John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: December, 2017

Brooklyn Piers

Up until the early 1970s, ship-borne cargo was transported as “break bulk,” meaning inside the holds of freighters, stacked on wooden pallets that had to be loaded and unloaded by scores of longshoremen. These hardened workmen shaped-up every morning on the waterfront at the entrance to dozens of finger piers that jutted out into the bays and rivers separating Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Agents from the stevedoring companies that ran each pier selected who would work that day based on seniority, favoritism, the union’s orders, the mob, kick-backs or having a rabbi; troublemakers didn’t work.


Those working that day descended ladders into the bowels of these break bulk freighters in the same manner their forbearers did. Dressed in cover-all’s, work boots, tattered sweaters or sweatshirts over flannel shirts most days of the year, they manhandled the pallets, hooking them onto the ship’s cranes that lifted the contents over the side and down onto the apron of the pier. Forklift operators scooped up the cargo stacking it inside the shed that covered the pier.


The older wooden sheds were almost alive, a place that grabbed onto your senses. The wood absorbed a complex combination of aromas from the commodities stored there over the years. Cargoes accumulated waiting delivery to their destinations: bags of coffee, cocoa, chocolate and tea, bales of unprocessed gum, molds of rubber, timber of every size and description and rolls of newsprint. Some items arrived damaged, their contents staining the floor. Residues of olive oil, beer, whiskey, tomato paste and sugar, tins of sardines in oil or tomatoes, anchovies, herring and mackerel. These powerful odors assaulted the eyes and the nose of anyone entering the pier, especially first timers or outsiders.


These piers were dangerous places. Every aisle was a canyon. Stored cargo rose twenty-feet or more with pallets stacked five or six high. They were subject to landslides if uneven or if the weight of the topmost load crushed the cargo beneath. Cargo shifted and crashed to the floor without warning.


Both four-legged and two legged varieties of rats and other vermin would bite if surprised. The four-legged ones were omnipresent, the two-legged ones were rarer but just as dangerous. It was not wise to interrupt a drinking session, a craps game, or to suggest having witnessed ongoing theft or a shakedown.


Courtesy required a visitor to meet first with the Checker before entering the pier. The Checker controlled the pier and his shack guarded the entrance from the street. Today, he’d be called a fixer. The checker expedited what was needed and what had to happen to release cargo from the pier. This was his world. He knew US Customs, union rules and who needed to be paid and how much. The smart visitor came prepared, paid what was needed, followed instructions, had his cargo loaded onto waiting vehicles, tipping the men delivering it, and exited the pier only after the Checker knew he was leaving.


Nor was it wise to frequent the bars in the surrounding neighborhood. They were the exclusive realm of the longshoremen and warehousemen who were not interested in the company of strangers, especially those wearing a jacket and tie.


Many of the piers had been active since the mid-1800s. They developed their own language, customs, hierarchy, code of honor, justice and punishment. Because it was a complex society, it was hard to imagine how fragile it was and how quickly it would disintegrate. In 1969, the finger piers in Brooklyn were all active but by 1975 they were deserted except for squatters, vandals and varmints.


Cargo now arrived in steel boxes on container ships bound across the harbor for the new terminals at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. The backwater infrastructure serving the Brooklyn piers ceased to exist as did the bars and sandwich shops. Fires, either accidental or deliberate, destroyed several piers and buildings. Others were torn down.


For years, the waterfront remained silent and abandoned due to archaic zoning laws that prevented anything but industrial development. Finally, Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the guise of bidding on the 2012 Summer Olympics seduced the City Council to change waterfront zoning.


As if by magic the waterfront began to transform. Real estate developers designed new apartment towers in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Industry City, those abandoned factories and warehouses in Sunset Park, have been born again into broadcast studios, think tanks, a Fairway’s supermarket, an Ikea and on it goes. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, long a backwater since the navy left, rose from the dead as did its surrounding neighborhood.


The more modern Brooklyn piers, Piers 1 through Pier 11, rebuilt by the Port Authority in the late 1960s, were converted into parks and other family friendly fun places with water taxis and ferries connecting the lot. Welcome to Twenty-first Century New York City!


No denying that, but for me, a bit sad. It is as if those Brooklyn piers, their commerce, energy and the men who made it come alive never existed.


I worked on the waterfront for two years, 1969 to 1971 especially in Brooklyn. I spent considerable time on one pier in particular, “The pier at the foot of 29th Street.” I even treasure its peculiar name.


