It was a Friday afternoon and I was seated on a bench on the fantail of one the Golden Gate Ferry boats that run between San Francisco and Marin County, CA. In the waning light of an November evening it felt good to have open sky above me. I sat and drank my adult beverage while tourists and commuters loaded the boat for the 45 minute ride to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal.
The year was 1983 and I had finished my workday at the new KGO-TV television studios on Front Street. For the last six months I had spent seven hours a day, 5 days a week, in a noisy dark basement and it was officially no longer fun. I was part of the Mole Crew, the gang of electricians who toiled all day in the dim-lit basement running power distribution conduits for the studios and offices in the building above us. We only saw the sun at lunchtime or when we were on a break.
Passengers filled the boat in a steady stream and one in particular caught my eye. He was standing at the transom of the boat and wore a hip-length brown leather jacket with large flap pockets sewn on the outside of the chest and waist, dark denim pants, and heavy brown leather hiking boots that were well oiled and buffed to a matte shine. A gray cloth military patrol cap covered his head and at his feet was a large square cloth bag with two loop handles. One end of a long baguette of bread stuck out of the top of the shopping bag and I could see the tops of several packages wrapped in white butcher’s paper.
I thought to myself, This could be a scene out of a foreign movie; Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. And now, the boy goes to any length to reunite with his One True Love. I took another sip of my beverage. Yeah, right. Like that happens in real life. At least not in front of me, so far.
The stranger reached into his bag and carefully opened packages of meat and cheese. He took out a small paring knife and began to slice them into bite-sized pieces which he ate along with pieces of the baguette. It struck me as a very European way to travel and I made a mental note to try it myself some afternoon.
The boat was now loaded and the deckhands prepared to raise the gangway and cast off the dock lines. I headed for the bar to get a refill.
The ferry was in the process of backing out of the slip as I returned to my seat. The stranger was busy taking in the sights as we turned North and pulled away from the San Francisco Ferry Terminal. The Bay Bridge grew smaller as our view of the Embarcadero waterfront slipped by at sea level on our port side. A million-dollar view for under three dollars.
The stranger was busy taking photos with a 35mm point-and-shoot film camera and making notes in a small notebook that he had removed from a side pocket of his jacket. He’s detail oriented. I like that in a person.
The boat cleared Pier 39 and the Golden Gate Bridge came into view. I took out my 35mm Pentax SLR camera and walked over to the rail. I love taking photos of the bridge at sunset and today was promising. After snapping off a few photos I sat down in my seat and put my camera back in my bag. Our ferry was approaching Alcatraz and our view of the bridge would be blocked by the island.
I sipped my drink and the stranger took a few photos of The Rock. He looked puzzled, took out a guidebook from another jacket pocket, and began flipping through several pages. He closed the book and looked around.
He smiled when saw me looking at him, and I nodded and smiled back. He took four steps in my direction and pointed toward the Federal Penitentiary. “Excuse me, please. Ist that Ang-gel Island?” I was right, he is European.
“No, sir. That is actually Alcatraz, the old prison.” I turned to my right and pointed again, “That is Angel Island.”
He smiled, “Ahhhh, yah. Now it makes sense. Thank you very much.”
“You’re quite welcome.”
He returned to the stern of the boat with his journal and I sipped my beverage. A few minutes later he was back again. “Pardon me, once more.” He pointed west at the shore, “Ist that Sausalito?”
“That’s Tiburon. Sausalito is beyond that—at the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge. We can’t see it from here.”
“Ahhhh, yah. I understand now.”
“Hey, my name’s, Al.” I reached out and we shook hands.
“I am Johannes. It ist nice to meet you, Al”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Johannes.” The seat next to me was unoccupied. “Why don’t you get your stuff and sit down here? Take a load off your feet.”
“Ahhhh, yah. Thank you, I will.”
Johannes picked up his bag and sat down on the bench. “This ist such a lovely way to ride, this boat.”
“I love it, man. On the water I can decompress from the day’s work and arrive home a new man.”
“Yah, ist good. Leave your worries at work, don’t take them home with you.”
“What brings you to the United States? Vacation? Work?”
“Vacation. I have always wanted to visit America.”
“Well, welcome to the U. S. of A.”
“Thank you. Ist a good feeling to be welcomed. Americans are very friendly.”
I smiled, “Thanks, man. It’s easy to be friendly to nice people such as yourself.”
Johannes smiled, “Would you like a snack? I have bread, cheese, salami, and ham.”
“I don’t mind if I do. Thanks.” We proceeded to enjoy slices of fresh sourdough bread, Columbus Salami, and Jarlsberg cheese.
My curiosity was getting the best of me. “If you don’t mind me asking, where are you from?”
“Germany. I live outside Munich.”
“Nice. I have never met someone from Munich before. What do you do for a living there?”
“I work at the BMW factory. I am electrician.”
“An electrician? No kidding? Man, I am an electrician!”
We both laughed and shook hands again, brother-to-brother. “What do you do at the BMW plant?”
“We take care of maintaining the entire facility and install new equipment on the Assembly lines. What do you do?”
“I work construction and right now we are building television studios and offices for a local TV station.” I laughed, “What are the odds that we would run into each other on a boat in San Francisco Bay?”
Johannes chuckled, “Yah, ist a slim chance at best.”
“Hey, I’m going to get one more. Lemme get you something. What would you like?”
“A white wine?”
“Coming right up.”
I got our drinks and sat down with Johannes. We toasted each other, sat, sipped and watched the world go by. Over the course of the next half hour we talked about our lives, families, and our chosen field of work.
It turned out that my new friend was in the last week of a 4-week vacation. He got six weeks a year off and this trip to the USA would zero out his vacation account. Part of his benefits at work was access to discounted travel. He got a corporate lodging & travel rate, plus a discounted rail pass on Amtrak for travel within the US. Johannes had visited New York City, Denver and San Francisco thus far. The final leg of his journey would be to Seattle where he would visit friends and then fly back to Munich.
On this particular day he was going to visit former neighbors who were living not far from the Ferry Terminal in Greenbrae. The next morning they would take him to the East Bay where he would catch an Amtrak train to Seattle. This vacation was one of those life-adventures that he would never forget.
The ferry made a turn to Port that put us in the channel toward the Larkspur Terminal. San Quentin Prison was on our Starboard side. Johannes shook his head from side to side and turned to me. “Do you know what drives me crazy?”
“I have no idea.”
“People find out I am electrician and they say, ‘You have easy job. All day long you twist little wires together. You don’t have to work hard.’ It makes me crazy!”
I leaned back and let out a howl. “Yes! Yes, I agree. I hear the same thing, ‘You twist wires together all day.’ It’s maddening.”
“Who do they think runs conduits for wire? Plumbers? Who pulls the wire? Trained horses? Twisting wires together ist at end of job, not entire job.”
“Johannes, we are more alike than we ever thought.”
“Yah, ist amazing, no?”
We exchanged addresses and sent each other a copy of the best photo that we took that day. For the next several years we exchanged cards and photos at Christmas. As time went on we lost touch with each other and eventually cards went unanswered.
I think about Joannes from time to time whenever I see a BMW on the road. Out here we call them Basic Marin Wheels, although the Tesla S sedans are quietly taking over that position.
What hasn’t changed over time is The Connection, the feeling that I experienced for a brief moment of time that November afternoon. I don’t know if we connected through our shared German heritage, or our chosen field of endeavor, but the time we spent talking on the ferry felt like it was time spent with a long-lost brother. We not only bonded as tradesmen, we connected—like wires that were “twisted together”.