How does one write something where all the characters understand the point being communicated, but no one speaks? This must’ve been my introduction to zen.
Don’t let me re-write the poem as introduction, but maybe I could clarify something.
I spent two months on a fishing processor in Alaska around the mid 90’s. Its a shit job. There’s no sugar coating shit. To process fish 24 hours a day, you need around 50, 60 people between 2 shifts and most of the guys who’ll take the job are desperate for cash, adventure, and don’t have a lot of education. That’s not a criticism, its a description– I was out there and I certainly qualified. A lot of my coworkers were poor, from the south or midwest, or Mexico. There were these two dudes, for example– one of them was responsible for the unfortunate graffiti on a box mentioned in the poem below– who were put off the ship after one filled the other ones boot with shaving cream and they got in a fight.
Conditions were bad enough already, but to make it worse by pranking and fighting…
On the other side were the Japanese, for whom we were freezing and boxing up fish. In my memory of this incident, the Boss was a man who looked a bit like Akira Kurosawa. Except humorless. He was already deeply unimpressed with us Westerners, especially after the graffiti incident. Somehow a person can enter a room and the rooms temperature drops several degrees– without that person doing anything more than just standing there. Even as I remember this, my shoulders have tightened. I remember him just standing at behind me, just looking. I was one of maybe 2 black men on board. He was surrounded by other Japanese sailors and our ships head boss and supervisor. My boss was nervous. Scared, really. And the other Japanese men stood around relieved the man in the members only jacket was NOT looking at them.
I was just in my 20’s. I remember thinking: Hey! this wasn’t my fault. But I was missing the lesson. If a thing is screwed up… maybe you did it, maybe you DIDN’T do it, but its STILL SCREWED UP.
Getting Your Point Across
The Japanese crewmen
buying the fish we’re processing,
come on board often
to stand in back of the work area
and supervise the packaging process.
They scoop up randomly selected herring
open them like sealed envelopes
and weigh the egg sacks
None of them speak any English. So there’s a lot
Of gesturing, pointing, grunting.
One of the smaller men
came over to me, placed his palms
against the base of his spine
and grimaced. Then he pointed
to a bucket of herring row and water,
then looked at the steep ladder
leading to the upper deck.
I nodded and he led the way.
I’m told one of these buckets of fish eggs
is worth about $5000 on the market.
He leads me to a small station
with two tables and two metric scales
where the roe would be weighed.
His face was generous, glowing as he nodded,
He then immediately went to work,
plucking pineapple colored egg sacks
from the white bucket, turning them over
in his dripping fingers
weighing them and then
making notes in a book.
Another man came into the work area
as my shift began. The first time I saw
him was just after one of my redneck
coworkers drew a napalm flower on the
belly of one of the labeled boxes
with a black marker. A stalk of broccoli
balanced on a sloppily drawn Japan.
The man who found it resembles an army general
and looked to be built out of rock.
He was heavyset, solid. His nylon jacket
smooth as if spray painted on him.
His face humorless, a stone mask.
He looks over the remaining boxes
done by my coworker on the morning shift.
His already solid glare congeals
as he runs a manicured finger
over the spines of the stacked cardboard boxes.
He notices that the number five
written as part of the date,
looks suspiciously like an S.
This, along with his dissatisfaction,
is clearly communicated to all of us
without him uttering so much as a single
grunt. My own supervisor begins to visibly shake.
The fact I’m not guilty
I can say I did it or didn’t do it
But it still looks like an S
He wanted them corrected.
And they were.