Episode 7: The Lost Docks

Ok, I know I say every week you should *listen* to this, but really, this week, you should listen to the magic if Jonathan Hirsch’s sound design.

Here’s the setup: It’s 1979 and containerization is sweeping through the waterfront, leaving the old docks in ruins. As global trade explodes, a group of longshoremen band together to try to preserve the culture of work that they knew. They take pictures, create a slide show, and make sound recordings. Those recordings languished in a basement for 40 years. In this episode, we hear those archival tapes as a way of exploring the human effects of automation.

And here’s the script. Caveat lector. Some things do change between text and audio.

This is Containers, a radio documentary about how the global economy works through the prism of shipping at the Port of Oakland, sponsored by Flexport.

In the first 6 episodes of this podcast, we’ve covered a lot of ground: the innards of global trade, the development of containers. We’ve met sailors and tugboat captain and activists and artists. I hope the global economy makes a little more sense to you, its people and rhythms and oddities.

For our final two episodes, we’re going to look deeply at a phenomenon that has profoundly shaped the waterfront: automation.

Automation is more than a robot waltzing into a job site and replacing a human on the factory line. It’s more like one system of work replaces another. When it does, whole categories of jobs become obsolete. That’s what happened when cargo began to be shipped inside big steel boxes instead of stuffed into the holds of a ship. We talked about this in Episode 1: containerization is automation, just with a different name.

In this episode, we’re going to go very deep on the effects of containerization. Not just the economic ones, but the cultural ones, how technology transformed what it meant to work on the waterfront. While containerization transformed trade and industry, it was a death knell for the kind of work that thousands of men on the waterfront had done, loading and unloading ships. Longshoremen’s way of life was, more or less, wiped out in the space of 15 years, from maybe the late 60s to the early 80s.

I wanted to understand what the longshoremen had gone through, having their jobs disappear or change completely. But none of the books or articles that I read or union officials that I talked to seemed to bring me any closer to their world.

Until I happened upon a film from 1979 that had been posted on the Internet Archive. Clocking in at 17 minutes and without any narration, it was called Longshoremen at Work.

And it proved to be the rabbit hole I was looking for, the portal into the world of the longshoreman at the height of the replacement of old breakbulk cargo ships with new container ones.

The film starts with a few paragraphs of text on a screen.

“This work of art spans twenty-five years of ILWU longshore history in San Francisco and Oakland from 1969 to 1994. Its images and sounds recount a dramatic story of change in our working lives, our industry, and our port. First produced in 1979, it was shown at poetry readings presented by the Waterfront Writers and Artists.”

That was the only context I had.

The film itself is a sequence of photographs, which dissolve one into the next. As it opens, we hear the voices of men sorting out who is in a longshore gang. Then, a jazzy number kicks up on the soundtrack as we see San Francisco in the 70s. We see the docks. We see ships.

The music drops away. We hear a man yell, “All right let’s go,” and images of the men trudging up a noisy gangway fill the screen. It’s time to work. There’s coffee to be unloaded.

Next, we see photographs from inside a ship filled with coffee. Men’s voices drift in and out. There are winches whining. The sounds of the piers, forklifts running to and fro.

11 minutes in, we see a nearly empty ship, the last piece of cargo awaiting the lift from the bottom deck.

The next shot is a container and the music changes. It is dark and electronic.. It plays over several shots of the container terminal built by Sealand, the seminal container shipping company, in Oakland. The message is clear: the aliens have descended. The men’s voices become unintelligible through radio static.

It transitions into a final movement set to Adaggio for Strings. We see men’s bodies throwing bags of coffee, hunched over, the light catching their backs in blue work shirts. More pictures of men appear, dark and somber, as if gathering at a wake for the old longshore.

I think the term I heard for this pose is “asses and elbows,” but I can’t quite remember.

When it ended, it took me a minute to process what I’d seen. This was an incredibly unusual piece of work. And I could not have been more intrigued by the Waterfront Writers and Artists, who seemed to be as fascinated by containerization as I am, but from a totally different perspective.

To learn more about the film, I turned to the three men who made it: Michael Vawter, Frank Silva, and Brian Nelson. I’ve come to know all of them well, and their perspective on the waterfront and technology has been invaluable in the production of this series.

