Seattle Writing Prompts: shipping containers

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You've seen them stacked like mini-skyscrapers driving 99 through SODO. On the Duwamish side, the towering animal-like cranes, whose job it is to move them from one method of conveyance to another. On the other, those hunched-back rail cranes, that pick up and move them in the yards.

Containers hold our imagination in specific ways. We want to buy them to turn them into houses, shops, studios, boats, and even, of course, Starbucks.

There's just something about those corrugated metal boxes that makes us want to repurpose them into something else. Their first job, though, is to move goods. In fact, what you think of when you hear the name "shipping container" is actually called intermodal containers. They come in standardized sizes, but the real breakthrough in their technology came when a Spokanite named Keith Tantlinger who made some important improvements on existing containers (mostly standardization), but invented the twist-lock that today's containers use so that they can stack. It changed shipping forever.

If you read Jonathan Raban's magnificent novel Waxwings — which starts on the bridge of a container ship about to enter the Salish Sea as a pilot boards to guide the ship to harbor in Seattle — you'll know that containers play a part. Containers are story machines, each one full of things we love to think about, dream about, or need to do our work. And when humans make things and need things, no doubt there are going to be many stories around those things just waiting to be explored.

Today's prompts
  1. Sometimes the twist-locks seize. Salt air, corrosion, etc. Sometimes you have to get in there and cut the damn things free. But he checked all four corners and they were in the release position. So why couldn't the crane get the container free of the stack? Making sure he was well clear, he radioed for the crane operator to try again, and like before, the container stuck tight to the one under it, like it was super-glued in place. It was weird. And then, a surging hum and the wrench he was holding went flying and stuck to the side of container. Magnets? There weren't any magnets that powerful on the earth. He radioed to pull the crane free. "I'm gonna crack it and see what's inside."

  2. They didn't have the nerve to say it to her face. But her neighbors — at least one of them, and maybe more — sent an anonymous note to her email, threatening her with a lawsuit if she continued with the plans for her new house. "Your plan to build using steel boxes is incongruous with the careful design of our neighborhood," the note read. "Should you persist, there will be lawsuits." She wondered if it was the person who lived in the Tudor, or the craftsmen, or the mid-century rambler, or the eighties knock-off architect's nightmare house? Which congruity of those would she be impacting by building on her own land?

  3. The planning had taken twelve Earth years. Where was the least likely place for Earth radar to pick up their craft landing? They decided in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, and to mask their decent through the atmosphere to be like a meteorite falling. The mothership could go to the bottom of the sea, then, by the time any jets were scrambled to check them out. And then, they would launch their container ship, and it would go right into port, without anybody knowing. The perfect Trojan horse, and nobody could stop them before they were fully distributed throughout the cities, and it was too late.

  4. The sealed container auctions were his favorite. Something about a gambler's sensibility that knew the promise of something was better than the reality of bored nothingness. So, a few thousand dollars and he'd have a container full of goods. Of what? Of shoes, or sawhorses, of cheap-ass electronics or knock-off Stetson hats, electrical panels for houses, or elevator cables, plastic bottles, climbing gear, or who knows what else? But when he opened his latest lot, he found something far more unsettling: a house-worth of furniture and goods. It was a family's life he just bought, and all he could think about was how much they needed their stuff. How much the move — from where? Hong Kong? — had cost them, and he wondered if he could figure out just how to find them.

  5. They wash up on the beaches, sometimes, still. Daddy says it was the great wave that done it, but I know it was the pulse from the sun that killed all of the electronics. Daddy says they used to talk on little boxes, used to use glowing screens to see faces of people far away. One time, he opened the big box on the beach and showed me, with happiness, "This is a laptop, Dumpling. I wish I could turn it on and show you how it worked." We took all the boxes of them, hundreds, and stacked them in my room. I use them like blocks to make other rooms, but I've opened a few. I like to poke at their buttons and see. Sometimes I shoot them with the shotgun to watch them explode, but Daddy doesn't like when I do that because of contamination, whatever that is. So when I saw a new red box come up on shore I had to go get him, and we waded out to it to see what could be inside. Every time it was the thrill of the new. Every time was like a present come to us. Both of us acted like little kids as we walked into the water to see what we were gonna get.