Warning: Magic ahead

Warning: Magic ahead

Terry Winckler

The last dog-leg of your commute to the Main Street ferry terminal contains a magic zone that starts just about where the first yellow arrow warning sign is, between Stargell and Singleton avenues. Its effect is most intense as you reach the second yellow arrow warning sign - so intense, in fact, that I've almost driven into that second sign as the illusion takes shape.

It's rare for a driver to notice the illusion because you are tied to the ferry schedule - not the illusion's - and even when it is there, right before your eyes, you can miss it because you are so hell bent on beating all the other hell-bent commuters to get the last parking space.

But if you just take a Zen pill - and a later ferry, if necessary - and wait in that magic zone, you may see all of China pass by. Or so it seems:

A vast, metal landscape is moving left to right in the estuary, blotting out Oakland and some of the sky, towering above the ship repair yard on the Alameda side, transforming your 300-passenger ferry into a dory. It's just too big for dictionary words, but there are acronyms not found in the dictionary painted on the side of this apparition that help define it. In bold, white, all-capital letters taller than three Yao Mings, they are: CMA CMG.

Yeah, it's a container ship, from a French shipping company. It's longer than three soccer pitches and just as wide, deep enough below the water line to run aground if the estuary weren't constantly dredged, massive enough that it takes two or three tugboats constantly straining to keep the beast from wiping out whole marinas. Propellers on these things can be 34 feet in diameter and weigh the equivalent of 56 Lexuses. They gotta be big because this ship and its brethren come all the way from China - and they aren't carrying tea and oranges as the song says.

In the belly of these ships and stacked high on their decks are a trade deficit, in containers. Simply put, we buy more from China and the rest of the world than they buy from us - and it's all in those ships. Out of the Port of Oakland alone we take in nearly twice what we export, and China accounts for nearly half of it. Nationally, in April, the world sold us $47 billion more that we sold the world. Economists will tell you that's bad, and it's no illusion.

All I want to tell you about, though, is the illusion. When the CMA CMG ship or ones like it come down the estuary as you are coming down Main Street, some mental trickery happens between the two yellow signs. Like a full moon rising up above the mountains, the great ship is rising up above the mountainous shoreline structures. Just as the moon seems to become a tiny ball as it moves away from the mountains, so too does the ship shrink as you drive closer - changing from the size of a country to a province to a city to a city block.

And as that shrinking landscape finally moves on down the estuary, its absence allows you to see the stark reality of Schnitzer Steel, right across from the ferry landing. There in heaping mounds are shredded cars, refrigerators, bridge pieces, boats and other bits of metal from our lives. Schnitzer's Oakland port is one of the largest scrap metal exporters in America. Interestingly enough, Schnitzer also owns pick-n-pull auto wrecker, where I've bought lots of parts to put in my various wrecks.

What's not picked from cars is shredded in Schnitzer's scrap metal yard, to be loaded into ships that take all that scrap to other countries to be made into items we will buy back. And you know where most of those boatloads are headed?

Turkey. Not China.

Don't ask me why. The ferry just docked and I am outta here.


Submitted by LL (not verified) on Mon, Jun 16, 2014

Liked this, thanks for the intrigue!

Submitted by Richard Hausman (not verified) on Mon, Jun 16, 2014

Excellent piece!