Brian Nelson is taciturn but funny, smart and thoughtful. His photos in the film are mostly abstract and angular. Frank Silva is an avuncular, sweet human. He focused on the bodies of the men at work, the way they folded and pushed themselves around the cargo and machinery.

And then there is Michael Vawter, an old student radical at Stanford turned longshoremen. He’s more of your classic dockworker: loves drinking and storytelling and playing horses. His pictures are usually from inside the hull, focused on the structures and angles of this tremendously weird workplace, the steel box of the ship.

(Parenthetically, I should add here that Brian and Frank were in Local 34, the clerks local, and Michael Vawter was in the much larger Local 10.)

They were all members of ILWU, the powerful union that’s ruled West Coast dock work since 1934. And they’d all gotten involved with the Waterfront Writers and Artists through a fellow longshoreman named Bob Carson, who founded the group.

The group began by holding poetry readings all around San Francisco. And the three photographers decided to make a slideshow with a soundtrack that they’d screen to close the readings.

Carson, who had a master’s degree in writing, even though he worked on the docks, had also managed to get a collection of stories and poems that he edited published by Harper & Row. In the early 1980s, that generated a spike of attention that reached all the way to NBC’s Today Show.

NBC: We came to this spot on the San Francisco waterfront to tell you about some of the men who worked here, longshoremen, but these men did more than load and unload cargo. They were writers.

For Carson, the project was about taking back literature from the Ivory Tower poets and establishing the working-class writer’s place in the canon.

Carson: My personal feeling is that a lot of the modern American poetry is a kind of inbred or poetry about poetry instead of just a pure poem.

But from the photographers I talked with, really the group was how they processed the destruction of the old Waterfront by containerization.

Beyond the dockworker stereotypes of tough dudes writing Work Poems, there was an unsettling and new reality that the guys were reckoning with: their work lives were being automated.

One poet, Gene Dennis even signaled it in the poem he read on the Today Show.

Gene Dennis: My soul has been sucked dry and suffocated,

By the shadow of a 40-foot container

Restored by outrage at the mindless technology unleashed

By Cash register computers

So Logical, So Methodical

Casting aside bent bodies with poisoned lungs to proceed with greed

So technologically correct

A heritage caved in by the ponderous pounding of some

Psychotonic, robotronic beast

The system of containerization required a tenth of the labor of the old breakbulk cargo methods. Jobs were going away. The culture of the longshore, all those men working on big teams loading and unloading ships. The drinking and the hanging out with the sailors. All that stuff was in the way out, and the guys knew it.

This work was their cry of anguish.

*

I wanted to find out about life as a longshoreman from a longshoreman. So I met up with Brian Nelson. He lives in a small tasteful house on a street adjacent to the BART in El Cerrito, north of Berkeley, California. Nelson created the soundtrack for the film from recordings he and a group of students had made on the waterfront. And Nelson told me that he’d kept some “analog remnants” from the project.

Nelson and his wife, Manya, greeted me at the door. He is nothing like you’d expect a dockworker to be. He’s a slight man, very precise, and of a deeply artistic temperament. Recording sounds on the waterfront changed the whole way he thought about life, he told me. Now he’s always listening to his environment.

Brian: The sound of wind going through leaves. The ocean. Any number of machines that have some kind of weird sounds. The sound that chicken makes when it’s being cooked. That’s a nice sound.

Nelson’s father was a longshoreman. His uncle was a longshoreman. His brother was a longshoreman. So he became a longshoreman, even though he went to college at Berkeley. After lunch, Nelson told me that he had something to show me.

It was the kind of moment that I dream about as a journalist. Nelson led me to a table on which there were a couple dozen tapes, all with little labels like “Potrero Hill reading 5–79” and “Memories of Mechanization” and “Valencia St. Pier 27 Coffee.” A legitimate trove!

He’d been saving the original recordings he’d made to soundtrack the film for almost 40 years, along with recordings of original performances of the Waterfront Writers and Artists reading their work.

No one aside from Brian had heard these tapes. And he hadn’t listened to them for years and years. We weren’t even really sure how they’d sound.

So we stuck one in a tape player and waited.

Suddenly, voices coalesced out of the noise of time.

Tape: There’s a drunk old Irish mate on here.

