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The Life Aquatic

The Chief made mention of the Fort Bragg Harbor in the Off the Record section recently, comparing it favorably to the Cannery Row section of Monterey Harbor, or at least the Steinbeckian version of it. I get it; our harbor has a salty, ramshackle charm completely unlike the current touristy, unsanitized incarnation of Monterey’s venerable Row. Its weathered frame buildings, creaky docks, and workaday flotilla seem to belong to another era, not unlike the early 90s Mission District era hooker fashions favored by the tweeker girls up above sea level or the 1970s-modern conditions over at the County jail.

Mendocino's splendid isolation, distinctly diverse geography and mysterious economy foster many temporal and stylistic anomalies throughout the region, giving all the various towns and sections the vivid personality for which they are justly noted. Not always a winning personality, but personality nonetheless.

What our harbor does not have is an old boiler housing a gaggle of colorful winos and a Dalmatian pup, operating under the benevolent tutelage of a beer loving marine biologist and I think we're poorer for their lack. Of course, winos are a bygone breed, and their replacement, that wondering, malodorous throng of deranged, drug addled human locusts are miles from the colorful and interesting (if at times maddeningly irresponsible) Hazel and the boys, and if you gave them a boiler to live in it would be declared a Superfund site within minutes.

I don't have the book (“Cannery Row”) to hand, but as I recall, two of the figures used to describe the Row in the opening expository paragraph are "a stink" and "a grating noise." Not necessarily pleasant or desirable images; after all, who would find listening to nails on a chalkboard in the company of a rotting skunk carcass pleasant? But again, I get it. Nobody ever mistook a gull for a nightingale, or fish and their parts in various states of decay for begonias, or the clangorous racket of shaping and sealing steel for a symphony, but they're the kind of thing you could get used to and ultimately require to feel at home.

Which seems to be the case for many of the harbor’s hard-core, who appear to have eschewed utterly the dubious charms of the wider world. Salt-cured, sea-girt, and storm-toss’t, they ply the docks and man the nets in pursuit of le vie marine. I mean, I guess. I don't know what the hell it is they do down there, but I know that many of them are never seen in the town proper, at least by me. I suppose there are sufficient resources in the harbor to sustain life, but you would think that you would want to not smell fish at least part of the time.

So, I found myself one brisk, moonlit evening wending my way down to the harbor in pursuit of a wayward sum of money, said quantity being in the nakedly felonious claws of my arch nemesis, the most pathologically acquisitive, bag chasing, snake hearted, underhanded, piratical ultra-vixen ever to infect the north coast, the justly infamous and dread Jennifer Beard. It was a full hundred of the needful that’d gotten tangled in her web and spirited off, and if any other blame must be laid, I suppose it would be at my feet, knowing what I do of her and having handed over the spondulix, expecting her to return shortly with some zipadee-doodah.

One of her ploys to get you to trust her with your money was to leave something as security you presumed she valued and would return for, things that would later turn out to be either worthless or belonging to someone else. Naturally I gotten wise to this dodge, having been bitten several times already. But this time she left me an actual human being.

Now, if I thought the thing through I surely would have realized that to anyone with a moral bone in his body, human collateral is worthless. What was I supposed to do if Jen didn't come back? Cut her up into steaks? Sell her into slavery? I simply trusted Jennifer to retrieve the young lady she left in our care who sat silently smoking in a chair in the corner and refused all offers of refreshment and attempts to engage her in conversation. When sufficient time had passed and calls and text to Jennifer were ignored, I gave into the obvious and heaved the usual sigh accompanying these moments of clarity.

"You're not really Jen’s niece, are you?” I said to our charge.


"How old are you?"


Shit. Well, at least I was in mixed company.

"How'd you get mixed up with her?"

"I was hanging out outside the Safeway trying to get someone to buy me beer and she asked if I wanted to make 20 bucks."

"When is she supposed to give it to you?"

"She told me to stay here for two hours and then meet her down in the harbor."

She gave us an address and we gave her $20 and sent her on her way with instructions to stay away from the harbor and especially Jennifer.

