In 2016 I wrote a column simply titled, “Standby.” I wrote the piece while I was out sailing, and was laughing like a loon as I punched the keys — I’m easily amused. I told my wife that I thought the column was funny in a Mark Twain sort of way. “Well, we’ll see when it runs,” she said. My wife is a tough room with the writing I do, and it was very audacious of me to think that she would actually find the column funny. I was out on a limb with this one; however, when the paper ran the column, I watched her like a hawk when she looked at the piece — trying to read her poker face — to see what she thought. Just before she finished reading, I caught a very slight smile and a barely audible and subdued giggle. She looked up at me and said, “Pretty funny,” which from her is comparable to winning the Pulitzer.
Last summer a guy pulled into the standby lot on a hot Saturday morning. “Hi, I think I’m in the right place, I’m looking to go on standby and get on the ferry,” he said, “and I read a column in The Block Island Times that explained what the process was and it was a pretty funny piece.” I explained to the guy and his wife that I wrote the piece and we had a good laugh about it — the guy understood the math regarding the loading of a ferryboat. These days if you google, “How do I go on standby at the Block Island Ferry,” the column is right below the FAQs for the Block Island Ferry’s website. It’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of piece and it reads on the quick. It’s, ahem, also a cautionary tale for those who have or do not have, vehicle reservations.
Over the past five decades, I've seen the process of securing a vehicle reservation adapt to the simple reality of supply and demand. Note well the following example.
“Hey, Joe,” said Jeanette Centracchio, “we can start taking car reservations today. The ledgers are next to the cash register, please write clearly for me, ok, I can barely read the people’s names. (My handwriting is worse, today; it’s a lefthanded geezer thing.) Jeanette said this to me in 1981 in the original one-floor ferry building — where the current office now stands. In those days there was a garage that housed one forklift, a workbench, hand trucks, tools, cable, chains, shovels, brooms, oil drums, and other ferry-related hardware. Next to the garage was the ticket office, restrooms, and some smaller storage rooms. I worked on the weekends doing freight and hanging in the ticket office to answer the phones and questions for passersby who needed information. Sundays were a one trip day and it was very slow, so I worked on some graduate school writing while receiving freight and working in the office — these were very cold, lonely and quiet days down in the Port of Galilee during the months of January and February.
The aforementioned ledgers were thick, sturdy and black. They had PJ on one and BI on the other one; they were weighted with authority in regards to vehicle reservations. The dates were delineated on each calender day’s schedule for the entire year of 1981. Here is an example of how we took a car or truck reservation. “Hi, I’d like to make a car reservation for June 5th going to the Island and July 10th leaving the island.” I’d crack open each ledger, and find the dates. Then, I’d explain the times that were available. At that time, the Manitou and Quonset were the only ferries running, so there could be a height restriction for the Quonset. “What are you driving,” I’d ask. “A station wagon with lumber on top,” the customer might say. Then I would write down the type of car and the customer’s name right next to the date—simple enough. If a person had a pickup truck, I’d write P/U. It was a simple drill and it took quite some time for the ledgers to load up with reservations.
“The customer would call us at Point Judith, and then send their payment to the main office in New London,” said Jeanette. “The customer would send a five-dollar deposit required in those days and then the office would send a stamped and addressed card with the confirmation information on the back.” Jeanette and I have worked together for forty-five years and we recently were discussing the transitions taking place in the early 90s; there were boats being built and a new building being constructed. We also discussed how the system in place today has a wider range because of computers; however, having a vehicle reservation is the one constant that drives a major part of the commerce between Point Judith and Old Harbor.
During the hectic summer season in Point Judith, the Standby lot is a very organic, boots-on-the-ground, dusty scene where I’ll scribble down information on a slip of paper, and maintain order in the queue that I refer to as Paradise Alley. When the First Mate needs vehicles they are sent; it’s all about the availability of linear feet. It’s a simple case of supply and demand economics. Many people with reservations will show up ahead of their reserved time to try and get on an earlier boat; sometimes it works for them, and sometimes it doesn’t. The home rental market on the island sets the vehicle demand, and the ferries meet said demand. At the end of my weekend shifts, the Standby line resolves itself and everyone gets to where they’re going. It’s basically a ten-week deal and then things shift gears to a much slower pace. I’ve witnessed the seasonal cycle for close to five decades. Finally, in the dead of winter in Point Judith, people will show up with their printed car reservations and in some cases they may be the only vehicle on the ferry, yet there is supply for this type of demand.