It’s a longshoreman telling a story about a drunk Irish mate on a ship.

Goddamn Irish guy bothering a guy at 7:30. He gets the tube out and takes the fucking plan. He starts pulling the out.

We hear the men around him chuckling as he talks about winning the fight with the mate.

Shove it up your ass and make your own plan. “Well wait a minute..”

That was the first minute of tape that we digitized at Brian’s house. Over the next couple of months, we spent dozens of hours in his basement listening to the recordings as they ran into my audio recorder.

It was — it is — to my eyes, a unique archive that covers the moment in the late 1970s and early 80s when containerization accelerated through the waterfront. I am fairly confident that there is nothing like it in the world. And it was the raw material for the remarkable film i’d seen on the Internet.

There was stuff from out in the world, which Brian had recorded out on the docks and inside ships: winches and forklifts and the strange acoustics of being inside a steel-hulled ship.

What struck me the most were the little rich interactions between the men just doing their jobs. Every bit of office chatter ends up feeling so intimate, and maybe a touch otherworldly.

Brian: Ain’t like the old days

Guy: Nahhhh christ almighty. Used to have the ships laying out in anchorage and down in south end of the Bay all week waiting for berths.

I recognize bits and pieces of sound from the film. They’d cut it all together on old reels and tape decks, and they played it as two-projectors showed alternating photographs.

Nelson had a very short 8mm film clip of one of the readings. A man stands on stage in a long, low-slung room telling a story about a cat. After he was finished, they would have played the audience their slideshow. They did this dozens of times through those Carter-Reagan years.

I wish I could have seen a Waterfront Writers and Artists reading in person. But Brian has the next best thing: taped performances. These were another piece of the tremendous time capsule that I’d stumbled upon. And when we come back, you’ll hear one.

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We’ve been learning about a group of longshoremen who banded together to preserve the culture of the waterfront because they could see containerization was wiping out their way of life. They were called the Waterfront Writers and Artists. They held regular poetry readings, and a lot of their work had to do with their changing way of life.

George Benet was the star of the Waterfront Writers and Artists poetry readings and for good reason. He hobknobbed with Beat poets and he hobknobbed with bums. Benet was a lifelong longshoreman, a drunk, a poet.

Michael Vawter, one of the longshore artists, was one of Benet’s best friends.

Vawter: So many people loved George and at the same time couldn’t stand to be around him. He was one of the worst alcoholics I’ve probably ever known… A lot of people wouldn’t allow him in their house, or their wives, because he was an unrepentant pain the ass. You couldn’t walk a block in San Francisco without somebody saying Hey George! He knew so many people. But the most remarkable thing about him is wherever you were, particularly at the racetrack, he would seek out theone person who was the most depressed, lonely, broken, broke, having lost everything, just bottom of the barrel, he would always go up to them and include them.

George Benet (8mm still from Brian Nelson film)

Here Benet is describing an exchange he had with the beat writer, Lew Welch.

Benet: He said, your trouble is, you are a short, fat, alcoholic longshoreman from the Mission District. A cigar-smoking, horse-playing son of a bitch. And worst of an incurable romantic… I told him he was a part-time junkie, a part-time waterfront clerk, a part-time alcoholic, a part-time cynic, a part-time… and worst of all a suburbanite because he lived in Marin City.

Benet was the embodiment of what the Mission was for most of the 20th century: a white working class neighborhood filled with horse-playing sons of bitches.

He had many Waterfront stories, all classics of the sticking-it-to-the-upper-class genre. Here’s just one for the flavor. The set up is that there is a beautiful cat being shipped to Hawaii.

Benet: On this load was a crate and in the crate was a blue persian cat, and on the side of the crate, it had the cat’s name, Snookie, how the cat was to be fed — chopped liver — couldn’t be in temperatures that were too hot or too cold. It was a very high class cat. And while we’re hooking up this load, we broke the crate and the cat got out.

The cat runs off into all the cargo and loses itself among the crap on the dock.

Benet: On this particular pier, they have rats that are about this big and they are mean and no sissy cat is gonna last one night with those rats.

So the guys are scrambling around looking for the cat, and they can’t find it.

