“Hey, gal! I’m Freddie. I’m the boss around here. I got word from the big boss that you’re our new dispatcher. Your room is the first room on the left. You’ll share a bathroom with that knucklehead, Ernie. There’s the desk, the phone, and the radio. No long distance personal calls. Our call sign for the radio is LAMCO Base. Every delivery truck that comes in is recorded on this clipboard, and when a boat goes out to a rig, write the time on this chalkboard. Same thing when they get back. You’ll work from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and you’ll start tonight.”
Freddie was a tall man with a huge nose and black, horn-rimmed glasses. His booming voice unsettled me, but I later learned his bark was much worse than his bite. I followed him out to the little porch of the mobile home office, where he pointed out everything to me about the dock and yard before returning to the phone.
There in the work yard, a young, lanky guy was moving steel grocery bins around with a Hyster. That must be Ernie, I thought as I waved in his direction. On the bayou-side dock loomed a huge crane that moved around on treads, unlike the stationary crane I was accustomed to. The sight of it prompted me to go inside and ask my new boss a rather bold question.
“Mr. Freddie, at the other dock, I had to offload the night deliveries myself and load the boats, too. When do I learn how to run that crane out there?”
Freddie replied, without looking up from his desk, “Oh, no, cher. You won’t be unloading trucks or loading any boats on this dock.”
I replied, “Well, sir, I operated all the equipment at the production dock, and I don’t mind pulling my weight around here. In fact, I prefer to work like everybody else. Could you just let me show you?”
“Well, that sounds good to me, but those folks on Canal Street sign the checks. So, nothing but office work for you, babe. Okay?” he replied, patronizing me.
I couldn’t tell if he was glad that I would not be operating heavy equipment or just resigned to the fact that I was there by order of the big dogs, and that he might as well like it, since he couldn’t change it. Or maybe, he just thought it would only be a matter of time before he could let me go, like Timmy did.
Ernie later came inside, getting himself a canned cola. I introduced myself to him, feeling a little uneasy, not knowing if I would be well received. Again, another co-worker younger than myself, he seemed accepting enough of my intrusion.
“So, you’re the new guy! Cool! You know how to make coffee? I hope so, because they drink a crap-load of it around here, and I can’t stand to drink it or make it. That’s your new job. You cool with that?” he asked, his head bobbling like one of those dolls in the back of an old sedan, way too big for his toothpick neck. He took a long drag from a Camel, his nostrils flaring as big as his eyeballs, and I nailed him as a dope smoker right away. He had all the telltale signs. That fact alone made me glad I wouldn’t be working the same shift as him. Stoners and heavy equipment just don’t jive well, I thought as I walked over to the dingy electric percolator.
The coffee pot was filthy, and the whole place was covered with a brown film, left by hours of secondhand cigarette smoke. It seemed as though everyone that visited this office smoked and drank coffee, and I soon learned this was the “24-hour coffee shop” of the dock.
I would have the office all to myself at night, once the other two went to bed. I learned all the late-night New Orleans TV shows, and watched the comings and goings of all the boat hands during the night. With no required nightly mopping or any kind of manual labor, this job should be fun.
Working at this dock was somehow different from working at the other dock. All the boat captains here had their place, as though they had been doing this work forever. And little by little, word got around that there was a new female dispatcher. Okay, it was no big secret that soon enough they would all be curious to see who she was. So, I sat at the desk for my first night on duty, and met all the crews, one by one, as they came in, headed for the coffee pot, sat down, lit up and started to chew the fat with me.
The whole atmosphere here was just different, though I could not put my finger on it. There were several seasoned captains of the larger work boats who only came to the office if they had to, so I never got to know them very well. Those big boats often had a female cook, but strangely enough, they never came to the office.
Then there was Captain Carroll, at least thirty years older than I, who thought he was God’s gift to women, including me. All I could think was, dream on, you old fart. There was a jovial, youngish captain who bounced when he walked, called RJ. He and his crew pretty much reeked of reefer anytime they came in the office, whether day or night, but they were harmless.
Then there was the crew boat with the dark, mysterious crew on board. One of them was scary looking, with long fingernails and a head full of long, wiry hair, tamed into a long ponytail. His skin was olive, and he was the youngest man I had ever seen with false teeth. He always looked like he was into some kind of mischief, and they called him Marvin. The other crew member, Paul, had dark hair like a Brillo pad and the strangest green-blue eyes I had ever seen. He had big white teeth, and when he spoke, he did so with few words with sharp points that pricked the air and then fell, hard to the ground. Lastly, there was the captain–a short, little man, with brownish-red skin, curly black hair and a smile that lit up the room. They called him Roscoe.
This crew and I quickly became friends, and many were the nights I would monitor their whereabouts out in the Gulf of Mexico, waiting for them to come into range so I could radio them, asking their ETA. I always made a point to have a fresh pot of Community Dark Roast ready for their consumption. These natives drank coffee round the clock, and I swear they had caffeine coursing through their veins. These were my new Houma Indian buddies.
Marvin and Paul, both with homes nearby, would often go home to their women on overnights when their boat was docked. But Roscoe was single, and as I watched his dates come and go, I jokingly named him The Eligible Bachelor of Dulac. His crew thought that was a great name for him, but I’m not sure he liked it. He seemed to blush at the thought that I was spying on his boat from the office. Hey, night dispatching was a lonely job, but someone had to do it, and I had to occupy my time somehow.
Things were going along well for the bayou boys and me until Christmas Eve. They were all hoping for a quiet, peaceful holiday evening with family and friends. And then the offshore rig Mr. Charlie called up, needing something pronto. Since the bayou boys’ crewboat was the next hotshot water taxi up on the board, I knew I would have to spoil their holiday celebration, and I certainly dreaded doing so.
This was before the days of cell phones and pagers, so I had to try to find them the old-fashioned way – by calling their homes. None of them were at home. Then it hit me to call the Four Way Lounge and see if they were there. That joint was hopping from what I could hear on my end of the phone line. Lo and behold, all three of those rascals were there, boozing it up, and they were not happy to hear from me.
About half an hour later, they stormed into the office spitting and spewing about what a bad dispatcher I was, and about how there was another boat out there and why couldn’t that boat do it, and on and on. Believe me, I tried to convince them that I had tried everything I could to avoid having to send them out, but to no avail. They had to go, and they never let me live that down, Marvin, especially. He must have badgered me about that trip every time he saw me for the next three months.
Soon after that, Roscoe started visiting me in the office at nights when the boat was docked. He would always go straight to the coffee pot, and if it were empty, he would make it himself and tease me about slacking off on my job. I liked his easy way, and he looked like no other person I’d known before. The wide bridge of his nose separated his large brown eyes. His hair, when wet, hung in long, black ringlets. And I guess the thing that caught my eye the most, were the dark blue jumpsuits he wore–my father’s favorite work apparel. He was short, compact, and fit, just like I liked ‘em.
Prior to taking this job, I had decided it would simplify my life to keep work at work for seven days. I could do my dating and socializing in Thibodaux on my days off. But, the more I hung out with Roscoe, the more my rule of not dating anyone from this new work environment was being challenged.
Since my wrecked car was still in the shop, I had been accepting rides from Ernie, both to and from work. Once word got back to me that he had a crush on me and was thinking about asking me out, I squelched that quickly by looking elsewhere for a ride. Roscoe’s offer to give me a ride home from work one week was a welcomed one. And there I was, breaking my new rule that was meant to keep my life simple.
It was just a ride home, I reasoned with myself, knowing that it would be rude not to ask him in once we got to my place.
To be continued . . .