Across Fort Avenue from the Our Lady of Good Counsel rectory, on a green park bench, a lifetime of cargo is loaded, unloaded, stuffed and stripped every afternoon in the conversations of the old gap-toothed longshoremen of Locust Point - Hogan and Charlie and Hambone and George and Slim and Koby.
This one bench in the shade of Latrobe Park is the entrance to "the Point," a world of its own in less than one square mile of south Baltimore where almost every house is made of tan and gray formstone, almost every block has a lavern and raw seafood bar and everyone and his uncle - literally, it seems - makes a living on the waterfront.
To the port officials and steamship executives who work in the glistening new L.M. Pei-designed World Trade Center on the other side of the harbor, the port of Baltimore is viewed in the cold terms of tonnage, dollars, channel depth and dockside space. They see the 45 miles of waterfront as simply a transfer point for cargo shipped from Peoria to Saudi Arabia, from Japan to Cleveland.
But it means much more than that to the 3,000 men and women of Polish, Irish and German heritage who live and work between Lawrence Avenue and Fort McHenry.
To these people of "the Point," the port offers a way of life that has kept them relatively satisfied, overweight, inbred and entrenched for generations.
Anyone who thinks that longshore communities are places of trampled hopes and working-class despair should spend some time in Locust Point.
The air is heavy with grain dust and the streets are constantly pounded by heavy trucks. Yet even when they get enough money to move out to the sub-urban valleys of Baltimore and Anne Arundet conunties, most of the people here choose in stay put in their row-houses, year after year. Just as their sentinets, the retired longshores, stay put on the park bench, day after day.
"I was a poor man's millionaire. In 40 years, I never punched a time clock." Hogan is doing the storytelling on the spring afternoon. He worked 20 years outside and 20 years down in the holds of ships, loading and unloading. He saw fingers get mangled by steel rails and big men get ruptured by heavy lifts. He worked when he wanted to, went to the track when he wanted to, and went to church when he had to.
"The longshoremen in my time was real religious. If they didn't go to church, their children did. So one year around Easter, this ship comes in with plenty of pocket freight that you can stuff in your pocket and take home. But it's around the time of Lent, so's we all have to go to confession and 'fess up.
"It's a Friday night and this one fella is all worried cause he's gotta go make confession on the pocket freight. I say to him: 'Don't go to Good Counsel, go into town to St. Mary's. I hear they got this hard-of-hearing priest up there! So the next thing I see is this fella coming back and getting off the street car and cussin' up and down. He says that damn old priest could hear better than he could."
If there was a lesson in Hogan's story, it was that you can do just as well by staying right where you are in Locust Point, where you know how well the priest can hear. As a matter of fact, the priest of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Father Herbert Derwart, will probably walk into your house sometime this month, take a soft drink out of your refrigerator, sit down at your kitchen table and trade a few stories with you.
THERE are certainties in Locust Point. One is that there are no strangers. Victor Doda is the community's only funeral director, and something that happened to him recently is the exception that proves the rule.
"So one night I get this knock at the door, I open it and see these two longshoremen. One of them says to me, 'Hazel lost John.' I say, 'Oh, that's a shame.' But all the time I can't remember who John was or the Hazel who lost him. But I know I can't ask them what John's last name was 'cause you don't do that around here. So I ask what the address is and they say: 'Right next to Martha.' No help there, so I ask for Hazel's phone number. She doesn't have a phone. So I've got this body over at the hospital with no last name."
After searching through this records for three days, Doda finally discovered John's last name. He gave the man a fine funeral and everyone seemed to have a good time, talking and drinking, as they do at almost all funerals on "the Point." Sometimes, of course, the widow will say, "No booze in the house" - so the men get a cooler and put it in the back alley.
Doda has made enough money burying 40 or so people a year to afford a spacious single-family home in the suburban valley of Baltimore County. But his wife, Shirley, a community leader in Locust Point, drove out to a half-acre-lot neighborhood one had quickly decided that she would never live there. "All the people were so thin," she recalled. "And I asked myself the question: 'Where are the street lights?' All my life I've had the street lights, you know?"
For the men of Locust Point, the magnet that keeps them in place is the waterfront job. Members of the union, the International Longshoremen's Association, make a minimum of $9.60 an hour, no including overtime.Sixteen-thousand-dollar Cadillacs and other large American sedans line the narrow streets of "the Point." The work schedule is casual: Longshoremen can take off a day, or week or a month virtually whenever the mood strikes. In the summer months, it sometimes seems that half the community is off vacationing at their "shores."
