"LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, 1969" PART 2
On the bow is a 6 foot wide pallet of supplies. Standing beside it is a deck hand around my age and size, but squat and powerfully built, wearing a stocking cap and a nasty scowl.
“This is Willie,” says the chef. “He g'win help y'all run this stuff down to the sto'rooms and stock them shelves.”
I offer my hand like an official white man, but Willie avoids my eyes, turns away. Several of his fellow deck hands on the bow stare at me. The chef hurries off and I turn to Willie, who refuses to look at me. A dolly is propped against the pallet of supplies.
“Is there another dolly, Willie?” I say to the side of his face. “So we can haul this stuff down together?”
He mumbles something unintelligible, so I start stacking boxes while he watches, toothpick in mouth, sort of lounging against the great spool of rope that ties up our gangway. When I have amassed several stacks, I slip the dolly under one and push it across the bow and along the railing, moving inside through the engine room where 2 middle-aged white men who resemble standing alligators gaze at me, oil rags in pockets. I continue through a passageway where cooks and waiters reside and enter the crew dining room and bank my stack against a wall, open my storeroom, toss the boxes inside, lock up, and return to the bow, where a squabble of voices die as I arrive. Willie remains lounging against the spool.
“You wanna do anything at all?” I ask.
His scoffing expression indicates I am a fool to ask. The next hour, while Willie and his friends watch, I stack, haul, check inventory papers. Downstairs I'm I'm ripping open boxes and filling shelves. The chef drops in for some items and asks why Willie isn't helping and I tell him I don't want any help, because I have my own way of doing things and prefer working by myself and have always hated help. He pauses from his go-go pace and scrutinizes me as sweat drips from my beard, and his face breaks into a sly grin. “Reckon y'all con'tray.” he says.
“Always have been. Got my own way of doing things, chef.”
“Some time a con'tray man d' best kind, an' some time a con'tray man nothin' but trouble.”
“Reckon I can be both. Meanwhile, I've got to go over these inventory papers. You've got a lotta stuff you don't need, and lack stuff you do need. Who ordered all these iddy-biddy cans, when you gotta feed an army of folks? You're supposed to stock gallon cans.”
“They tole me they ain't got no gallon cans, Day'uhl.”
“And they charged you for the little cans. Oldest trick in the book.”
“Reckon they costin' us money.”
“From now on, I do the ordering, chef, and I'll deal with the swine been takin' advantage of your trusting nature and giving us the shaft.”
His grateful smile transforms his face into disarming tenderness as he looks deep into my eyes. “Con'tray,” he says, then turns and flees from the room with his box of supplies, and I find myself smiling.
From the top deck railing I watch taxis pull up to the quay and deliver passengers. They are all white, middle-aged or elderly, well heeled and coiffed, and swarmed upon by an eager pack of porters in dark jackets and pants, ingratiating themselves with stooping obsequiousness, snaring luggage and leading these patrons to their quarters. On the deck above the paddlewheel, the ship's married entertainment duo, Vic and Becki, play the calliope to “Dixie.”
I wander along the railing unto the Mark Twain Lounge, where a grizzled old bartender, whose name tag reads WORMSBY STEEGAL, polishes glasses. Elaborately dressed in red vest, white shirt, arm garters and string tie, he greets me with a smile of glinting gold, his face narrow and foxy.
“Reckon y'all mus' be Jawnah's new sto'keepah,” he drawls in a soothing voice of pure velvet.
“That's me. Just checking out your bar, sir.”
“Y'all a drinkin' man?”
“A drinkin' man and a tending man.”
“Don't say?” The tall, bony relic seems pleased.”Where 'bouts?”
“Harrah's Club, a gambling casino in Lake Tahoe.” Though I was only a bar boy, I'm sure I can emulate the classy bartenders I worked for and feel I have a knack for the trade. “I like tending bar just fine, sir.”
His smile turns intimate, as if we're in cahoots. “I keep that in mind.” He wipes down the handsome wooden bar, which is immaculate, bottles and brass railings gleaming, the mirror spotless in this room that feels like a 19th century salon. “Preshate y'all lookin' after that old chef, feeble as he is.” He chuckles. “Man mus' be a hun-red years old.”
