The Skeptical Squarehead

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Group 4 - The Teaser  

Prior to the ascendancy of transcontinental air flight, the great passenger ships of the mid-twentieth century offered transatlantic travelers unparalleled safety, luxury, and service. This opulence and security was not, however, shared by the merchant seamen who dwelt "below decks".  Their milieu was far darker, and far less secure. Group 4 is the story of  a bright and likable seventeen-year-old who has spent his boyhood in Manhattan watching the great ships parade past his window and dreaming of exotic ports of call. Against his mother’s wishes, he foregoes college to follow his heart to an adventure at sea. Little does he know the qualities that held him in good stead back at home could well mark him for death in this often brutal new world.

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Chapter 1

June 7, 1965


Jay arrived at the corner of Twelfth Street and Sixth Avenue slightly out of breath. He stopped to refill his lungs and calm his beating heart. The decision to walk and not take the bus had been dictated less by impatience than his need to burn off some of the nervous energy that consumed him. He had beaten the bus by ten minutes. Normally, such a feat would have triggered a small sense of accomplishment. Today, however, his mind was crowded with other thoughts. He stole the moment to survey his surroundings.

The bright, early summer sun had stirred the morning gods of convection, creating a strong yet welcome breeze that wound aimlessly through the canyons of lower Manhattan. The warm winds had extinguished the normally sour smell of the street, but their insistence had also heightened his growing nervousness. His desire for adventure, however, far outweighed the nagging fear that tugged at his soul.

Jay scratched at his collar. He was dressed in a freshly starched white shirt his mother had ironed for him before breakfast, the black pants his Grandmother had given him for Christmas, and a new seersucker jacket his Aunt Gladys had dropped off last week in preparation for this day. Even though he did not sport the tie his mother had insisted he wear, his outfit still seemed a bit too snug even for his slight frame. He checked to make sure his shirt was properly tucked in and then tugged on his cuffs to insure that they were evenly matched. His mother had taught him the importance of first impressions, and, at least on this point, he was a believer. He worried about his hair, tousled by the wind, but knew there was little that he could do until he was safe inside.

Jay squinted at the squat, two story, cylindrical building with the glass block front that loomed before him across the street. Its twentieth century architecture seemed out of place with the taller, nineteenth century office buildings and row houses that lined the rest of the block. He wished he could see it more clearly, but pride prevented better observation. He did not have his glasses with him.  He refused to wear them because he was ashamed of the frames. They had been his mother’s choice, not his. He thought they made him look foolish so, as usual; they remained at home in his desk drawer. Even though everything was a bit fuzzy, he noticed that the outside of the building appeared to be clean and well kept. There were only a few men quietly talking to each other on the sidewalk adjacent to it.

This apparent serenity, however, brought little reassurance, and he felt his heart beat faster in his chest. He was becoming more anxious about crossing the street, knowing he would be crossing a line between the relatively safe streets of New York, with which his childhood allowed him some familiarity, and into a world that he could only imagine. His palms began to sweat, and he rubbed them on his new jacket to dry.

Jay reached into his front pant’s pocket, and probed its depths to reassure himself that the little card was still there. By any standard, the small certificate wasn’t all that impressive, but its capture had been the first hurdle in his journey. Called a Z-card, it was issued by the United States Coast Guard and entitled the bearer to join the National Maritime Union and to work in the American Merchant Marine. It was simply a small laminated license that contained Jay’s picture and some cryptic writing. But its benign appearance gave no indication as to the difficulty required to obtain it. First, Jay needed to prove that an American steamship company was willing to hire him, but in order to persuade a steamship company to issue a letter to that effect; the companies had wanted him to already have a Z-card. After what seemed an eternity of knocking on strange doors, one kind soul working at American Export Lines had taken pity on his plight, ignored the rules, and jotted off a simple letter that allowed the process to continue. After a few more weeks of standing in endless lines and filling out seemingly infinite forms, the Coast Guard finally relented and issued him their permission. It had been his personal Catch-22, yet he had prevailed, and he was proud of himself.

