(Here’s one of my favorite pieces circa 1980. I remember the time frame because I had just begun dating Suzanne, now my wife, and she was getting accustomed to the oddities of hanging out with a journalist — in this case me going to work at 1:30 a.m. to talk with cops and prostitutes. One part that did not make the story? I was interviewing a prostitute attempting to ask whether she saw any sailors or seamen in her trade. She misunderstood the question and thought I was looking for a three-some with her and a sailor. She summoned her boss, who thought he had heard everything. Both of them gave me such aghast looks that I just bailed and did a walk of shame.)
By Robert R. Frump
Will Little smiled at the foreign seamen drawn straight from their ship tothe magnet that is his small establishment in Philadelphia’s one bona-fideshore-leave district.
He knew they were fresh from a sea voyage of many, many days, and he couldtell from the expressions on their faces and the money in their pockets thatthey had spent much of their time at sea thinking of this moment.
But he knew, too, that there were other men like him on this block, sellingthe same goods and providing stiff competition in satisfying the sailors’desires.
The price would have to be right, Will Little knew, or he would never sellhis product – American blue jeans.
Never mind what ancient mariners lusted after. While sailors docking inPhiladelphia today still pursue some of the same pleasures of the senses,their most fervent passion seems to be reserved for discounted blue jeans inan area of East Market Street near Front.
” They come up Delaware Avenue there,” said Little, manager of the JeanJoint at 235 Market St., as he gestured toward Penn’s Landing and the river.
” They congregate in this area and hit the stores. I guess because the wordjust comes along. They seem to know this area.”
That is not to say that shore leave here is all nice with no vice. Thereremains a subtle but sizable trade in sex, with prostitutes commonly going tothe sailors on their ships, rather than their clients going to them.
Still, shore leave has taken a new tack. In part, that’s becausePhiladelphia’s most notorious sex strips for sailors have been ” cleaned up. ” But mostly it’s a result of the changing nature of shipping.
In the old days, the crews could shop for four or five days whilelongshoremen struggled with cargo hooks and small cranes to unload loose goods.
But modern container ships, which are all cranes and automation, load and unload quickly, sometimes in just a day. That means that seamen scarcely have time to get tattooed, let alone carouse. And, given their choice of what to do on limited leave, they are more likely to sink their money in Will Little’s Jean Joint than into a few hours of honky-tonk heaven.
There’s money in their madness: When they return home, they can resell thejeans for a handsome profit. In quest of their denim treasure, the sailors journey to shops as far uptown as City Hall, and drivers for the buses of the Seamen’s Church Institute, a charitable aid organization at 249 Arch Street, say they frequently carry seamen to the Gallery, at Ninth and Market. But the foot of Market Street is the undisputed shore-leave district for blue jeans.
Since the jeans often can be resold abroad for many times their American price, the sailors buy in quantity. ” They look for the names. Wrangler. Lee. They buy 10 or 12 pair at a clip,” Little said. ” I had one guy buy 18 pair. At 15 bucks a pair. Sometimes they make our day.”
Little estimates that jeans sold to seamen account for 5 or 6 percent of his business, although this year things haven’t been so good. The port used toproduce at least one ship every week for the blue jeans trade, but now Little says that the Jean Joint is lucky to have one crew every two weeks.
In years past, ship crews would tour the honky-tonk strips like Philadelphia’s old Barbary Coast area on Arch and Race Streets. Nests of hookers’ hangouts, clip joints, burlesque palaces, tattoo nooks and rough bars flourished during World War II and the postwar years when the economic impact of the sea – the merchant fleets, the Navy Yard, and the wartime trade – was at its height in Philadelphia.
After the war, such activity became offensive to more and more people.Church leaders marched down Arch Street from 12th Street toward the waterfront. Raids were launched and urban renewal programs begun.
In the 1950s, the moral crackdowns and economic downturns of the postwar shipping world helped end the section of Philadelphia that had resembled Hong Kong’s fabled Wanchai district.
Its obvious successor would appear to be the city’s centralized vice stripat 13th and Locust Streets, yet the sailors apparently have not firmly claimed it.
The blue of flashing police lights washed over that corner recently aspolice officers and the women walking there performed their nightly routine.
It is a cotillion of hustle, hassle, hustle. The women hustle, the policehassle. But the nature of laws and lust are such that the women always hustle again.
A police officer seated with his partner in one of several patrol carsparked near there at 1:30 a.m. watched the scene with a bored expression. ” I don’t know where else they would go in this city other than here,” the officer said when asked about seamen.
But anyone who knows the action on the waterfront knows that the seamen don’t have to go anywhere these days. The action comes to them.
A pier manager recalled a scene on a local dock two years ago. A woman still carrying many of her clothes pounded angrily down the gangplank of a Greek freighter, turned and swore at the men, saying they had cheated her. She also had words for the stevedore foreman who had arranged her visit.
Such arrangements are not uncommon these days. ” The women just sort of showup,” said the pier manager. ” There seem to be certain women for certain kinds of ships. You have some women who only come down for Greek ships. Others who only come down for English crews. Certain women come down here for Norwegian ships. It all seems to depend on what nationality of ship.”
Exactly how the women get where they go is another thing. There are those handle the needs of a ship while it is in port – actually make the arrangements. Others who regularly make the rounds of the waterfront say the systemfunctions on more of a free-lance basis.
” We see prostitutes on the unguarded piers,” one source said. ” They comeup to the ships and deal with the crew. They get an idea whether they’re welcome or not and they go from there.
” A lot of them provide extra services to the seamen, like bringing them into Market Street or showing them where to dial home,” another source said.
It is not uncommon for officials at the seamen’s institute to chase away hookers who want to check the lists of incoming ships.
But if there are the seamy scenes, there are also comradely ones, like the one played out recently in the lobby of the institute.
There, Ricardo Amaya, captain of the Argentine ship Dolores de Plandolit, sat quietly with three of his six young sons – all crewmen of the ship. Theywere planning the next day of a shore leave in Philadelphia that already had lasted more than a month.
” We walk, we have rented a car, we have seen the Liberty Bell, we have gonet hrough Fairmount Park, and twice times through the Franklin Institute, and twice times through the zoo,” he said.
His crew of 32, he said, has settled into a life of listening to jazz at theKhyber Pass Pub. Or they down beers at the Olde City Tavern. On Sundays, there is an Argentine barbecue on board ship. If there are racier times, the crew has not told the captain.
Only a few days ago, sailors of the Dolores de Plandolit defeated the crewof another ship in a soccer game arranged by the seamen’s institute. Thelosers were Greeks from the ship Master Petros. (Greek sailors, by the way, traditionally make a beeline from their ship to one restaurant and bar – the Dionysos Supper Club at 611 S. Second St.)
But the kind of long shore leave that allows soccer games and family outings is unusual, brought on by a sharp blip upward in the port’s jagged chart of trade.
Both the Argentines and the Greeks crewed coal ships. With the recent boom in coal exports, so long is the wait for the pier that the Master of the Petros was here for a month. Captain Amaya berthed the Dolores dePlandolit at Pier 100 on Feb. 4. He is still waiting for a spot at the coalterminal at Pier 124 South, and may have to wait two weeks or so more.
Even so, he’s not impatient. To him, the wait affords the luxury and comfortof spending shore leave with his sons.