Avram's Past

Avram, the Merchant Seaman

Reading the Steve Jobs bio made me want to share a bit more about my past just in case Walter Isaacson does not write my bio.

I got my high school diploma because my mother pretty much  bought  for me from a private school called Drew in San Francisco were we lived..  I took a bunch of tests, showed up a few times and there I was a  graduate.  It was clear by that time that I would never succeed in college and I had no interest in going there anyway.  My teen years had prepared me for little more than being a poet, political protester, fledging jazz pianist and composer and one of the skinniest guys around (107 pounds and 5.8 tall).  I was human laser beam and could walk through walls by turning sideways.

My maternal  grandmother, Della Silverman, was married to her second husband, Jack Silverman.  Her former husband, Mark Harris, my grandfather had committed suicide  in 1948 at the age of 50.  Not too much later, Della married Jack.   He was an interesting man that played a pretty significant role in my life from time to time.  For instance, Della and Jack lived for many years in Las Vegas where Jack worked in a casino as a dealer and Della managed the gift shop at the Sahara Hotel.  My younger sister, Beverly, and I would visit them for the summer when we were young. She would park us at the hotel pool.  I remember Betty Grable watching out for me as did a number of show girls.   Jack thought me how to tip the captain to get a good seat at some of the Vegas shows (Bev and I saw most of the Rat Pack).  I use to joke that I gave 20 dollars to the captain of the airplane to sit up front.

Anyway, there I was turning 18 and every one in the family was worried about my future. They thought  I would end up as a failure.  My mom did not care since she would love me no matter what.  Then Jack had an idea.  I should join the merchant marines, specifically,  the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards.   They had a training facility in Santa Rosa (strangely my home in Kenwood CA is just ten miles away), and he could get me in (by paying some people off).  Since I had no other plans I said yes.

The training school  was located  Santa Rosa, California and had two programs.  One was for  cooks and the other was for stewards and waiters. I was enrolled in the stewards program where we learned to be waiters (of the five star type) and stewards (which was like being a maid with trousers).  Associated with the school was a retirement home for merchant seamen.  So these guys had their rooms tended to by the trainees and they had the same kind of meals you would get on a luxury liner (Baked Alaska was a favorite desert I recall).  They were mostly a group of assholes.

I actually enjoyed learning to wait tables.  I could take the orders for a table of ten people in my head.  I loved carrying a fifty pound tray filled with plates of food (which turn out to be very damaging to me which I will explain later).  I liked the other trainees.  About half of them were gay and it was the first time I really interacted with gay men. One of them thought me how to use  creams to keep my skin in good shape.  I also developed a close friendship with a man named Nate who  was also the head waiter at the Purple Onion in San Francisco.  He did not really need to be trained but he had to go through  the program part of the time to get his diploma. He wanted to sail to Japan.   I would spend my free days staying with Nate and his Japanese wife at their apartment on Bush Street.   They were the guardians of two Japanese  twin girls my exact age.  The girls were singers and had steady job in San Francisco.  I  fell for one of them, Kaiko and we were sort of dating.  But we were always chaperoned. I would go to the club where they were performing and then a large group of us would go to some after hour club where we could dance.  I still remember  dancing with her to “I left my heart in San Francisco”.  I only got to kiss her a few times.  She and her sister did not speak english and I started learning  Japanese.   I really got into Japanese culture for a while.  Unfortunately, I took a roll of photos which were taken of  the two of us to my grandfather, Bill Goldfinger to develop. He owned a camera shop on Post Street near Market Street.  I did not know how much he hated Japanese people (WWII). He would not talk to me after this for many years.  Eventually, Kaiko and her sister went to Las Vegas to work.  I was invited to join them but I decided this was not the life I wanted to live.

Merchant  seamen jobs were controlled by their union.  If you were qualified for certain time you would put a card  in for the job.  The cards would age up to 90 days and then reset.  The person with the oldest card would get the job.  So you had to kind of bet on a bunch  of factors to decide what and when to bid on a Job.   I really wanted to get a job on the President Roosevelt because it was one of the few ships that sailed around the world.  I would have gotten it I think if I had not almost died first.

