The boating season ended abruptly over the weekend, when the Boss said, “You’re coming out on Monday.” He had a red scarf tied on his head, pirate style, and addressed me from high on his forklift, balancing a powerboat on the two canvas slings. He said I’d have to get the motor off and take it to Buster to be winterized. “Can’t I winterize it?” I asked. He shook his head no. “Warranty,” he said.
The Boss has been remarkably tolerant since I introduced a new outboard motor into the marina without his permission in August. After my voyage with the eggbeater and two futile trips to the boat mechanic known as Abdul, in Meadowmere Park, I had had it with used outboards. The Boss was willing to set me up with a new motor, but it turned out that I couldn’t go to his marine-supply store, out on Long Island, and buy it myself (“They won’t break it down for you”), and he couldn’t send his assistant, Frank, till the following week. It was already well into August, and I was beyond frustrated. So I ricocheted back to my old buddy Pete and had a meltdown on him. He made a few phone calls on a Friday afternoon, and on Saturday morning I bought a six-horsepower Mercury for $1,300 in cash at Buster’s, the second-largest employer in Broad Channel after Call-A-Head ("Portable Toilets of Every Description").
“Now all you have to do is enter Buster’s number into your cell phone and call him when you break down on Jamaica Bay,” Pete said on the phone. I was puzzling over this when we got cut off, and he called back to say it was a joke. (I have a history of calling Pete when I get in trouble out on the bay; his number is in my cell phone under “SOS.”) When I brought the motor over to the marina to put it on the boat, Pete helped, but he kept his distance. The Boss, who was a little distracted because he was hosting a party, grumbled, “Any trouble you have with that motor is Buster’s problem.” I don’t know what their problem is with Buster, or with Mercury motors (unless it has something to do with the markings on the throttle: a turtle for slow and a rabbit for fast). That night, I dreamed that wherever I went I was carrying around a great weight. I’m pretty sure it was my destiny as the owner of a new outboard motor.
I’ve taken good care of the motor, hosing it off after every use, so the salt won’t eat it, consulting the owner’s manual, checking the oil. I put a lock on it so it wouldn’t get stolen. Pete would have been welcome to use the boat anytime, but the motor has a little gizmo on a lanyard that has to be wedged under the stop button in order to start it up, and I keep that lanyard zipped in a plastic pouch in my backpack, along with the boater registration, the owner’s manual, and my crib sheet. I consult the crib sheet religiously, both going and coming: Attach gas line, Open vent on gas can, Attach lanyard, Set throttle on Start, Put gear in Neutral, Pump gas, Open choke, Pull cord, Close choke. I check the flags in the marina to see which way the wind is blowing and decide which end of the boat to untie last. I put her in reverse to leave the slip, then change gears and cruise past the cormorants, watching me with their beady red eyes as I head into the open water.
The Boss had given me notice late on Saturday afternoon, so I had time to go out once more, on Sunday, and to think of a way to get the motor off the boat without dropping it in the water. For my last excursion of the season, I had a passenger, my friend G., who lived for years in Venice. She had dressed all in black, so I lent her a shirt and a sweater, partly because I was afraid she’d be cold but mostly because I consider it bad luck to wear black in a boat. She borrowed a pair of shoes, apparently expecting the boat to get swamped and not wanting to ruin her own shoes. She had twisted her wild red hair into two horns.
We went first into Barbadoes Basin, because I had read in the Wave the details of a plan to build a new marina there. I was telling G. about it—room for thirty-five to fifty boats, a public boat ramp, a restaurant and catering hall—and she said, “But why would you want to change marinas?” I DON’T want to change marinas. While I had been at the marina the day before, watching the Boss and Frank and Pete lowering that boat into the water, a big excursion boat—the Golden Sunshine—had come by, on a sunset tour of Jamaica Bay. We could hear the tour guide’s spiel from the marina. The Boss grinned, and said, “We’re on the tour!” Then he shouted, “Go away! We’re the mean marina! Everybody hates us!” I wouldn’t be interested in boating at all if a boat weren’t an excuse to hang around with this crew.
G. and I crossed the bay, sticking near the buoys, the nuns and the cans. It was breezy, and my Vermeer cap blew off, which was too bad, because it was also sunny, and that cap was a souvenir of my sibling’s tree-cutting business. (Vermeer makes wood chippers.) For years I’d been wanting to take the boat into Hawtree Basin, to see West Hamilton Beach, a neighborhood that is visible from the A train, on the other side of the tracks from the long-term parking lot at JFK. From the train, it looks like redneck country. There is a narrow boardwalk along the tracks over canals and an isolated neighborhood of rickety houses with boats tied up in watery back yards. At moon tides, the bay is lapping at the floorboards. From the boat, the houses along the canal were charming, with a squalid little trailer or two, and clothes flapping on a line. There was a ferry, like a traghetto in Venice, to get back and forth across the canal, and a fire boat, and a boat called the Phoenix. There were swans, a fisherman on a blue bow bridge, a man having coffee and reading the paper on the dock behind a house that might have been a little yacht club. We nosed our way to the end of the canal, then turned around and headed back.
Before going back into the marina, I consulted my notes: Unplug gas line (so that the motor will putt to a stop and there will be no gas left in it), Plug in gas cap, Close vent on gas tank. I slow down entering the marina, and put her in Neutral as I turn into my slip. Sometimes I manage, once I'm in position, to put her in Reverse and come in for a perfect landing, but I have also been known to accidentally put her in Forward and then have to throw myself on the dock as she churns away, out of control. I usually rinse off the motor after raising it out of the water, but the hose on the dock had been disconnected. Frank helped me take the motor off the boat. O.K., Frank took the motor off the boat for me—it weighs about forty pounds, and I am certain that if I had tried to do it myself both it and I would have ended up in the water. He trundled it up to the parking lot on a handtruck and hosed it off. My job, as I saw it, was to keep him from laying the motor down on the side that said “This Side Up.” (The manual includes very urgent warnings against this: the crankcase will leak or something.) I stood the motor up in my car, on the floor of the back seat. I felt a great weight lift from me. Pete and the Boss may have washed their hands of me and my mechanical problems once I started doing business with Buster (and I may yet find out why they don’t do business with Buster), but once I got a new motor I didn’t have any mechanical problems. In fact the only casualties of the season (an admittedly short season) were a few splinters, from grabbing the dock when I misjudged my landing, and the lost Vermeer cap.