“Shipwrecked on the Wrong Side of Tomorrow”

Rory Nugent, Down at the Docks Anchor Books Paperback, February 2010

Rory Nugent, travel writer and mariner, spent seventeen years living and working in the Massachusetts port city of New Bedford, home to “America’s largest fishing fleet.” From 1988 to 2005 Nugent documented the “riches to rags” story of an industry, it’s economy, culture and community, capturing the last gasp as it tumbled into the murky drink. Early on, the crusty-smart water people of New Bedford felt something in their bones, like arthritis in inclement weather. There’s an old saying, “When you’re at the end of your rope, let go.” Ever alert to signs and symbols, the drowning fishermen of New Bedford did what farmers, miners, whalers and loggers had done before them, they kept on scrambling, holding on, even as it was killing them.

Now in paperback, marketed as “a compelling eulogy for an iconic New England town and the rapidly vanishing fishing industry,” Down at the Docks made a stunning hardcover debut last year. Critics acclaimed it as “a bare-knuckled take-no-prisoner’s account,” “a movingly profane lament,” “an extraordinary document, a witnessing of something essential from the inside.” Compared to work by James Agee, Steinbeck, Joseph Mitchell and Oscar Lewis, Down at the Docks is a funeral dirge for a way of life washed out to sea.

Nugent’s New Bedford is a tough town, insular and impenetrable. You taste the salty mist, the stench of rotting wooden boats; you feel the grit of darkened, oily streets sticking to your skin, the perpetual ache of mangled bodies broken over years of long, hard labor. You see the hookers walking the docks, hear the bloody din of bar fighting in the distance, feel the fish slipping out of frozen fingertips. Gone, baby gone.

With a pitch perfect ear for linguistic nuance, Nugent supplements a sextet of discreet oral histories with hard data — nautical science, demographics, and cultural history, meticulously tracing the lineages of tools, artifacts and geography. The abandoned textile mills, the dying ocean, the rotting wooden boats and the docks themselves become characters in Nugent’s tale. An obsessive concern with minutia and a critical edge qualify this as sociology — the kind you can’t put down.

A master craftsman of narrative non-fiction, Nugent wraps each oral history around characters you couldn’t make up. Through eyewitness testimonies, a larger picture bubbles up from the harbor’s gunk and slime. We learn everything about the city’s underground, social relations, status hierarchies, seafaring family life, courtship, and community responsibility. New Bedford is a peculiar place where ancient pirate folkways, dope, aquaholic mysticism, Catholicism and outlaw ethics make up the religious life of the working man. Men like Sword who feel more at home in the sea than on land, who revere great ships like the mighty Magnificence, and days where “The weather was finest-kind, warm, flat seas, a big sky showing more stars than anybody knows what to do with.”

Commercial fishing is a manly man story, but the women get prime time too as Nugent uncovers a luminous lesbian lineage in New Bedford. Secretary Ricker is a relic of New Bedford’s aristocracy on the hill. A direct descendent of Mary Coffin Starbuck, a Puritan from Nantucket who defied patriarchal authority and effectively birthed America’s whaling industry, Secretary Ricker spells out the origins of the Petticoat Society, a female dominated power cartel that ruled Nantucket and later, New Bedford.

According to the last Secretary of the Petticoat Society, the 17th Century male settlers of Nantucket had made a mess. They originally wanted to farm, but it was a ridiculous project for a coastal community. After a killer storm left too many homeless widows and orphans and buckets of self-pity, Starbuck infiltrated and harpooned the old boys’ town meeting. In an age when women were banned from participation beyond domestic service, Starbucks’ intervention led to an egalitarian fishing economy. Her plan worked; farmers left the land and farmed the sea. In time, America would dominate global whaling, blubber, oil, sperm and all.

In a new division of labor, organizational meetings took place among fishwives dressed in petticoats, clothes soiled stinky from cleaning fish. Since men were gone at sea for years at a time, likely engaged in Pirate Love, Sapphic sisterhood became a clandestine pleasure. Eventually, the matriarchal Petticoat Society migrated to New Bedford, essentially running the town until the 1950s, enjoying French perfume, Paris fashions, whalebone dildos and Oriental spice. America’s seminal lipstick lesbians helmed the American Whaling industry.

In the glory days of independent fishing, 1960-1990 New Bedford enjoyed a careful harmony between vessel, fisherman, ocean, fishing stock, weather, man, mob and feds. And then the tides shifted. With the help of local informants, Nugent sleuths out all the “fucked-up shit” that wasted New Bedford; geeky marine ecologists, a rising tide of humongous corporate fleets, competitive Asian markets, federal legislation, depleted fishing stocks, pollution. In time, even the drug smuggling trade is usurped as Latino gangs and drive-by shootings become part of the soggy landscape.

Decline would be gradual and the causes multivariate. In the 1970’s federally guaranteed “demonic” bank loans for boat construction. This meant bigger boats, greater expectations and more debt. Small boats couldn’t compete, becoming obsolete as corporate fleets gentrified the waterways. Hunger for bigger boats lead to higher overheads, manic labor-intensity and burnout for crews and fish stocks. To fix a problem they helped create, the federal government then imposed quotas on fish. To further arrest ocean depletion and pollution, feds began limiting days at sea without regard to weather. On perfectly clear days, fishermen found themselves arbitrarily landlocked, out at sea during brutal storms. New rules arbitrarily displaced the rhythm of nature.

