Bottoms Up 


            We were all infected by the Great Depression of the Thirties.  Survival often meant adaptation.  Coal for cooking and heat was in abundance, piled high on the loading docks, to be loaded on steamships to be used as fuel.  At night, some of us carrying gunny sacks, would climb the fence around the docks, and steal coal for our families.  At times, the waters of New York Harbor offered unexpected dividends.  Arriving ships carrying fruit, produce, at times beef from Argentina, or lamb meat from Australia, would find that there were no buyers, or it would cost more to unload the cargo  than the buying price offered.  Much of such cargo was dumped into the harbor, to be carried out to sea by the tide.  At times some of us would swim out and intercept floating bunches of bananas or boxes of fruit, and bring them ashore.  I even helped bring a side of beef ashore, to be cut up and distributed among ourselves.  I sought to take some shoulder, neck, or rib meat, home.  My mother knew the source, but she would tell my father that she had purchased kosher meat.  He praised my mother for her frugal, but good shopping.  I never knew if my father realized, but overlooked the occasional plentiful supply of fruit and meat.


            There were many ferries in use in the lower and upper areas of the harbor.  Near Red Hook were ferry lines to Manhattan and Staten Island.  The ferry from Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, ran to the Battery in Manhattan.  From Brooklyn, the 39th and 69th Street ferries ran to Staten Island.  I and other young teenage swimmers would swim near the ferries, wave and hope for passengers to throw coins at us.  We learned that the incoming ferries were more productive, since the passengers were grouped in the front, waiting for their landing. We did not swim too near the landing ferry,  because the ferry would often reverse, and then forward propulsion as it maneuvered to dock. We were cautious, we did not wish to be sucked under a propeller.  We also knew that nudity paid off.  The passengers were amused to see bare bottoms suddenly appear as we upended ourselves to dive for the falling coins.  Coins flutter and turn as they sink, and catching them before they sank too deep was not difficult.  Most of the coins thrown were pennies and nickels, occasionally a dime, and very rarely a quarter.  I carried a small, drawstring, cloth bag tied to my ankle, in which I placed the collected coins.  At times I made as much as forty cents for a half day of bare ass swimming.  People selling apples on street corners often did not make as much in a day. 


            One day I saw a yacht approaching.  A cigar-smoking man, flanked by two lovely girls were on the deck watching.  I raced with the others to the yacht and waved.  In the bright sunlight I saw a silvery sheen descending toward me.  It looked like a quarter, even a half dollar, as I reached up to catch it before it hit the water.   The laughter of the man and the roar of delight of the girls, resonated in my ears, as I realized that I had caught the glob of spit the man had spewed in my direction.  I washed and scrubbed my hand when I arrived home, and to this day I unconsciously scrub the palm of my right hand more vigorously than the left.   It had been my right hand that had caught his spit.