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Saved From a Sea of Loneliness : Ex-Housewife Makes Port Homey for Foreign Sailors

HARBOR LIFE: Looking at Long Beach. An occasional series about Long Beach Harbor--profiling its people, their work, and the things unique about a port and its commerce.

August 18, 1985|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — As Lottie Sebren, housewife turned seamen's aide, sprinted up the aluminum gangplank, a sailor's head popped through a porthole.

"Lottie!" exclaimed Hup Cheng Tan, chief officer of the Neptune Emerald, a super freighter from Singapore.

She planted a kiss on Tan's cheek, then navigated a labyrinth of hallways and staircases, ascending to the ship's old wheelhouse, which Sebren has helped transform into a lounge.

"Lottie even brought us these Christmas lights," said the baby-faced Tan in his British accent.

The lights, hurriedly scavenged from Sebren's basement during a one-night docking of the ship last Christmas, still hung over the lounge of the vessel during a recent visit to the port. Wallpaper and a mural procured by Sebren also decorated the room.

"Lottie takes us shopping and on trips," said Tan. "She brought us spongecake and last Christmas she brought us cookies. She took one of my crew to see

a sister (in Los Angeles) he had not seen since 1939. It means a hell of a lot to us when someone does things like this."

Sebren, 59, is the manager and only paid employee of the International Seafarer's Center, one of five loosely knit facilities for sailors from the 8,000 ships that call each year at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The Seafarer's Center, three small buildings on Pico Avenue at Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach, was opened in July, 1983, on land provided without charge by the port. Its bills have been paid primarily from $26,000 raised during the giant TOPSail '84 festival on July 4, 1984, Sebren said.

The center draws sailors looking for conversation, a game of pool, or a telephone call home. Sebren and her 15 volunteers also provide information--bus schedules, amusement park times and shopping tips. And they sometimes taxi sailors into town or take them on sightseeing tours.

Once, Sebren's husband, Warner, a longtime education director at Truett Memorial Southern Baptist Church in Long Beach, and center chaplain Manuel Mak piled an Indian captain and his crew into two 14-passengervans for a trip to Yosemite National Park.

The core of the center, however, is the hospitality served in hearty portions with coffee and snacks. Sebren is a Louisiana native whose amiable directness cuts easily through foreign sailors' reserve.

'He's the Cutest Thing'

For example, she can say of First Officer Tan, "He's the cutest thing; hearing that English voice come out of that Chinese face." And he will smile back playfully.

She is accepted so readily, it seems, because her efforts betray no self-interest. She worked at the center without pay for 1 1/2 years before being hired for $1,000 a month last December.

A one-time bookkeeper who had been a housewife and mother exclusively since 1956, Sebren returned to work "because I wanted to do this," she said. "I can't believe this is work. I love it."

It is rewarding, she said, to meet the needs of sailors, many of whom have come to believe there is lidtle adventure aboard giant freighters that often spend weeks at sea and then just hours in port to unload cargo before heading home.

On a recent day, as a young sailor from Singapore waited for an available telephone, Sebren told the story of a disenchanted chief engineer who had declared: "Never will I let my son go to sea."

Whether the person is a ship's captain ensconced in spacious quarters or a lowly deckhand, "the one thing they all have in common is that they're lonely," she said.

The sailor from Singapore agreed. "I plan to give up sea life," he said. "In the old days a seaman's life was good, but not now. Some say a seaman's life is challenging, but not for me. And I don't know what is happening with my family or in Singapore."

Her job, Sebren said, is one of long hours and challenges.

She had been told that some ships, particularly those from the Soviet Union, would not allow unescorted women aboard, but Sebren says she has had no such problems.

Tour Request

She was chilled by the icy demeanor of the captain of the first Chinese ship she boarded, then surprised when he telephoned later to request a tour of Southern California for his crew. In the end, the same captain lavished gifts upon her and her grandchildren, who had toured his vessel.

Recently, she and chaplain Mak ended several days of tours and trips with a second Chinese crew.

"It is the first time for us in the United States," said Zhen Guo Liang, the crew's captain. "Before, we just read from a magazine or a book. This time the gentleman (Mak) and the lady (Sebren) show us what America is like. They promote friendship, so when I go back to China I will tell them. . . . After our experience here, we feel just like home."

Sebren noted the relative freedom Zhen's crew had in port, contrasted with the first Chinese crew she encountered 18 months ago. "We are free to go anywhere," said interpreter Shao Yeh Ming, "except a place that is not good for us like a yellow place, a sexual place."

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