While the stevedore companies issue the paychecks, the leaders of the ILA locals decide who gets the jobs. The one sure way to get a job on the Locust Point waterfront is to live there. The one sure way to live there is to be born there. One Baltimore writer said recently that Locust Point is as exclusive as Gibson Island, a wealthy retreat in the Chesapeake Bay with its own private bridge.
"If you're not born here, you'll never find a house," said Father Derwart. "You'll never see a for sale sign. The houses are passed along to relatives."
And so, too, are the jobs.
"Jesus Christ, whaddaya say old buzzard?" Mike Hart is on the telephone. Chunky, sockless Mike Hart, who carries on casual conversations at a decibel-level that carries across the harbor, is the business agent of ILA Local 953. The 516 members of this local are among the elite in the blue-collar pecking order of the port of Baltimore. They are the clerks - "checkers" in the lexicon of the waterfront - who mark down and keep track of every piece of general cargo that comes in and goes out of the port.
Mike Hart got a job as a checker because his father was a checker. Now he works in the union office on Key Highway with his cousin, Teenny Martin, whose father was also a checker. "I'd say everybody down here's related somehow, right Teenny?" said Hart. Teenny nodded. "Hey, you have to be related to someone to get in. Of course, we gotta have a certain number of niggers, but they're all hand-picked, too, by black-friends we know on the waterfront or downtown."
DESPITE his occasional lapses into such language, Hart, like most people in the all-white Locust Point neighborhood, gets along peaceably with the blacks who work along the waterfront. Some longtime "Point" residents say a milestone in race relations there came one day in the mid-1960s when two blacks and a white walked into Marty Beswick's bar together and ordered beers. Beswick, an imposing slab of a man, served the two blacks but not their white companion.
When asked why, Beswick is said to have responded: "Him and him, I gotta serve. You, I don't."
The Baltimore waterfront was late in integrating. Until 1969, when the Justice Department ordered a merger, there were two competing longshore locals; one white, one black. Even today, a large number of the longshore "gangs" - the units of 17 men who work a ship together - are either all-white or all-black, and the remnants of the past can be found in periodic union power struggles between the factions.
But to a great degree, the men of the waterfront are bound together by the danger of their jobs and what they perceive as a common enemy - the police.
Death and serious injury are never far away from a work place where just about everything that moves is measured not in pounds but in tons.
In 1978, four men died working the Baltimore port. At the Locust Point terminal, a longshoreman was crushed by a falling hatch beam. At the Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock yard in Fairfield, a steel tray dropped on a worker and killed him. Another man was crushed by a load of steel at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.And at the Bethlehem Steel shipbuilding yard out at Sparrows Point, a worker was killed when he slipped and struck his head on a steel beam.
Still, the number of longshore deaths has dropped considerably in the last two decades as ports here and around the world have become more mechanized and less dependent on the sweat and skill of workers. Only 15 years ago at Locust Point, accidental deaths on the waterfront were so common that the retired longshoremen who preceded Hogan and his gang on the Latrobe Prak bench found semi-permanent work as pallbearers. Vic Doda would pay the oldtimers two dollars each for their services, enough to give them start-up money at Beswick's or Joe and Jen's bar.
Today, much of the cargo that enters or leaves the port of Baltimore comes in containers that are transferred by crane from ship to a rail car or truck, or vice versa, virtually untouched by the waterfront workers. The most hellish accident at the port in recent history, however, involved those very container cranes that are supposed to make the work less difficult.
"It was in March of 1976, on a Sunday. I had worked the crane late the night before, so when Wayne Bridges asked me if he could take my place on Sunday, I said, 'Okay, but if the job goes late, call me in.'"
ROBERT Cos, a crane operator employed by the Maryland Port Administration, still shakes when he recalls what happened.
"So I was at home resting that Sunday at about 1:15 in the afternoon. All of a sudden this gust of wind blew through my window and knocked off the shade. Then the phone rang. It was the wife of one of the crane operators. She said she heard that two cranes went over at Dundalk. So I get my dungarees on and start driving down there."
As Cos drove over a bridge toward Dundalk, he could see the enormous cranes on the horizon. "I started counting them. I couldn't find two and I see another dangling on the edge of the pier. Jesus Christ, they're right. And then I start figuring out which one went down. I was supposed to be on one of them. Bridges was, and the boy's dead."
Bridges and another man were killed that afternoon when a 90-mile-and-hour wind swept through Dundalk and blew the Number 11 and Number 12 cranes right down into the water on top of one another. The wind was so sudden and swift that none of the lashes and warning devices could help.