A new regime of over-regulation, drug testing, endless paperwork, and chronic intrusion was imposed on a self-regulating subculture barely able to comprehend this new order. The work became impossible, people burned out, mutinied, and many died. The smaller boats were sacrificed in insurance scams. Half the people Nugent interviews sound insane, high or both. For generations, New Bedford had been a lawless frontier ruled by class solidarity among wild men who suffered a landlocked alienation so severe only heroin could soothe it. That is, until they could ship out again. Men addicted to the salt, the hunt, greedy for booty, married to the sea, gone for months, no regrets. Even in the best of times, bodies were broken, swallowed by Poseidon, sharks and the sheer brutality of the labor process. Men traveled the coastline to Alaska, Montauk, or Newfoundland, anywhere for fish.

Like so many “old school” towns across America, Nugent’s people dealt in cash only, sealing agreements with a handshake — no papers, contracts or bank accounts. Family incomes were supplemented with welfare, unemployment insurance, carpentry, scams, drug smuggling and bartering. Lying to authorities was considered an act of honor, cooperation treason. The fiercely independent, free-spirited fishermen harbored a healthy contempt for anything blocking their pursuit of fish, cheese (money), dope, life and liberty at sea. As the corporate fleets squeezed out the little guy, salaries began replacing cash — unfathomable to third generation independent jobbers who’d sailed the high seas since childhood, schooled on the job by their elders.

As the frontier mentality was criminalized, corporate fleet owners refused to hire anyone with warrants or addictions. Background checks and drug testing meant the work would now be done by foreign labor desperate to break minimum wage. The people of New Bedford had to make the usual bad choices; bend over, get with the program, go to jail or die off. Many did. But some, like Pink, just forced themselves to stop caring. A fixer and card shark with cozy ties to New England’s Patriarcha crime family, Pink found the whole thing too painful, sitting by, watching it all slip away. Pink anticipates a chilling future for New Bedford, a kitschy Sturbridge by the Sea where American Fishing goes all Disney-like with schoolboys running things, a cartoon version of a passionate life.

Down on the Docks sometimes reads like a paranoid crank run and superstition filters into every moment. Old Man Olafson won’t go near the docks if he’s seen a cat. Captain Shad won’t head out to sea unless he’s talked to his brother in Texas. Captain Cherry relies on his wife’s chickens for divine instruction. And then there’s the “Jonahs,” men like Hafe the Jinx. Some won’t say his name out loud. And they dare not look him in the eye. The repeated sole survivor of too many sinking boats, “Lucifer’s boy” is deemed a walking curse. Nobody will hire him, so the demon seed spends his days tweaked out on the docks, angling for work, oblivious he’s blacklisted. The Jonah of death eventually turned up on deck in Florida waters. Locals concluded he’d graduated to hunting human prey.

The last chapter, “Perfect Wreck,” had me in tears. Nugent documents a boat’s funeral as tenderly as if it had been a living being. Once a mighty fishing boat, Conquest is now rotted and useless, draining her owners. Tugboat Captain Garr makes good on a favor owed to the family; in the middle of the night, he agrees to sink Conquest. Nugent attends the somber ceremony with Monk, a third generation Portuguese-American sailor with an albatross of his own. The wreck of Conquest is divorce New Bedford style. Monk came to observe Captain Garr, crafting his own plan to take down Shell Shock.

After a fourteen-hour day of solo clamming clears $150 after expenses (fuel, pain-killers, chiropractors) Monk knows the marriage was over. “His troubles with clams turned love into despair and got him thinking up ways to kill Shell Shock and collect on her insurance.” Every night Monk prayed, “Dear God, kill her, please.” But tonight, to his horror and ours, Conquest won’t sink. Watching Captain Garr break her down is agonizing, and it takes hours for the brutal destruction of a mighty sea warrior, an elegant being who served with grace and dignity. Conquest would be dumped like the fishermen, the town, like entire sectors of American labor, buried in secrecy and lies.

The world of whaling that preceded America’s commercial fishing industry is fixed in the American imagination by Moby Dick. We know New Bedford as a mysterious place Melville likened to Gomorrah. Salty Dog Sailors are as mythic as the American Cowboy or the Chicago Gangster. But in recent years, America’s proud fishing villages come to us in imagery of social decay. Lives are measured in the statistics of social decline — youth suicide, addiction, teen pregnancy, and violence. Brokenness calculated in rates of HIV, overdoses, dropout rates, and lurid headlines. We read about a gang rape in New Bedford, a bizarre teenage pregnancy pact in Gloucester. In dead-end Montauk winters we see strung out, jobless fishermen spent before the age of fifty. Men who reinvent themselves as charter boat Captains, still fighting against over-regulation and diminishing leisure trade. Now, the economy too works against them. We read about their teenage alcoholic children, noses collapsed from cocaine abuse, the battered fishwives, infants remanded to foster care. Down in the Docks is a painful story. But truth-telling can be redemptive too. For the seafaring grandchildren born to swallow this pain, and lost children who wander the wastelands wondering “What broke our fathers? Who were they? Were they losers or heroes? How did this day come to pass?” Nugent offers answers. There’s no better reason to write cultural history.

From April, 2010