Monday 6 July 2015

Upon The Discovery of Discipline

I sit hunched forward on the rusting fire escape, my scraped elbows resting against the supports of my bloody knees, violet and indigo bruises painted like watercolours beneath the ever-bronzing skin of my calves.

The warm Brooklyn breeze stirs the paint-flecked wisps of flyaway hair that dance around my sweaty, grime-smeared cheeks and as I inhale deeply, I systematically feel every iota of my body submit a creaking roll call in response.

I know then that this is the hardest I have ever worked for anything in my life.

Truthfully, I don't think it was possible to justly estimate just how hard it was going to be here - even after the workday is done.

Like soldiers we rise with the sun and must have our quarters shipshape for inspection at 9am sharp, with not so much as a single sock out of place. The power aboard is completely erratic and the electricity with it's own sporadic personality, choosing which rooms and sockets it would like to frequent, varying daily in what it will allow you to do, like some poltergeist you would very much like to be haunted by. 

The wifi situation is too stressful to even begin discussing.

The physical exertion required for our daily chores is astronomical - from using belt sanders to redecorate and restore one of the 107 year-old cabins, hauling seemingly endless coils of rusted iron chains and anchors to try and clean beneath them, to clambering speedily up the myriad of steel ladderways and treacherous staircases with arms full of boxes and tools - the idea of nourishment seems almost obsolete, as it never seems enough to keep us satisfied.

The hunger is so alien, so unfamiliar, that it's collaboration with exhaustion is utterly dehumanising some days. And when the nearest shops are a 25-minute walk away and unsafe to venture to after dark, we are often left with no choice but to adopt them, alongside the swathes of mosquitoes, as our unwanted companions that see us through the night.

To complete the picture, she is ruthless and unsympathetic in her demands of us. Her needs, desires and expectations are simply impossible to meet, which is just the way she likes it. With the energy and strength of a woman half her age and twice her size, she is meticulous and unforgiving, perpetually discontent and the effort we exert and the results we yield, yet with a facade of sickly-sweet, innocent girlishness which is subtly unsettling on a 68 year-old grandmother. 

Her views are frustratingly outdated and the females aboard are so often whisked away from practical, valuable work to be 'put to better use' scrubbing floors on our hands and knees or hanging up her clothes. However, this only serves to make me even more grateful for our Bostonian sea captain, refreshingly feminist without even realising it, because in his eyes, if you have two hands and can understand English then you're all set to labour hard.


we do not suffer.

Because all of this... and I still couldn't be more grateful. 

Every day is a challenge, therefore every single day is a powerful learning curve. Not only are we receiving hands on training with a variety of tools and techniques that I'd never dream I'd find myself proficient in, slowly but surely I'm finding myself undoing the lazy rituals I've developed from being a privileged youth, from being a university bum, from being an internet person who dictates and controls their life from their bed, a young person doing whatever they want just because they can.

In some ways, being a deckhand aboard the Yankee Ferry feels like one big survival test at a boot camp for millenials.

Discipline, respect, integrity, organisation, the beauty of a community united by the same, mutual loathing and a desperate need to figure out a way to 'make it work' -These are the powerful new characteristics I'm finally beginning to adopt and understand, all through lack of any other option.

It's overwhelming, but then, just like being a double agent, every day comes Cinderella hour. At 2pm I shower, scrub the paint and grease off my skin and the dirt from beneath my fingernails, swap my stained and ragged work clothes for my favourite outfits and I get to go to the ball. 

And let me tell you, when the prospect of summertime New York City is dangling at the end of a painfully laborious task you'd do anything to avoid, it's astonishing to discover just how hard you can push your body, mind and soul to reach it.

To me, this whole experience seems the perfect metaphor for that age old saying: 

Your dreams don't work unless you do.

And so here I find myself in the midst of a 14-hour stint playing apprentice painter-decorator, helping our captain Gerry after boat-hours on a freelance job painting a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn's affluent Park Slope.

I stroll around this 4-bed New York City apartment in awe, it's towering ceilings, white-washed walls and laminate wood floors the stuff of a million teenage girls' Tumblr blogs and Pinterest boards the world over. Gerry works in the other room and I am set to cutting in the paint around the door frame alone. I begin to hum and hear my voice echoed impressively in the acoustics of the tall, empty room.

So I begin to sing. 

Exhausted and bedraggled, I sing every song I have ever written and performed prior to my life here, with my best friends back at home, across the three bands we make up between us. It's not long before my mood slips into something a little divine, my imagination running wild. I dream of myself in 5 years time, those same songs having propelled my future into something remarkable, tip-toeing around this very same apartment but not as a scruffy, grubby decorators apprentice, as a resident, this place, this city my home, not a job. I can almost sense the shadow of that future me, gliding carelessly from room to room and that idea alone is enough to keep my spirits soaring throughout the rest of the grueling night.

Finally I reach the last room to paint. 

But before I do so, I notice some very faint marks on the wall. Upon closer inspection, I realise they are words the previous tenants must have painted onto the wall while they'd lived here, then attempted to conceal it with a wash of paint before they left. Despite my overbearing desire to be finished at last, unavoidably intrigued, I must reveal it's secrets.

And there I uncover a quote.


'To be nobody-but-yourself —in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.'

- E. E Cummings

I slowly lower the sandpaper in my hand.

Although I will never know who lived in that apartment, those people who resided in that room and decided to paint that quote across the wall, I suddenly felt a surge of emotive connection with them, whoever they were, and that alone was the greatest reward for a hard days work I could ever have hoped for. 

A little part of me even mused that perhaps it was had been that shade, the spectre of that future me reaching out in an Interstellar-type fashion to convey a message, encouraging me that I'm doing the right thing.

I liked that idea.

And so as I sit out on that fire escape high above that Brooklyn street, my entire body battered and aching, and slowly but surely, a grin breaks out across my expression as I feel my filthy skin begin to sing too. 

Because deep down in the core of me, somewhere between the top of my diaphragm and the southernmost ventricles of the heart which pumps the aching blood around my exhausted body, a small, glowing, humming bundle of purpose continually unfurls like perpetual petals of a pearleascent lotus.

Because belonging to a generation defined and castigated for our laziness, for a rejection of the physical world in favour of the cyber, and an apparent incomprehension of anything aside from instant gratification, I'll be damned if the blood, sweat, tears and turpentine of this bizarre adventure upon this mad boat doesn't feel a little like redemption.