Friday, August 14, 2009

New Orleans to Natchez I: Deck Hands on the Mississippi

At 2 pm Downtown Baton Rouge was a ghost town. The city center with its drab office buildings and vacant storefronts, any of a half dozen of which could have been the old Woolworth’s, reminded me of the 70’s even if my memory does not quite stretch back that far. The empty sidewalks and those southern skyscrapers that do not scrape evoked memories of taking the bus with Laura on one of our trips to the Shoney’s in downtown Nashville. Those rides were as early as 1979 or as late as 82, it doesn’t matter, I choose to think of that time as a connection to my birth decade.

I used to love riding the bus. I still do when they aren’t crowded with commuters and I’m not going anywhere in particular. I’ll take the bus on 10 hour trips when I’m anywhere outside the USA—Greyhound is dreadful. If I didn’t have a boat to catch I’d take a few buses in Baton Rouge, sit on the last row and watch the elderly, the domestics, the veterans, the DUI’s, and perhaps the occasional commuter catch the bus home from work. You can learn a great deal about a town from the people that ride the bus.

Baton Rouge had gotten stuck somewhere long before the 70’s, maybe in those bullet holes still etched in the marble halls of the state capitol. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Huey Long himself waddled out of one of these squat towers, his entourage in tow.

The Ingram port was upriver from the bridge over the Mississippi and just a couple blocks down North St. from the center of town. Jack dropped me off at the gravel drive that sloped over the levy and down to the river’s edge. The office looked like a barge from the land as the office is on the water. As the guy with a new bike, an overstuffed saddlebag, and a south of the border moustache, I must have looked ridiculous to the deckhands waiting for their tow ride to work.

I tried not to think too much about the kind of figure I cut out here. If the bike and my back-story weren’t enough to do me in, I was hoping I could get through the next 48 without anyone noticing I’m a vegetarian.

The dispatcher in the office was a friendly guy. He had me sign the standard waivers that said I wasn’t taking any medication, wasn’t drunk or planning to booze, and would abide by the rules of the river. It’s a good thing I didn’t buy a bottle of scotch for the captain. All the presents I had thought to bring on board had been bottles of something, some stereotypes die hard. It hadn’t occurred to me that a riverboat captain might be prohibited from drinking.

I asked again about the bike.

“As long as you don’t try to ride the bike on the boat you’ll be fine,” he said.

I had to take a fleeting boat out to the Marty Baskerville. One of the crew checked my ID and I signed into the logbook. They had one stop before delivering me, to drop off a brand new deck hand on a tug bound for Houston.

I sat in the kitchen with the giant mate who had signed me in. I was hoping to make some small talk, to figure out what people talked about out here before I got on the bigger tow where I’d be spending the next 40 hours, but the mate made himself busy smoking and playing a computer game.

I went out on the deck and up to the bow where the tow’s deckhand was talking to the guy about to start his first day on the job. The new guy couldn’t have been a year out of high school, if he had finished at all. He couldn’t have been more than 18 as he still did not have cause to shave. The greenhorn was already taking the older deck hand’s lead, when the older guy took a step back or pursed his lips to spit, the new guy followed whether by good instincts or good sense or both. He was well behind his partner in looking the part, he hadn’t put in the same hours growing his biceps or padding his beer gut, and he lacked evidence of any spontaneous tattoos.

I was nervous at the prospects of spending a couple of days with these guys, or guys like them on the tow. Country boys don’t scare me as much as they make me uncomfortable. I was born in the South, which might give me a slight advantage over any of my New York or Boston born Wesleyan classmates in the same situation, but I was born in suburbs, went to private school, and never killed anything bigger than a crow. My best attempt at a southern accent probably just gave me away for a rich boy.

I must have made them uncomfortable too. The younger hand deck was probably just a step behind in mimicking his partner’s hushed tone as I approached them at the front of the boat. I couldn’t blame him. I’d be suspicious too of such an obvious city slicker carrying a bike on a riverboat. I tried to strike up a conversation. This didn’t go anywhere, so we stood near the bow and watched the tow cut through the carpet of brown wake shook out by the large tows pushing up the muddy Mississippi.

We wished the deckhand good luck, and before long we pulled up to the larger tow I’d be taking up river. The veteran deck lifted my bike over the railing and down to he other deck with arm, and he wished me a good ride.

It was a great relief when I got aboard the Marty Baskerville. The tow was three times as large as the fleeting boat I had come over on, and to my relief, the deck hands weren’t white. I don’t know why this should have mattered, but it did. I already had something in common with the junior deckhand on the Baskerville. Dexter had come from Elaine, Arkansas, a Delta town just a 20 minute drive from where I lived in Helena the year I taught special ed.

If the guys on the fleeting tow had suspected I was a weirdo, Dexter knew it. Who in their right mind would choose to live in Helena? At least he could place this weirdo somewhere in time and space. Dexter was a polite young man and like me didn’t have anything else to do for the next couple of hours so we couldn’t help but get along.

As former residents of Phillips County we had plenty common ground to cover: the King Biscuit Blues Festival, a few teachers whom I remembered having taught at his old high school (incorrect on my part, my roommate had taught at a school north of Elaine), and the eternal twin cities debate, West Helena vs. Helena, Wal-Mart vs. Kroger, Burger Shack vs. Burger Ranch. We were both punched straight tickets. Dexter was a West Helena man, which put him in the Wal-Mart and Burger Shack camps. As a Helena partisan I supported Kroger and the Burger Ranch, though it took all my Helena allegiance to block out memories of the produce rotting in the bins at Kroger and the urban myth about Helena high’s missing lab rat later discovered in the fryer at the Ranch. The latter episode, if true, was clearly a West Helena sabotage.

