“Can you hear me out there?” the loudspeaker on a nearby barge crackled loudly. I waited for what I thought was coming next: This barge captain is probably upset we’re in his way in this busy traffic corridor. Barges are scrambling around on both sides of the river like giant ants moving their loads. But the next sentence suprised both of us. “Ya’ll want some Gatorade?”
Huh? What? Yeah! We eagerly paddled toward the towering barge. Two deck hands related how they had seen Allen’s story about us on the news the previous night. They tossed down a package of Gatorade and two granola bars. McKee brand– Adventist food, I noted.
There really wasn’t any reason for me to assume the captain would be upset with us. You often cannot see the operator of the barge and therefore assign a personality to the boat based on it’s size and appearance. But in over 2000 miles of traveling the Mississippi, not one barge has communicated any kind of negativity toward under-powered boats such as ours. In fact, we’ve never received any significant communication from them.
The only negative comment received to date was from a Army Corp worker on the shore near Greenville, MS. As we paddled past their work site, a man looking to be in charge got on his loudspeaker and announced: “You boys are gonna drown if you keep paddling like a bunch of dummies out there.” I wanted to respond and say, “I guess it’s a good thing we’re not a bunch of dummies then!” but decided it wouldn’t make any difference anyways.
The only other loudspeaker incident happened north of Lake Providence. We were paddling very close to dark and a barge approached on our left side. Instead of reminding us how dangerous it is to paddle near dusk, the loudspeaker began playing a few bars from a famous Conway Twitty song. “Darling, I’d just love to lay you down.” I wasn’t sure for a moment if he was just being friendly or if we were being hit on!
Same Lesson (Times Two)
Not ten minutes after receiving our first hospitality from a barge crew, a second vessel motioned us over. This boat was parked on the shore and just wanted to chat and help as well. Another friendly crew passed us a couple more cases of Gatorade while the captain gave us some advice about “Suicide Stretch” which would be coming up downriver. The younger of the two deck hands agreed: “It’s going to get much tougher up ahead. Ya’ll be careful.” He handed over their lunch leftovers consisting of mac & cheese, pork & beans, and some fish sticks.
As Ryan and I stopped to eat the barge food further downriver, I realized this was a lesson that was being given to us. We had both been fighting (again–yeah, big suprise) both the evening before and this morning as well. The basis for some of the disagreements were based on false assumptions. Now, twice in a row we had received hospitality in place of what we assumed might be a scolding. Sometimes you assign a value where it does not exist. This boat is bigger than me and therefore he’s probably mad I’m in his way. But that’s not necessary the case. Big or small we’re all on this same river, country, or planet together. Let’s make assumptions that fall on the positive side.
I have no idea what to tell him, no idea how we do what we do. We normally ride up into a town like a couple of scraggly ruffians and people start asking questions: “What’chall doin’?” “Are you guys bikers, paddlers, runners, killers?” “You guys smell horrible, will you please leave my place of business?” But a reporter for the Natchez Democrat in Natchez, MS wants to know how we get people to talk to us, and I feel like a total tool for not knowing exactly.
“Um, we pretty much just let the Universe bring us people,” I say.
He’s not having it. “I’m going to follow y’all ‘round,” Mr. Reporter Man says, “and y’all just do what you normally do.”
Normally we would paddle for days on end until someone pulled up beside us in a boat, asked us what we were doing and offered to put us up for the night. We would then film, eek out the quirkiness of the family or person in question (via my insightful and incisive questioning, ahem) and that would be the footage we will use when it’s time to make a movie about people on the Mississippi River. But this man wants a demonstration of God’s power, and he’s on a deadline, so God better start working fast.
“How ‘bout that guy?” he asks. It’s a young black man cooking sausages on the street. Natchez, a beautiful town, is surrounded by a humidified haze as the sun goes down. “Um,” I say, “I guess I could ask him.” I feel like a total dork. I really can’t come up with a definable method we use to get people to interact with us, nevermind get them to invite us into their homes. People just tend to show up. I know I can go up and say, “Heyyyyyyyyyyyyy, cookin’ sausages? Coooool. So like what do you think of a couple of guys paddlin’ down the river, cooooool, n’c’est pas?” He will either grunt or fart and look at me like I’m nuts, or he will start talking and introduce me to his boss who knows a guy who knows a guy who will put Phillip and me up for the night. It could go either way, and I’ve always felt more comfortable when God was flipping the coin. But Ben (an excellent reporter by the way; thank you, Ben, for an awesome interview and photo session, did you get my good side? J) is asking me to force things; and, though I don’t like it, I’m going to ask the Universe to pick up the pace.
Prayer timmmmeeeeee! I say to myself. So like look, God, we need a goddamn demonstration of your power, send us a dude who is interesting on camera, has a cool house, an interesting life situation, and more importantly can give us showers and breakfast, so we can show this here reporter how exactly 11 Visions whoops some documentary-making ass. Cool?
