Bernadette Conner is sneezing, wheezing, coughing, and blowing her nose at a rate of once every two minutes. But she's at work nonetheless, helping her gang unload a ship at the Red Hook Marine Terminal, Brooklyn's only working pier. If a dockworker doesn't show up for work, a dockworker doesn't get paid. With her job cut back to two, maybe three, working days a week, Bernadette Conner shows up for work.
So it's not that Conner feels she still has something to prove to her coworkers, all men. Eight years of watching her heave and haul along side them, with that silky mane of strawberry blond hair stuffed into a cap atop her well-packed 215-pound frame, has left no doubt that she can do the work. “It's just that afterwards, you gotta take a four-hour Ben Gay bath,” she says, reflecting on the day she and her partner relieved a container of 1,000 bags of coffee beans in less than four hours. Each bag weighs about 135 pounds. All of which makes her, at 29, feel like “the little old ladies who got this pain and that. I've got them all.”
Coffee is pretty straightforward, as ship cargoes go. Sometimes there are large drums of grease, and, before some recent improvements in packing, there were animal hides wrapped in burlap and pulsing with maggots. Life for Bernadette has been a lot cleaner in the past year, since she came out of the holds and started working on the docks. She dresses in jeans, as her colleagues do, but her thermals are lavendar, like her eye shadow, and she has two big gold-hoop earrings in each earlobe.
“God, this is disgusting work,” she says. “I used to come home filthy, greasy, disgusting, like I'd been rolling in the mud. I don't know what I'd do without Lestoil. I oughta buy stock in the company.”
The Waterfront Commission says there are 23 women among the 7,000 registered longshoremen for the New York-New Jersey port. A few other women started with Conner when the International Longshoremen's Association opened its rolls to women in 1979, but she is the only one still working at Red Hook. She's weathered the usual hazing (the first time she had to leave ship to go to the bathroom, the men let her know they never had to bother), plus some unforgettable moments. Once when she was unloading coffee, she sensed a sinister presence and asked a coworker to life the suspect bag.
“You wanna be a longshoreman?” he taunted. “You lift it.” She did. Eight rats shot out. Conner hurtled up the ladder. Several of the men screamed. After all, they explained, rats bite.
Now Conner has seniority in her gang and earns $17 an hour — when she works. Even with the uncertain schedule (she never knows if she'll be working until the night before), Conner says longshoremen can earn $40,000 a year, sometimes $60,000, though she is not yet in that range. It was the money that initially lured her to the waterfront, where her father had worked as a guard. And now, even as she has watched pier after pier close, she chooses to stay. “I figure whatever happens, happens,” she says.