ITForty-three years ago I boarded this ship without much idea of what I would do when I got off, except that it would be in Tangier. In those days, hungry for hard currency, Yugoslavia ran a passenger-freighter service between East Coast ports and Rijeka. It was a wonderful deal for Americans. News Shipping, which served as the line’s American agent, had a posted price of $200 for a shared cabin (amenities down the hall) from the U.S. to Morocco, a bit more for people going on to Yugoslavia. Round trips were available.
There was a last-minute change of schedule, and the agents asked us to board in Savannah instead of New York. One of the pleasures of being twenty-five is that it doesn’t seem an imposition to take a night bus from Manhattan to Georgia, or to spend an unscheduled night or two at the John Wesley, an old railroad men’s hotel, in a city one has never seen.
I’ve forgotten the dimensions of the Tuhobic, though they’re probably available online. We had about eighty passengers, a mix of American retirees, vacationers, would-be adventurers, and Yugoslav nationals who had worked in the U.S. and were returning home. My cabin mate Rubin was a middle-aged dentist from New York. He carried a sketchpad and planned to go back into the Yugoslav hills and draw during the layover period before the Tuhobic sailed back to the States. In a way that seemed more or less inevitable even to young eyes, Rubin fell in love during the transit with a lady who had insufficient interest in him. Another passenger, a thin man who said he was a secretary at the Library of Congress, mocked Rubin until they nearly came to blows; when the mocker drank too much and fell one night, cutting his scalp, nobody seemed unhappy for him. I couldn’t tell how his wife felt.
The passengers were interesting in ways I’ve never noticed on later ships. One man, whose face I can’t recall, whispered that he was keeping index cards on all the rest of us. An elderly farmer and his wife from Ohio enjoyed the top deck at night, where he wondered at stars stretching from horizon to horizon and talked into a warm wind that must have been from the Gulf current. A very tall, skinny bald man, a retired postal employee, had married a widow late in life and was gently protective of her. A blond school teacher from Atlanta fell at least temporarily for a handsome ship’s officer. Those are the only Americans I remember, and I liked them all—and wouldn’t mind rolling back the clock and doing it all again in their company.
The most exotic fellow was Benjie (I’ve no idea how he spelled it), an Arab who explained to me one evening on deck the superiority of darkness, including dark races, because—I must understand—what part of the eye is it that sees? The black part, of course. And what part of the day is reserved for love? The night. I make him sound amusing, but he was actually quite scary and threatened my cabin mate, who was Jewish.
After departing Savannah, we sailed down to Fernandina Beach, Florida, and loaded bulk phosphate into the hold for transport to Morocco. Somewhere along the way the ship picked up a Volkswagen and heavy boles of dark wood as deck cargo. We crossed the Atlantic, passing Bermuda and then Madeira, which looked far more glorious with the sun slanting through its hills than it looked thirty-some years later when my wife and son and I made port at Funchal on a cruise ship.
In Casablanca, I decided to get off. The crossing had taken sixteen days, and the coastal lights as we approached Africa seemed irresistible. Rubin worried about me as I signed in at the Hotel Foucauld, on what was known then as Rue Foucauld, since Arabized. The street commerce was mostly prostitutes, and it spilled in the front door as I was registering and a young dark woman borrowed the pen to scrawl “F” on my Spain and Morocco on $5 a Day paperback. (I still have the book.)
What I wanted to do in those days, and the only thing I wanted to do, was write. But there were problems. I had observed nothing, so I thought, and experienced nothing of interest, and therefor had nothing about which to write. So it seemed that every story I attempted had to be totally made up. Worse, I had none of the basic craft of writing fiction.
Casablanca wasn’t romantic, at least from the front door of the Hotel Foucauld. But three things I heard there, and one loathsome character I met, made it into a short story ("Marley's Rescue") that was published in Hitchcock’s almost forty years later. And so, I’m happy to say, did the Jugolinija ship Tuhobic, bearing from Cuba the corpse of a man who might have been a spy.
December 13 2016