"When I was collecting corks … I'd go restaurant to restaurant," Pollack said. "Some places were very dismissive, because I wasn't important. I mean, I didn't have money. I didn't have power. I just had a boyhood dream. And boyhood dreams don't always count for so much in a place like Washington."
"Every cork has a story to tell," he said. "There's a toast, there's a celebration, there's a moment or just a relaxing drink at the end of a long day. And so every cork has a story to tell."
Pollack says he felt sorry for the people who didn't understand his dream.
"With the cork boat, people either got it, or they didn't get it," he said. "If they didn't get it, I felt sorry for them because what's life if there isn't play? What's life if there isn't whimsy?"
As the cork donations came in, Pollack called on old childhood friend Garth Goldstein, an architect who immediately latched onto the project. The two began devising ways to fasten the corks together.
"I just thought, 'Well, what would be the most efficient way to pack these things?'" said Goldstein. "And after a minute or two, we wound up with, you know, a hexagon."
They decided it would take at least 100,000 corks total to complete the ship.
Pollack and Goldstein dived into the project and worked out of a garage, called the Boat Works. They enlisted friends and neighbors, even complete strangers to stop by for even a few hours to help bind the corks and wrap them into logs.
Pollack and Goldstein — along with the revolving core of volunteers who Pollack says wanted to "be a part of something bigger than themselves" — worked for more than two years on putting the boat together. In the middle of the second year, Pollack was offered a job at the White House as a speechwriter for President Clinton. Although his new job took him away from the boat during the day, he kept working overnights and soon had the White House staff collecting corks.
"People really liked it," Pollack said. "Look, I had come towards the end of the administration, and a lot had gone on at the White House. To have a little bit of levity, and something fun going on — I was kind of the quirky new guy building a cork boat."
A launch date of Columbus Day 2001 was set, but by September Pollack and Goldstein weren't speaking to each other and the project had stalled.
"John was very much concerned with 'let's get it done, let's move on,' and I was obsessed with 'it has to be perfect … we have to be true to some concept to make it as strong as possible,'" Goldstein said.
"There came a point where I wanted to quit," said Pollack. "I called up my mom … and I said, 'maybe I should just give up on the cork boat.' She said, 'John, you've been talking about building that cork boat since you were 6 years old. If you give up now, you'll always regret it."
"I remember thinking, if it's the last thing I do, I'm going to build this boat and I'm going to get it in the water."
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, further inspired Pollack to patch things up with his partner and figure out what to do with the boat.
"We thought, well maybe we should just put the boat on hold," Pollack said. "I mean, after all that's happened, what does a cork boat matter?"
But one by one, volunteers started arriving at the garage, telling Pollack and Goldstein that they needed to "work on the boat."