’d see a barge or ship headed out in the direction of Alcatraz and I’d wonder if some poor soul, who wouldn’t be returning, was aboard that ship. Maybe it was only groceries and toilet paper being delivered to staff and inmates, I don’t know. But I’d watch that thing make its way slowly out to the rock and I’d send prayers, not just for the shackled schmuck who no doubt deserved punishment for the terrible things he’d done, but for the guards who had to deal with him and who had to have icky interactions with him. Dock of the bay. Wasting time. Looked like nothing would ever change.
I didn’t know it then, but those were the good old days. Lonely yes, but good in the sense of my having adequate food and shelter and time to think, lots and lots of time to think.
Then the rich folks on the hill decided that they didn’t like seeing the squalor down below them and we were evicted from the houseboat. Things went bad for mom, and I was still too young to do much in the way of generating income. We ended up living for most of one year by seeking overnight shelter in junked cars, tolerating the too-close company of drunks, weirdos and crazy folks. Almost froze to death one night in a junked Pontiac in a poor section of Seattle.
Mom and I just kind of drifted away from each other. She tried her best to be a loving mom, but I knew I had to become independent as soon as I possibly could. I guess that when I was born, she’d had such a difficult time of it that the doctors kinda “fixed” her so that she couldn’t have any more children. She said that was fine with her because children were a burden anyway. She always followed that comment with, “…except for you, sweetheart,” but I knew that I was no exception to her judgement. I smiled and took what passed for maternal love, knowing that it was as false as her eyelashes and as hollow as her praise of her man friends. She loved me in her way, and I loved her in my way, but it was far from what most folks know as a truly loving mother-daughter relationship.
She went away for a weekend one time and never came back. She called me and told me who she paid to live in our dumpy, slant-floored, one-room apartment. She didn’t tell me that she often paid with service in lieu of cash. He told me that, and he was keen to continue the relationship with me, but I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I lived under a highway overpass for a few nights before falling in with a pretty upright kinda do-gooder guy. Eventually he wanted to have his man-way with me too, but by then it was kinda mutual and I did more than just that to earn my keep. I cooked. I cleaned. I educated myself, and I moved on to better things.
The radio plays Otis Redding singing “Dock of the Bay.” I hear it. I smell it. I sense it with my warm, sun-browned skin. I feel a mix of joy and dire loneliness in the haunting sounds and memories of my youth on the docks of the bay.
- Note: For a related story see Life in Pontiac