IBM punch-card machine

Of bills of lading and a stolen $45


 "November Tide'' (oil and oil stick on canvas), by ROGER MARTIN, in his show "Bills of Lading: The Art and Poetry of Roger Martin,'' at the Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Mass., Feb. 14-June 28. Mr. Martin is Rockport’s first poet laureate and author of three books celebrating the people and poetry of his hometown.



The reference to "Bills of Lading'' brought back  memories of working in the mid-'60s in Mills Transfer Co.,  on the South Boston waterfront. The company was responsible for processing the shipping of  various goods, mostly for the New England shoe business, then in steep decline.

While the view  from the office of Boston Harbor and Logan Airport was gorgeous, (though the air was  often rank with the stench of the nearby pre-EPA Fort Point Channel) much of the work consisted of the tedious collection and filing of bills of lading. These are documents issued by a shipper that detail  what's in the shipment and confirms ownership of that shipment. Oddly, or maybe as a partial  and intentional offset to the tedium presented by these documents, the various  carbon copies came in lovely pastel colors, which I found soothing as I squeezed them  into gun-metal filing cabinets and longed for the clock to show 5 p.m.

Of course, this was long before the Internet. We had some electronic equipment, including an IBM punch-card machine the frequently broke  --- "do not fold, spindle or  mutilate,'' the cards warned -- and electric typewriters, but most of the work was manual, albeit with physical labor  in our office no more arduous than lifting with two hands cardboard boxes of  dusty paper files. It was all a bit heavier, of course, on the loading platforms below,  albeit with the aid of fork-lift trucks driven by tough members of the Teamsters union who were often  menacing in contract talks but always kept to the strict letter of the contract once a contract was in effect.

I found these guys very reliable and quite funny as I went down there from time to time for an office chore. And it was nice to smell the breeze off the harbor after a cool front came through and the wind turned from southwest to northeast.

Most of people in the office  smoked  (their favorite was Salem) and were friendly if almost universally sarcastic. I  became pals with most of them over three summers, especially after we took a summer lunch boat cruise around the Boston waterfront, which at the time was still decayed and a lure for arsonists. The great boom that was to turn the Hub into a kind of Midtown Manhattan was some years in the future. Indeed, in 1970--71, when I was a reporter for the old Boston Herald Traveler, the city was still quite dowdy and gritty. I was happy to move to New York City, even though it was falling apart then under the weight of bad (if usually well-meaning) governance, laws that ignored human nature and demographics.

Anyway, the exception  to the sarcasm was a  kindly guy with the wonderful name of Sylvester Gookin. (Dickens would have used it.)

I thought he was about 70, but I learned later he was only in his fifties. His white hair and haggard and sad face misled me. Apparently "Sylvie" (who was  notable for being 0ne of the few nonsmokers in the office and always wore an executive-style starched white shirt) had been an executive of some sort in   Mills Transfer Co.'s parent, the United Shoe Machinery Corp. -- now long dead but for decades Boston's biggest industrial enterprise. (The gold-topped, Art Deco  headquarters skyscraper that  the company  had built is still on Federal Street, but dwarfed by much newer towers.)

Sylvie, for whatever reason -- lack of confidence and ambition or focus  -- had been exiled to this little  fifth-floor office to perform low-paid, boring, but mostly stress-free, work.  But still "white collar''! The company was still cooly paternalistic and so few people were fired. The top execs didn't want the unpleasantness.

One  hot day someone stole $45 I had in the drawer of my desk. I mentioned it to Sylvia, who said in a weary but empathetic voice: "You'll loss a lot more than $45 in your life.'' For some reason, that line still haunts me. I assume that everyone in that office is now long dead.