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Merchant Marines

12.28.2006 | SOCIETY

In this season of giving, there is a lawsuit that surpasses even Kevin Federline's for sheer chutzpah. Currently winding its way through Federal District Court in Brooklyn is a tugboat company's $8 million claim against New York City. The company seeks compensation for its rescue efforts during the horrific crash of a Staten Island ferry into a concrete pier in October 2003, in which 11 passengers died and many more were critically injured. The tugboat mate, Robert G. Seckers, is on record as saying next time he might not be so helpful. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.

The tugboat company, Henry Marine, was already under contract with the City to move ferries. But no matter. What we have here is a whole new way of doing business at sea. These days, money talks, bullshit drowns. Should you find yourself in distress on an open waterway, make sure you're carrying a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express card. In fact, don't leave home without it.

Welcome to my country, where post-9/11, the gap between good Samaritan and bounty hunter is closing with each passing day. In the coming years, we can look forward to a series of cultural transformations that will disgust even the likes of Borat. Lifeguarding will go from honorable vocation to profit center, especially at Hiltons, Ritz-Carltons, and Club Meds. Mouth-to-mouth will fetch upwards of a thousand dollars, even if your rescuer looks more like Jeff Spicoli from Ridgemont High than Pamela Anderson.

Swimmers will be required to learn basic sign language so that bargaining for a Heimlich maneuver can be performed with a simple set of hand signals. Where multiple drowning victims must compete for rescuer attention, there should be no problem, as lifeguard stands are ideal for auctions.

It's too bad conservative economist Milton Friedman didn't live to see this. Nothing would have warmed the cold cockles of his laissez-faire heart more than a kind of free market on the open seas, where supply and demand really does mean sink or swim. No doubt Friedman is crying out from a gilded casket bought at wholesale that we take this opportunity to finish what he started.

The police must be privatized so that resources can be efficiently allocated to runaway Lhasa Apsos rather than missing prostitutes. Fires in Bushwick must be allowed to burn while tanning lamps at Trump Tower are watched like a hawk. Paramedics must be trained to pat down stroke victims for billfolds, jewelry, and iPods. Changes in rescue operations at the federal level actually began in September 2005, when victims of Hurricane Katrina were greeted by FEMA, soon to be known as the Free Enterprise Management Administration.

Life on our highways will be taking a new turn as well. Roadside directions will soon cost ten dollars. Correct ones will cost twenty. AAA is being revamped to bypass calls from Nissans, Neons, and Hyundais in favor of Saabs, Porsches, and Cadillacs. Psychotic, thrill-seeking drivers on back roads will be rewarded for refraining on occasion from raping, killing, and mutilating drifters. Even entertainment will be affected, with the final scenes in the movie Titanic reshot so Lenny DiCaprio can haggle over a lifeboat.

As the good folks at Henry Marine search for a jury of their piers, the rest of us wait with baited breath. The lesson of a plaintiff victory in this watershed case would be profound. Namely, don't be a good Samaritan, be a scrupulous one. Run credit checks first, rescue later. Or reconsider entirely. The rescue business is, after all, a lot like fishing. Sometimes, you gotta throw one back.

About the Author
Rich Herschlag is the author of a new book, Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and Turning Hard Times Into Home Runs (HCI, 2007). His other books include Lay Low and Don't Make the Big Mistake (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and Women Are From Manhattan, Men Are From Brooklyn (Black Maverick, 2002).

Also an engineer, he runs a consulting business, Turnkey Structural, that specializes in the rehabilitation of residential and commercial buildings. Also a radio commentator, he can be visited at

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