“Cool!” God said (his voice sounded a lot like the one from the Charlton Heston version of Exodus) “Thou shalt go to a bar and order a beeeeer! And also don’t steal, lie, or mess with other people’s wives.”
“Aren’t there seven more?”
“Will you just get your ass to a bar for the love of Christ!”
Geez, God is testy today. To a bar we go.
“Where’s a bar?” I ask Ben.
“Weeeelll,” he says. “Where y’all were was perfect; there’s a saloon right off the river.”
We ain’t on the river! “Anywhere closer?”
“Weeeeeeellll, there’s the corner bar right over there.” A nice-looking hole in the wall with a green awning. That’ll do.
The Corner Bar
Lights, camera, action. It’s picture perfect. Just what we were looking for. Everyone is middle-aged. Awesome, I think, middle-aged people generally
think we’re crazy
want to do what we’re doing “and if [they were] just a little bit younger and had a few less kids [they]’d do it too in a heartbeat”
have disposable income to buy us beer and food and god knows what else
own their own homes, have already booted their kids out and are itchin’ to fill those extra rooms even if it’s just for one or two nights
Through the door, it’s a long walk to the far end of the bar top. We sweep the length of it like movie stars. Every head turns as Ben snaps pictures – his digital SLR, a telephoto lens. “What in the hell are these guys?” they think, and I respond, We’re movie stars, duh.
We take our seats. Men, black and white, with golf hats, golf shoes and rolls of cash hit on the only female bartender. “It’s kinda like the rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird,” Courtney Aldridge, the man, who in two hours will put us up for the night, says. “Y’all are unusual – the only game in town worth watchin’.”
Ben is asking me with his eyes to work some movie magic. Shit, um, I guess I could… “Order a damn beeer!” God says again. To the bartender! “Howdy, ma’am! My friend and I are paddling down the Mississipi River.” More heads turn. Maybe I know how to do this after all. “And we would like to know what beer specials you have.” Big smile on my face – goddamned if I don’t know how to do this! “Well,” she says, “it’s happy hour, so you got domestics for $1.25 and imports $1.50.” “Bud,” I say. “Guinness,” Phil says. Ooooo, got an extra quarter to go fancy I guess – drunken Irish bastard!
Black men in Polo shirts are eyeing us. They could work. Elder women on the far side of the bar. “What’s he doing? What’s he doing?” Snap, snap, goes Ben’s camera. A balding post-baby boomer with a nonchalant gait walks past. Headed to the john are you? “Hey my friend…”
“Hey, yourself,” he cuts me off. “Bikers, are you?”
“Figured as much. You got wading shoes on. Bikers don’t wear wading shoes. I biked all across France; wouldn’t be caught dead wearin’ shoes like that.” Ben is ultra-interested now. He can’t believe that we’ve gotten someone to talk to us and is snapping pictures like a madman. “Tell us about Natchez,” I say, and Courtney, who will make us tomato basil grits with Vine Brothers Sausage in the morning, says, “Well, shoot, I’ll tell ya about Natchez,” and forgets about the bathroom entirely. “Natchez is an artsy town.”
“Figured as much,” I say, “I told Phillip – this is my friend Phillip – paddlin’ up here that this town had a different feel than Vicksburg.”
“Oh it totally does,” Courtney says. Ben eases his shutter speed off to a slow crawl, more interested. “Vicksburg fought the Union soldiers like hell.
We didn’t. Their citizens dug holes in the ground to escape Northern shelling. They put their furniture and pictures down there to decorate the ‘place.’ They ate rats, killed dogs in the street for food as General Grant tried to starve ’em out. Shit, when Grant rolled up on Natchez, we put our hands up and said, ‘We give up.’” Damn, this is interesting. Thank you God; I knew You’d come through for me – Ben is still amazed! “Natchez was settled by Northerners. They wasn’t gonna fight.” Courtney turns the questioning on me: “How far y’all paddlin’ down?”
“Minnesota, din’ ya?”
“Goin’ to New Orleans. Yeah, you’re only about the tenth guy I’ve talked to that’s done that. I put up guys like you in my house all the time.” He pulls out a Marlboro Light, sparks his Zippo and looks like he’s about to fall asleep my story is so boring. “So y’all just order what you want to eat. Y’all want steak? I’ll order it – hey, Mary, get these guys some steaks! Y’all want mashed p’tatas? Mary! Get these guys some mashed tatas. Biscuits? Mary! Salad? Mary Mary Mary! Y’all’ll be set. Who’s this guy?” he asks referring to Ben.
“I’m Ben Hillyer…”
“I know who you are,” Courtney says like he’s looking at a crushed bug on the sidewalk. “I gotta take a piss.” He’s gone.
“Sooo, Ben,” I say, “that’s kinda how it works. Um, I hope…”
“Ohhh, no, guys, that was perfect, can I get a few shots of you guys in the boats?”