Benet: As we’re looking for the cat, we’re getting all kind of static from the ship. THe walking boss, the gang boss, yells down, “Fuck the cat.” We’re just ready to give up when coming across the pier is a black and white alley cat. It’s nose is all ripped up. It’s ear is all torn off. It’s loaded with oil and grease. He’s been battling rats all night. We figured that cat deserved that trip, right? We took that cat and loaded it into the crate.

The longshoremen were not only part of the working class, they were a distinct culture. There were tons of them. And it was stories like this, repeated, passed down, improved, half-forgotten, that marked people as part of the group. To be a longshoreman was to know how to load and unload cargo, but also to take on and discharge stories.

They had a shared understanding of the city, the world, class conflict. And a moral code with its own unusual components. Let’s take a trip back to those times.

MUSIC CUE

Back then, a longshoreman’s day would start at your local’s hiring hall in the morning, where you’d pick up your assignment. Then you’d head down to where you’d be working and post up for breakfast and coffee and shooting the shit. Eventually, people would start to organize. They’d try to find out who was in the gang working the ship.

AMBI: WHO IN THE GANG?

Remember this is breakbulk cargo, so they’re moving pallets and crates and sacks of stuff from or to a ship. As they prepared to board, one of the bosses would let the men know what they’d be encountering.

Can I have your attention fellas for a few minutes before we start the work? We’re starting the ship. We’re gonna finish it. She’s not a heavy ship. Only got about 400 tons of cargo. These ships aren’t carrying much coffee because of the political situation down in East Africa right now. [DUCK UNDER]

This would have been the morning meeting if you were headed to a job on the waterfront. You can hear the culture here: this is part football coach speech, part technical transmission, and part geopolitical summary.

They got an embargo on coffee right now. So until that situation is straight, you won’t be getting coffee for a while. Gears for 5 tons…

Let’s have a good day and a safe day and try to get out of here at a decent hour.

Then you’d start working. It wasn’t always fun. Some of the cargo was downright disgusting. One of the worst things was hides, freshly cut off the animals. Asbestos was nasty, too. Fish meal. Huge rolls of newspaper. There were the diesel fumes, too. Maybe it’s not surprising that the guys drank themselves through the day sometimes, as Michael Vawter recalls.

Vawter: As longshoreman, it was pretty much a job requirement that you drink. Back in those days. In fact, it’s frowned upon and many guys don’t partake anymore, which is quite a contrast from the old days when everybody drank. A standard thing at 8 in the morning was I’ll buy, you fly..

Mike Vawter in the 1970s (still from 8mm film by Brian Nelson).

Vawter was a bit of a rarity on the docks.

Vawter: I was in SDS. Students for a Democratic Society. IT was sort of the blanket group. Students against the war, mostly. But it involved other things. Support for the Black Panther Party. Venceremos grape strikers. Cesar Chavez, all that stuff. I was one of the leaders.

He was probably the only Stanford guy to work down in the holds, after he got kicked out of school, and eventually worked his way to running the winches on the ships that pulled the cargo out of the holds after apprenticing with a guy who became his best friend, New Zealand Mike.

Vawter: He’s one of a kind. He’s from New Zealand. He’s got a great accent. Great storyteller. One of the most warm-hearted people I’ve ever met. Plus he’s the best winch driver we’ve ever had on the waterfront.

I became his protégé. He became my mentor. He used to come around and say, “I see you driving up there. I see the winches going in and out and I thought, ‘That looks like me, so I knew it was you.’” The first days I met him, he came up behind me in the compartment of the crane, put his hands on my hands and started running… So, we were partners from then on. We drove winches together for about 10 to 15 years. And I don’t mind saying, we were probably the most sought after pair of winch drivers on the waterfront.

Though he’d once dreamed of being a revolutionary, being a longshoreman, the identity of it, that was who Racetrack Mike was.

Vawter: I always preferred staying in the hold.

He has a favorite story too. This one is a little about getting over and a little about the way race was handled. Keep in mind that Mike was the only white guy in this story.

Mike Vawter in the podcast booth.

Vawter: We were working freezer in Alameda, deep freeze, so everybody had like 6 layers of clothes.

Undershirts and shirts and sweatshirts and jackets and coveralls. And in the freezer, they’re unloading these turkeys.

