It was the foggy end of a drizzly day. Along the lunch counter of the Ferry Dock Tavern, gray-haired men in overalls and leather jackets were eating oyster stew. A set of hamburgers sizzling on the electric plate sent little wisps of the smell of scorched beef up through the cigarette smoke. From outside, through the loosely slapped-together boards of the frame building, came the hoots and howls of steamboat whistles. Through every crevice, the fog seeped into the tavern, bringing with it a tang of rotting evergreens and giving faint ruddy halos to the bare electric light bulbs.
Across from the lunch counter, every stool along the bar was taken. Behind the seated drinkers stood a row of men waiting for places. A skinny yellow-haired waitress with buckteeth moved back and forth with trays of beer between the end of the bar and the booths at the back of the room. Now and then the barkeep, a weazened, grizzled man, made a hoarse, exasperated noise like a seal’s bark to get the thronging customers who were waiting to quench their thirst at the bar to make way for the girl and her tray of empties.
In front of me a stocky, black-jowled man in a tightly buttoned pea jacket was addressing a very young blank-faced sailor who sat on the next stool.
“You are the most hated nation on the face of the earth,” he was shouting in the sailor’s ear. The sailor gave a gulp and looked down glumly into his glass. The black-jowled man raised his beer thoughtfully against the light and drank it down and wiped his mouth with the hairy back of a hand that had the points of the compass tattooed on it in red, green, and blue, and made the assertion again, louder: “You are the most hated nation on the face of the earth and don’t you forget it.”
“I only said mebbe it ud be a short war,” mumbled the very young sailor.
“Short war hell!” shouted the black-jowled man, scowling under the visor of his seagoing cap that had weathered to a streaky green. “It’s goin’ to be all war from now on… Another beer, Joe,” he added in a hoarse, pleading aside in the direction of the barkeep, who was staring at him with a sour look. “And you’re asking me,” the black-jowled man went on, looking up and down the row of weather-worn faces, “you are asking me why you are the most hated nation. I’ll tell you; it’s because you got the most to eat, and the most to drink, and the most to wear. You can sit down with the war on and eat a turkey dinner if you want one. You can sit down and drink a glass of beer.”
I went out and leaned over the parapet of the observation platform. The blue-gray Pacific was clear far out to where a fogbank smudged the horizon. A gray patrol boat showed white teeth as it chewed its way seaward into the long swells. A few gulls circled screaming over the platform.
Beside me three black G.I.s stood in a huddle staring out at the ocean. Farther along two sailors had their backs turned to the view and were watching with envious looks a boy and girl who were giggling and horsing around. A Marine sergeant, very snappy in his greens, strutted out of a building that houses slot machines; a girl with a blue handkerchief tied round her head was holding onto his arm with both hands. For a couple of minutes the two of them stared hard out to sea as if their eyes could pierce the fogbank. Then they hurried back indoors to the slot machines.
Leaning on the parapet over the hushed and heaving expanse of misted indigo that marks for most Americans the beginning of the Pacific Ocean, I wondered what these two had been thinking. I suppose there’s the same question in all our minds when we look westward over the Pacific. Beyond the immense bulge of the world, is the ocean ours or is it theirs? When we’ve made it ours, what will we want to do with it?
© Estate of John Dos Passos
From “San Francisco Looks West,” which appeared in the March 1944 issue of Harper’s Magazine.