“He certainly looks it, Mr. Steegal. You all, on the other hand, don't look a day over fifty.”
His smile turns slier. He ceases wiping. His pleasant, earnest visage is stitched and warped in a manner that could be a reflection of overcoming a past incomprehensible to me, much less survivable in my white skin. “Why thank y'all...now ole Jawnah, we come from the same neck o' the woods, known each other a long, long time. That ole man, he rely on you, young man. Don't go an' let him down now.”
“Mr. Stigall, I've come thousands of miles to aid and comfort that old man and save him from his own crazy work ethic.”
He laughs and now his smile is grand, but then his eyes move to two couples entering from the door of the ship's interior. “We talk again, young man.” And he flashes his smile at the couples.
I walk around some more and end up in the galley, where the chef and cooks are so busy I continue through the swinging doors into the main dining room. There is a large dancefloor, stage, door-sized windows, chandeliers, and rows of tables on which waiters, including Davis, set white linen tablecloths, napkins, silverware, glasses. Mr. Hughes, tall, stately, the coffee-with-heavy cream-colored head waiter, who made his bones on dining cars as a Pullman porter in a past era, supervises with a light touch. At the entrance above the elegant stairway leading to the bow, is a table on which I have set out a large wicker basket of apples, oranges and bananas.
On the bow, the first mate, captain and purser greet passengers. Excitement is in the air. Our captain is the main attraction. Passengers are rendered immediately humbled and honored to shake his ham of a hand. He says little, yet there is graciousness to him that belies his gruffness, and about him is the subtle effort to please that is not the least bit overdone or patronizing. He is proud of his mantle. The Delta Queen is his domain.
The youthful first mate stands erect beside him and is courteous and informative, insisting that if anybody has any questions or problems he is the person to see. The purser, Dusty, a natural mixer, invites everybody instantly into his confidence with a winning sincere smile and easy charm of undivided attention that cannot be coached or acquired. I sense in him an acute awareness of how to deal with the worst of life's calamities, but there is something in his eyes that is not quite there.
Mr. Myles oversees his porters, who sweat and scurry with luggage. One of them, Purdy, a slick character with big city swagger, borrows the dolly. Deckhands remain in the background, watching. Kachefski joins me and we walk topside, joining four black maids in uniform, while Vic and Becki play the banjo and harmonica—old time entertainers, always smiling, dedicated to pleasing as a crowd gathers, drinks and cameras in hand.
Passengers line the railings and wave to the crowd on the quay, cameras clicking. From this height, New Orleans is not as overwhelming, but muted, distant. Flocks of birds sweep over us. A passing barge toots, and the Queen toots back. There is a jolt, and we pull away from the quay as passengers and onlookers cheer. My chest swells and I go all goose-pimply. Wooden shacks and corrugated warehouses and crumbly pier buildings and rundown neighborhoods float by and merge with the flat old rickety city of sin and weird mystery and an eccentric history of crooked politicians, biblical floods, old world customs, blues and jazz and the leisurely shuffle life, the lilac necks of creole girls under parasols, the half dark men with Arab mustaches and quirky indiscernible accents...
The river is wide as an ocean in the lower delta and brown as moiling mud. Barges, excursion boats, fishing boats and yachts cruise by, the barges tooting and the Queen returning toots, and it seems all river traffic is attuned to us, leading lady in a parade.
Oak Alley, our first stop, is a centuries old single lane road cutting through two long rows of ancient, gnarled oak trees dripping moss and meeting overhead to form a canopy under which a hundred or so of us trudge to a glaringly white columned antebellum mansion. Creaks of sunlight dapple the ground. At the mansion, passengers click cameras. Inside is antique furniture and valuable treasures under glass. Outside are long-deserted wooden shacks and sheds once quartering slaves who sharecropped the endless green fields that had been cotton and then sugar cane and are now overgrown and barren, hauntingly hushed by the tragic history played out on these plantation grounds. The dense turf is fibrous, spongy, trampoline-springy. Not a single member of the crew visits the grounds and mansion save the first mate and Dusty, who serve as guides.
