In each installment of the Working Life series, a local worker describes what his or her job is like. The stories are taken directly from interviews and told in first person with minimal or no editing of the subjects’ natural speech patterns.
My name is Bertha Edmond, and I’m a longshoreman. It’s still a longshoreman, but you know, we as ladies, we make up our own thing: “I’m a longshorewoman,” or a longshoreperson. On a regular workday, we’re loading and unloading ships. My favorite part of the job, I do the paper on the ship. That’s where you signal the crane operator where to put boxes, which boxes to put on, which boxes to take off the ship. I’m actually standing on the ship, and if it’s a discharge, you tell them what all’s coming off.
When I got out of high school, I was going to school to be a first grade teacher. I was going to school for education, and my sister was saying, “They’ve got openings in the classes for welding.” And it’s outside, and I love working outside, so I finished my second quarter, and I just left school and I went to school for welding. I learned that trade, I liked it, I did it for a while, but I just didn’t like the burns you get in your chest from that overhead welding and stuff.
My father is a retired longshoreman, and he had a club. I was working in his club, and I decided, “Man, I need me something different.” So I came out here and I started trying to get work out here. They have training, but it takes a while for these books to open here on the waterfront, and when I first started here, they weren’t open. The books are for them to take in people to make your hours and get your classification.
I started out in the dirt. [laughs] I mean, I call it that, but yeah, you start out low-level, trying to work your way to get your classification for everything. You try to get certified for everything so that you can work different jobs. Like you have to be certified to operate the lift truck. You have to be certified to drive the trucks that pull the boxes. You’ve got to be top certified to be a top man, to help out with the paper. You have to be certified lashers.
They have different kinds of training classes that they send you through, and I am the highest lady in classification. I think I’m the only top-trained lady — I’m not sure because I haven’t been here in a minute. It’s a certification, top training. You have to be trained in order to go on the ship and unlock the boxes so they can come off. So you have to get training for that because you have to learn how to lift the pole and cut the boxes loose.
I’ve met a lot of good people here at the International Longshoremen’s Association, and it’s awesome because you work around a lot of people, different types of people, and everything is good. I love working here. For me, being a single parent, it was great for me. My kids, I raised three kids from this job. They’re all grown and gone now, thank goodness for that, and my last one is in college right now.
I like this job. I love this job, as a matter of fact, because for a woman, it’s excellent. For a woman trying to break into this field, when you try to break into this field, please don’t come with the smart mouth. Just come in and be yourself. Get the job. The men are gonna crack on you; it’s up to you to go that way. It’s up to you. But if you come here to work, come, do your job, and let that be it. You can have friends and talk, yeah, but a lot of that other crazy mess I don’t get with.
I mean, we laugh, we joke, we have a lot of fun out here. It’s a dangerous job, though.
My injury happened July the 12th, 2013. It was the last box on the deck, and my top man had already told me the shoe was messed up on the box, so he asked me if I could get the shoe for him while he went on to the next deck to cut the boxes loose. The shoe is what locks the boxes down to the floor and what locks the boxes to each other.
So I gave the crane operator the signal: “Easy,” you know. And I was pulling the shoe, pulling the pin, trying to get the shoe loose, and it wouldn’t unlock. I guess the crane operator got frustrated, he snatched it, and when he snatched, the box popped up, and it swung, and when it swung, it caught my right leg. I had a crushed heel. I said my toes were broken; they said it was nerve damage — I had on steel-toed shoes. What else? I got all the ligaments and everything torn up under my knee. My therapist told me, he said, “Golly, if it was anybody else doing your surgery, you’d probably have a peg leg now.” I said, “Are you serious?” He said, “Bertha, you’ve got so much stuff messed up in your knee, it’s ridiculous.” And I’m like, “Man.”
I walk with a cane sometimes, I can go by myself, but I’ve been having some accidents lately, can’t stand up, can’t walk too far without the other knee cramping out on me because it’s so much pressure on the other leg. So.
I don’t like talking about this injury because this injury took my life — you may as well say so. But I can’t see me coming back. I can’t stand up that long.