Chaotic Docks: Marc Levinson’s The Box, 2: Gridlock On The Docks

James Chapelle, NYT

 The 1950s shipping industry should be called Mixed Cargo Chaos.  Longshoremen found themselves having to be brutish in pulling and pushing carbon-black metals and spools and coils while simultaneously having to be sweet in cradling tropical fruit and other sweets and treats.  Levinson describes a world of having to struggle because of the impractical way of shipping cargo (new vocabulary!– bulk cargo is a mishmash of cargo all togther / breakbulk is cargo that must be handled individually–it’s the latter that caused the slow crawl of “handle with care”) that created lots of job oppotunity one day and no jobs the next.  These men had to compete with each other for job and got caught up in “shape-up,” which is basically a shake-down by companies to have the men flatter and pay for jobs.  After investigation and a crackdown, thankfully men got jobs through public drawing and then through categorization of seniority (in New York, the best were A Men–hallelujah–heehee).  Interestingly, Levinson points out, the dockworkers found loyalty with each other through mutual respect and understanding because they had no loyalty to a particular company.

This kind of job also creates a unique community.  The hours are unpredictable.  The struggle is shared.  This way of living is not like other ways of living like the nine-to-five grind.  This idea reflects the reason I give for loving my own job.  Every semester, I have a different set of hours and I meet a different set of people.  My hours are different every day.  I love the variety.  Maybe I would have made a great longshoreman.

Then again, the lifting bars of copper and bales of cotton are not really my thing.  I’d love to operate a forklift, but only once and for pleasure, not for pay.

The disturbing part of the dock-culture is the nepotism and segregation.  Lucy in Jennifer Egan’s “Reading Lucy” did not stand for racism.  On the docks in the shipping industry, race lines were drawn and followed.

Not disturbing at all is the gruff exterior longshoremen developed for themselves.  Levinson calls this persona “rough and ready.”  That evokes the ultimate picture of a man’s man doing a tough job and getting it done well.

Containerization to avoid breakbulk seems like such a simple solution.  When I read Levinson’s question, Why not put it all in a box and then move the box?, I thought, yes, why not do that?  The seemingly-simple, logical solution is good for the industry in some ways, but for New York, it turns into a different kind of chaos.  Instead of sifting through breakbulk piles of cheese and nails, the longshoremen found themselves sifting through a deteriorating waterfront job market.

Levinson, Marc. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006. Print.

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About Christina M. Rau

Poet, blogger, writer, editor, professor
This entry was posted in Brooklyn Industrial Waterfront, Docks and Shipping and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Chaotic Docks: Marc Levinson’s The Box, 2: Gridlock On The Docks

  1. Pingback: NY Yards Bust: Marc Levinson’s The Box, 5: Battle for NY’s Port | Rediscovering Brooklyn: A Local Tour De Force

  2. Pingback: Returning: Shulberg’s “The Waterfront Revisited” | Rediscovering Brooklyn: A Local Tour De Force

  3. Pingback: Cat Fight: Levinson’s The Box 6: Union Disunion | Rediscovering Brooklyn: A Local Tour De Force

  4. Olivier says:

    Hi,
    Great blog! Congratulations! This post about the shipping industry back in the 50’s is very interesting and, of course, raises many questions. I can only recommend a novel by Valerio Evangelisti, Noi Saremo Tutto (2008) or in French, Nous ne sommes rien soyons tout. The book tells the story of Eddie Lombardo and his family, the dock culture between 1920 and 1960.

  5. Pingback: Reading Recommendation | Along The Shore: Changing and Preserving the Landmarks of Brooklyn's Industrial Waterfront

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