Jay pulled out his trophy and looked at it as he had done many times since its capture. He held it tightly, hoping this small, rectangular object could, through some form of osmosis, reinvigorate his courage. He glanced at the picture of himself prominently displayed in the upper left corner and the words “Valid for Emergency Service” that were splashed across the front of the card in red. He hated his picture but liked the sound of the phrase. Although its exact meaning escaped him, it made him feel important, needed and worthy. He read the bold print at the top of the document “Issued to: Jay Johnsen. Date of issue: 2 June 1965.”

As it had done in the past, the small card worked its magic. He looked up feeling far more relaxed. His heart rate began to return to normal, and a new sense of pride filled him with the resolve he needed to complete his immediate challenge. Returning the card to its sanctuary, he crossed the street with renewed confidence.

It took but seconds to reach the building and even less time for his world to collapse. As Jay reached for the handles on the large doors that would provide entrance, a sudden explosion of men surged against him, forcing Jay back toward the street. Immediately flanking him were more than twenty men. They began to form a ring around two fighters who were grappling with each other for possession of a large switch knife that miraculously loomed on the ground beside their rolling bodies. He tried to extricate himself from the circle but discovered his jostling only managed to push him closer to the fight. He was forced to brace himself against the crowd to prevent becoming a participant in the violence. The gleeful growl of the swarm directed his attention toward the combatants.

Chiga tú Madre,” yelled one of the fighters, a very large Puerto Rican, who held his skinny, white opponent firmly attached to the sidewalk with one hand. His other hand deliberately and deftly reached for the knife.

“Fuck you, Ochoa,” answered his antagonist flailing his arms and legs about like a newly landed fish.

“No. Chiga tú,” Ochoa hissed as he grasped the knife and plunged it deep into his opponent’s throat.

Blood spurted from around the Puerto Rican’s knife hand as if he had found oil instead of the end of the argument. A glimmering stream of bright red arched from the defeated man’s body speckling Jay’s new pants with the thin man’s life force. It lasted only seconds, but to Jay the horror played out in slow motion. Before his third breath, the thin, gray man lay limp, dying in the brilliant Manhattan summer sun. The throng immediately released its hold on Jay and all signs of the struggle, save a pool of viscous red, vanished as swiftly as they appeared. Within seconds, the only movement around the dying man came from the small pool of blood that oozed unceasingly from the jagged wound.

Before Jay regained his ability to move, a thin, aged black man with short cropped, snow white hair gently touched him on the shoulder and flashed him bright smile.

“Cheaters never win,” the man said with a calm practice that sent a chill down Jay’s spine. The old man glanced up and down the street. “Come on, kid. Best be goin’ inside before the Man arrives and starts askin’ questions.”

With the whine of distant sirens in his ear and a gentle push on his back from a surprisingly strong, black hand, Jay’s wide eyes were guided off the body and through the two large glass doors that provided access to the National Maritime Union’s Hiring Hall.

Chapter 2


Inside the hall, confusion and fear covered Jay like a shroud. Unsure of his next move, he stopped just inside the doorway and put his hands in his pockets.  Gripping his Z-Card for protection, he tried to move past the foyer of the large building but found his legs reluctant.

Sensing his young acquaintance’s trepidation, the black man turned to Jay. “You new?” He asked.

“Yes, sir,” Jay replied as his right hand gripped his magic card tighter.

“Well, relax. Everyone has to start sometime. Old Jukebox here will show you the ropes.” Jukebox pointed across the room. “You see them wire cages over there? You go up to that nice man and tell him ol’ Jukebox sent you and he will take care of you.”

Jay glanced back toward the limp body still staining the gray concrete outside. “What about that man? Shouldn’t we do something?”

Jukebox’s expression of warmth changed instantly to a cold stare, and his voice took on a steel edge. “Don’t get involved in that which don’t concern you, unless, of course, you want to find yourself lying next to him. He cheated at dominoes and paid for it. Nothin’s worse than a cheater. And we don’t talk to cops. If they or anybody asks you anything, you’ve seen nothing. As far as you’re concerned, he tripped and landed on some broken glass. You understand?”

Jukebox stared at Jay, waited for a response. But Jay could only muster a silent nod. He had never met death before and instantly wished he had never been introduced. Yet, upon this almost imperceptible signal, Jukebox’s expression once again turned bright. He raised his hand and pointed with a skeletal black finger to his left.