Occasional sunlight sifts through the overcast to reveal the brown river bubbling like a swift-moving cauldron. It is cold, damp, drippy as we head to Memphis. Passengers are devouring everything in sight, clamoring to enter the dining room before each meal. The chef leads me to his office, which adjoins his living quarters. This spacious, wood-paneled room, with big oak desk and plush, high-backed chair, is the first real luxury in the chef's life, and he looks tiny in that throne, surprised royalty. Since we work together closely making out orders and menus, I begin to draw him out. As he talks, his face exudes strength, humility, deep humor. He is spontaneous, unaware of himself. His brilliant eyes express benevolence, resolve, and an unassailable personal spiritualism.
He tells me of growing up on a sharecroppers farm outside Tupelo, Mississippi, the oldest of 16. He hunted coon and possum in the woods with his father and brothers and got his first pair of real shoes at 29 when he took the bus to Memphis because there was hardly anything left on the farm during the Great Depression. He carried his father to the fields the last day of his life so he could help get the crop in, then carried him back and placed him on his bed in the wooden shack and before he took his last breath promised him he would take care of the family and try and find them a better life than he'd tried to provide.
In Memphis, with only a few dimes and hardly the shirt on his back, Joyner rented a shack in the poorest black neighborhood and found a job mopping floors at the veteran's hospital. He sent home money and kept enough to eat on, found a second job as flunky at the Jewish country club. He sent for family, and some came, sharing his shack. At the country club he found a second job as a prep cook and learned so quickly and performed so well they promoted him to a regular staff cook, and at the hospital he put away his mop and began cooking. He found a bigger house down the street and moved in more family and met his wife and soon afterwards was promoted to first cook at the country club.
The kids started coming. He became chef at the country club and in time held the same title at the hospital. He worked 80 plus hours a week to support the flow of kids. He went to church every Sunday. He moved his family to a bigger house in a middle-class neighborhood. After 20 years of this grind he collapsed at work and was hospitalized and strung up on tubes and diagnosed as suffering from extreme exhaustion and a complete mental and physical breakdown. The chef was raving, crazed, bound in a straitjacket while he wept and howled. He was sedated. When he awakened a doctor explained that he had driven himself so hard these past 20 years that he needed to quit one of his jobs if he were to live long enough to enjoy his family and watch them grow into adults.
Joyner said he enjoyed his family plenty. He already had a son in college. All of his 13 children were doing well and helping take care of the home front, led by his wife. But they still had to eat and needed clothes. The doctor advised they eat a little less if they wanted their father alive.
That night the chef sneaked out and never returned to the hospital to face any more doctors telling him what he could and could not do. He went back to both jobs and worked another 20 years. His children went to college or found jobs with the city, county, state; one was a teacher and another a highly regarded musician in New York City. The chef was always in charge. He thought he could retire, but went crazy/restless at home and decided to join his old friend from the Jewish country club, Stigall, when they needed a chef on the Delta Queen.
“Stigall says you're a hundred years old, chef.”
“Stee-gawl ack like he a hun-red years old.”
“Steegal's got hair, a nice, well-preserved Brillo mop. You gotta cover your bald head with that goofy toque.”
“Reckon y'all ain't happy less you fussin'.”
“Chef, I don't know how you survived all these years without me. I'm doing menus, ordering, heavy lifting, spoiling and making things easy for you in your old age. If I quit now, why, you'd fall apart, have to go home to your wife and snooze on then front porch, let your grandkids bring you your brandy and slippers, like a normal, sane retiree.”
The chef flashes a grin that envelopes his face. “Y'all a fuss-box.” he concludes.
On a brisk, sunny morning in Memphis, I stand on the bow with the chef as he waits for his son to pick him up. He points to the corrugated warehouses and packing sheds going to ruin along the railroad tracks. In the days of King Cotton this area hopped with activity, the heart of river commerce. But those days are gone, says the chef, the south depressed, cotton in decline. He points toward Beale Street, which is in dereliction, and mentions the shack where W.C. Handy created the birth of the blues. He talks wistfully of the old delta blues, and how it was just a man and his instrument and not some instrument making the man, gut-raw soul pouring out of a man like sweat and blood, like he “been knifed in the gut by life.”
