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Ferry Operator: Beautiful Setting, Pretty Girls--Now, Back to Reality

November 14, 1987

Rick Harlow is feeling a little old for the job. At 27, he is marking his 10th year on the Balboa Island ferry. Not only is he getting older, he said, but the girls are getting younger. "Girls come across, real pretty and done up, and you think--she is 18--and she will be 14 years old." During his stint collecting fares and steering the ferry, Harlow saw a motorcyclist--who tried to catch the already moving ferry--plunge into the bay, tolerated belligerent drunks on the Saturday night shift he worked for seven years, and relished the spectacular Christmas boat parades, despite a crossing that becomes "an eight-lane freeway" during the event. But it's the rhythm of the day, familiar faces, scenic surroundings and an active on-the-job social life that the once-shy Balboa Island native will most remember. A student in ornamental horticulture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, he is leaving his full-time position to finish school and give time to his newly formed landscaping business. He is still working one night a week, however, just to keep his foot in the door. He said the prospect of leaving was making him melancholy. These remarks are from an interview with Times staff writer Nancy Reed at ferry boat headquarters. I have watched more sunsets. There are times you are going out across the bay, and there are a couple of pelicans diving for food, and the sun is setting, and there are a couple of oarsmen rowing by, and you just think, you can't beat this.

There are people that come on and give you $5 and want to ride for 20 minutes because they love it so much. People try to bribe you all the time to go other places besides across the bay. "Here's 20 bucks; can you go for a little spin?" On my all-nighters, I have done it when it is quiet.

When you are just starting out as an operator, you have to think about every boat crossing your path, but after time, judging the speed of boats all becomes second nature.

Some things people say can get old. Like, "Do you take credit cards? What happens if you don't pay? Is this thing on a cable?" You have heard them hundreds of times, and you just have to muster up courtesy. People have to think that they are funny, and you have to listen to it.

It is miserable in the rain. You have to wear your foul weather gear for eight hours. A lot of times there is wind, and there is really no way to keep dry. You go to collect from someone, and they don't want to roll their window down, and meanwhile you are standing there. You get tired of it real, real fast. Luckily, it doesn't rain that much.

It is a beautiful atmosphere to work in. I probably took it for granted for a long time, but I don't now.

The job all of sudden becomes a cakewalk right after Labor Day. To me, it is such a relief. Summertime can become almost unbearable--there are so many people. Trip after trip going there and back in like seven minutes; the collectors have to collect from at least 50 or 60 people in four minutes and turn right around and do it all again.

In the long summer day, there is this one shift we call 10 to infinity. It's from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. You see all the people come to the beach. You see the same people come back, and then you see them all changed and showered and out to dinner. It really makes you feel like, God, I have been here forever.

But, of course, there are a lot of pretty girls--I don't think there is any job anywhere where you would have more chances to meet people. I know it sounds real corny, but if you don't have dark sunglasses on, you are going to get caught because you find yourself watching all the time. You really do. It is not that we have more hormones than anybody, it is just that, gee, you see so many. That never gets old.

I probably know by name hundreds of people. This is a small-town-type job. I am friends with guys who drive their boats in the bay, bartenders that come across, waiters and waitresses, suit-and-tie people, people going to night class, bicycle riders, runners. You become the master of a three-minute conversation.

I almost married a girl I met on the ferry. We smiled for about six months before I even had the nerve to talk to her. You know, that is how things develop. We went out for two years.

You go change jobs, and all of a sudden, you don't get that attention.

You become an alumnus. Old guys come up and say, " I used to drive this thing." It is amazing how many men used to work here.

You know what scares me is that I will come back here some day, and no one will know me. I even had a dream about it the other night. I came back as a passenger, and I recognized people, but they didn't know who I was.

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