“Good. Now go to that window and ask for Guido. He’ll take good care of you, Mr. Group 4.”

Before Jay had a chance to identify himself, his benefactor slapped him on the shoulder, flashed him another smile and vanished into a crowd of men gathered in the large room to his left.

Jay’s eyes shifted from the alcove to the glass doors and the lifeless form outside. Two police officers were bending over the body. Next to the officers were two middle-aged men dressed in white shirts with gold nameplates stamped with the union logo. After a brief discussion, the four men turned and looked into the union hall. Fearing discovery, Jay sank deeper into the building. He hoped they had not seen the shame and horror reflected in his face. He braced himself for confrontation, but no one focused on him, and the police showed no interest in entering the building. Instead, their gaze returned to the motionless body. After some prodding and poking into the man’s clothing, the officers looked at each other and shook their heads in mutual disgust. A large gray van pulled up to the curb. Two men in white jumpsuits stepped out and, without any fanfare, loaded the pale, limp body into a body bag. They tossed it into the van as if picking up so much garbage then left the scene.

The police officers returned to their patrol car without further discussion and followed the van as it vanished east on 12th Street. The two union officials waited until the van had disappeared from view. When it had, they smiled at one another and slowly walked away from the bright red stain.

Jay turned his head away from the scene and cautiously scanned the men inside the hall. He waited for someone to stare at him, to challenge him. But no one even noticed him. He was as invisible as the thin man’s life had become just moments ago.

Jay pivoted in place to get a better view of his surroundings. To his left was a large level auditorium with what appeared to be card tables set up haphazardly everywhere. There were two rows of wooden benches placed in the hall around the curved block glass window. At the opposite end of the hall, was a large raised stage. Covering the back wall of the stage was an immense blackboard with the names of ships, their destinations, and date and time of their departures written in chalk.

He turned again and found to his right a row of five cubicles with diamond shaped wire partitions that separated the men in the hall from what appeared to be Union officials. They resembled animal cages, but with a difference. Here the cages seemed designed to keep the animals out rather than the other way around. Behind the cages were two large doors that sported a sign announcing to all in red letters that passage was granted to “Authorized Personnel Only.”

Jay looked closer at the men who surrounded him. Most were either black, white or Latino, but there were also accents of Asian and Arab. They milled around like sheep in a pen. Their ages ranged from the early twenties to late sixties. Some were talking in small groups and others were reading or sleeping on the stiff benches. Most, however, were gathered around the card tables watching other men play cards or dominoes. Excited conversation and the loud slap of ceramic tiles hitting the cheap tables were as ubiquitous as the smoke that swirled around the nicotine stained walls.

Jay’s eyes searched the room for the large Puerto Rican who had brutally taken another man’s soul. Without much trouble, he found him standing in a back corner talking with three other men. The four of them were laughing.

As if he could feel Jay’s scrutiny, the victorious combatant slowly turned and stared directly at him. Jay tried to avert his eyes, but found he was unable to do so. He stood motionless like a small animal caught in a bright light. The man stared at him for what seemed an eternity and then slowly, deliberately his eyes narrowed and his lips curled at Jay as if amused. It was not a smile of warmth or comfort and Jay instinctively understood the dark message. He stood paralyzed by the black oval eyes for an uncomfortable period of time until the man finally removed Jay from his view. Released from his bondage, Jay shivered as his body reacted to the pool of sweat that began to cover his back. He tried to calm himself but couldn’t shake the sinister shadow the big Puerto Rican had propelled his way.

He began to wonder what he was doing in this room with these brutal, uncaring men. He had not expected glamour, but he had anticipated civility. Jay was frightened by their callousness, ashamed by his impotence, and angry at his own inertia. He felt powerless. His legs were heavy and would not move.

For a moment, he wondered if he should leave. It took but an instant before he realized that he had to stay. He had worked too hard and come too far to quit. He had no other choices; he had traded away all other options.

Jay wouldn’t leave for another reason, a more personal and powerful one. His mother had been against this journey from the start. She had wanted him to go to college right away, but he had held out for the adventure. She harped on him daily and expected him to quit, but he would not give her the satisfaction.

