This year, I am working as an intern at the Mission to Seafarers, alongside Elly Green, where we serve ships’ crews in a variety of ways to help them feel less alienated on their months-long contracts away from home. In this role, one of our main responsibilities is acting as a taxi service for crew members who want to leave their ship. We offer this service because the port is not very close to downtown, and cab rides can quickly become very expensive. At least, that’s the perspective I had when I started doing this job.
One chilly, cloudy day in mid-November, Elly and I were asked to pick up four men and take them down to Southcenter so that they could go shopping. We had met a few of these particular men before, so we were able to greet them genuinely and ask how they were doing. In the beginning, it was a perfectly average ride, with us chatting about the typical topics—how long is your contract? Do you have a family back home? How old are your kids? We talked casually for most of the drive down to the mall, where we dropped them in front of Ross, which is a popular clothing store for seafarers. They got out of the van, milled around for a moment, and then waved for us to open the window.
“If you have time, there is a Starbucks around the corner, if you want to join us for coffee.”
We looked at each other, shrugged, and parked the car.
Elly and I got in line with the seafarers and debated what to get, and when she and I finally got up to the cashier, the men weren’t really paying attention, so we started to pay for our coffees. Almost immediately, one of the men descended on us and (light-heartedly) rebuked us, saying he was paying for the coffee. We thanked him, and I picked up my drink. I went to sit down, claiming a table while the rest of them waited for their coffees. Eventually, the same man came over to me and said, quite insistently, “Go order some food. Just because I say I’m going to buy you coffee doesn’t mean I won’t buy you food.” I told him I wasn’t hungry, but he would not be denied. I got a donut. He tried to make me get a sandwich too, but I insisted I was okay.
We eventually all sat down with our coffees and treats, and what I expected to be a short chat turned into a forty-five minute, very entertaining conversation. They made us all guess their ages—three were in their twenties, and the other was close to fifty. Two of them seemed to be reasonably close friends and ragged on one another constantly, prompting the third young man to call them “Tom and Jerry.” But between the jokes and sarcasm, we also heard nuggets of truth. When they are in port, they are given eight hours off at a time—that is time in which they may sleep or leave the ship, so choosing to go shopping or sightseeing means they may get little to no sleep that day. This may seem like quite the sacrifice, but it is nothing compared to one of the men’s stories: his wife had recently given birth to a newborn baby girl, and he would meet for the first time when he went home in fifteen days. He excitedly showed us pictures of a chubby, adorable little girl. I am sure, once he arrived home, he picked her up and never put her down.
When the night ended and we returned them to their port, they left us with boxes of nice chocolates and asked us for a selfie. The following day, as they were about to leave the port, we received a phone call saying goodbye, as the end of their contract meant that we would likely never see them again. It wasn’t until we received that phone call that I realized just how much our time with them meant. On a ship, one can get incredibly lonely—you don’t get to choose your crewmates, and you can almost never get away from them or see anyone else, much less your chosen friends and family. But these men had felt a real friendship with us, and it was meaningful enough for them to go significantly out of their way—buying us coffee, donuts, and chocolate.
In the beginning, I thought our job was about providing material resources and acting as a taxi. Now, I realize it is so much more.