On March 11th, 1996, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, two Romanian stowaways were found on board a container ship called The Maersk Dubai. The ship’s Chinese officers dealt with the matter in a way that can only be described as expedient: they threw them both overboard, and they were never seen again.
The ship continued to North America, where it visited ports in Halifax, New Jersey, Miami and Houston. The Maersk Dubai then crossed back over the ocean to India, the Middle East and various ports in the Mediterranean. The boat then docked in Algecirus, Spain – it was here that the two Romanians had clambered on board in the middle of the night. While the ship was docked, a second pair of Romanians found their way on board and hid. The Maersk Dubai departed, and the officers soon found the third stowaway, whom they dispatched in the manner of the first two. A day later, several Filipino crew members, who by this point were feeling fairly traumatized by the officers’ actions, found the fourth stowaway hiding on deck. Instead of turning him over to the officers, they hid him in the bowels of the ship, and snuck him food and water in the middle of the night. At the same time, they managed to contact the outside world, and have the boat seized by authorities once it reached Halifax.
This turned into a huge news event here in Canada, though most of the coverage involved the bureaucratic nightmare that ensued – there was the expected flurry of arrests, lawsuits, extradition warrants, summary trials and immigration hearings, all of which stretched on for years. From my apartment in Toronto, I remember thinking that if anyone could ever capture what actually happened on board, that author or film-maker would have a hell of a story to tell.
So what did I do about it? Pretty much nothing – instead I went off and wrote The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, and forgot all about the case of the Maersk Dubai. But then, around the time I was finishing Mabel, and was wondering what on earth I was going to do with myself, I received a phone call from an editor at Stoddart, who wanted a book on the Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter that sank in Lake Superior in the seventies. I think some anniversary or other was approaching, and it was his opinion that the Fitzgerald would again enter the public’s consciousness. Furthermore, he didn’t care what type of book I wrote -- non-fiction, novel, lengthy essay, he didn’t care. He even told me I could write an epic-length poem if I wanted, and the fact that Stoddart went bankrupt shortly thereafter suggests to me he may not have been kidding.
The phone call, however, did make me wonder what had happened to the case of the Maersk Dubai. I knew that the three Filipino sailors who had been most instrumental in rescuing the fourth stowaway had relocated to Nova Scotia. Putting my finely-honed research skills to use, I located them by consulting the Halifax/Dartmouth phone book. I phoned them up and, to my shock, discovered that nobody was working on a book or script.
Their names were Rodolfo Miguel, Juanito Ilagan and Ariel Broas. I asked if I could come to Halifax to meet them. They said yes. In Halifax, I asked if they would tell me what happened on board. Again, they said yes. (They didn’t even ask for money; this, I probably don’t need to mention, rarely happens.) Over the following months I interviewed them at length. It was difficult – they lived in different cities, and Rodolfo’s English was poor. At a certain point, I traveled to Algecirus, where I discovered one of those facts that can only exist in the realm of the truthful – around the time of the story, Romanian men were traveling overland to Algecirus, where they would pose as evangelical Christians in order to stay for free at a hostel for Born-Agains called The Lighthouse. Here, they would wait for a big ship to come into port, at which point they would steal on board, usually by walking up the gangway while the security guard dozed.
I started to become interested in the Romanian angle (and not solely because I had already roughed out the story of the three Filipino sailors, and found that even with an autistic attention to detail it would eat up, say, eighty pages). Oh no -- I decided that for the reader to root for the survival of the fourth stowaway, his story had to be in the book. There was only one problem. When the Maersk Dubai was seized in Halifax, the fourth stowaway – his name was Nicolae Pasca – was given a room in the downtown Holiday Inn. The very first night he walked away from his hotel room, and vanished into the night.
Determined, I placed a looking-for-so-and-so ad in Romanian newspapers in New York and Toronto, figuring he had probably gone to one of those two cities. Shortly after the ad appeared, I got a phone call from a Romanian guy living in Toronto, who told me that the man I was seeking was his cousin. I met him in a donut shop in the Russian part of Toronto; we were the only two speaking English, and it was the only Tim Horton’s I have ever been to with borscht on the illuminated menu board. After a requisite amount of small talk, he told me that Nicolae Pasca was living in Chicago. He then gave me Nicolae’s phone number.
I went home. I phoned. My story subject answered, and I quickly realized I had another problem on my hands – after five full years of life in the USA, Nicolae Pasca spoke not one word of English. He couldn’t even say who’s this or what do you want? or, frustration of frustrations, I no speak Inglish. All I could do was become flustered and hang up. I phoned the cousin back. He gave me the phone number of a Romanian friend of Nicolae’s who spoke, apparently, excellent English. His name was Daniel. I phoned Daniel. His English was excellent. I asked him if he could ask Nicolae if I could meet with the two of them in Chicago. Daniel did this, phoned back, and told me that Nicolae was amenable. A further year of cat and mouse, too frustrating and dull to relate, ensued. I finally I took an early morning flight in July of 2002. Chicago, I recall, was in the middle of a heat wave.
