I live in an intertidal zone. During low tide, herons peck in channels running through the thick, oily mud. Around the docks, a one-legged gull and brazen snowy egret are unafraid of the dogs that step outside to howl at the occasional raccoon or the cats fighting for territory on the docks. Wafts of marijuana in the air are as predictable as the tide, and generally some sort of band practice is underway. Low tide smells rank at times, like an ugly secret revealed. Skeletons of old docks still cling to the mud, relics of WWII boat building days. During the war, 26,000 pilings were pounded into the mud, 6 ship launching ramps were built, 2,000 people worked round the clock. They built Liberty ships faster than the Germans could sink them. Some credit the Allied Victory to this. After the war ended, people stayed on the water in Sausalito. They had nowhere else to go, so they lifted rafted up in the wake of the Liberty Ships.
Twice a day, the tide arrives like a dose of good luck. Light reflects off the water and dapples across my walls. Cormorants dry themselves on wood pilings. Every so often a seal swims by my front door. There’s something about the ebb and flood of a tide that teaches about uncertainty in life. You have less anxiety on the water because you know, the tide may be out right now, but it’s always going to come back.
I borrowed money from a brother to buy my houseboat. He had been stashing gold bars under his bed for years. We wrote up a contract, and I agreed to pay interest on a 15 year repayment plan, and he shipped them to me. I visited a gold dealer who had an armed guard in his waiting room. He told me the price and asked me if I wanted to “lock in”. I did, and then paid cash for my house, as no bank will give a loan to anyone buying in my dock, the Gates Cooperative.
My dwelling is pure hippie architecture—a wooden boat chopped in half and plunked onto a cement hull with another room framed in. My kitchen is a boat galley, and one wall for my narrow bathroom an arcing ship hull. The addition, built on the cement barge is a boxy structure, with no measurements standard or up to code. The stairs down to it are of varying height, the floors were plywood painted rust rage, if rage had a color, this would be it. There was no heating, just an old wood stove left to rust out on the deck, and the bottom four feet of the walls in the main room were the chilly and unsightly cement barge.
My first night on my houseboat, I saw an owl perched in a sailboat rigging and the full moon rising over Angel Island, turning the bay indigo; I picked up my Ocho and his fur smelled like fog. I was home.
My home is in the Gates Cooperative, a ramshackle dock of floating houseboats patched together in the 70’s with plywood and black tar. Telephone lines spiderweb to the utility poles and drip precariously close to the water. Winter tides often knock floats from under the dock pathways, and so they wobble when you walk. When visitors arrive and walk the dock and see the wires, they often mutter, “This reminds me of the Philippines. I saw a place like this in Brazil once. Hmm, sort of like China.” Once at a cocktail party, I told a woman that I had moved to Sausalito. She made a face as if she smelled something bad. “So then you can tell me. Why would anyone choose to move to the suburbs?” she asked. I thought for a moment and answered “parking is good.”
* * *
I met a visual artist at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts. He was from Philly and installed huge murals in public spaces on the east coast, so before he returned home I asked him if he could paint an Octopus on my house. “That’s my specialty,” he said.
He came over and painted a giant blue octopus on my house. It runs the length of my house and is cartoon-like, sort of a pleasant hallucination. My neighbors, wary of outsiders who want to gentrify, loved the octopus. They brought him wine and cheese and pot while he painted. I didn’t have furniture yet, and so that evening we sat on the plywood floor next to a space heater and I fed him boiled crab, bread and wine. When he left the next morning, my neighbors waved and smiled. I was fitting into the neighborhood. The artist went back east but promised to return to paint crabs and jellyfish on the other side. Later my friend Colette visited and commented, “At this point, you probably want to date a carpenter rather than an artist.”
Getting the Internet company out to hook up wireless took months. They kept insisting I didn’t exist, and that according to their GPS, my house was a blank spot in the bay. When they finally sent someone out, he traced the tangles with his eyes, approaching it as someone does a physics equation. He hitched up his pants, and said, “We refer to this as ‘homeowner wiring,’ but I can handle this.” Though later he explained that it took him longer than he expected because he helped some people unload a keg of beer for a party that night.
Autumn is raccoon mating season and these creature make alley cat sex sound romantic. I laid in bed listening as a what sounded like a gang rape took place on my roof. A group of the animals ran to one side, screaming ensued. Then there was scuffling and running back to the other side. More screaming. I thought I heard my fig tree crack in half. The next day three raccoons were at my front door, eyeing the bowls of cat food inside. All that vigorous love making had made them hungry.