Mel Jones, who now works a crane at Locust Point, was up in Number 12 that day. He was under water before he knew what happened, 27 feet of water. He kicked out the window and swam up past Number 11 to the surface, swallowing fuel along the way. Jones was in the hospital for a month. His lawsuit against the state of Maryland is still pending.
In the years since that accident, Cos and other crane operators at Dundalk have consistently questioned the Maryland Port Administration's concern for safety on the state-owned cranes. On several occasions, inspectors from the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration have visited the Dundalk terminal, examined the cranes, found violations and shut them down.
Today, Maryland occupational health records in Baltimore indicate that all safety violations have been corrected. But the men who work the cranes disagree. They say that a manpower shortage has forced them to violate state safety regulations virtually every day. "Whenever we start up a crane, we're supposed to have two men, one in the crane and ther other on the ground," said Dick Spilman, an MPA crane operator. "I tell you, when you have seven cranes and seven men, it's pretty hard to have two men at every one. That happens around here all the time."
Port officials acknowledge they have a manpower problem at Dundalk. "It's hard to find qualified men who will work for our salaries, which fall under the state personnel system, not the ILA's," said Port Administrator H. Gregory Halpin.
"Operating the cranes at Dundalk is one of the biggest headaches we've got," Halpin added. "We never intended to be in the operation side of the business and we should get out of it as soon as possible."
But of more concern to most waterfront workers than the trouble with the cranes is another aspect of Halpin's $16.5 million dollar a year state agency - the MPA police. In the minds of many longshoremen, the police have but one purpose in life: harrassment. In the minds of many law enforcement officials, there are longshoremen who have but one concern on the docks: theft. It is a volatile mix.
There have been two eras of law enforcement at the port of Baltimore, the Pre-Mazzone Era and the Mazzone Era. Frank Mazzone, a silver-haired captain in the Maryland State Police, was brought in to run the 76-member port police force in 1977, at the request of former Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, at a time when the department was said to be riddled with corruption and incompetence. Before Mazzone got there, the longshoremen disliked the cops, but they laughed at them, too. As Mike Hart put it. "They were Keystone Kops. They weren't worth two f-- drops of Chinese goat milk."
When Mazzone came in, the longshoremen stopped laughing.So did some port officials and steamship executives who were not accustomed to the sort of diligent, straight-talking captain who would say: "I only know one way when it comes to policing, and that's to be aggresssive."
What Mazzone saw when he took over dismayed him. He saw misuse of firearms, midhandling of property, fighting, drinking, sexual misconduct and illegal wiretapping. And all of this was by his own men. "I had to discipline more than half my department," he said in a recent interview. "Things were really bad, you might say."
Then the captain took a look around the port terminals and saw something else that troubled him. There were all these truck chassis on the lots - hundreds of them - and none of them seemed to be licensed or registered in Maryland. The license plates were from Maine and the registration stickers were from New York, where they could be obtained at a cut-rate price.
Mazzone then examined the law and decided that if the trucks spent most of their time in Maryland they should at least be registered here. He passed that word along to the trucking comanies. They obeyed the Mazzone law and registered in Maryland. It cost then $500,000 altogether, according to the captain.
By cracking down on his own department and on the corporate truckers, Mazzone established himself as an independent lawman of the sort that had never been seen before around the free-wheeling port of Baltimore. In a bitter assessment that Mazzone would take as a compliment, one union boss said of him: "That bastard would arrest his mother."
From the start Mazzone's main concern had been pilferage on the docks. A few months before he came to the port, a Baltimore newspaper estimated the value of stolen cargo each year at about $1 million. To outsiders - the politicians and general public - the seven-digit theft rate was outrageous. To insiders - port officials and shipping executives - it was, in the words of port administrator Halpin, "a figure so underestimated that it was kind of hysterical."
Mazzone and several detectives he brought with him from the state police set up an undercover network in an effort to determine whether and to what extent organized crime was operating at the port. "We found that organized crime with a capital "O" - the Mafia or whatever you want to call it - wasn't here," Mazzone said. "But with a little "o" - Jeez, you've got it."
After determining that "about 95 percent of the stuff stolen is taken by people who have a reason for being here" - the truckers, longshoremen, state employes or shipping company personnel - Mazzone designed a special theft prevention and recovery system.
Rather than have this patrolmen simply cruise the streets and lots of the massive 450-acre Dundalk terminal, Mazzone directed them to think of the area as something like the scene of a giant Easter egg hunt and then, during the hours when there were the fewest workers around, go and search the cubbyholes and out of-the-way stashes, where they themselves would hide the eggs.
