Actually, It's Jesus, 4: Vessel
Traveling cross country by bus in America is rarely a comfortable or enjoyable process. The trip is extremely slow, prone to interruptions when either equipment or people break, inexplicable delays and unhelpful employees, horrifying and eye-watering bathrooms, and hours-long waits at bleak stations in the rougher parts of town when transferring from one bus to another. The only real upside is that it’s very cheap and will go basically anywhere provided you have ample time and the willingness to view some of the least-desirable scenery the country has to offer. On the other hand sometimes the passengers can be entertaining, or even friendly.
For Jesus, it was torture. After paying his cab fare at the station in Fresno he booked a ticket for the next bus to take him close to home. Several hours later (and an hour behind schedule) he was aboard and the bus began rattling north along the concrete slabs of Highway 99. This jostling made it impossible for him to get comfortable – both his ribs and head hurt fiercely in spite of the four Tylenol he had purchased from a convenience store near the station. Somewhere north of Turlock the bus inexplicably pulled over on the side of the freeway and a man sitting a couple seats behind Jesus immediately got up and made his way to the front of the bus where he was greeted by a pair of cops, guns drawn. He surrendered without any fuss and was taken away but the bus had to sit for another twenty minutes while the cops made sure they had all his luggage. All the while the bus sat with the engine and AC off, and the people aboard sweltered. Jesus hoped the prodigious stench from his unbathed, polyester-clad body wouldn’t be noticed by anyone else – it was bad enough for him. 100% polyester shirts should be illegal.
Finally, after a sleepless night spent at the station in Sacramento trying to fend off various manifestations of primarily human weirdness he was dropped off in Vallejo, the nearest stop to his home in Crockett. By now he was beyond wanting to figure out what bus to take and splurged on another cab right to his door. The driver had to wake him up when they arrived.
He met his landlady Janet on the stairs going up to his apartment. “Jesus, you look like shit. I watered your plants while you were away.” She knew not to ask, and he knew not to hassle her about going into his apartment.
“Thanks,” he said. Then, remembering, he paid rent for the next three months. Janet thanked him and he was finally able to get the rest of the way home. After a hot shower (doctor’s orders be damned), Jesus collapsed into his bed. He slept off and on for two days, getting up only to eat a tiny bit, use the bathroom, and water his plants (Janet really had taken good care of them, and he was grateful).
On the morning of the third day Jesus was sitting in his room, staring out the dusty window at the eucalyptus trees and the rusty corrugated walls of the massive sugar factory beyond them. The pain had finally reached a tolerable level, and it was time to eat something that didn’t come from the cupboard. He was getting dressed to go out when the phone rang. It was Charles. “You alive?”
“Good, I’ve got something for you,” Charles said. “Come on down, I’ll tell you about it when you get here.”
Jesus picked up his pace a little, and not only for the promise of work. The thing about Charles was that he loved only one thing more than talking about cooking, and that was the act of cooking itself. Jesus found it well worth the lectures on the finer arts of whatever was being made once the meal was ready, and he was hungry as hell.
As was usually the case, the battery was dead on his battered old pickup but for this reason Jesus always parked it facing downhill (in Crockett everywhere is either uphill or downhill) and it roll-started without any trouble.
He got to Pinole and parked the truck on San Pablo a few blocks from Charles’s house. Turned out that brief walk was about all he could manage – maybe he should have put Charles off for a day. But then there was the promise of a fresh-cooked meal. He sucked it up and made it the rest of the way.
Charles treated Jesus to a discourse on the finer points of risotto that didn’t lack for barbs thrown at various well-known chefs regarding their technique and presentation. Jesus waited patiently until food was served and found the wait well worth the time spent. The two men chatted cheerfully as they ate, waiting until after Charles cleared the plates to get down to business.
“Marin to Concord, daytime, easy. Two and a half bills for you.”
“What’s the catch?” Two hundred fifty dollars was a lot for a one-hour drive.
“Couple things: first, you gotta leave the car there. It ain’t too far from the BART though.”
Charles offered Jesus a bong hit but was waved off. “You gotta get it from Houseboat Jason.”
Here we must take a brief digression regarding the name Jason, but first you must know that Houseboat Jason was not the same Jason we last saw at a hamburger stand. Until about 1950, there were rarely more than a few dozen babies per year being given that name in the United States, and even after that use of the name didn’t reach the top 100 on the popularity charts until 1966. The inflection point was 1969. During the year of the Summer of Love more than twice as many Jasons were born as the year before, and this annual doubling of Jasons continued until 1974, at which time the name Jason remained stubbornly stuck in second place behind Michael. From 1971 until 1983 Jason remained in the top ten most-popular names for boys (there were also a few hundred girls named Jason during this period). If you were to throw a rock into a group of boys born during that time period, chances are the only reason you wouldn’t have hit a Jason is because you’d hit a Michael instead.
