25 December 2007

Christmas on the Open Sea

One of the central leitmotifs of Christmas is good will toward men and helping out your fellow beings, but, in the rush to ensure one's own good time, it's seldom acted upon these days.

One person who remembers to put others first is Carolina Salguero. For the past four years, Salguero, owner of the tanker Mary Whalen, waterfront activist, founder of PortSide NewYork and all-around Red Hook fixture, has been spearheading Operation Christmas Cheer, in which she and a small crew deliver newspapers and plates of Christmas cookies to seamen on tugs and barges who are forced to work on Christmas Day.

I loved the sound of the enterprise when I first read about it in the New York Times in December 2005, so when Christmas 2006 came around, I volunteered to help. Since my family wouldn't have been too pleased if I took off Christmas Day to sail around the harbor, I offered instead to bake cookies. My wife, son and I then boarded the Mary Whalen, which is moored in the Red Hook containerport, one the north side of Pier 9B, and helped Carolina wrap up the cookie plates.

We did the same this year. I beefed up the cookie allotment this time; last year I hadn't realized how many big, hungry sailors there were to feed. I came on board armed with about ten or twelve dozen. The snug galley is the place of operations. An enormous cast iron stove, counters and portholes surround a semi-circular table. Boxes upon boxes of cookies were piled high; Carolina gets contributions from many of the local bakeries at this point, included Margaret Palca. Her efforts have become well known among the seamen and they now look forward to a visit from her and her Santa-hatted helpers. She was due to go out with a crew of eight this year.

Carolina's mother, a warm, friendly woman from Martha's Vineyard, was on hand this year, and planned to sail on Christmas Day. We all divided duties between curring swathes of red cellophane, filling up plates with cookies, tying the packages with ribbon and attaching Operation Christmas Cheer tags. Hot cider was on offer, and holiday tunes played on a boombox. In good time, we had 22 plates set and done. Carolina then drove us back to the gate of the shipyard in the back of her pick-up, with us singing jingle bells as we went. It wasn't a horse-drawn open sleigh, but the spirit was the same.

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