After the son--who doesn't seem overwhelmed to meet me and issues a limp hand shake and doesn't possess the wiry frame of his dad--picks up the chef, I stroll through downtown Memphis, which is seedy, rundown, sidewalks littered, pedestrian and vehicle traffic slow. I find a phone booth and call a number given to me by the chef of a salesman who worked with the Jewish country club and he agrees to meet me on the Queen.
I find a drugstore and buy myself a pack of cigars, even though I don't smoke. Out front, an old stooped negro sweeps the sidewalk. Eyes cast downward, his entire being seems resigned to defeat. As I stare at him, he senses my presence and looks up, and when I nod he looks away, listlessly continues sweeping the sidewalk and finally sits down on a nearby bench and takes a pouch from his shirt pocket and rolls a cigarette. After lighting up, he gazes at the boulevard.
“How's it going?” I ask, puffing my cigar.
“Ain't gun wuth shit,” he mumbles.
The chef says almost all these businesses in downtown Memphis are owned by Jews who belong to the country club, and that no matter how much money they make they always worry over the future more than a poor negro worries over having an inside toilet in the winter, but if you work hard for them they are fair and generous with Christmas bonuses for your children.
I think about further engaging the old man sweeping but suddenly a white man around 30 in slacks, white shirt and black tie comes out of the drugstore. He is very pale and has pens lined up in his breast pocket and keys along his belt.
“Awthuh,” he drawls. “Y'all got work t' do, Come on now.”
“Yessuh,” Arthur murmurs. He strains under the burden of lifting his bones to a standing position. He is skinny, but not wiry-skinny like the chef, but stick-broken skinny. His eyes are cloudy. He averts my eyes and commences sweeping at the same listless pace. I walk off. Halfway down the street I stop and look back to see both men side by side staring at me.
I meet Dave, the salesman, the next morning on the bow, and we move to a table by a window in the passenger dining room. We sip coffee and nibble on elegant pastries baked by Lewis, a retired 20 year army cook whom the chef refers to as an artist but also a “big ole baby awys wantin' special treatment.”
I show Dave, who is dressed in shirt and tie like a professional person and is probably Jewish, the inventory papers and explain what I think is going on with the distributor in New Orleans. I tell him I want enough supplies for a round trip to new Orleans and back and after studying the inventory papers he says he can give me a better deal on almost everything, and a ten per cent discount on all dairy and poultry. He's down at the docks every morning culling the finest vegetables. He can have an entire load on the dock tomorrow morning before we shove off.
“We can do business, Mr. Franklin,” he says.
Mr. Franklin! We shake hands.
After he fills out the order on inventory papers, I walk him to the bow. “Give Henry my warmest regards,” he says. “Tell him we all miss him at the club. The man is a master chef. Best ever. I'm so pleased you're looking out for him, Mr, Franklin.”
Davis has not said much to me except what is required of civility. He is as quiet and reserved a person as I've known. He pads through the room on his way in and out light as a cat on long slender feet. I'm careful not to make eye contact with him. He is a non smoker and does not exude the clammy odor of a drinker, but instead a subtle combination of baby powder, soap and after shave lotion. He is in possession of a majestic gait and an annoying serenity and moves with no wasted energy. I am a bit unnerved by his prolonged silences and disdain to initiate conversation. Once in a while I ask him about some unwritten rule or ritual on the ship, and his answers are curt and concise, inviting no retort. Perhaps he does not care to know me and is disinterested in anything I have to say or resents my youthful whiteness, or else he's engaged in a long, careful feeling-out process that I hope does not last too much longer, because I am beginning to feel almost peeved toward him. Most frustrating, I have a sense Davis knows me to the core, while I am too shallow and inexperienced to have a clue as to his make-up and situation in life.
I'm on the bow at 9 in the morning unloading Dave's shipment when the chef shows up with his lone suitcase and stops in his tracks at the size of the load. He says he is pleased at the size because he always needs more than less so he never runs out of things, and scurries off.
