April 26, 2012

Roberto Loiederman, a merchant seaman from 1966 to 1974, is a writer in California. He co-authored “The Eagle Mutiny,” an account of the 1970 mutiny on a U.S. vessel.

What happened in Cartagena, Colombia, with the Secret Service seems unsavory to me, but not for the reasons you might think.

I make no judgments about men spending a night with escorts. As far as I’m concerned, those who take a holier-than-thou attitude about this are like Inspector Renault in “Casablanca” when he says he’s “shocked, shocked” to discover there is gambling at Rick’s Cafe . . . just before someone hands him his winnings.

No, what the Secret Service agents apparently did seems unsavory because of my own experiences.

More than 40 years ago, I was a merchant seaman. Whenever our ship would get to port — any port — we’d hurry to an area near the docks filled with bars and women. Valparaiso or Santos, Pusan or Saigon, Djibouti or Cartagena — the only changes, from port to port, were the local women’s ethnicity and language.

As a seaman, what other options do you have? You’re in a strange city for a few days. You’re with other hardworking, hard-playing guys. And you’ve got cash in your pocket. So you go to a bar, drink more than you should, smile at the women buzzing around, maybe dance with one and then — for a pre-arranged fee — take her to a hotel room.

I imagine the Secret Service agents in the scandal du jour went through similar steps. Of course, the current situation is different from what I remember. The women involved in the Secret Service scandal are “escorts,” not the type of ladies who hang out with seamen, as a Colombian woman in question made clear to the New York Times. The bar where the U.S. personnel met these women is an upscale discotheque, not some mosquito-ridden dive. Like us, the Secret Service men drank far too much, but it was expensive vodka, not cheap whiskey.

There’s another major difference: One of the Secret Service agents did something no self-respecting seaman would have done.

When I worked on ships, seamen were a superstitious lot. When there was a bad storm, while the ship pitched and rolled, the crew, unable to eat or sleep, would gather in the messroom and grumble. Anyone who remembers Coleridge’s ancient mariner knows that seamen don’t blame the wind and tides for bad weather and rough seas. Rather, they blame a fellow member of the crew — someone who has, say, killed an albatross. During storms, they’d mumble darkly that a crew member had “Jonah’d” the ship — done something wicked, while ashore, that caused the seas to rise up and take revenge.

Inevitably, someone would point out that the likely cause of the foul weather was that one of our crew had committed the worst sin of all: not paying a whore. All would nod gravely. In my day, seamen were convinced that this was such a serious infraction it could threaten a ship’s survival. More than once I saw fellow crew members, who’d come back to the ship so drunk they couldn’t remember where they’d been, make superhuman efforts to send money to a woman ashore in a desperate attempt to avoid the curse of the unpaid prostitute.

I thought about this while reading about the scandal in Cartagena. It appears that getting drunk and going back to the hotel with the women wasn’t, in itself, what got the Secret Service personnel into trouble. What got them busted was that someone in their group refused to pay an escort the pre-arranged price. One of the escorts wanted $800. She said that a Secret Service agent offered her $30. (To put that figure in perspective, it’s more or less what seamen used to pay in Cartagena 45 years ago for all-night companionship.)

The stereotype of “spending like a drunken sailor” is true. We prided ourselves on spending our money foolishly. Working on a ship headed to Latin America was known as a “romance run” because it would often end up costing us more than we made. But we didn’t care. We’d give a woman whatever she asked for. If the requested price was steep — like, say, $800 — we’d keep enough for the taxi back to the ship and give her whatever we had.

I don’t want to romanticize the seedy life of merchant seamen, but if the Secret Service personnel involved in this scandal had played by the same rules and followed the same ethical standards as the drunken sailors I used to work with, there would have been no confrontation, and they might still have their jobs.