If the temperature drops below 68 degrees, all the little dogs on the dock appear in striped sweaters, SF Giants T-shirts, or leather jackets from 2nd hand stores strapped onto them. Residents salt down the docks, as if moisture might just jump the freezing point by 10 or so degrees and form ice on them. Everyone uses space heaters to warm their houses and often have seasonal Christmas lights strung up. At night, the electricity always blows as the 38 houses share power that is normally used for 2 regular houses. At times when it goes out, flames shoot from the main boxes. But mostly, people just lay there and wait in the cold until someone wraps themselves in a coat and heads out into the night and flips the switch. Then the lights and heat blink back on, at least for awhile.
My neighbor Maude is always dressed in something with a little bling to it-flared jeans, a fitted t-shirt with gold chains zig-zagging across the chest, or flip-flops with rhinestones. It hard to say if her endless wardrobe is because she organizes seasonal clothing swaps four times a year or she plans them to get the cute clothes. When I see her on the docks, she always reminds me to “bring good stuff.” We have complained about people who bring old underwear or natty, stained clothes. Like, really, you think someone wants this? A friend of Maude’s showed up with 7 bags of clothes in good shape. This friend of a friend was cleansing from a very bad decision. She got deep into yoga and started having an affair with her Ashtanga instructor. She left her husband for the yogi, only to find out he was a was stuppin several women–all yoga students. The term “cult” came up a lot. Now she and her husband are reconciling and she wanted to rid herself of all her yoga clothes and so sent them to the swap.
We unpacked bag after bag. I grabbed some bright purple yoga pants, and a soft half-sweater that dancers might wear. As we continued to unpack the outfits, they became more and more suspect. Sheer tops, short shorts. A lipstick red velour bustier top with a matching jacket. It was like watching a bad decision deepen into bolder hues and scantier cuts– a fashion show of bottomless, if not sporty, desires. Each outfit a way of saying “look at me, love me. Choose me. Change my life.” Maude’s friend wouldn’t take any of them, as she didn’t want her friend to see her in them and feel “uncleansed”. But Maude and I did. “Hell,” Maude said. “A little Oxyclean will take away all the bad karma.” I concurred, and I have to admit, I feel a little saucy in purple yoga pants from the swap. I like to think of them as a gateway into desire and increased flexibility.
Pete is a handsome pilot who has dated hundreds of lovely women and found fatal flaw in each. I knew that it would be no different with me. Our mutual friend, Colette had warned me, “He can’t do it. Until he gets prostate cancer and his penis stops working, he won’t settle down and commit.” Other friends have speculated that he might be gay. Pete argued against this: “People think I’m gay because I have good manners and work out. That doesn’t bode well for straight guys.” So we never dated, but instead became flirtatious friends. Pete flew in and replaced rotting boards on my front deck and the kitchen sink that leaked. As for the unsightly cement barge, he suggested that I cover it with stucco. When I told him that I wanted to insulate it and put wainscoting on it, he insisted on the stucco even more. I related this to my friend Renee, and interior designer. “Well,” she said. “Now you know that he’s straight.”
My boat sways in the winter storms and I listen to the winds. Somewhere out in there in the world there are Chinook winds, crosswinds, dust devils, mistrals, and siroccos. There are gentle zephyrs, persistent trade winds, and an airstream up high in the sky. There are gust, gales, monsoons, twisters, typhoons, and whirlwinds. When mariners describe a “westerly” or a “Southeaster”, this is where the wind originates, and the direction it is blowing from. I used to work on fishing boats in Alaska. There, the winds tunnel through narrow passes and over mountainous terrain, until the gusts arrive like a personal punishment. Here, the winds arrive like memories, both fearsome and benign. But instead of thinking I might die, like in Alaska, I mostly worry about my patio furniture on the roof getting blown into the drink. People ask if I get seasick on my houseboat and I smile when I remember Alaska. Back then, the winds used to pick us up and shake us like dice at a craps shoot. “No, I tell them. I never get seasick in my house. Not here.”
When my mother died, my siblings and I figured that my father would re-marry immediately. Statistically, that’s what men do when they are widowed and he had never lived alone in his 72 years. So I braced myself for the woman who would agree to marry this lovable but deeply flawed man.
Instead, he sold their house, packed his car and drove west. My three brothers, who all have large houses in El Paso, Texas not far from the border town of Ciudad Juarez, invited him to live with them. They have cleaning women, swimming pools and children who love their grandfather. One even offered to have a studio apartment built in his 5000 square foot dwelling. I live in a 500 square foot floating houseboat in Sausalito, California 10 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge. Guess which location he chose?
He moved onto my couch. And then he began chasing women with gusto. He shined his shoes before dates, and if he hit it off with someone, on the second date, he bought flowers for her. Sausalito is like Cabo San Lucas for seniors. His dates invited him to their belly dancing extravaganzas, to participate in their nude life drawing gatherings, drove him on the back of their BMW motorcycles, took him to yoga, acting classes and nude parties. My father eventually bought a speedboat and lived on it in a nearby harbor. I called one of my brothers, concerned. My brother yelled into the phone: “Hey, if he falls in drunk and dies, he died happy. Stop worrying about it.”