Our conversation reminded me of the song my homeroom students at Lee High School sang some mornings. The first verse was “Wal-Mart,” then they’d sing the name of another local store, say “Sonic.” The verses would continue to alternate between Wal-Mart and something not Wal-Mart, “Wal-Mart… Dollar General…Wal-Mart…Cleo’s…Wal-Mart… KFC…Wal-Mart.” It is a song but also a bit of a contest, who can keep the beat going by thinking of enough businesses that aren’t Wal-Mart every other verse.

Once my homeroom managed to keep the Wal-Mart song going until the bell, though they had to reach beyond Marianna to the businesses of West Memphis and the Helena twin cities. They threw in an extra Dollar General or two to keep afloat, a legal move because any town like Marianna too small for a Wal-Mart was sure to have a Dollar General. I only got 15 minutes in the mornings with my homeroom of regular students, the rest of the day I taught special ed. Maybe it was by contrast that I found their song so clever.

Because what else do you have to talk, or sing, about in a small and beaten Delta town besides the stores and the people? There were stories to tell about the people, but we were both being polite. So we talked Wal-Mart. I had to dig for some Helena standouts, my only regular was the Pizza for Less inside the gas station just on the Helena side of the twin city line.


If he had brought up the Chinese restaurant next door to the Pizza for the Less on West Helena’s side of the line, I might have conceded West Helenan superiority right there. I was leaning over a plastic dish of Kung Pao canned peas and carrots at the August Moon when the only good idea I ever had in Delta flashed into my brain, a plan for a working bong made entirely out of kitchen supplies—from Wal-Mart. Even my Pizza for Less experience involved the younger twin city, and Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was only place in town to buy Kalamata olives, until I noticed, one precious jar and agonizing week at a time, that I was the only buyer in town. By January there were only 4 jars left. I went to the customer service counter the week before the Super Bowl to add a suggestion they restock the olives. I didn’t have much going for me that year, those olives were one of my few creature comforts aside from the grocery bag of weed I bought from a friend of a friend in Memphis. I finished my one man run on decent olives by groundhogs day. They never restocked.


The twin city debate was a matter of taste. I preferred Helena’s ghostly beauty, the abandoned big houses swallowed up in Kudzu. Dexter preferred West Helena’s newer ranch houses, the apartment buildings, the Wal-Mart.

You see Dexter and I had real stuff to talk about. I had no common ground with the rednecks.

It’s the people that make a place, and I wouldn’t have lasted six weeks in the Delta if hadn’t been for the immediate acceptance from my colleagues at school, an, “it takes a village and we’ll take all comers” approach. If Dexter had a lower opinion of the people of the Delta, he didn’t want to disappoint me, “They’re ok down there.”

Dexter had been an honor student at Elaine and followed his girlfriend to the University of Pine Bluff Arkansas. College classes were tough, and after a semester he dropped out and moved to West Memphis.

“Hard to meet somebody down there,” he said.

Being an honor student in Phillips County is no guarantee of adequate college preparation. In my first year at Lee High School, only six seniors met the State of Arkansas’s test of basic proficiency in English, Math and Science. I would imagine that the definition of honor student in Elaine was similar to that at Lee High School, or to the standard in Tom Wolfe’s fictional South Bronx school Jacob Ruppert High from Bonfire of the Vanities—an honor student attended class, wasn’t disruptive, and did all right in reading and arithmetic.

Dexter was well aware that he hadn’t received the best education in Elaine.

“I wasn’t good at English, I talk the way I write, which ain’t good,” Dexter explained. “It sounds right, but it don’t look good.”

Though college did not work out for Dexter, he was a Phillips County success story. He got out of the Delta by way of employment and not incarceration.

Dexter wanted to know if I’d been to Brazil, he had heard the women are beautiful. Though I had admitted I had never been to that part of South America, I told him I had never heard a traveler’s tale that didn’t confirm Brazil a country of beautiful women. I told him about Colombia. He smiled and said he’d like to visit there one day

Dexter was 23, with the prospects of a life on the river ahead of him. I asked him if he ever worried about getting injured in an accident. He smiled again and shook his head.

“I’m going home if that happens.”

I wondered if disability was as good a deal as Dexter imagined. Apart from living with a serious injury, how long would checks continue to roll in? Dexter wasn’t sure either.

Dusk was settling in on the river and the Marty Baskerville was facing up to the 24 barges she would be pushing upriver. This meant that Dexter and the other deckhands now had plenty of work to do, checking the wires that secured the barges to the boat and to each other, checking and rechecking the convoy of covered containers so there would be no mishaps that might send Dexter home early to southern Phillips County.

I hopped up to the second deck where I was staying in the guest cabin, accommodations far better than I expected. The cabin was like a hotel room, with twin beds, television, and an en suite bathroom and shower. Next-door was a rec. room with a computer, a weight lifting machine and a couple of lazy boys in front of a satellite television.

It was still quiet when I lay down the first night on the boat. I had been warned about the noise and rumble of the engines, but we wouldn’t be heading upriver until midnight, and though the noise would be considerable, the tow wouldn’t rattle so much now that it was weighted down with a full load of fuel. I looked out the windows for a last view of the Baton Rouge skyline, the capitol tower its only icon. When took off my glasses I could imagine the casino on the river with its paddlewheel and twin smokestacks was docked just for the night and would join us in the early morning as we churned north through the swirling brown waters of the Lower Mississippi.

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