Life on the Mississippi, 1969

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The Delta Queen is a sister ship of the Delta King, which sits on the Sacramento River; both were shipped over here in parts from Scotland and reassembled. The Queen plies the Mississippi. Painting by Rose Franklin.

A RIVERBOAT JOURNAL

by Dell Franklin

February

The cheap whiskey and beer still in my gut after a week of nonstop partying during Mardi Gras, I stand on the quay just off the French Market in New Orleans gazing at the Delta Queen, majestic and freshly painted following two months in dry-dock repair. I am broke, having spent my last $100 on a fleabag hotel across from Lafayette Park and burgers from White Castle and shellfish in Martin’s bar in the French Quarter, where I ran into some Vietnam vet ex-Marines who still owned the 1,000-mile stare and informed me the Queen, last paddle-wheel passenger vessel to ply the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, was hiring.

On the bow of the Queen, a chalkboard is perched with chicken scratches: WANTED: DECK HANDS AND PORTERS. Several black deckhands in blue work shirts lounge or piddle with brooms and mops or chisel away rust on the bow and along railings. They pause to fix me with stares as I try and work up the courage to cross the gangway onto the bow, where a massive barrel of a man, perhaps 60, in black captain’s uniform and cap, his face broad and flat, narrows his already narrow squint on me.

It is mid-morning, breezy, clear, birds swooping and diving around the Jax Brewery like participants in an air war. At the French Market, above the seawall, a man in an apron drops bags of day-old pastries to hobos assembled below him near a deserted box car adjacent the murky sea of a river. A few days back I shared a pint of whiskey with these men but soon left when the whiskey was gone and it became evident they regarded me resentfully as not yet accomplished enough to share their company.

The deckhands pick up their pace from slow-motion to listless, still keeping an eye on me, possibly wondering where this white man came from—he wears his only remnant of a three-year Army hitch, a faded flimsy field jacket, baggy work pants, sneakers, a second-hand Army surplus backpack stuffed with a few changes of underwear, extra flannel shirt, two paperbacks, two pens, a pocket-size writing pad, and a second-hand sleeping bag attached to the pack.

Though broke, I do not fear starving and am exhilarated by my situation because I am free, trekking across the fractured and bleeding carcass of America with thumb out, unencumbered by wife, girlfriend, job, career, ambition. In a way, I feel a smug advantage over all those who possess these rewards, because there are no complications in my life, no burdens or pressures in a country addicted to striving, stress, security, and the stockpiling of what is to me junk.

From the start, I had no idea where I was going, still do not as the black deckhands slow down to a near standstill, keeping a closer eye on me as I try to work up my courage to face the formidable man whose narrow flinty eyes seem to take me in as an intruder. The deckhands are all glinting gold teeth and ropey arms with knots in the middle. One wears a watch cap. They begin to nod at each other and giggle and smirk as the big man folds his enormous arms across his chest and seems to challenge me with those eyes, which say, “Well, boy, you comin’ aboard, or you gonna stand there shittin’ your pants?” Like an old white cracker terrifying the slaves.

I take a deep breath and stride over the gangway as the big man unfolds his arms and stands planted on the bow like a 200-year-old oak. I stop directly before him and unstrap my pack as if I mean to stay.

“I see you need help,” I say. “I’m looking for work. Would you be the captain, sir?”

“Yessuh.” Gruff, guttural growl from deep within, the man seeming to spit the words at me likes he’s trying to dislodge tobacco from his tongue. “We need deckhands.”

“I’ll do that.”

The man refolds his arms across his chest, gazes briefly at the deckhands; then he scrutinizes me with a flicker of interest. He takes in everything, and I look him in the eye, almost grinning—like we’re in a movie. Then his voice suddenly booms at me. “What ah need is a gawdamn sto’keepah!”

Quickly I reply, “I’ll do that, too, captain.”

“What y’all know ‘bout sto’keepin’?” he challenges me.

“I’ve worked in warehouses as a stock boy and order writer, sir.”

“Where y’all work as a stock boy?” he demands to know.

“In Los Angeles, sir, that’s where I’m from.”

He takes in more of me, top to bottom. A sudden yellow-stained horsey grin rips across his meaty face. “Y’all har’d!” he announces and offers his enormous paw, and we shake. “Cap’n Ernest Wagnah.”

“Dell Franklin, sir.”