I was 25 the first time I set foot on that pier and I learned much there, I learned about working men, tough guys, how to get along and survive and life itself. In my mind, that pier is as real and vivid as it was back in the day.



Author’s note: An earlier version of “Brooklyn Piers” appeared in “The Big Orange Dog” my 2011 anthology of pieces I wrote between 2000 and 2010 before I began this blog. If you are interested, a Kindle version is available on Amazon. The price is right, but I have no idea where the proceeds, if any, go. 


A Phantom Delay

“Your flight is delayed.” However, you discover this unpleasant news, it means trouble, trouble for you and those traveling with you. Trouble with connections, your ride home from the airport or the plans you made for the rest of the day.


Word that your flight has been delayed may reach you by way of a text or an email from your carrier, from the message board at the airport or by word of mouth from an airline employee. No matter the source, that first notice is a knife wound, a loss of heart and confidence, a silent or half whispered, “Damn,” or “Oh sh**.”


If you are a seasoned traveler, your plan of actions begins with, “How do I determine if the time of the delay is real or if it is going to continue to lengthen until it becomes a nightmare?”


Why? Because, once a delay is posted, it can only get worse. We have all suffered delays, they are part of the process. My approach is to get in front of the delay, find out as much as I can about the cause and seek out realistic alternatives before the enemy; my fellow passengers, wake-up to the problem.


On Friday, December 15, Mary Ann and I left the South Seas Resort in Captiva, Florida at 8:07 AM to begin the return journey to our home in Port Washington, NY. Mary Ann drove our rented Jeep Renegade to the Fort Myers Airport for our Jet Blue flight to JFK scheduled to depart at 11:02 AM. As we waited to check in two bags, I walked over to the departure board. To my chagrin, there was an alert that our departure had slipped forty-minutes to 11:42. “Oh sh**.” I exclaimed to myself as Mary Ann caught my eye.


Once we were at the counter I asked the agent checking us in, “Can you tell if the inbound airplane that will become our flight has taken off?”


She checked her computer and replied, “It left on time and is in the air and will land at 10:18.”


“Interesting,” I replied. “For some reason the departure board is showing a forty-minute delay?”


“That’s not unusual. We don’t control those boards, the airport does. That’s probably some other airline.”


As we walked away, we turned to each other and agreed that it was highly unlikely that two different airlines would have flights departing at an odd time like 11:02. Once we reached the central lobby I excused myself for a pit stop.


After my toilet break I wandered over to the main Departure Board while a middle school band performed their interpretation of Christmas Carols into funeral dirges. How appropriate, I thought. Looking up at the flights my mind registered that it showed Jet Blue Flight 430 departing at 11:02 AM: On Time! WTF! How can this be? My only thought was Mary Ann’s probable reaction, “Are you insane? Delays do not disappear, what did you see on the other board?”


Instead, when Mary Ann rejoined me she said, “I was looking at the board when you went to the Men’s Room. Just like that, the delay disappeared, and our original departure time re-appeared.”

We were stunned. In all of our years of travel, especially me, we have never, ever witnessed a delay reversing itself. Such an event does not happen. What the hell was going on here?


At the gate, departure time remained 11:02 and we began to board accordingly. We were in the last group scheduled to board Jet Blue Flight 430, so we had just lined up when the agent at the gate explained, “The captain has requested a rapid boarding to avoid being delayed. Once everyone is on board, the door will close and once the Jetway pulls away, your flight is considered as departed and not subject to a ground delay.”


Our fellow passengers complied, the ground tug pushed the A320 back at 11:00, we taxied out and went wheels up at 11:07. With a monster tailwind, we made wheels on the ground at JFK at 1:02 PM, less than two-hours in the air. Seriously, RSW to JFK in less than two hours flying time, OMG!


I asked one of the flight attendants just what had happened to the delay? She explained with a mischievous look in her eyes and on her face, “The delay was a warning. The airport posted it, but the Captain took it only as a warning and didn’t confirm he accepted it. He knew he had a window to get ahead of it and that’s what he did.”


Sign me up for that captain, anytime, anywhere!







Junior Year Abroad

Both of our children chose to spend a semester of their junior year in the United Kingdom in different colleges located outside of London. Curiously, circumstances made their experiences completely different. The good news is I was totally available for our daughter Beth who traveled first, spending her semester at Reading University during the winter / spring of 1990.