The people at the Gates have been dubbed “a floating tribe of low rent pirates.” Everyone except me owns their homes outright. I’m not sure how homesteading here worked, but from the stories told about the wild days in the 70’s, lots of sex and drugs were involved. These are people who didn’t leave the party. It looks a little different now. My sister, who lives on dock over, called and said she looked out her window and saw an elderly woman sitting on a bench, putting whiskey in her morning coffee. She recognized her as my neighbor, Penny. “Oh yeah, I told her. “She likes an Irish coffee before dialysis.”
In my small container garden, when my lavender has grown spindly and it’s more mildew than Mediterranean, or a lemon tree won’t bloom, or there’s a potted pepper tree someone is tired of watering, or a person moves from the houseboats and can’t take their palm tree or cactus, they get dropped off at the Gates Garden. This maze of rescued and unwanted plants create an oasis off the parking lot: blooms and spikes and fronds accented with rusted ships parts and other found sculptures. One man in the Co-op waters every day and the unwanted plants flourish here.
The neighborhood pot sellers and buyers gather to drink tall, cool cans of malt liquor and complain about an array of esoteric things—once, Robin, who has a wandering eye and likes to dress like Madonna during her “Like a Virgin” phase, started ranting about how ambulances waste our tax money. Robby, who warns me that he has gone to prison before for assault, and will again if any tries to steal his Iphone, once made a fire in a barrel that raged so high, it lit a nearby tree on fire. Gerard dresses in army fatigues, and cleans his bb gun in the garden, though he swears that he is in the process of getting a real rifle.
But one day queen-of-the-garden showed up. She perched in the center of the garden in a hot-pink plastic chair, looking as dramatic as the century agave plant sending up thick spike behind her; she had a brightly colored towel wrapped around her head like a turban. Deep, flimsy cleavage exposing the effects of gravity and aging and lost power. She was smoking her cigar and laughing and arguing with herself. The others left, all except Robin who just moved away. When Robin saw me walk by, she made a circling motion around her temple. “She’s crazy,” she mouthed.
* * *
A crow hopped along a dirt pile near our parking lot, tipping to one side, his broken wing dangling open at an unnatural angle to the ground. There is something incredibly disturbing to me about a bird unable to fly. My neighbor Robert is both a crow expert and works for Wildcare rehabbing wild animals, so I ran and got him. We herded the crow and he tossed a towel over him and announced he would keep him in a cat cage and take him to Wildcare the next day. “What do they like to eat?” I asked him. “Scrambled eggs,” he said.
The next day Robert came by with an update. “I was tempted to keep him,” he said. “Crows are smart and would make a great pet. But they told me that if his wing was broken in one spot, he could be rehabbed and released. But if his shoulder is broken, it can’t be fixed and they’ll put him down.”
My neighbor Tom overhead this. “I’ll adopt him,” he said. “Hell, I had a pet Peking Duck and owl. A crow would be a great pet.”
Robert answered, “Wildcare doesn’t let people adopt wild animals. And I would mind adopting him either.”
Robert had led a workshop on crows at our local library and it was standing room only. They truly are amazing animals. They can recite opera with their birdsong, they display a wide range of emotions, from happiness to anger and vocalize these. They are fearless and will drop pinecones and sticks on predators. They are considered one of the most intelligent birds, and are extremely social—a large group of them is called “a murder.”
Robert stopped by the next day. “Do you know what euthanasia means?” He asked. “Sure,” I said and shrugged. “It’s Greek for a good death,” he answered. “Our crow had multiple breaks in his wings and his small intestine was damaged. They euthanized him, but it was much better than being chased by dogs and cats and dying a slow death in the parking lot.”
“Glad I didn’t adopt him,” Tom said. “He would have suffered.”
We both nodded.
“Have you seen the photos of the seagulls spreading their wings? They are like fingers,” Tom said.
“Seagulls are just incredible,” Robert answered. “You can watch them do it when they land on these pilings right here.”
We went inside and Tom pulled up photos of seagulls, captured in a second, their wings flayed out, we admired the feathers: contour, semi-plume, powder-down. I felt very lucky to stand between two neighbors who both wanted to adopt an injured crow, mourn it, and then moved on to admire the beauty of a seagull.
* * *
I spent weekends sanding and painting my house, and slowly starting to feel at home. Gypsy, the cat next door, originally from Tijuana, who would dive into the water after crab and fish, stopped beating my cat up and started tolerating him. In the morning, light would hit the water and flickered across my kitchen walls, now painted lime sorbet and I added brightly colored cushions over the galley bench. The ship had been somewhat emasculated, but felt fresh and bright.
