From a June. 1991 column by Arthur Railton:
Packing is a science, no doubt about it. Making the most of the space you’ve got takes talent. And that’s true whether you’re packing a carry-on bag for the weekend or the family possessions for a household move. A good packing job looks so easy. Just put this over there and that over here, and there’s space for everything.
My first experience with packing came early. One afternoon when my mother was out, I climbed on a chair and took down the big box of kitchen matches, dumped them out on the floor and started to play with them. I quickly discovered that playing with matches wasn’t much fun. So there I was with a stack of jumbled matches, feeling as guilty as a criminal. I decided I’d better conceal my crime before my mother got home. That’s when I discovered the science of packing. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get those matches back in the box. They just wouldn’t fit. And even those that did fit didn’t look right. The game was up. When my mother returned and began to get supper, she reached for a match to light the kerosene stove. My sin was obvious and my goose was cooked.
I have always admired good packing. And anyone who can do it. Like the guy who puts olives in that skinny bottle. Perfect management of space. Even more of an artist is the pickle packer who manages to fill the jar with tiny cucumbers of all shapes and sizes, fitting them together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Effective use of space, it’s called. An art form.
But nowhere has the art of packing been developed to the level practiced by the crew of the ferryboat Nantucket. Those guys really know how to pack. Packers extraordinaire!
From the moment you drive into the gaping mouth of that pride of the Steamship Authority, you feel like one of the pickles in the jar. You are expected to behave like a trained seal. Awaiting you are at least three men, all waving their arms, directing you along some imaginary lane toward a space at least a foot narrower than your car. Not a smile nor a friendly word interrupts the performance. It’s all done by hand signals, circles drawn in the air, telling you to turn this way or that way or both at the same time. It confuses you totally. What’s he tying to tell me?
His goal, obviously, is to get you so close to the other cars or to the wall or the ventilator shaft or a stanchion, that you can’t possibly open the car door wide enough to get out. Properly done, in the sport of ferryboat packing, that’s the equivalent of hitting a home run with the bases loaded. A grand slam, no less.
You, who started driving on and off ferryboats before any of these packers were born, feel like an idiot, a totally incompetent driver. My God, what am I doing wrong? you ask yourself. What does he want me to do? Squeeze into there? Impossible.
Finally, you’re jammed into the narrow space and the packer orders you to turn off the engine. Your passengers relax, you’re still trembling. But it’s over for another trip. Thank God. Only then does he lighten up. A faint smile softens his stony glare as he moves on to traumatize the next driver, leaving you trapped inside the car when you desperately need to find the head.
When the ferry is totally full, cars and trucks jammed like those pickles in the jar, the packers vanish. Down to the galley they go to critique the loading. The coach, Bos’n Joe, is at the blackboard, diagramming some of the big plays. He congratulates one or two of his team.
“Jim, I loved the way you got that old guy in the red car jammed against the wall. Did you see him trying to wriggle out through the sunroof? Great work. A few more like that and you’ll be in line for the MVP this summer.
“And Bill, the way you managed to block the door to the stairway with that muddy van was awesome. The lady who wiped off the whole back end with her white coat will remember this trip.
“But, Jack, you’re still at it. What do you think this is? The Love Boat? How many times have I told you: smiling’s out. Once more and it’s back to the engine room for you.
“Okay, guys. Remember the Authority motto: First cars on, last cars off. Let’s get up there and win this one big for the governors. With a name like Authority, we’ve got to be tough.”
Compiled by Cynthia Meisner