As a consequence a great many of the people Jesus knew and had dealings with were named Jason. Strangely he didn’t know very many Michaels, and of those he did know he didn’t have business with any of them. Sometimes a Jason would be named after something that distinguished him from the rest, sometimes not. Thus: Houseboat Jason, a man whose introduction will soon require further digression.
Jesus wasn’t going to let that offer stand, not for dealing with Houseboat Jason. “I’ll do it for four hundred.”
Charles laughed. “I figured you were going to say that. Three hundred, not a penny more. But on my mother it’s a simple job for you. All you’ve got to do is get the car, bring the car, and keep your mouth shut.”
So it was that a couple of days later Jesus found himself in Sausalito, making his way to the northern end of town toward Gate 6 ½ Road.
The houseboats of Sausalito have been a storied part of the history of the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1900s. Originally the houseboats were brought out by well-off San Franciscans to “anchor out” and throw parties (lubricated by an abundance of local bootleggers), or else to escape the City for peace and quiet. One look at the place is enough to understand the appeal: situated along Richardson Bay, Sausalito is both close to San Francisco and a world away. Surrounded on three sides by high terrain covered in a deep green blanket of coastal redwoods, conifers of all kinds and abundant eucalyptus and in the lee of Mount Tamalpais, this shallow anchorage boasts some of the calmest waters in the Bay, and rarely does the afternoon wind rise beyond the level of whistling through the rigging of one’s boat. To the northeast one sees the staid terraces of Old Money in the form of Belvedere, contrasted to the southwest by the riotous jumble of homes climbing the hills of Sausalito. What both communities have in common is the desire to see the Bay – large windows facing the water create kaleidoscopic effects when the sun is low in the sky, with beams of light refracting across the water in ever-shifting shapes. Often a light mist lies over the water, capturing the beams of light in an indescribable scene of ephemeral beauty. The waters teem with fish, birds, and scuttled boats dating back to the Gold Rush.
During World War II the houseboats were temporarily displaced by the Marinship yard, dedicated to cranking out Liberty Ships and tankers, an effort which attracted tens of thousands of primarily Black workers many of whom had fled the Jim Crow south in search of good work and better treatment. Unlike nearby Oakland which quickly grew a bustling Black middle class, Black workers arriving in Sausalito found themselves redlined into the confines of a former dairy farm adjacent to Sausalito called Marin City, which to this day remains a glaring example of racial segregation located in the heart of California’s deeply-liberal Bay Area.
With the end of the war came something of a return to form for Richardson Bay, bolstered now by the detritus of a formerly-busy shipyard. Marinas quickly formed around the shipways, of which there were six, named Gate 1 through 6. An eclectic group of former shipyard workers, beatniks, drifters, musicians, philosophers and lost souls began constructing houseboats of found materials, limited only by their imagination and ability to build something that could float. Old ferryboats were brought in and repurposed as homes, hotels, and flops. Others bought, found, or constructed boats which they anchored further out in Richardson Bay – so-called “anchor-outs” by the locals.
Not surprisingly, the established “hill people” of Sausalito looked at this floating raft of randomly-conjoined watercraft and the rather shaggy people who called it home with alarm and immediately set about trying to rid “their” community of this “menace.” So began the Houseboat Wars: a long, mostly cold (and occasionally absolutely frigid) conflict between those who sought order on land, and those on the water who sought a new way of life. Sailboats and motorboats and barges and ferries and ocean-going vessels, all served changing roles as time went on as homes, flophouses, schools, floating works of art, barricades against The Man in his various guises. Lawsuits were filed, boats were scuttled, guns were brandished. All the while some of the most famous names of an era called the place home, or at least a spot to hang out: Alan Watts, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding composed Dock of the Bay while sitting on Bill Graham’s houseboat, along an actual dock of the Bay. The place was equal parts frenetic and lethargic, wild and deeply cultured, grotesque and beautiful. No other place will be like it.
At the end of Gate 6½ road dock floated an aged wooden ferry. Originally christened The Baywater Brisk, she ran the Alameda-San Francisco route from 1928 until a year after the Bay Bridge was completed. After that she spent a brief amount of time moored off the Port of Stockton as its new owner tried and failed to get approval to convert her into a riverine casino. By the time the owner gave up the vessel had been painted black with blue stars on the outside, a cabaret complete with stage had mostly been built and half a dozen staterooms were completed. When the business venture failed, the owner sought to abandon the vessel, now named Delta Nightstar, where she was but the threat of a lawsuit from the port authority convinced him to sell the boat for pennies on the dollar to a broker who anchored her for storage out in Richardson Bay in 1956.