One year later, our son, Michael, was preparing to spend the second semester of his sophomore year at New England College’s UK campus in the town of Arundel when the sh** hit the fan; Desert Storm, President Herbert Walker (41) Bush’s war. The United States led a coalition of allies from far and wide in a conflict designed to kick Sadam Hussein out of Kuwait.


A daughter is a daughter and not being available for Beth would have been a disaster especially at that point in time, I seemed to spend almost half of my life in London.


In the same sense, a son is a son. When it was Michael’s chance to go overseas, few were flying. My own company, Marsh & McLennan, prohibited us from going overseas without the chairman’s permission; I kid you not!


My experience with Beth:


Reading University will never be confused with the elite so called “public schools” like Eaton, Cambridge or Oxford. They called Reading a “red brick university,” one of nine colleges established at the turn of the Twentieth Century to open higher education to Britain’s middle class. Reading was spartan by our standards to say the least, especially for a young American woman’s toilet needs.


Say no more; Daddy is on his way! Having immense flexibility at that time, I invented reasons for three business trips to London during Beth’s stay that included expanded weekend stays. My game plan was simple, I’d book the 10 AM TWA flight out of JFK on Friday mornings enabling me to make it to the Sheraton Perk Tower in the West End between 10 PM and 11PM, London time.


I booked the room for an early Friday morning arrival. This allowed Beth and her new friend, Debbie Parrot, another American girl from Indiana to check in early using my account. This way, they could enjoy the luxuries of a four-star hotel; mini bar, full bath and room service including high tea.


On arrival, I went straight to the room. First order of business was to hand Beth and Debbie treasures from America that they had requested. After I freshened up, I escorted these two pretty women to a late dinner. Our usual destination was a curious little place with the moniker “Foxtrot Oscar,” (F.O.)

To the day I die, I will treasure the leering looks I received from guests and staff as we walked through the lobby and into a taxi. As a bonus, my status and treatment at the Park Tower improved immensely. After dinner, we’d deposit Debbie at the Paddington Railway station, where she could catch the train to Reading.


Beth and I would spend the weekend together. Shopping and sightseeing on Saturday, the theatre that night and brunch and walks in Hyde Park on Sunday. Late afternoon we’d say goodbye and Beth would take a taxi to Paddington to return to Reading with a collection of the Park Tower’s bath products.


It was only after Beth came home that a friendly secretary at our London office took me aside and admitted, “Some of us thought you had a girlfriend in London because you started taking the ‘boyfriend flight.’ That’s what we call the Friday morning flight from New York. You Yanks, who had a squeeze over here took it, so you’d have a full weekend together.”


My experience with Michael


The extent of my physical contact with Michael ended when we dropped him off at the Virgin Airline check-in at the International Building at JFK. It was a cold Monday night in late January. Desert Shield, the buildup for Desert Storm, the shooting war was well underway. Super Bowl XXV would be played the following Sunday. There were only three other cars in the vast parking lot. Intense security forced Mary Ann and I to say our goodbyes outside Virgin Airline’s vestibule. The night’s chill intensified as we watch Michael walk away with his over-sized hockey bag.


Of course, we were worried by the same concerns that made my company ground all of us from flying internationally. But Michael wanted to go, and I agreed this was an experience not to be missed. We picked Virgin as they were not a high-risk target like British Airways, Pan Am or TWA could be.


Knowing that I wouldn’t see him again until he was back in the USA, I offered Michael three pieces of sensible advice for him to follow during his time in Britain: “Look left before stepping into a two-way street. Watch your head, you are a 6/5 person in a 4/5 size country. The Queen and the Royal Family are none of your business. Whenever the subject comes up, walk away.”


Fortunately, I was able to send Michael anything he needed via my company’s overnight pouch. I addressed these parcels to a friendly senior secretary and she forwarded them unopened via the Royal Mail. Michael received his goods in two days without exception. I would include a copy of a now defunct daily sports newspaper called The National. Inside, each copy I included a $20 bill with a note, “Andy Jackson says hello.” Michael’s school was in the town of Arundel and he and his mates made additional spending money by participating in lineups for the local police.


I also had him bring most of his belongings up to our London office, so he didn’t have to lug them home. I was glad to see him when I met him at JFK in late May, even after I realized he was sporting a pierced earing with the skull and crossbones.


“On the Outside Looking In” will not publish next week as I will be traveling.