“Yeah, you can,” Courtney says returning. “I’ll give you guys a ride down there. You’ll come to my church tonight where there’s a little cookout, shit, my wife’s calling, hey baby! What’s up? There’s these boys that’s gonna stay with us tonight paddlin’ the river? Well, you’ll meet ‘em tonight? You boys killers? Naw, honey, they straight. I love you. Get in the car, boys. Nice to meet you Ben,” and he’s out the door while I stand there with one thought in my head: God, You work in mysterious ways.
Ben Gets His Shots and is Satisfied
Ben takes our pictures at the boat launch while Courtney backs his King Ranch pickup down the ramp. I try to say to Ben something like, “So this is how it all works,” but I know it’s bullshit. I have, Phillip has, we have nothing to do with how this all works out. It just does.
Back at the bar, Courney has too many interesting things to say to include in one blog post, but we learn that…
Rednecks are not just Southern; they’re everywhere. “You take a look at Natchez, you’ll scarcely find a redneck. They just ain’t here. Good education here, and we’re 53% black and poor as shit. Rednecks – shit – L.A.’s full of ‘em. Redneck is just a socioeconomic mindset limited by I.Q. and opportunity.” That, my friends, is about the best and most insightful definition of “redneck” that I have ever heard in my life. Maybe, indeed, I am speaking to God.
“You can be who you want in Natchez. Hell I have several gay, OPENLY,” he marks, “gay friends in Natchez. We don’t care. It’s a liberal town. You should talk to our local golf pro, Tom, sittin’ right over there…” Tom, one of the older black men in golf hats, hears us talk about him but deliberately decides not to turn around. If he is the saint Courtney says he is, he cannot turn around, will not seek the spotlight and indeed stares squarely at the television. “Tom was here during the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement. Hell, he sat in! My family was friends with his. My daddy had KKK burned in his front yard just cuz we was friends with black folks. It was a f—ed up time. But that’s how it was. Natchez – settled by Northeners back in the day. We weren’t like the rest of Mississippi. Poor as shit ‘cept for a few millionaires who made it big in cotton, but we had culture. And that’s the big difference. Rednecks? No culture.” I really want to pick Tom’s brain; I want to know what it was like being black in Mississippi in 1962, want to know how he became the golf pro, but it’s time to go. I go to shake his hand. “Courtney had tons of nice things to say about you,” I tell him. “Who?” he asks, and “About me?” he asks, and “Yes” I say, and I know he’s a saint. But before we go Courtney offers us…
Katrina. We’re getting ever closer to one of the biggest debacles in U.S. disaster-handling history. It’s a sore point for everybody. It’s a political bombshell. And we’re getting closer and closer to the gaping wound – we’re getting closer to New Orleans. Courtney offers no politics – he has a personal story to tell: “I put people up,” he says. “I own five houses in town, and I don’t like renting ‘em out, but when Katrina hit, shoot, I put tons of people up. They had nowhere to go. Clients of mine who I hadn’t talked to in years found me off of an old invoice when their home was destroyed. Natchez had ‘em in the convention center, kids and all, living on pallets – they had their entire possessions in pillow cases – I found ‘em and put ‘em up in one of my houses. Couldn’t stop there; had to do something. Put five more families up. I mean these weren’t poor folks; these were people with jobs and insurance who lost everything. Where do they go? I had to do something.” Courtney, I think, must be a saint as well. Politics now: “Yeah, Bush fucked up. Of course he did. But so did [now ex] Govenor Blanco and Mayor Nagin. They had the busses in place to bus people outta there – I mean, shit, 60% of New Orleans doesn’t have a car! – they NEEDED to be bussed out of there – so Bush thinks Blanco’s handling the busses and vice versa and it’s a big f—in’ mess! Ridiculous. Bullshit. It’s just people, man,” Courtney adds at the end. “I usually vote Republican because I’m fiscally conservative, but you gotta do somethin’ for the people – that’s just a no-brainer.”
Courtney has us back in his King Ranch. Rain falls and the windows are up. “This place is a f—in’ mess; I been livin’ out of this thing for weeks,” he says. “Drove to Fort Worth and back yesterday, meeting with some clients, fourteen hours in the car, yeah,” he says looking at my wide eyes, “I know.” He swings us by his church. Presbyterian.
“Scottish, are you?”
“Psst. No, might as well be, ornery as I am.” He lights another Marlboro. “Cookout is done, know you boys had them steaks at the Corner, just wanted you to meet some church folk. No matter, let’s go to bed.”
The drive to Courtney’s house is long and slow and rainy. I feel good. I’m in the arms of a saint, I think. A saint who drinks and smokes and uses the F word more than I do (can you imagine!) and seems about as interested in us as a dog in its own butt, but through that relaxed exterior offers us room and board and food and pearls of wisdom.
As we pull up on D’Evereux Mansion, I think about Ben. Damned, Ben. I guess there is a method to this madness. But I’ll be damned myself… if I can put it into words.