The turnstile is at the far corner of the parking lot where two barbed wire fences meet. Pass the turnstile and enter the cage, where the security guard checks passports against a list and then directs us past him to wait at a curb. Now we are inside the container yard, two yokels with backpacks among the heavy lifting of industry. Trucks grind by along tight yellow lines. There is a reason why everyone else is wearing a hard hat.
A van picks us up and drives us past the stacked containers and the whizzing, skeletal machines that stack them. We are let out along the straight shoreline of the port, the Punjab Senator rising above us from the water and the cranes dwarfing the ship from the shore. The cranes are lifting containers from the ship and swinging them above our heads to the beds of the trucks parked underneath the cranes. A longshoreman offers to take our picture with the ship, several times.
The only way to the freighter is up a long shaking staircase more rope than metal. We climb, gripping the handrail and the slick black wetness that coats it. At the top of the stairs a short brown man in a paint-splattered blue jumpsuit writes our names down very slowly. An impatient white man in a clean tan jumpsuit with the name of the ship on the back in red comes along to correct him and leads us to the ship’s office, where we surrender our passports. Then he takes us to our passenger cabin on the E deck. We listen to a brief summary of safety procedures in broken English, and then we sign a form saying it is our fault if we die.
Our new living room has two portholes, a couch, and a love seat. Against the far wall a desk and a chair sit under a clock set to no time in particular. A web of bungee cords tie the television and stereo to the top of the cabinets. The mini-fridge holds a few cans of Fanta, a few cans of Diet Coke, Rostocker Beer and a bottle of champagne. These are gifts from the captain. The cabinets hold a single glass. To the left of the loveseat, underneath the plastic plant, are our two full-body water immersion safety suits, size extra large.
Since buying our passage aboard the Punjab Senator seven months ago the departure date has swung from July 17th to the 16th and then back again, only three days before departure, while we slept on the living room futon of a very understanding friend. When we call the terminal the morning of our departure the time has changed again, from morning to evening, and we are told to arrive any time after six. We arrive a little after seven. The Punjab Senator is now scheduled to depart at five the next morning. We are glad we bought Vietnamese sandwiches, and we split a can of Fanta.
At five in the morning the ship groans and we are on our way, peering out the window past the cranes, then Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge and the ferries and freighters until we are alone on the sea.