"We've recovered a fabulous amount of stuff simply by finding the hiding places," said Mazzone. "Last year, we recovered more than $200,000 worth of cargo, which was more than twice as much as was even reported lost the year before."
Under Mazzone's direction, many of the same patrolmen who only a few years earlier had been taking a relaxed attitude toward theft control suddenly became dogged investigators and upholders of the law. Their strict enforcement of traffic regulations within the port so infuriated the waterfront workers on two occasions that it resulted in two-day wildcat longshore strikes.
"My men have pride, you know," said Hart. "I'm not saying some men don't steal, but it was no different than any other industry. This guy Mazzone and his goons were going crazy. One day this longshore takes his lunch break, he's brown-bagging it, and sits down with a beer and a can of Vienna sausage. All of a sudden these two cops jump out from behind a container, throw handcuffs on him, and accuse him of stealing the god damn Vienna sausage. Hey, come on, Mazzone, don't go f-- crazy on us."
Mike Hart is at his second office, the French Quarter restaurant and raw bar on "the Point." Teenny Martin is at the table with him, eating a crabcake and slaw. John Krysiak and "Big Jack," a longshore leader who looks like two Kojaks stuffed into one skinheaded, sunglassed hulk, are across the way. A gang of young checkers from Local 953 are drinking "heavy lifts" - mugs of hard liquor - at the bar.
In comes Bruce Herd, a checker who does the timekeeping and payroll for the workers down at the American sugar plant pier. Herd's family is in the executive side of shipping, but, as Mike Hart said, "young Bruce came over to our side 'cause he knew where the good life was."
Down at the Ramsey-Scarlett pier at Locust Point, Father Derwart, the port chaplain, is boarding the N.J. Pateras, a Greek ship with an Indian and Filipino crew taking Terex dump trucks to Africa. He recalls the time last year when there was an explosion down in a hold of another Greek ship and three seafarers were killed by toxic fumes. The father had to talk to the dead men's wives, who had come along on the trip from the Mediterranean.
"They were tearing their hair out," he says.
In his World Trader Center office on the other side of the harbor, port administrator H. Gregory Halpin is studying a report on the Chinese maritime bureaucracy prepared for him by his trade office in Tokyo. He remembers the time a chinese delegation came to Baltimore but refused to get out of a bus and enter the trade center unless a Taiwanese flag was removed from the lobby.
"They're totally programmed," says the state's top port official. "They run around in their pajamas and funny-looking suits."
Out at Sparrows Point, Bethlehem Steel officials are talking about the $60 million pier they built a few years ago in anticipation of the larger ships that would carry 100,000 tons of iron ore through the Virginia capes and up the 160 miles to their dredged channel. Rep. Clarence Long's name comes up, and, with a tone of resignation, it is concluded that the old congressman will be in the office - opposing the Hart and Miller disposal site - for as long as he lives.
"The guy's in pretty deep," says one. "Out channel isn't deep, but he is."
In Washington, on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House office building, Clarence Long is looking at Xeroxed copies of the five-part editorial series The Baltimore Sun ran the week before, editorials that marked the congressman as a villain in "The Plight of the Port."
"The Baltimore Sun is ferociously pro-business and pro-establishment," he says. "They've been hammering the hell out of me on this. But I know the editors. I ate lunch with some of them last Friday at the Hamilton Street Club. I guess I have my constituency and they have theirs."
And at the port of Baltimore, along 45 mile of waterfront, 82,000 tons of stuffed and stripped before the night is done. CAPTION: Picture 1, Retired waterfront workers retell stories on a Latrobe Park bench known as "the waiting booth." By James M. Thresher - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Locust Point is a beehive of activity for the Port of Baltimore. It is surrounded by piers, covered with warehouses and hardstand storage area.; Picture 3, Mike Hart, president of the new International Longshoremen's Local 953, and Frank J. Biedrzycki check a ship's manifest.; Picture 4, The Rev. Herbert Dewart, is the chaplain of Baltimore Harbor. Dewart Frequently visits the docked ships, passing out pamphlets with local information, published in several languages. He also offers spiritual guidance to the more than 140,000 seamen who enter the port each year.; Picture 5, Robert Cos, enjoys a bird's-eye view of pier 1 from the cockpit high atop the 15-ton crane he operates. All of the cranes used for loading and unloading ships at Baltimore Harbor are owned and operated by the Maryland Port Authority. by James Thresher - The Washington Post; Picture 6, A sailboat provides stark contrast to Baltimore Harbor's industry; Picture 7, Signs in English and Spanish direct seamen at Locust Point.