I found a captain’s bed on Craigslist and made handles for the drawers out of driftwood and painted part of a poem by Pablo Neruda onto the base of it “and every day on the balcony of the sea,/ wings open, fire is born,/ and everything is blue again like morning.” I had run out of money for repairs, and so had to live with walls gouged open, very little furniture, and a bare bathroom with no shelves.
I met Tim while paddling outrigger canoes. On our first date, we took his stand up paddle boards around the bay, and I asked him if he wanted to see my house. Unfortunately, my father had dropped by and decided to take a nap in my bed, so when I arrived with Tim, we had an awkward moment as my dad popped up, shook his hand and left.
Tim, a sailor who had before worked in Alaska as a carpenter, was impressed with the funkiness of the place. At the end of that date, Tim had told me that he was on a break with his girlfriend. “Well then I can’t become involved with you,” I had told him. “Okay,” he answered. “But I’d still like to help you with your house.”
When I noticed that my hull was hitting the dock, and it had huge bolts sticking out, I called Tim. He came over with eight buoys and tied them on the docks so my boat wouldn’t get damaged. Then, he noticed that a wood ramp was rotting. “Let me fix that so you don’t hurt yourself,” Tim said. “And we don’t need dad falling overboard.” As he cut the wood, then installed it, wielding a power drill in each hand, I admitted, “I find you really attractive right now.”
That led to a make out session, and it seemed that his relationship with his former girlfriend was over, but he had just started dating another woman. I told him that we could just be friends. “Okay, I’d like to come over and make shelves in the living room,” he said.
My girlfriends insisted that I find a man who was emotionally available and felt lucky to be with me. But Tim was going to build me a vanity in my bathroom, ship style that folded back up into the wall. So I stayed with him and I started to really like him. He was a big guy, with shoulders like a gladiator, but he was really gentle and kind—I’d sometimes find him out in our parking helping someone get their car started or carrying stuff for my elderly neighbors, who would try and thrust a joint on him in gratitude. He loved to eat, and so when he came over to work on my place on Saturdays, I fed him well afterwards. We’d sit on the porch, or sometimes barbecue with neighbors. I had a great view here, bought jerky treats for the dogs that dropped by, and on warm evenings I’d gather with my neighbors on the dock for drinks, a potluck always ensued and guitars would come out. I never needed to lock my door.
My only girlfriend who didn’t protest my dating Tim during this uncertain time was Colette, who owned several rental properties and was married to a carpenter. “Oh yeah, there’s nothing sexier than when a guy asks ‘you want tongue and groove or plank?’” She had once said that her husband hated talking about his feelings, and never gave her flowers, but that he would drive 50 miles to change her flat tire, even if he’d been telling her not to drive on that tire for months. “That’s their declarations of love,” she told me.
Eventually, Tim told me that he had stopped seeing the other woman. I didn’t push him about commitment or to ask him about his feelings for me. I not only liked him, but also depended on him. If he told me that he didn’t want a future with me, then I would have to break things off, again, and possibly for good this time. One lesson that I felt living on the water, with the constant switch of tide could teach me, is living with uncertainty, and becoming comfortable with the ebbs and flows in relationships, so I didn’t push it, not just yet. One morning I received an email from him: “My idea for your stairs is to make quarter pie shaped steps with the one flat side towards the bathroom and have a railing on that side. Storage would also be under the stairs with a cabinet door or even pullout shelves or drawers. This way you can flow down the stairs like a queen.” This may as well have been a love poem, Neruda in the form of carpentry.
Maria Finn is the author of the TED Book, The Whole Fish: How Adventurous Eating of Seafood Will Make You Healthier, Sexier, and Help Save the Ocean (October 2012). Her novel–in-progress, Sea Legs & Fish Nets, based on her experiences working on an all female commercial fishing boat in Alaska, was a finalist for The Pen/Bellwether Prize for novels that address issues of social and environmental justice. Her memoir, Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home (Algonquin Books 2010), was published in the United States, Holland and Italy. It has been optioned by Fox Studios for a television series. Her book on edible gardening, A Little Piece of Earth, was published by Rizzoli in 2010. She compiled and edited the literary anthologies Cuba in Mind, (Vintage 2004) and Mexico in Mind (Vintage 2006). Her essays have been anthologized in The Best Food Writing 2006, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007, A Contemporary Cuba Reader: Reinventing the Revolution (2007), Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North (2009), and The New York Times 36 Hours (2011). She has been a regular contributor to Sunset Magazine and has written for Afar Magazine, Audubon Magazine, Saveur, Gastronomica, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wine Spectator, among many other publications.