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The Ordinary Seaman
by Francisco Goldman

Category: Fiction / General
381 pages; ISBN: 0-87113-671-6

Rating: 9/10  (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Coletta Ollerer


Esteban, a 19 year old former Sandanista guerrilla, decides to start a new life and signs on as an ordinary seaman on the ship Urus anchored at Brooklyn. Fourteen other Central American men do the same. Their hope was to return home with money in their pockets but instead they find themselves held hostage on the ship by virtue of their lack citizenship and withheld wages. Frustration and anger build while the deceitful `Captain’ Elias leads them on. His friend and `First Mate’, Mark are engaged in dishonest get rich-quick scheme. The Central Americans are unaware of this and have no one but them to trust.

After many months, Esteban decides to leave the ship at night and investigate the neighborhood. “Esteban waits by the rail awhile after Cabezon has plodded chuckling off to his cabin. Then walks swiftly back to the foredeck, steps over the rail, and hangs on in a crouch, looking down between his legs at the rope emerging from the mooring pipe and the black water underneath and in one motion pushes off and grabs the rope to his chest as he falls and wraps his legs around it, finding a center of balance after a few scary lurches.” He loves the feeling of freedom away from the ship at first but later comes upon some warehouses where he is able to steal food to bring back to the ship, frozen shrimp, blueberries, a side of beef. The others are very grateful for this addition to their meager menu of rice and sardines.

Bernardo, hired as the ship’s waiter, is doing laundry on the dock one day and an elderly couple comes strolling along. The men have never seen people on the dock before. Bernardo decides to tell them of their plight and to ask for help.

Bernardo receives severe burns to his leg when he spills hot oil in a cooking accident. The others do not know what to do. Elias and Mark are not around for days. The condition worsens and later Mark insists on taking him to a hospital himself. Elias hears of it afterward and tries to find the hospital where Bernardo is staying. He tells the crew that Bernardo has received treatment and was sent back home.

The old couple who had spoken to Bernardo on the dock went to the authorities and alerted them of the plight of the men. A Ship’s Visitor, John, comes aboard and promises to take them to see a lawyer. He returns later with food and clothing. This is a tale of sailors marooned aboard ship amid privation and deception and the resultant strength of the surviving spirit of man.


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