A spindly, bespectacled, old-time looking black man, whose been lurking in the background since I approached the captain, steps right up. He wears baggy check pants and a white smock and tall toque drooping ludicrously to his ear, lending him a buffoonish air; but then he smiles, and he is a handsome old guy, dark chocolate, not even five-and-a-half-feet tall, no more than 130 pounds, and in his incandescent puppy-friendly eyes is resolution, and when I look into those eyes I feel an instant rush of warmth and trust. I find myself exchanging smiles with the man, whose forearms could belong to a 200-pound blacksmith, his hands as big as those of the captain, who dwarfs him, and now addresses the old man.

“Chef Jawnah, look like we got us a sto’keepah. Say he run a warehouse.” He glances at me. “Chef Jawnah, he yore boss, son.”

His name tag says Henry Joyner. I offer my hand and the old man lunges at me and grips my hand with a vise-like manacle, veins bulging along those forearms. “Playshuh t’ shake yo’ hand,” he says in a slow, rich drawl, and a smile of false teeth blazes across his small oval face, those eyes shining with such genuine sincerity that I am disarmed. “Son, ah sho’ nuff hope y’all the man ah been lookin’ fo’. We gone troo a bunch-a sto’keepahs, and they drunk up mah cookin’ wines, an’ mah vanilla extrack…they sniffin’ up mah sterno, ‘bout druve Jawnah plum lowdown loco.”

Another black man, in uniform and cap, perhaps 35, tall, erect, with a neat mustache, ambles up. His name tag reads FRANKLIN MYLES, STEWARD.

“Franklin,” says the captain. “We got us a new sto’keepah name of Franklin.” He chortles at the coincidence.

The steward shakes my hand weakly, gazes past me. “Well, cap’n,” he says in a squeaky falsetto. “Ah sho nuff hope he work out better’n them jive turkeys been roonin’ the chef’s sto’rooms.”

The chef smiles at me in a manner indicating we’re already on amiable terms. “Franklin, ah ‘speck this young man be jes’ fine. Ah got a good feelin’ ‘bout him.” The trust in his eyes is fathomless. He nods. “He gwin be jes’ fine.”

I figure I got no choice not to be. Old Joyner, he’s hooked me like a trout.

+++

Myles, the steward, leads me through the Queen on a bit of a tour—a floating antique. An articulate man, he explains that the Queen is a sister ship of the Delta King, which sits on the Sacramento River; both were shipped over here in parts from Scotland and reassembled. The King passed through the Panama Canal. The stairway leading to the passenger dining room is composed of the finest woods, brass and chandeliers. He takes me below to the laundry room which is stacked with a mountain of linen and uniforms, and working atop it is a familiar looking person, a gangly fellow around my age with a hatchet face that seems to have been hastily reconstructed after severe damage. His dark hair sprouts straight up like a woodpecker’s mane. Where have I seen this character?

Then I remember—on Canal Street. The hood of a battered ’51 Ford coupe was up, and this guy was working on the engine. Later he was beneath the car, tinkering. Then the Ford was gone and I saw him wobbling drunkenly down Bourbon Street, Dixie beer in hand, clad in mismatching over-sized plaid attire, mere rags, grinning goofily. He now wears a blue work shirt and white checked kitchen pants.

Myles introduces him to me as Kachefski, Laundry Man. He issues me a tentative shake, looking sheepishly away, and he might be wall-eyed. He hands me linen, Army blanket, two blue short-sleeve work shirts. “That’s a nice jacket,” he says shyly. “You been in the Army?” When I nod, he says, “They wouldn’t take me. I got pins in my legs from a car wreck. Hit a tree going ninety miles an hour. Half the guys I went to school with are dead—from car crashes and Vietnam.”

“What happened to your ‘51 Ford?”

He’s surprised. “How’d you know about my Ford?”

“Saw you working on it on Canal.”

“Yeh, that was my all-time favorite jalopy. It really had guts. It’s dead now. They towed it away and I woke up in the back seat in the junk yard. I had to sell the jalopy and my tools to pay for towing, or they were gonna put me in jail for vagrancy. I had just enough money left to do some drinking, but I sure am glad I got this job. What’s your job?”

“Sto’keepah.” Myles is looking back and forth at us like, what we got HERE? These white folks! I do declare! “Where you from, Kachefski?”

“Hart, Michigan. Where you from?”

“L.A. Where the hell’s Hart, Michigan?”

“Near Lake Michigan, by the giant dunes, south of Luddington, north of Muskegon. We’re pretty small.”

Myles has me by the arm. “Come on, Mr. Sto’keepah, I show you where you gonna live.”

