“Welcome to the existential hell of the car standby line at the Block Island Ferry!”, Joey Houlihan bellowed to the twelve drivers. Our cars were lined up in a dirt parking lot directly across from the dock in Point Judith, Rhode Island. At 10:00am, the sun was already scorching. Having no reservations, we listened to the disappointing sound of yet another ferry pulling away from the dock without us aboard. But the sky was cloudless and blue, so we relaxed and capitulated to the probable hours-long wait for the one boat with room for our car. We spent the time standing around the tiny shack; getting to know Joey, who turned out to be the surprise of our vacation.
At 68, he has the gray hair, strong build and tanned skin of a self-described stevedore who has been around these docks since 1974 when he was in the Merchant Marines. He doesn’t have to do this job. He does it because it is home; the water, the people, the excitement of the beginning of a thousand vacations. But that’s not all there is to Joey. And as the morning passed into afternoon, we felt like we’d known him for years.
Joey is a professional writer. He has had three books published, one of them a collection of short stories called The Monkey’s Fist which we later learned was sold out at the island book store. He writes a popular column for the Block Island Times called The Ferry Dock Scribbler. He has been published in several magazines and also contributes celebrity interviews to AARP, The Magazine.
Joey writes every single day. And on his days off from running the stand-by line, he can be found sailing his beloved boat, Reverie, in Narragansett Bay. He grew up there, earned a B.A. in Theater, a graduate degree from URI, and spent the heart of his career as a public school teacher. But, that feels like ancient history. Nowadays, if you’re a regular, or if you own property on one of the islands, Joey is a minor celebrity. If you don’t know him, you probably know of him. His friends also include artists and actors from all over the country; some of them the kind who like to escape to the type of anonymity that New England’s archipelago provides.
He is a fierce conversationalist. He speaks quickly and seems to pour his whole body into raving about his current favorite author; Tom McGuane, whom he calls an “absolute master of literary device”. He is equally in awe of nature and is mesmerized by a recent find – a feat of natural engineering. It’s a giant osprey nest “the size of a small condo” which can withstand winds of at least 60-70 mph.
When Joey talks – about anything – you get the feeling that life is really just beginning at age 68; that something amazing is just around the corner waiting to be discovered and dissected; devoured and celebrated. A friend dubbed him a “juvenile veteran” which made him laugh out loud. Joey makes you want to jump in his sailboat and tack straight into the wind up to Newport Harbor, drop anchor, and go get a beer and some steamers.