The plan was: I would land, go to my hotel, drop my bags off, phone Nicolae and make sure that everything was ready for our ten a.m. meeting. I remember I called at nine-thirty from a Mexican restaurant, following a breakfast of huevos rancheros. A woman answered, whom I intuited to be Nicolae’s wife.
“Nicolae no home,” she said, and hung up.
I phoned at ten o’clock. The same woman answered, and again she told me that Nicolae was no home. I phoned again at ten-thirty, and again at eleven, only to be told each time that Nicolae was unavailable. It was around this time that I realized Nicolae was telling me, in a manner far more aggressive than passive, that the interview we had mutually agreed to was not going to happen. I checked into my hotel, and decided I would nonetheless phone him every hour on the hour until my return flight to Toronto. At no time did it occur to me this would result in a meeting, my only goal being to piss Nicolae and his wife off as badly as they were pissing me off.
So that’s what I did. Every hour I phoned from my rancid little hotel room (the carpet was unaccountably damp, and trust me when I say that this is something you do not want). Each time, I was then appraised of Nicolae Pasca’s continued absence. In between phone calls, I went to the park across the street; I even remember the novel I had on the go – it was called The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall -- a good chunk of which I consumed that day. I watched young men play Frisbee golf. I drank a lot of water. I ate Mexican take-out, and suffered indigestion.
The break-through occurred at my eight o’clock phone call. Once again, Nicolae’s wife answered, and once again I inquired, in my most saccharine of voices, if Nicolae was home. This time, I heard her say, “OHHH!” and march away from the phone. From far off, I heard her yell, “Nicolae!”
A second later, Nicolae came on the line, and showed off his recently expanded English vocabulary by saying, only, “Come.”
I caught a cab in the neighbourhood known as Lincoln Park and headed west – ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, burrowing deeper and deeper into a land of bodegas, tacquerias and laundromats. All the graffiti, I noticed, was now in Spanish; many of the cars rode inches of the ground, and were driven by young men wearing hairnets, muscle shirts and tattoos. I was let off in front of a low-rise building which was surrounded by a twenty-foot-high enclosure that looked, for all purposes, like a cage. I was buzzed in, first at the entrance to the cage and secondly at the entrance to the building. Nicolae let me into the ground floor apartment, where I quickly discovered that Daniel, the translator, was not there.
For the next hour, Nicolae and I sat in his blisteringly hot living room, attempting conversation in artificially risen voices. (“HOT!” I would yell, tugging at the neck of my shirt. “DA!” he would respond, mimicking fanning himself.) Daniel the translator finally showed up, and I launched into my spiel – the treatment of stowaways was a pressing issue, his rescuers had already participated, if Nicolae told me his story I would treat it with utmost diligence and respect … on and on I went, as relentless as a shill outside of a Nevada brothel, until I more or less ran out of steam. There was an uncomfortable pause. I looked at the two of them and said, “Well, here’s the part where you tell me what you think.”
Daniel turned to Nicolae and they started conferring in low, grumbling voices. Finally, Daniel turned to me and, with a business-like expression I can picture to this day, said, “We were thinkink … like … thirty thousand dollars.”
I looked at the two of them. Probably, I blinked once or twice. Jesus, I thought, I’m gonna have to make this whole thing up.
So this is what I decided to do. I’d invent a character, and tell of his harrowing journey from a small town in Romania to the city of Algecirus, Spain. Here, he’d steal on board the wrong container ship; from this moment, everything that happened in the novel would match the story given to me by the Filipino sailors, who would all be characters in the book. In this way, I’d capture what happened on board the Maersk Dubai, as well as give the reader a glimpse into the life of a Romanian stowaway. The novel came out in the spring of 2004, and was promptly sold in the U.S. and Great Britain as well as a smattering of foreign language countries. The Vancouver Sun described it as “a powerful, deeply-human masterpiece”, a quote Random House put to ample use on the cover of the trade back, and The Boston Globe listed it as one of its ten best books of the year. I sold the film right to a producer based in Los Angeles a few years later.
Still, I often wonder if I missed a glorious commercial opportunity: telling the Filipino side of the story only, and peddling the book as non-fiction. (Non-fiction outsells fiction by a factor that often makes me queasy.) To do so, however, I would have had to make myself a character, and in this way generate a 100 pages of detail regarding how I reported on the story, what my thoughts were during my flight to Chicago, what I felt the story subjects revealed about themselves during the inevitable author-meets-subject-in-a-restaurant scenes. Such flagrant navel gazing is the scourge of modern journalism (well, one of them) and in the end I decided that, royalties be damned, it would have ruined this elegant, seamless, heartbreaking adventure tale.