+++

Myles leads me to a warren of rooms below deck—cramped, four to a room, a faint whiff of musk reminiscent of barracks life. My quarters are at the end of the hallway directly under the bow, farthest from the shower area. There is a porthole and two Army-like cots, and the one away from the door is covered neatly with a colorful comforter. A simple wooden dresser is in a far corner, and atop it, lined up in perfect juxtaposition beside a toilet kit are brush, hair pick, baby powder, witch hazel, bicarbonate of soda, peroxide, tiny scissors. Above the dresser, tacked to the wall, is a small, gleaming mirror. No dust anywhere. Three rows of leather shoes, variously colored, stuffed with trees, polished to a high gloss, are arranged under the cot beside foot powder. Two flawlessly pressed white shirts and black waiter jackets rest on wooden hangers on pegs in the wall. Beside the cot is a single plastic milk crate on which stands an alarm clock, goose-neck reading lamp, and a book—“The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. Name tags on the waiter jackets read, JEROME DAVIS. I drop my bedding and shirts on the narrow mattress. A fresh fragrance and slight breeze from the porthole offsets the mustiness of the hallway.

The steward says, “Most-a these rooms are noisy, four to a room. Davis, he likes to be alone. He won’t like this. Most waiters are two to a room. Now Davis, he’s quiet, and he won’t stand for no jive. You seem like a mature young man. I think you’ll like Davis.” He flashes an uncertain and mischievous smile. “Once y’all get to know him.”

+++

Myles takes me down to the storeroom, which borders the crew dining room, where the chef awaits me, ants in his pants, raring to go. He opens the main storeroom—the size of a large bedroom and looking like a tornado swept through it. I stand outside the doorway while he confides how a steady stream of no-accounts wrecked the storeroom, the meat locker, bakery, cold storage, and produce room. He had to come down and scavenge through the mess for items to send up to the galley on the dumbwaiter in the crew dining room so they could cook.

“Day’uhl, it hard t’ find a good man nowadays. Young men, they ain’t hongry. When ah’z a young man wuzn’t nobody keep up with Jawnah, an’ ‘at’s why ah got har’d. These young folks, they don’t wanna work.”

Two men stand near the serving counter in the dining room and observe me. There are three long tables parallel to one another, a small card table off by itself, a smaller condiment table, all on a linoleum floor. One of the observers, slender, charcoal-colored and sleepy-looking, sporting a crushed, shapeless hat, slouches against a wall as if he has no spine, cigarette dangling from his lips, broom in hand. Behind the serving table, busying himself in a noisy huff, is a black man around 40 with a huge solid belly, broad shoulders, square head, and a short neck with a hump at the base. His face and nose are flat, nostrils like holes in a double-barrel shotgun, lips pursed in a severe pout, hooded eyes lifting to appraise me with unmasked suspicion and disapproval, as if I am a stray dog in HIS backyard. The chef introduces him to me as Jessie, the man in charge of the crew dining room. The other, low-key man is his assistant, Emmet. While Jessie continues scowling at me, Emmet nods, almost smirking, like he knows something I don’t know that will not turn out well.

“Ain’t nothin’ but no-accounts and thieves been in these sto’rooms, boy,” Jessie snaps at me in a nasal singsong. “I done stick-whupped ‘em til they bleedin’ half t’ death. Y’all don’t take good care mah chef, y’all git the same, boy.”

The chef sags. “Jess, ah got a good feelin’ ‘bout this young man.”

Jessie huffs while Emmet smiles to himself. The chef and I enter the storeroom. I shed my field jacket. There is hardly an item on the unmarked shelves. Boxes and sacks are strewn about, cans, large and small, in scattered heaps. It is hard to move through the mess. I hoist a case and hurl it out into the dining room, where a snooping Jessie jumps out of the way. He and the chef exchange glances. Emmet puts down his broom, pours himself a cup of coffee, sits down at one of the tables and turns on a small transistor radio to some scratchy blues and watches me heave more cases and sacks out into the dining room as the chef and Jessie back away. The chef says he has work in the galley and moves up the winding stairway to the galley like he’s in a race, arms pumping, cap flopping back and forth.

Sweating, I clear the floor, sweep and mop it, and ask Jessie for masking tape. He hands me some as Emmet rolls a cigarette and lights up. After taping and marking shelves I begin stacking cases and sacks against a wall, open certain cases and stack shelves, finding room for every small and gallon can in the room. The chef scampers in, skids to a halt, does a double-take, and grins. “Why, y’all one workin’ sonofagun.”

