Duffy St. Pierre has never seen sex, lies and videotape. In fact, the former garbage-barge captain has never even heard of the movie that opens with a reference to his own three-month odyssey in 1987 trying to find a safe harbor for 3,186 tons of Long Island trash. “Last time I started feeling this way,” Andie MacDowell’s character tells her therapist, “is when that barge was stranded and it was going around the island and nobody would claim it.”
She was suffering, it turned out, from displaced anxiety – exactly the syndrome that caused the barge’s sad condition. Back then, paying other states to handle New York’s garbage was a dirty little secret. And as the garbage barge floated around the Caribbean and back up the Eastern Seaboard, rejected at every port, it became the symbol of a crisis too long ignored. Today, the interstate garbage trade is commonplace; New York City trash is being carted to Connecticut and Virginia, and the practice will increase when Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill closes in 2001.
St. Pierre, now 67, is aware of the role that his odyssey played in the national imagination, but he insists it was all just another job. “It was a big money scam with the lawyers,” he says. “They just blew all this out of proportion.” Susan Molinari, then a city councilwoman, personally handed St. Pierre a court order barring him from dumping the garbage, which was said to contain medical waste, on Staten Island. “We are treating the garbage like Germany treated Lenin,” declared then-mayor Edward Koch. “It wasn’t even garbage; it was trash,” St. Pierre explains. “There was nothing in there – absolutely nothing, zip, nothing – having to do with hospital waste. That was just a bunch of lies. I just shut my mouth and bit my tongue.”
By the time the garbage was finally incinerated, and buried back in Islip, the captain was out of work. His boss never spoke to him again when he returned home to Louisiana. “He’s a distant relation, but that doesn’t matter,” says St. Pierre. It soon emerged that one of the barge’s investors was a close friend of the Lucchese crime syndicate.
Within a year, St. Pierre was running a gambling ship off the Louisiana coast, but that job lasted only a few weeks. Then came a long stint working off the coast of Africa, during which Nigerian pirates took over his boat. “They were aboard for about eight hours,” he says. “People haven’t got a clue what’s going on in Africa. It’s horrible.”
Today, St. Pierre is captain of the Lady Ashley, a 96-footer that runs supplies from Jacksonville, Florida, to the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The barge, Mobro 4000, now transports cargo from El Salvador; the tugboat, Break of Dawn, does oil-rig work in the Gulf of Mexico. Divorced from his wife, St. Pierre lives alone on a 40-acre spread he bought in the bayou, where he grows oranges, grapes, and figs. He plans to harvest crawfish soon. And he doesn’t shed a tear for his bygone days on the garbage barge. “It’s a stinking business,” he says.