One day as I was waiting to put in my card, I felt a very strong pain in my left chest.  If I had that now, I would think I had a heart attack but I was only 18 and was eating a cheeseburger at the time.  I called my mom in terror because the pain was so great.   She said I should go directly to my doctors office.  So somehow I drove there.  He examined me and then called an ambulance.  The next thing I knew, I was at Mt. Zion Hospital with what they call a Spontaneous Pneumothorax.  Mine was really bad.  They tried a number of treatments but nothing worked.  My left lung was collapsed and would not heal.  They ended up having to do a Thoracoscopy which involved opening my chest wall (I am missing a few ribs) and basically gluing my lung to the chest wall.  Anyway, I was in the hospital for a number of weeks and almost died.  I was left with the equivalent of 1 1/2 lungs and a massive scare.  The really awful thing was I was not able to put my card in for the Roosevelt.  But I did mange to get a gig on the President Cleveland as the Steward for the officers.

The ship was it own world.  There were thousands of passengers and four times as many crew.  The crew was divided into those that interfaced with passengers or officers  and who had blue union cards and those that did not and had red union cards. Most of  the red card holders  where chinese and did not associate with the rest of us other than at the gambling  tables that were set up for the crew.  Of those that interfaced with the passengers, about half were gay and half were straight.  I found that out the fist night we sailed when I was walking around in ship and found a party going on with some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen (they were not actually women).   So we sailed to Honolulu where I went to the beach.  It was crazy because I had the biggest and yet unhealed  scare up my back.   I didn’t care. I was alive.  When we were at sea, I  get up early and go up to the highest deck on the ship and watch the sun rise.  Given the earth curvature, I felt that I was sitting on a dime.  Everything in ever direction was round.

While at the school I had developed a friendship with an American Japanese person.  He was a  Nisei (second generation Japanese) named Ken. He could speak Japanese but not that well. However, he married a very sweet woman from Japan and brought her back to San Francisco. I spent a lot of time at their home.  When we  went to Japan (Yokohama ) for the first time, Ken took me on a little trip.  He knew that I was still a virgin (at 18) so he took me to this bar.  It was actually very nice and there was no one there.  Then a very sweet 18 year old girl was introduced to me.  Her name was Miyoko.  I still did not know what was going on. She took my hand and brought me to a room.  I will not go into details but when I left, I was no longer a virgin.  Then Ken came back with two girls. I remember I said “I did not know you could do it with two”.

Things were pretty dangerous on the ship. There would be fights with knives and people actually got killed. Sometimes men were thrown over board. I am not kidding!!  I have not idea how I survived.  The fist time I went to Hong Kong (Hong Kong in 1963 was very different then now), I went to a bar where the officers that I served happen to be. Each had to buy my a drink.  We were on the mainland (Kowloon).  I got totally drunk.  I wanted to go to Mt. Victoria because  I had seen the movie “Love is a many  splendor thing” . So I got onto a Star  Ferry boat.  And of course I choose to buy he lowest class ticket.  I ended up on the bottom level of the boat where the Coolies were.  It was a sea of black clothes.  I got scared as we were traveling across the bay and got closer to the side of the boat. Then I fell over.  They stopped the boat and and I was pulled in.  I was all wet but took a tram up to Victoria Peak.   By the way, Hong Kong was a third world country in 1963 with people sleeping in the streets on bare mattress.

After Hong Kong we went to Manila.  There were bars that said “please check your guns”. I was warned to stay away from the bar girls because they were really transvestites. I did.  People constantly tried to rob me especially young children. I was once shot at.  I did not like the place but Ken and I found that we could sell cigarettes for a lot of money and then buy purses which we could sell in Japan for a lot of money. They we too the money back to the USA were could buy Yen cheap (black market) and then buy cigarettes in Japan which we sold in Manila to buy purses and around and around we went.  By the time I was 19 years old I made about $100,000 in todays dollars  this way.  I stopped in around Sept. 1963 when I met Holly.  But that is another story.


3 thoughts on “Avram, the Merchant Seaman

  1. Pingback: Hong Kong and Me: How I became the highest compensated advisor in the world (for a minute) « Two Thirds Done

  2. Pingback: Hong Kong and Me: How I became the highest compensated advisor in the world (for a little while) « Two Thirds Done

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