I stack and dolly off my merchandise to the storerooms. Upon returning to the bow I notice a few cans of Coke are torn from the flat cartons of 24 that are to be fed into the machine in the crew dining room. Willie and a few of his crew hang around, drinking these cokes, staring at me in an insolent, challenging manner, which is the identical way they stare at me in the crew dining room during meals, or later after evening meals when they all congregate in the crew dining room listening to music, playing cards, rolling dice, or partaking in the social hour that is presided over with a heavy hand by Jessie.
As I stack boxes, Davis comes aboard. He left in a pair of charcoal slacks, two-toned wingtips, gray shirt, pinkish tie, cream sport coat, smelling good. The coat and slacks are now a bit rumpled and he looks a bit tired, but also emanates the resilient, life-affirming bounce in his step of a man who has gotten laid. He carries a large grocery bag. The deckhands all hello him and he smiles and hellos back.
“Hi Davis,” I say, pausing from my efforts.
“Hello,” he utters softly, moving swiftly down the stairs.
I sweat profusely for two hours getting my stock downstairs and on the shelves and in other compartments. The deckhands scatter, taking no more cokes.
The chef hustles up and down the stairs several times to collect items, and I urge him to give me a ring on the intercom and I'll send up what he needs on the dumbwaiter or run it up myself, but no, he wants something when he wants it, pronto! Lewis, on the other hand, calls me on the intercom three times, while Jessie rolls his eyes. Each time I deliver flour, peaches, etc, he thanks me so effusively I am embarrassed, especially when he explains to me how good it is to “have a nice boy do things for me,” because Lewis has trouble getting up and down the stairs, being that he is fifty years old, his ankles swell up, he has bunions, the gout, etc, and needs a younger man to do things he can no longer do.
His eager eyes solicit a pet from me, like a sad old dog.
As we depart for New Orleans, I go topside near the pilot house and gaze across the dense russet winter foliage and the low sprawl of West Memphis on the other side of the bridge in Arkansas, the limitless boggy landscape blending into a dismal gray horizon. Later, after lunch,while we cruise down river, I bring dinner supplies to the galley and then sit with a cup of coffee in the passenger dining room before journeying down to my quarters.
Davis is on his bunk in slacks and sleeveless T shirt, reading. A cool breeze wafts through the porthole. There's a reading lamp like Davis's on my bunk. Davis cocks an eye at me, face inscrutable. “You can reimburse me on payday,” he says succinctly.
“Thank you, Davis. I appreciate this. I really do.”
He offers a brief nod, returns to his book. After setting up the lamp on a wooden crate and plugging it into his outlet, I turn it on and sprawl on my bunk. It has three degrees of brightness. I pick up my book and read even though I'm not in the mood.
With the exception of the chef and his cooks, nobody seems to be putting in a full days work. Once my work routine is done, I have a startling amount of time to wander the ship, read in my room, lounge on the gangway, hang topside at the paddlewheel, or, between meals, sit by a window in the passenger dining room with a cup of coffee.
The cooks stay busy from dawn until dusk, must get the meals right and on time so passengers are satisfied and waiters do not bitch about complaints. The waiters are careful not to push the cooks, who get paid only so much for their vital drudge labor and hold the power to make life miserable for everybody, including the chef. Yet, if the cooks perform well, the waiters tip them out of their pocket money ar the end of a cruise.
Our waiters are all former Pullman porters from a past era when folks took trains instead of planes. They move with swift economy, maintain unwavering courtesy and patience. Some are garrulous and folksy, gushing flattery as they fawn over their white patrons, while others are quieter and politely efficient, never hovering too close by, but maintaining a vigilant distance and materializing when needed with impeccable timing. Davis, along with Hughes, is easily the best waiter. Poised and attentive, never doting or hurried or showing a sheen of perspiration on his brow in the most hectic of times, he is a master of his trade, displaying a regal and dignified mien and bearing that subtly absorbs and tempers the most demanding of attitudes and dietary issues. His diners are outwardly fond of him and refer to him as Mr. Davis. The maestro.