The Delta Nightstar was ignored by her owner long enough that starting somewhere around 1965 people began rowing skiffs out and squatting aboard her, making changes to suit their particular needs, most notably converting the upper deck into a greenhouse filled with the cannabis indica plants increasingly in demand throughout the Bay Area. This turned out to be a bridge too far for the local authorities who motored out, busted the people aboard and confiscated their crops. Inevitably this blew back on the ship’s owner, who found himself with a boat that wasn’t worth repairing and would be too expensive to scrap. Luckily (for him) an associate of the marijuana growers approached him with an offer and after an exchange of a shockingly small amount of currency the Delta Nightstar joined the evergrowing raft of floating humanity loosely associated with the Town of Sausalito.
By the early 1990s the Houseboat Wars were nearing an uneasy truce – in exchange for some semblance of organization on the part of the houseboaters the Town agreed to provide city utilities – water and most importantly sewer – to the docks. The Delta Nightstar, by now known by locals simply as the Black Ferry, was moved to the end of the northernmost dock in the Bay near her much more charismatic and beloved sister vessel known as the Yellow Ferry, which has been maintained variously as a museum, a tourist hotel, and simply a nice thing to take photographs of when visiting the area.
Conversely, the Black Ferry maintained a certain degree of infamy. She had a reputation, one might say, as being a place of ill repute. Whatever the truth of such rumors was, there was no question that the people who lived aboard the Black Ferry were a rougher sort but also somebody you might want to talk to if you wanted to exchange green for green, as it were. That lasted until 1988, when the Drug Enforcement Association acting in concert with the Marin County Sheriffs Department, the Sausalito Police Department, and the United States Coast Guard raided the vessel and confiscated substantial quantities of packaged marijuana, hashish, heroin, cocaine, six figures of cash, several dozen firearms, and the Black Ferry herself, taken by the state under civil forfeiture laws.
The state now found itself faced by the very same conundrum previously faced by the ship broker: an ancient vessel which would be barely seaworthy only after expensive repairs to the ship’s engines, and filled with just the sort of toxic mess that would make scuttling her impossible and scrapping her a high burden on the taxpayer. Furthermore, the vessel was hardly in saleable condition – her previous occupants had used her walls as a sort of studio of the dark arts, covering many of them in cryptic symbols and frightful invocations. The cabaret had been dedicated to depictions of the female form, or parts thereof, in various and often disturbing sexual situations. And the whole place stank of cigarettes, unwashed humans, and weed.
This proved a fortunate break for a wealthy couple living across the water in Belvedere. Their son, who they had spared no expense on in sending him to the finest of private schools in an area swimming with fine private schools, and in whom they had hung their hopes of familial succession, had instead persisted in hanging out with all the wrong sort of individual (bringing them home even!) and getting in all manner of scrapes with the law. The only reason this wayward young man was not in prison was that his father and the Sheriff had been fraternity brothers and the father had never missed an opportunity to sponsor a fundraiser for the department.
The Black Ferry turned out to be an ideal way to rid their household of their 22-year-old nuisance while at the same time being able to keep an eye on him. Another fundraiser later and the Black Ferry was very quietly put up for auction and just as quietly acquired by a discreet shell company headquartered overseas, and just like that the Black Ferry found herself once again occupied. An ornate brass telescope was kept in the living room of the parents house, ostensibly pointed toward the heavens, but it only took a few seconds for a practiced hand to direct its eye at the Black Ferry instead – and hands became well-practiced at this task.
This wayward son was of course none other than Houseboat Jason, a man about whom much can be said but only if one is inclined to speak ill of another. An example follows preceded by a necessary diversion:
African American Vernacular English (AAVE), sometimes called Black American English, Black American Vernacular English, or once – briefly and very controversially – Ebonics, is a version (or dialect, idiolect, sociolect, etc) of American English spoken by many members of the Black community across the United States and Canada. Its origins remain in dispute but it’s agreed that this version of the language originated in the South and spread across the nation during the various Black Diasporas. Possessed of its own rules and structure, it is a way of speaking for millions of people and is in every way as grammatically and syntactically correct as is Standard American English, although one wouldn’t necessarily know that given the degree of racial discrimination Black Americans face in every aspect of their lives, including their way of speaking. For all that AAVE remains indisputably influential and more than holds its own as a member of the language families of North America.