Big turkeys. Plucked and gutted. But it was the whole turkey. The head, the feet, everything. All rolled up in a ball and frozen. This one guy says, “Man, I’m gonna get me one of these turkeys. I want one of these turkeys.” So, he puts the turkey in his gut, wraps his clothes around it, puts the jacket and all that…

But then they get detained on deck for a good half hour with this poor guy sitting there with a thawing turkey on his lap.

But there was nowhere to go. So we just did the work. We finished. And then we start the long trek out. About six of us are walking in front of him, and we’re trying to get him through unnoticed with this big turkey on him. And as we approach the guard shack, the guard steps out, he puts his hands on his hips and he literally fell down on his knees laughing. We all turn around and here is this big black guy. The turkey had thawed, with its long white neck, and yellow beak, has come out of his coveralls and it is swinging between his legs, down to his knees, swinging back and forth. And everybody, everybody fell down laughing. The guard finally says, “Get out of here!” He never lived that down.

Alexis: That’s how I got the name Turkeydick Nelson.

Vawter: With a beak on it.

MUSIC CUE

The docks that the Waterfront Writers and Artists encountered were heavily shaped by the union that controls them, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, or the ILWU, as everyone calls it.

There have been dockworkers in San Francisco from the very beginning of the city in the 1840s. Back then, most of them were guys who’d jumped ship or simply grown tired of sailing. And they were a casual labor force that gathered on the Embarcadero near Mission and Market, like day laborers do now out on 26th and Cesar Chavez. But in 1934, an Australian named Harry Bridges put together the ILWU, and won a brutal battle with the waterfront employers to establish the union after a three-month general strike in which two longshoremen were killed.

(Parenthetically, it should be said that there are zillions of books and journal articles on the ILWU. This is a very rich and dense history that I’ve compressed here.)

The Union has remained strong ever since. You’ll find that some people around the waterfront, once the microphone is off, will confess to hating the ILWU. They call the guys lazy. They say they’re the worst dockworkers in the world. Even other working class people take shots at the ILWU.

For the men inside, though, it was a beautiful thing, not least because the union was remarkably progressive, especially on the topics of race and ethnicity.

Vawter: Harry Bridges is in my mind was the first person to ever institute affirmative action. Harry Bridges started that in the 40s after the war… he made a point of half the new membership being black.

And this sense of racial solidarity penetrated the rank and file.

Silva: You don’t have to be white, you don’t have to be black, you don’t have to be higher education. As long as you did your job and protected the union, you were gonna be fine.

This is Frank Silva, a Local 34 clerk, half-Mexican, half-Portuguese. A barrel-chested guy who met me in a simple polo and sandals. For him, the protection of the union let people be more real at work.

So what that did is it allowed everybody to be who they were. It gave you a sense of brotherhood that was impossible to explain.

In 1960, it was clear that more mechanization was coming to the waterfront. Harry Bridges cut a deal with the shipping lines and terminals that the ILWU would allow mechanization to take place. In effect, it shrunk the number of union members, but guaranteed that the ones who stayed would make a lot of money in a skilled profession handling heavy machinery.

Most registered west coast longshoreman, much to the consternation of many outside the union, now make between 138 and 166 thousand dollars a year, according to statistics compiled by the Pacific Maritime Association, which employs ILWU labor, which is up from 70 to 87 thousand dollars in 1993.

Even with the money having gotten so much better, the guys still miss the old days, when the docks were a deeply human place that could know you better than you knew yourself. This is Frank Silva again.

Silva: I actually found out my grandmother’s first name from a truck driver when I’m 27 years old. This is the truth. My Mexican grandmother I called her Nona my whole life. I never even thought of what her name was. So this truck driver pulls up and he’s from West Oakland where my family was from, and he says, “How’s Rebecca doing?” And I said, “Rebecca? What do you mean?” he says, “You’re Frank Silva aren’t ya?” And I says, “Yeah, sure I am.” “Well, Rebecca, your grandmother.” And I said, “Her name ain’t Rebecca.” And he actually says something like “You dumbshit!” Your mother’s mother’s name is Rebecca. This is the truth. I say, “Really?!” So I called my Mom and I said, “Is Nona’s name Rebecca?” And she goes, “Oh yeah, that’s her name.” HAHAHAHAHAHA. That shows you how far back you fit into the whole picture.

