The Sailor Man in New York

Invisible seafarers in a city still addicted to shipping

"It's not so bad," he says. "One time, I see suspicious ship. I call in to the [America] military. Within minutes, there is a helicopter flying around—it scares the small boat away."

What does concern him, though, is the thought of his wife worrying. Years ago, "I just wouldn't tell her we're crossing Gulf of Aden," he says. But now, with ship-tracking websites, "It's harder to lie to her."

One of the great discomforts for seafarers is the omnipresent noise. The Osaka sounds like a jackhammer, mixed with the jets of a dozen 747s—and the main engine isn't even on.

Pastor Marsh Luther Drege drowns in some of the 2,000 “Christmas at Sea” gift bags SIH will give away to seafarers.
Jackie Snow
Pastor Marsh Luther Drege drowns in some of the 2,000 “Christmas at Sea” gift bags SIH will give away to seafarers.
Retired seafarer Murray Barr has volunteered at SIH for 45 years.
Jackie Snow
Retired seafarer Murray Barr has volunteered at SIH for 45 years.

Many decks below, an impassive Bulgarian engineer sits at the controls. Inside his glass operating room, the sound is almost unbearable, even though the ship's massive propeller shaft is motionless. The engine room is five stories deep. The heat can get up to 130 degrees, and when Drege comments on it, the seafaring guide laughs. "This is cool!" (The crew of the Alabama sealed themselves in a similar setting for 12 hours, without ventilation, during the April attack.)

As the chaplains depart, the "lashers" (longshoremen who make sure the containers are properly secured) say the ship will be loaded by 7 p.m. Five minutes after that, the ship will pull out as if it had never been there.

"Sometimes, people will ask us to pray with them," says Drege, but it's not often. If requested, he is prepared to pray with people, regardless of their religion or beliefs. Last Thanksgiving, a "Ro-Ro" (a cargo ship that moves cars) called him and asked him to exorcise a ship after several crew members claimed to have seen a ghost.

"Walking around throwing holy water is not part of my tradition," says the stoic Lutheran. "But when in Rome . . ."

It's a completely different scene at SIH on Irving Place. The building looks as anachronistic and antiquated as the word "seafarer" itself.

Part international hostel, part chapel, part flophouse, its open lobby in no way evokes your typical Manhattan hotel. There are no Eames chairs or Barcelona couches reminiscent of nearby Union Square boutique hotels. The almost proudly old-fashioned décor consists of furniture you'd expect to find in a church social hall somewhere in the Midwest.

But there it defiantly sits—the last boarding house for seafarers, seeming so out of place in the heart of hip New York.

In fact, although there are always rooms set aside for seamen, many of the 84 rooms are rented out to international travelers, which helps subsidize the work SIH does for seafarers. Between workers hanging out, young backpacking Europeans checking in, and clergy running around, it's sometimes hard to tell who is who.

"People ask me all the time, 'Where are the seafarers?' " says Clint Padgett, a chaplain with a historically German mission that uses space in the house. "And I tell them, 'They're all over the place! They're not wearing an eye patch and a parrot on their shoulder. They're right here.' "

Murray Barr greets everyone in the lobby. A man of few words, he is one of the most familiar faces in the house: He has volunteered here for 45 years, ever since he returned to land in the '60s. He became a seaman in 1948, after graduating from Corlears Junior High, a New York City public school that trained teenagers for sea work on active ships. (The school has been renamed and now boasts internships with a different kind of focus—at Goldman Sachs.)

Barr loved going to sea as a young man, when "you'd pull into the port, and have five days, a week, two weeks of shore leave." For a kid from New York, it was a great way to see "just about every country on the face of the earth." But today, unless seafarers are out of work, "you don't get to see anything but a port."

Barr reveals an essential difference between American and foreign seafarers. He is single, without children. Like most of the seafarers who crash at SIH, he has always been unburdened by a family of his own—or even any kind of permanent home. Filipinos will go home several months of the year; American seafarers seem to stay on the move.

"For many of us, this is the only home we have," says Michael Penkwitz, who is staying at the house. He could just as easily pass for someone coming out of a show at Irving Plaza across the street: He has the voice of Jesse Ventura, but the look of Joey Ramone; his rocker appearance contrasts deeply with the well-worked hands that come with the life of working on the deck of a ship.

"A lot of seafarers have a hard time functioning on land," Penkwitz admits. "For a lot of us, going to sea is a last resort."

Penkwitz came from a family of Great Lakes seafarers, and was pushed into the life at 20 by relatives concerned about his lack of direction. His nomadic existence is markedly different from Filipino seafarers, who are usually married with children and often own their own homes. Filipinos get paid far less for the same work on a ship as an American, but their earnings go much further in their country.

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