One of the things they don’t tell you about being a boatman is how to handle the power. No one comes up to you and explains how you are now the ferry of death, the skipper to heaven, and the official boatman of the Hudson River. No one except old Squidy Bill, but through his scurvy slicked maw I doubt you’d understand much. It’s only when he slowly walks into the Hudson, sinking into the riptide of New York’s mightiest river, that you begin to question your position. But by then it’s too late. You are the boatman now.
When I was hired to be the one and only boatman for the Hudson, my mind was focused simply on the shine of my sailor shoes, fear of fish, and building my boat resume. Never did I imagine the prestige a boatman would wield. Now that I’ve been on the Hudson for 11 straight months, I can tell you it’s certainly an enviable position, and not just to other boatman enthusiasts. Sometimes Mr. Manhattan himself looks out at my thin, murky ocean and wonders of my life. Well, let me tell you: It’s a wet one, but it’s better than being the boatman of the East River, that much I am sure of.
A boatman’s life is not an easy one, nor one that rewards you for your boat work. Day and night I ride the light waves of the Hudson, boating my boat from port to port. There are only two, but just like ears and rivers in New York, sometimes two is all you need. For it is at these ports that I dock my boat of boats, bringing aboard passengers who wish to travel the rickety river. They look upon me, their eyes fresh from my boatman musk, and they revere the boatman.
I am their shepherd, they are my sheep, and the Hudson is a field of wolves you can drown in.
Am I paid for my time as the boatman? I am, but not in the land money you hold so dear. I am paid in respect, and the thrill that comes with being a man of boat. Every moment is an adventure, every adventure a journey, every journey a revelation, and every revelation is about boats. About how high one may fly off the Hudson’s cold, father-like waves. Or how big a boat may seem once isolated aboard one for several months. All of these come together into an identity. That of a boatman. That of a river king.
When my time ends as this channel’s boatman, I will not weep, for my tear ducts have long since been salted shut. Every day as a boatman is a year as a landlubber, but a man should only live so many lifetimes. Eventually the title of boatman will be passed on to a new boatboy. One who will stand where I stood, look upon my waves, and scream the Boatman’s Chant into the Hudson night:
I AM THE BOATMAN, HEAR MY HORN.
I AM THE BOATMAN, LONE AND LORN.
I SAIL UPON MY BOAT WITH PRIDE,
COME WITH THE BOATMAN AND WE WILL RIDE.
WITH THIS BOAT AND ME ITS MAN,
WE WILL SAIL FAR FROM YOUR LAND.
BACK TO THE HUDSON, BACK ONCE MORE.
BOATMAN, BOATMAN, BOATMAN ROAR!
Luke Strickler is a writer in New York and a person everywhere else. He is a contributor at Above Average and a customer at Kohls.
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