Cooks are an opposite breed. Sweaty, resigned, solitary, seldom idle, they doggedly plow through the daily grind in steamy heat, cutting, chopping, kneading, flipping, flaming, opening and closing ovens, sniffing, tasting, always stoic as the little chef prods and pushes. They subsist on meager pay, most of them sending big chunks of their wages to families in Memphis or New Orleans. Sometimes, as the chef scoots around, driving them and himself hard, they roll their eyes. The chef, upon entering his realm, is a changed man, focused, hyper, a whirlwind of locomotion.
James, a skilled and talented cook, is from Chicago and wants you to know it. Often, he stops what he is doing to stare at the chef with eyes icy cold or flaring hot. He speaks in quick, fierce bursts, authoritative, near confrontational. Sometimes he stares at me when I banter with the chef, unsmiling, leery. He seldom smiles, and when he does it is with suddenness, dark eyes blazing and devoid of mirth.
Just before we enter New Orleans at mid-noon, I am sitting at a window in the passenger dining room drinking coffee when he sits down across from me with his own mug of coffee.
“Not a bad view, ey, James?” I say.
He glances out the window. “Shee-it. Filthy mothafuckin' river. Mothafuckas wastin' all that cash look at this poison-ass river...they payin' to eat, what they doin'.”
James has large teeth and a wide, thin lipped mouth. He could be termed handsome. Though there is danger in his eyes, I doubt he's done prison time like several of the crew, most of whom keep to themselves, wanting no trouble. James shows no signs of being beaten down by the system yet, institutionalized by the white man. Now he stares hard at me. “What you doin' on this mothafuckin' tub?”
“I was broke, needed a job.”
His eyes turn insinuating, suspicious. “I don't get it. You young, white, free, and you smart...why you workin' on this tub for flunky-ass chump change?”
“I like this ship, James. I was drifting, and hitch-hiking, too, seeing the world, looking for something different.”
“Sheee-it!” he scoffs. “I try doin' what you doin', I be in jail or they shoot my black ass. I was you, I be in LA, at the beach, fuckin' them horny bitches. Ain't no pussy on this mothafuckin' tub, 'cept them fat maids.” He make a faces a sour face at that idea. “Why you here, when you know you ain't gonna score no pussy? You a faggot—like you some dick?”
“I like pussy. I always get it when I need it.”
He doesn't look convinced. “You got that beard. That yo' callin' card. Bitches love a man with a beard, they love that little tuft, you know, under you lip? You eat some pussy, they like that mothafuckin' tuft ticklin' they clit.” He strokes the tuft below his lip, which sprouts like an overgrown, pointy brush. “My wife, she go crazy when I got that tuft rubbin' her clit. But I don't eat her pussy no more. The bitch fuck with me. She got my kids. She call the fuckin' pigs on me. I got me another bitch in Memphis. Young white bitch. She suck my dick ALL night long.” He smiles menacingly, stroking his tuft like it's a precious, secret tool. “You like black pussy? You like that dark meat?”
“I like it all, James.”
“Fuckin' A, mothafucka.” His smile darkens into a scowl. “You got to watch yo ass for mothafuckin' faggots on this old tub. All kind-a queers and cocksuckers and queens on this mothafucka. Take sweet Lucy, fat-ass cook, always sniv'lin' like a fuckin' old bitch. That fat mothafucka , he a fairy.” He leans forward, very confidential, again displaying his mirthless smile, and I lean forward. “You know why he got them big buggy eyes, poppin' out his head?”
I shake my head.
“CUZ THE FAT MOTHAFUCKA BEEN TAKIN' DICK UP HIS ASS SO LONG IT MAKIN' HIS FUCKIN' EYES BUG OUT, THAT WHY!” He is shouting, and I jump back, and he seems furious at the repulsiveness of what he's just said. “Yeh!” he snarls, and sits back, and then suddenly springs forward and speaks in a harsh whisper. “You always tell a sissy faggot cuz they got them buggy eyes poppin' out they head from takin' too much dick up they mothafuckin' asses, like mothafuckin' sweet Lucy.”
James seems drained and disgusted from his tirade. He shakes his head wearily. “Hey, Lucy ain't nothin' but a poor ole country nigger likes his dick. I ain't got nothin' against him. I just hate faggots. They ain't doin' God's work.”
He gets up and tramps off, back to the kitchen, leaving me to take his empty mug back to the dishwasher.