“Boarding pass?” asks the loading crewman
“Oh geez, I forgot the drill,” answers a woman in her late thirties, “I’m sorry.”
“You need to sleep some more, Ellen!”
“It must be that new boyfriend of yours keeping you up late at night,” her fellow commuters tease her.
“The drill” is not as simple as it may seem. There is no need to get a ticket from Langdale to West Vancouver; the fare is paid on the mainland and the price includes the return journey from the lower Sunshine Coast. Yet the loading crew needs a precise headcount, and whereas in other places it’s quite easy to count heads as they walk on, here the onrush of commuters would be overwhelming for that technique. Thus, foot passengers need to get a pass from an automatic dispenser and present their pass to the crew collecting them as they board the vessel.
Due to the absence of loading ramps at Langdale foot passengers enter the ferry from the car deck. That is a blessing. At least two hundred commuters sprinting onto the boat like marathoners need as much space as they can get in order not to squeeze each other in.
As I walk upstairs the main lounge is deserted. “Where the hell did everyone go?” I gasp. “Where is the cafeteria lineup?” “Why aren’t people walking around the aisles?” The answers soon become obvious. Even though the Queen of Surrey is identical to the Queen of Cowichan and the Queen of Coquitlam, Vancouver Island-bound boats I am very familiar with, sailing on her at this time of the day is a completely different practice. Not one soul is standing; everyone is seated down either in the forward and side lounges, or in the cafeteria.
“We all know where to sit,” an informant’s words from the previous day’s interviews ring in my ears. “We all have our groups of friends and we always sit with them, in the same pod, day after day. Those of us who walk on save the seats for our friends who drive on, because they get onboard a few minutes later than us. You want to make sure you get your seats before somebody else sits there, not knowing it’s our pod. Floaters have no respect!”
Daily commuters have about 40 minutes to treat the Queen of Surrey as an extension of their home. Passengers seated around the cafeteria table are there to have breakfast. But not the BC Ferries fare. Who can afford a $10 breakfast every day? Cereal brought from home is kept in Tupperware, toast in sandwich bags, peanut butter and jam jars in backpacks. Mugs still steaming hot are evidence that the drive to the ferry terminal was either short or hurried. Milk is kept in small plastic bottles and often shared. As the breakfast table is unset after a few minutes, playing cards are broken out. “Damn, George, finally! That’s the only good hand you’ve had all week” I overhear a losing poker player exclaim.
It’s too early for the morning newspaper to have arrived, and most eyes are too sleepy to read anyway. With regard to sleep, there are at least two kinds of daily commuters. There are the chipper ones and the slumber fiends. The chipper ones share common pods, seemingly all on the port side of the ship. The slumber fiends are on the starboard side, where hardly a mosquito can be heard. Announcements on this ship are kept to a minimum, and the volume of the PA system seems to have been turned down. Much to my amazement there are actual pods of sleepers: groups of two, three, and four passengers who sit on chairs facing one another, despite the presence of empty rows of seats elsewhere. These are people who sleep together, and they literally mean it.
The members of the chipper crowd on the other hand have lots to share and lots in common with one another. Age deviation is minimal. As a daily ferry commuter you can’t be too young and you can’t be too old. You can’t be too young because at an early age you can’t find a job that pays well enough to justify the pricey commute. You can’t be too old because few older bodies can take this, day after day, for years.
It’s dark outside, and to reduce the glare coming from the passenger lounge lights the crew has pulled down the curtains on all the windows. With no light and the card-playing, this would seem like a Las Vegas casino room, were it not for the fact that as opposed to the sin city’s timelessness everyone here has a profound carnal perception of linear time. There are buses to connect with, pockets of traffic rush to beat, and carefully-planned appointments to make. Therefore, right next to weekend topics, ferry punctuality is a favorite topic for chatting.
The ferry crew seems to be in a similar transition mode, especially the cafeteria gang. The first sailing from Langdale for them functions as a way of preparing for the food orders to come later. No one is ordering anything yet, and the smell of bacon hasn’t pervaded the lounge yet. Elsewhere on the boat, gentlemen’s washrooms smell like shaving soap, whereas the ladies’ room echoes of face powder chats.
I would be a fool to try and strike up a conversation on this vessel. I’d have better luck with acceptance if I tried to sit in the back of a school bus with the tough kids. So I keep to myself, cataloguing backpack after backpack, wondering about their precise content and purpose. They’re lifesavers, I will learn in the days to come. Half-empty, they have enough space to be filled with things brought back home from shops frequented during lunch hour. Half-full, beside breakfast and toiletries, they contain books to be read on the bus ride, snacks, clothes to change into after a long day in business attire, and even the occasional remedy to combat a long day of commuting: from a ready supply of Tylenol to a bottle of wine to celebrate a birthday, or the last commuting day of a long career, on the 5:30 sailing back home.