Slowly, Jay’s fear began to dissipate. It was replaced with a different emotion, a singular and strange one: exhilaration. It was as if he was about to join an exclusive club. He began to feel like an insider. He even knew something the New York City Police Department didn’t know and probably never would. Although somewhat ashamed by these thoughts, he used them nevertheless to rationalize away his uncertainty.

Without warning, the air in the large room tensed unexpectedly, causing Jay’s skin to tighten once again. As if driven by psychic cue, he turned his head toward the back of the large room. The building suddenly became quiet as all eyes turned in the direction of the large stage. Two men, one white and one of olive complexion, began walking from the wings, one held a clipboard and the other a microphone. The one with the microphone started to speak.

“All, right. All, right. I need an oiler for the Export Banner. She’s leaving Pier 76 at four PM today. East India run. Gimme all group ones.”

Four men walked to the stage, and, with a loud slap, banged down what appeared to be cardboard cards. As the men on the stage examined the cards, the main room came alive once again with the staccato clap of domino tiles.

From behind, Jay heard another man yelling.

“Hey kid. You going to stand there all fuckin’ day or what?”

Startled, Jay turned and saw a thin, middle-aged man waving at him from behind one of the cages.

“You hear me, kid? You’re in my line. What the fuck do you want? I don’t got all day, ya know.”

Jay walked the two short feet toward the cage.

“You got a fuckin’ tongue?” Said the man, louder this time.

“Ah, yes… Yes, sir,” Jay stammered as he reached the cage. The man raised his arm beckoning for something. Jay instinctively knew what it was and pulled his precious Z-card from its hiding place, reluctantly releasing it to the man.

Jay read the tag on the man’s shirt. Guido Zefferelli, NMU. Jay put out his hand and was about to introduce himself when the man held up his own hand, palm forward and said sternly, “Wait a minute,” he said.

Jay’s hand slumped to his side.

The man perused the card and started to fumble with papers on the counter in front of him. “What department?” He said without lifting his head.

“Excuse me?” Jay said softly.

Guido raised his head slowly and regarded Jay with disgust.

“Deck, Engine or Stewards Department? You need to pick one so I know what kind of card to issue you. Do you have a clue?”

Jay thought for a moment then barked out with some confidence: “Deck… Deck, sir.”

Guido broke into a condescending smile. “You got any tickets, kid?”

Jay stood in silent confusion.

Guido’s smile disappeared. “You got an AB ticket?”

“What’s that?” Jay asked, his stomach sinking. “Was I supposed to get one from the Coast Guard?”

Guido shook his head. “You’re a fucking idiot.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“I said: you are a fucking idiot.”

Jay flushed. “Well, I—”

Guido held up his hand. “Look, if you want to sail deck right now, you are going to need an AB ticket. That means the Coast Guard has certified you and given you a license to sail as an Able Bodied Seaman. You need to get tested by them to get one. Without a ticket, you will be on the beach forever. There ain’t any OS jobs out here anymore. You want a ship, you have to go stewards.”

“Well, it’s not what I want. I expected—”

“I don’t care what you expected,” Guido cut in. “You don’t like your rating? That’s too fucking bad. It ain’t up to you. It’s up to the union and as far as you’re concerned right now, I am the fucking union. I ain’t got time to explain the world to you. Here, take your Z-card back and take this. You’re a Group 4, Steward Department. “

Guido stamped a small piece of cardboard, and handed it to Jay through the wire. Returning to the stack of papers that were piled neatly on his side of the counter, Guido yelled to no one in particular. “Next!”

Jay stared at the cardboard card in his hand. On it was stamped a date and time, the words “Stewards Dept.,” and a large number “4” in the middle. Jay tried to get his point across one more time. “Excuse me, sir, but if I want to get this changed—”

“You can’t.”

“But… What do I do now?”

“I don’t give a shit what you do as long as you do it away from my window.” Guido said waving his hand in a dismissive manner

Jay was about to strengthen his protest when a short, slightly built Asian man, whom Jay had noticed slapping his card on the stage during the ship call, pushed his way to Guido’s cage. Sensing a small amount of resistance, the Asian turned slightly and glared at Jay. The man’s eyes bore into Jay, who quickly lowered his own, backed up and gratefully returned to invisibility.

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This is a work of fiction. 

Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.