No Standbys: At SSA Docks, Winter Season Brings a Hush

By C.K. WOLFSON

Early morning: The landscape has turned to gauze; the snow, white static in wind-driven billows, erases the harbor, leaving only the illusion of distant masts - faint vertical slivers among the flows of harbor ice.

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There are no standbys. The Steamship Authority parking lot is all but deserted. Twelve vehicles departed on the Martha's Vineyard at 6 a.m.; 19 on the Islander at 7 a.m.; 14 will leave on the Martha's Vineyard at 8:30. Parked side by side against the curb, All Island Taxi's Ray Snell and Stagecoach taxi driver Ethan Cummings hold lonely vigils inside their cabs. The Island, muffled by winter, has been silenced.

Raymond DeBettencourt, an SSA clerk for more than 20 years, arrived at 5 a.m., and after doing laps around the building with the new snow blower, stands between the two electric heaters in the small shed at the lot's entrance. He looks out through the open Dutch door of the dilapidated shed, where the only hint of habitation is a computer and WMVY playing on the radio, smiles, and assures the determined few who drive up that yes, the boat is running.

Weather doesn't matter to Cape Cod Express driver Tom Driscoll, who sits in the cabin of his rumbling, 64-foot long truck, or to Arnold Kennedy who is driving to Boston to see his daughter off to Brazil. Sandy Bernat and Julia Mitchell are going to a can't-miss class, The Art of China, at the Museum of Fine Arts. Chris Brooks, undaunted in his four-wheel drive Toyota, is feeling the need to stretch both his legs and outlook in off-Island shops, and Courtney Brady and Edie Radley, unimpressed by forecasts, have interstate travel plans. Within minutes, they will all be aboard the mostly empty Martha's Vineyard as it quietly begins gliding towards Woods Hole.

Inside the hushed terminal, just off the hallway behind the locked Employees Only door, is a cozy haven with a toaster and microwave where coffee, small talk and warmth are dispensed. Terminal manager Bridget Tobin, whose gusto makes being a den mother an Olympic event, stands at the narrow kitchen counter serving a buffet of cream cheese, bagels and two kinds of soup she brought in this morning. After 30 years with the SSA (she began in April 7, 1974), she moves through the terminal like a heat-generating missile.

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Assistant agent Robert Yapp (a 25-year employee), senior dock worker Rob "Coco" Gatchell (30 years) and Arthur Pye (17 years), wrapped in hooded sweatshirts and blue SSA storm coats, saunter in and out, unbundling long enough for some congenial, he-said-she-said banter. While Mrs. Tobin presides, they cluster around a small round table comparing vacation plans and memories of the blizzard of ‘78. Senior ticket agent Kathleen Parsons (20 years) comes in to trade stories about "the coldest winter in memory." But on this side of the vertical window blinds, winter is a rumor.

It is the time between times, before the 9 a.m. Islander from Woods Hole comes in. The terminal is still. Ticket agents Steve O'Neill (10 years) and Kathy Cimeno (12 years) sip soup and coffee in slow motion.

Slowly, people begin appearing. Virginia Hackney, a familiar presence, waits for the bus that will take her to work at Chilmark Chocolates. Robert Penney will be going to his regular visit with his wife, Jeanette, recovering at the JML Care Center. Two men come in and begin comparing commutes, and the woman who has settled on a bench near the bathroom begins a long, low-pitched conversation on her cell phone. Mrs. Tobin is thinking she might go out and shovel later.

Capt. James Lodge slides the Islander into its slip. Other than the muted lament of the West Chop fog horn, it is a silent movie as approximately 15 people, shoulders hunched, heads tucked into their coats, cower against the bluster of wind and snow, dispersing as the two taxi drivers look on. Hooded figures begin pushing shovels through the snow on the side loading ramp. Mrs. Tobin, who has mastered being able to be everywhere at once, appears in a round puff of down padding. By now tankers have begun to get into position for the 11:55 freight boat.

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West Chop is fading to gray. In the harbor, like shapes of cut paper, sloops and schooners are held in place. The wooden boats, seasoned in the salt water, do not stand into the wind, but like friends too familiar to nod, cluster together in the shallow crust of frozen breakwater: Ray Gale's Mariah, Bruce Davis's Estrella, Charlene Douglas's Macnab, Jim Lobdell's Malabar, Alan Wilson's Chanty, first-mated by dock worker Tim Mello (24 years). The Shenandoah, Alabama, When and If, stand silent sentry.

Mr. Mello takes a sip from a paper cup, and recalls what his father always said: "Snow always has to be dealt with. It's not like rain." He smiles. "It disappears, comes again, and has to be dealt with."