Yesterday evening under the dusky gray sky, I took a visit down to Riverside Park in Southwest Detroit thinking I'd research a story about the Ambassador Bridge. Instead I wound up spending several hours talking to the crew at the nearby nautical mail-delivery service, the J.W. Westcott Company, and battling the subsequent, romantic urge to quit my job and become a captain or crewman as soon as possible.
On the night I visited, the lights from the Ambassador Bridge and skyscraping casinos and headquarters on both shores jumped and flashed with the gentle ripples of the river's surface. I'd only been in the office for several minutes when I was invited to accompany long-time dispatcher, Paul Jagenow, and part-time ship captain, Jason Elliott on a mail run. We struck out on the purple gray waters of the Detroit River and I became giddy like a small child seeing a toy train set for the first time. But now I was flying across the water -- my entire field of vision eclipsed by the floating iron tower that was the freighter we rapidly approached and smoothly pulled up beside -- to deliver a sack of mail into a plastic pail hanging from a very long rope held by modern-day mariners on the Great Republic. The fact that we were delivering mail in such a way to a freighter equipped with satellite TV, GPS, and wireless Internet only added to the strangely enchanting, old-timey quality of the entire operation.
The J.W. Westcott Company (est. 1874) is the world's only floating post office and one of Detroit's oldest and most unique businesses. It consists of an administrative office with a USPS contract (located at the end of 24th St. in Southwest Detroit), a mail boat that looks an awful lot like a buoyant Postal Service mail truck (J.W. Westcott II) and a rotating, two-person crew whose purpose is to deliver mail, parcels, and basic supplies to the behemoth freighters cruising up and down the river by the light of the sun or moon, 24/7. Not only must these guys adhere to the USPS's creed of delivering through rain, sleet, and snow, they must also battle fast-moving currents, factory-sized freighters that do not stop for their deliveries, and boat-smashing ice floes. That's probably why the government has rewarded J.W. Westcott II its own zip code (48222), making it the only boat in the country with such a distinction.
I had come down to Riverside Park as a stranger, thinking about polemics, looking for opinions. But shortly after arriving, I found myself sitting comfortably at a large oak desk with Paul and Jason, talking about boat mechanics, changes in the shipping industry, the creative adaptation those changes have forced on the company, life stories, and eventually, in response to a genuine but not entirely tactful question from me ("What's the craziest thing you've ever seen out here?"), the only fatal accident the J.W. Westcott Company has ever known in its 137 years of operation. I felt uncomfortably voyeuristic getting such an intimate look into the lives of people I'd just met at first, but it was moving to hear Paul talk about the worst day he's ever experienced at Westcott, when his friend and captain, Cathy Nasiatka, and deckhand, David Lewis, perished in a fluke accident on a routine nocturnal mail delivery that left the J.W. Westcott II -- the boat I'd just been a passenger on -- capsized and scraping against the river bottom. That was on October 23, 2001.
Paul just recently arranged for the 10-year memorial anniversary of the untimely deaths of his friends and colleagues, whose pictures remain hanging above the door of the dispatcher's office and who are also memorialized by a small lighthouse on the property bearing plaques with the names of the lost crew. He invited the families to come down, and Captain Cathy Nasiatka's did. Paul brought flowers. A local priest came and blessed the lighthouse. They said prayers together. But this is what got me: Paul then invited everyone out onto the boat to participate in a special marine tradition. "Would you be willing," he asked the family, "to go out onto the boat" -- the boat where Cathy died -- and "spread flowers over the water's surface for the lost mariners?"
Paul wasn't sure whether the family would want to perform such a ritual, but they did. With much emotion, they drove out, spoke words to honor and remember the lost, and true to mariner tradition, offered handfuls of flower petals to the river, where they would make their way, slowly but surely, to the sea.
Much about the J.W. Westcott Company surprised me and seemed anachronistic -- the "You've got mail!" alert that boomed from the AOL-harboring computer in the dispatch room is perhaps not the best example, but it was one of the most jarring, like cleaning out a cluttered boyhood closet and suddenly coming face-to-face with an exploding Jack-in-the-box from the early Nineties strata. But the company's simple, hip-but-for-lack-of-irony utilization of old stuff is not the take-away. It's something else. At the recent 10-year memorial service, Paul read a psalm that singles out "Those who go down to the sea, who do business in great waters." No matter how old-school their operating systems or mail-to-pail operating model, the character, knowledge, and genuine goodness of the men at the J.W. Westcott Company are timeless. How good that they are a presence in the Detroit community, that they celebrate tradition, spark restless twenty-somethings' dreams, brave stormy waters to deliver messages to land-deprived crewmen, and do business on our great waters.
Aaron Handelsman is a freelance writer and Southwest Detroit resident.