The waterfront was a unique kind of work. It was blue-collar work, but it wasn’t routine. It took problem solving, it took social skills, it took a high tolerance for different types of people. We hear so often that automation eliminates drudgery, and that can be true, but sometimes interesting work gets wiped out, too.

Silva: The ship goes together like a gigantic crossword puzzle. All the little things have to go in the right spot. Everything has to be braced. So it has has to be done in a very particular fashion.

Vawter, Silva, and Nelson’s careers almost precisely span the era in which containerization took hold. During that time it went from being a fantastic job that they loved to one they got used to and tolerated. But they all think that the technological change was inevitable.

Silva: It pretty much scared the shit out of you to tell you the truth. You could see that there were so many fewer jobs. Work that you would have been doing 5 or 6 years ago or last month was no longer available.. Before when you went on a pier, the dominant force was the people. There were hundreds of guys, doing this, doing that, you know, palletizing and sorting and loading trucks and loading the ship… As time went on, it became more and more machined and as time went on it became more and more computerized… You became subservient, basically, to the power of the machine.

What they could do, though, was pass on the human parts of what it was to do the job they did. They could offer their account of what it was to work on the waterfront, of what it was to be a human body and brain in this space. That was why they took the pictures they did, and recorded the sounds, and made the film: just to show the docks at this moment of great change.

VAWTER: I remember one night, an older black lady came up to me, tears running down her face. And she said, “you know, my husband worked on the waterfront for 40 years and every night he’d come home and tell me stories. Night after night. I’d listen, I’d listen, but I never knew what it looked like til I saw this film.” And she was … She said, my husband died a couple years ago and I’m so thankful to have finally seen what he was talking about. That sort of was our intent. Just to show that world, and that disappearing and the film we did contrasts all that old day stuff with containerization, the advent of containerization.

Nowadays, Frank Silva can hardly even go down to the current Port of Oakland.

Silva: I just look at the stuff and I think of everything it was. You know what I mean? The Navy Base and the Army base, I can’t even tell you how many people were working there, man. Just thousands of people from everywhere. I can remember guys would bring sweet potato pie, they would bring it to work. His wife would make them at home and he’d sell them for a couple bucks. You hoped to hell you were there on Tuesdays because he brought them on Tuesdays. That kind of stuff. That stuff means something as time goes on. It’s really really sweet. I was a lucky guy, a very lucky guy.

Every time I hear that clip from Frank, I can feel my heart swelling with this vision of a utopia that seems finely tuned for me. There is economic justice, racial solidarity, rich culture, opportunity for anyone willing to work. Right here in Oakland. If Trump supporters have their nostalgic stories about the time they want to go back to, this is my version of a once-great America.

When I think about it, that’s what kept driving me to work on these stories, to drink margaritas with Mike or talk photographic composition with Frank, or stand in Brian’s basement talking endlessly about the specifics of microphones and cargo handling. Through them, I could capture a little bit of the place.

In a chaotic time for the country, with a new round of automation almost certainly coming to wipe out new categories of jobs, this is my comforting nostalgia. Because automation pretty much wiped out the world these guys had known, and here they are, the post-apocalyptic survivors, recounting the better times and the sweet potato pies.

But nostalgia is a trap. Nostalgia blinds us to the failings of the past — most obviously, where were the women anyway? — and to the potential of our own time. We are alive now and the best we can do with the romance of the past is distill the values and visions that intoxicate us into principles for the future that we want to make.

Next week, in the final episode of Containers we take on the future of automation on the waterfront and in America with clear eyes and a full heart.

Containers is produced and edited by the prodigious, nocturnal Jonathan Hirsch. Mandana Mofidi is the director of audio at Fusion Media Group. Today, a special special thanks to Manya, Brian Nelson’s wife, for putting up with us taking over her house for whole days at a time. And for reminding us to eat and teaching me how to find hummingbird nests. I still haven’t found one but I’m looking. To rogue historians Rick Prelinger, and Chris Carlson, and the Internet Archive. Thank you, thank you.

In next week’s season finale, we’re going to we’re going to visit a robot warehouse and hear from truck drivers about how they feel about self-driving trucks.