How, one might wonder, is this diversion relevant in discussing Houseboat Jason? To put it simply: Houseboat Jason, born to a family of Dutch and English landowners who can trace their ancestry back to royal land grants in their respective kingdoms, can only ever be heard speaking in a rough approximation of AAVE. Were one to wonder whether this behavior could be considered problematic, it is. In fact, his way of speaking is problematic enough that the only right thing to do is to paraphrase his words rather than transcribe them. Expect this.
Jesus made his way down the 6 ½ dock. Toward the end a middle-aged man with a paunch and a shaggy beard was sitting on a bench. He accosted Jesus. “Where you headed?”
“Going to see Jason. Charles sent me.” Referring to this Jason’s way of living was redundant.
“Yeah?” The old guy stood up and Jesus was struck by how large he was – his potbelly was an easy distraction from the fact that his shoulders were wide enough that he probably had to turn sideways to get through some doorways. Jesus also noticed that the man’s eyes didn’t change with his smile.
“Yep, came to pick up a car, that’s what he told me.”
The old guy eyed him closely. “If you’ve got any guns, leave ‘em off the dock.”
Jesus assured the guard he had none such and was waved on to the Black Ferry. Another of Jason’s minions asked him about his business and then led Jesus into the cabaret. Upon the low stage was an elaborate chair that could only be described as a throne (it had in fact been built as such for a raucous and bawdily-rewritten stage production of King Lear many years back), surrounded on either side by end tables – food on one of them and a bong on the other.
Seated in the chair was a skinny guy about Jesus’s age, his blonde hair twisted into dreadlocks that were just a little too perfect. This was Jason. He immediately began razzing Jesus about his name, asking why he hadn’t brought any of the twelve disciples with him and demanding not for the first time to know why he didn’t just change his name which Houseboat Jason, in a moment of inadvertent irony, described as disrespectful.
Jesus weathered the onslaught of shit-talking. Houseboat Jason only did this when he was in a relaxed mood, a state of mind his visitors found highly preferable to a tense, non-relaxed Houseboat Jason. As he absorbed the abuse and waved off a bong hit, Jesus thought about his walk out on the dock. The tide had been all the way out and the sun had been baking the mud for a while. Also, it had rained the day before. When he heard the first of the incoming tide lapping against the Black Ferry it all came together.
“Hey Jason, you got any incense?”
Jason cocked his head for a moment listening then swore and waved at his guys, who quickly set about lighting incense in holders placed around the room and closing all the windows. Jason demanded of Jesus how he knew.
For the first time since stepping aboard, Jesus had reason to laugh. Houseboat Jason was on his back foot. “I went to Wu Zie.”
At this, Houseboat Jason coughed into his bong, making a mess, and began profanely professing his surprise and disbelief. He then declared himself ready to have Jesus thrown overboard and waved to two of his guys, who approached Jesus immediately.
“Hold on,” Jesus said. “I can prove it.” He had his hands up, but pointed to his shirt pocket. One of the henchmen reached into the pocket and pulled out an old Polaroid photo, glanced at it briefly, and handed it to Jason.
Jason goggled at the photo, then sent it back via his henchman to Jesus. For a moment Houseboat Jason sounded like the Belvedere kid he really was. What was it like? He wanted to know.
“Yeah,” said Jesus. “Everything you heard about that place is probably true. Plus some shit I’ll never talk about. Anyhow, you’ve got a car?”
Before Jason could reply, a loud fizzing sound could be heard from outside. This was the Gas – the reason Jesus asked for incense and the reason Jason realized Jesus was a local. The Gas (or the Big Fart as Jesus privately thought of it) only happens when several things happen in the right order. Nearly a century of people in boats dumping their sewage overboard had forever changed the microbial environment of the mud flats of Richardson Bay. This set the stage. Next, the previous day’s rain had flushed a substantial amount of nutrient-containing sediment out into the water from the creeks which border the Bay. Finally, an extra-low tide with the sun directly overhead baked a thickened layer over the top of the mud, while the heat and extra nutrients kicked the mud-dwelling bacteria just below into an orgy of feasting and reproducing and burping out a prodigious mix of malodorous waste gasses which remained mostly trapped under the hardened mud at the surface. Once the tide started coming in that mud softened, and the gasses rushed through the shallow water and out of it. The only thing for it was to close up as much of a boat as one could and light some incense to mask the stench. Fortunately, the conditions that led to the Gas only happened in the afternoon, the same time of day as the sea breeze picks up there, so the worst of the Gas was usually over in just a few minutes.
Naturally, Jason had forgotten that his bedroom window was open and the smell quickly flooded from there into the cabaret, driving everyone abovedecks where the odor of nightmares that was the Gas at least mixed with some amount of fresh air.
“So,” said Jesus to Jason while wiping his eyes, “you were going to give me some keys?”
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