Dad worked late throughout most of our upbringing. Really late, sometimes till 2:00 or 3:00 AM, sometimes right on through the night, long past his dinner at home had been wrapped beneath cling film and put in the fridge. As his spaghetti sauce congealed, and his salad wilted, and the garlic bread hardened on the outside and softened in the middle, he sat at his desk in a large commercial complex overlooking the Don Valley, burning the midnight fluorescent lights. Through the late hours, he tapped lines of complex code into a computer; a small, green, monochrome cursor slowly tracing its way across a screen, quietly depositing the grist of his logic and creativity behind it in a complex language that only a handful of people understood; while counting time in slow, silently demanding, blinks.
Mom would take it up with him later, about missing dinner. “But what did you have to eat?” she’d ask, already knowing the answer. Dad would sheepishly admit to having raided the vending machine. To us, his children, listening to these conversations over bowls of non-sugary cereal the next morning, this alone seemed to justify staying at work late. Why rush home to spaghetti when you could enjoy a satisfying variety of small bags of Hostess potato chips, a Twix or a Kit-Kat, or both, and maybe a cold can of 7Up to wash it down? We dreamed of such things. But Dad always looked regretful that he had missed his dinner, and our evening as a family: the battles over having baths, and which pajamas would be worn, and what story would be read, and getting to be the one to turn the lights out on small people with simple hopes and fears, who trust you to protect them through the night.
The perceived glamour of a vending machine in the dark hours eventually wore off. I saw the hall that Dad walked down to reach the machines, a corridor as long as the field in our school yard, but narrow as a small car. Its lights were set to motion sensors, turning on when someone headed down the hall, and turning off behind them, illuminating their progress, a cursor of fluorescence moving with them. I pictured dad walking down that passageway, stretching after hours at his desk, to feed change to the machine. Plugging quarters into the slot, he’d select B3 for sour cream and onion, then collect the small bag from behind the swinging door that tried to trap your hand. And before walking back, put a few more quarters in for a pack of Chiclets, to give to his children, now asleep at home.
I went to some lengths to avoid much of this. I left home without a degree to pursue a career in renting jetskis, and then sailing day-charter catamarans, and then retired race boats, and eventually liveaboard positions on large yachts. It seemed like I was safe from a white-collar job, 80 hour weeks, and missing bed time when it came time to have my own family.
The schedule on Starfire, the 178 foot motor yacht I’ve worked on for the past seven years, is set so that when we have guests on board the first mate stays awake until midnight. At that hour he hands over the watch to one of the deckhands, unless we are underway, in which case he stays on through the small hours of the night. Sometimes that shift goes until the sun rises. I am that first mate – or one of them to be exact, as there are two of us who jobshare, to allow us both time at home with our families. And I am on duty right now. And I have just been to the galley in search of food. And there I stood, under the fluorescent lights eating a brownie I found while hunting for a late night snack, at work, taking a break from tapping at the computer, wearing a white collar shirt, and having missed story time, again. And I felt a kinship with my dad.
What eases the sting of this elaborate circle-back, is that I’m lucky enough to have many more nights at home than my dad did. So, much as my dad hoped I would have it better – and I do – I hope the same for our own kids: that they will have more time at home, and fewer late hours away, eating out of galley fridges and vending machines, while chasing a cursor.