"And I hope you've learned a lesson here today tonight, young lady," I said, not at all sure what that lesson might be or whether I was qualified to administer it.

"Tchah," she sneered. "Look, can one of you old ass motherfuckers buy me some beer, or what?"

Sharon, the distaff member of our little group, spoke up. "Beer is for straight people. Let's get you something classy like Patrón."

They left and I prepared for my harbor incursion, dressing warmly and salting a few edged weapons about my person. I'd previously only visited during the day and presumed that, as with many other "colorful" locales, its character might veer toward the shadier side on descent of night.

I found the place all right and knocked on the door. It was answered by a blocky, red-faced, 60-ish gentleman in monochromatic workwear and corduroy slippers. "Well?" he grunted at me.

"Sorry to bother you, sir, but I was looking for a Jennifer, I was told she'd be here? I think maybe she got distracted and forgot she had some of my money and I'm sure it was just an oversight but I wanted to remind her that I was still waiting patiently over at Sandman’s," I said diplomatically.

He looked me over briefly. "C’mon in," he said. "She got a text a few minutes ago and lit out of here."

The collateral kid! Curses! That's gratitude for you.

"She did say she be back, though. You can hang out if you want."

"Well, thanks. You mind if I ask what Jen is to you?” I asked, unsure if honesty was the best tack to take.

"Oh, she showed up one night saying someone was trying to kill her. I offered to call 911 but she said no, just let her hide out for a bit and she would give me a private dance. I said why not as the whole situation sounded perfectly reasonable and innocent to me, but stopped her before she got too far along. I wasn't altogether convinced she was in some kind of malnourished shorebird, and she danced like a marionette with a couple of busted strings."

"Those are some pretty vivid images for a fisherman," I said.

"How’d you know I was a fisherman?"

"I don't know, instinct, I guess. That, or all the fishnets and anchored and shit all over the walls."

"Anyway, I fed her and gave her a ride up to Pudding Creek and ever since she drops in every so often asking for this or that. I generally don't leave the harbor but once a week on Tuesdays late at night for groceries so I won't cart her around, but I will throw her a few bucks and a meal. What's your relationship to her?"

"Creditor, right now. Maybe instrument of her demise, I don't know. Generally Charlie Brown to her Lucy, as in the kicking of footballs. Why don't you like to leave the harbor?"

"Hell, I spent 30 years out on that water and I like to keep it in sight. Further I get from sea level, the less comfortable I am."

We had a few beers and he told me sea stories and I told him Jen stories, each one more bone chilling than the last. It was like that scene in Jaws when Quint and Brody and Hooper are below decks in Orca drinking and swapping scars and stories, all the more so when there came an ominous thudding at the door.

"Shark?" I inquired hopefully.

"Doubtful. The water’s pretty shallow this far inland," said my new friend. He got up to answer the door and standing there rather unsteadily on the stoop was Collateral Girl, grinning idiotically and clearly drunk as a lord.

"You," she said, pointing past the fishermen at me. "I got a message from Jen." She wound up dramatically and upthrust a middle finger. "Fuggoff, I got yo muh-nay!" she yelled before stumbling off into the darkness, cackling merrily.

"Huh," I observed philosophically.

"Women, right?" said the fishermen.

"Yeah, yeah. Although, I don't think gender is the real issue here. I seem to have a hard time learning a very simple lesson."

"You know, I could take her out fishing sometime. People fall overboard all the time, the ocean is an unpredictable place. Shit happens."

"That's a very considerate offer, but no, don't drown her on my account. I'm as much to blame as anyone. Maybe you could give me a call next time she shows up."

We exchanged numbers and parted ways, promising to stay in touch. That C-note went the way of the buffalo and I was forced to start from scratch and I'm not proud to say that I did not employ the principles of hard work and ingenuity to re-line my pockets, but rather methods of a quicker and less savory nature. Jen, in a rather poetic comeuppance, was kidnapped by white slavers and currently occupies the lowest echelon of a harem of a minor Yemeni potentate, and will probably be publicly stoned for pilfering and disrespect before too long.

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