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September 2006, vol 2 no 3

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Gary Eaton

Hardhat

In a bar with big windows, overlooking the deep sea docks in New York. Just arrived from Toronto, and I'm watching as a crew loads cargo into the hold of a small freighter I'm booked on for passage to Europe. Then the unexpected occurs. On the TV over the bar, a flabbergasted announcer relates that John Kennedy has just been shot in Dallas. It's soon clear the situation is dire, and the President might not live.

Having no one to talk to in this bar full of strangers, and nothing else to do until we sail this evening, I keep an eye on the TV and continue to watch the activity on the dock below. The bad news, spreading by word of mouth among the longshoremen, will probably affect morale, and could delay the sailing. I notice a young man standing at the rail of our ship, wearing a blue turtle neck sweater against the cold weather, who directs the loading. He is passing signals to a crane operator above, and when a man on the dock below shouts something, he leans out to listen. Not hearing, he leans out farther, cupping an ear against the wind. When he finally understands, he stops for a moment, with his head bowed, gripping the rail with his gloved hands. Then he urgently sends a signal to the crane man above. Slashing motions with a hand across his throat mean "Kill the lift,"--as if stopping immediately might gain them time to reflect, to avert disaster, somehow. A little red sailboat making a slow ascent in its sling up the side of the ship toward the hold glides to a halt, where it stays for the rest of the afternoon, yawing slightly in the cold November wind.

After several more shouted conversations between dockworkers separated by wind and distance, a moment arrives when everyone within earshot seems to have heard the news, for all work activity on the dock has ceased. Workers are coming out of the holds and warehouses, sidling along docks, and huddling in bunches, talking, smoking, waiting, temporarily leaderless. After conferring awhile, without any apparent signal, some begin to wander off, singly or in pairs, carrying their extra clothing and lunch buckets. The bolder ones seem to have decided, out of respect, in solidarity with a popular President, that their day's work is done. Others, less senior, less certain, or perhaps just hired on for a day's work, or in need of every dollar, continue standing around.

The signalman in the turtle neck has halted the loading, and stands at the rail, hands in pockets, staring into space, completely absorbed in his thoughts. Eventually giving a baleful shrug, he raises his coat collar against the wind. Removing his hardhat with one hand and brushing through his stubby hair with the other, he peers for a moment into its brim. Then he lifts his arm and, rearing back in practiced baseball style, he flings the hardhat as hard as he can out into the harbor. Clearly, he expects no reply to the eloquence of his gesture, but I have to stifle the impulse to applaud. Then he disappears.

The work stoppage has taken from a half to three quarters of an hour to complete. The men are all gone from the dock now. The wind has lightened, and it has begun to snow. Big, soft flakes drift slowly down, blinking out like small lights as they disappear into the black water. The snow is thickening, and soon there will be whiteout. The tugs, the docks and the big hulls fade into dim masses with no clear outlines. Inside the bar, to fortify myself against this evening of diminishing possibilities, I signal an order for another beer, while my waiter stands with his back to his customers, arms folded, staring hard into the TV overhead, as if searching for something he has lost. Tears of grief are welling up and streaming down his face. TV reception fades in and out fitfully, and eventually the signal is lost entirely against a background of static, but he continues to stare at the snowy screen. Then, with a sigh, wiping his eyes on his apron, he reaches up and turns the TV off. Finally, he pours my beer. "You better have one for me too, buddy," he says with grim New York humor, "I'm gonna need it."

       on both sides of the glass,
                clouds of swirling white
                        erasing the day