“I’ve put in a system, chef, simplified the inventory. I’ll need my own key.”

He nods quickly. “Ain’t nobody gwin have a key but y’all and me.” He peers around. “Ah’m so pleased, son. Y’all sho is the man ah been lookin’ fo.’”

Then he shows me my other storerooms down the hall from the dining room, near quarters for waiters, cooks and engineers. Jessie stands in the doorway of the main storeroom, hands on hips, peering in. The other rooms are in disarray. I vow to the chef I will have them ship-shape by evening. He smacks my arm, grins, scampers up the stairway. Jessie steps out of my way as I return to my storerooms. Suddenly, the captain tramps up, halts abruptly at the doorway, peers around.

“Look pretty good,” he concedes with a grunt.

Jessie says, “He done worked like no man, cap’n.”

The captain continues appraising; then walks to a corner where I’ve stacked empty boxes. “No room fo’ these,” he snaps. There is a half-door opening and he grabs a box and flings it through the opening into the Mississippi. He starts to grab another and I snatch it away from him as Jessie recoils in mock-horror.

“What the hell you think you doin’?” snaps the captain, flustered.

“I need those boxes, sir. They’re part of my new system.”

“Part-a yore system? Hell!”

“I use ‘em to send supplies up to the galley, and I need ‘em for inventory, ordering, stocking. Everything in this room has a purpose, sir, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t pitch my boxes into the river.”

Jessie backs away from the door. Emmet perks up as the captain’s face and neck flush. Uh oh. His squinty eyes flash. “This mah gawdamn ship!” he bellows. “Y’all been on this yere ship two hours and you tellin’ me how t’ run mah sto’rooms!”

“Cap’n, sir, I’m the storekeeper. These are MY storerooms. I gotta run things my way, or you’ll have to find more worthless no-accounts to make a mess like I found here, if that’s what you want.”

Jessie shakes his head at me and rolls his eyes. Emmet grins. The captain sputters. “This mah goddam ship! Ev-a thing on this ship mine! These sto’rooms, they mine…”

“Then why’d you hire me if YOU wanna run ‘em? I’m busy, sir, tryna get things ship-shape for the chef, and you’re in here interfering with my system.”

He looks around for help, but Jessie and Emmet turn away. “Now he kickin’ me out mah sto’rooms,” he growls at them. “Ah jes’ har’d the sumbitch…ah’m talkin’ to mah chef ‘bout this crazy sumbitch.”

He tromps out, huffing up the stairs. I gaze at Jessie and Emmet with my best imitation of the ghetto-glare. “Sometimes,” I tell them, “these white folks jes’ gotta be put in their proper place.” I turn and re-stack my empty boxes, then feel Jessie in the doorway.

“Mistah sto’keepah,” he oozes, very polite. “May ah puh-leeeeze have fo’ cans a sterno, so’s we-all can keep the chef’s vittles warm fo’ mah boys?”

I find four cans of sterno and hand them over.

“Thank Y’ALL, mistah sto’keepah.” He half bows and returns to his area behind the serving table, beaming a smile at me, as if he’s seen the light, while Emmet hums to his radio, nodding at me. I go back into my storerooms.

+++

A few minutes later the chef storms into my storeroom, eyes ablaze. “Ah done kick the cap’n out mah kitchen,” he announces. “Y’all done good, kickin’ him out. He got no bizness meddlin’…ah got t’ kick him out mah kitchen half the time.” He flashes a smile. “Don’t let him meddle no mo’. Y’all a good man. Ah gwin talk to that ole cap’n an’ git y’all a raise. Ah got me a good man, an ah don’t aim t’ lose him nohow!”

He turns and scampers up those stairs. Jessie and Emmet are unloading steaming pots of food from the dumbwaiter and setting them up under sterno on the serving table. Jessie catches my eye.

“Chef Joyner, he cook the best peas ‘n ham in the South, mistah sto’keepah. Man work hard as y’all, he need to eat. Y’all lookin’ too skinny fo’ mah taste, though you got them man’s arms.” He winks. “Sit down now, chile, we goin’ feed y’all some soul food, put some meat on them bones.”

Crew members, mostly deck hands and porters, trickle in, line up at the serving counter, plates in hand, waiting for Jessie, who takes his time fussing over his pots of food, the aromas heady and heart-breaking. One of the bigger deckhands grouses at Jessie to hurry up, and Jessie fixes him with a stare of such chilling malevolence the man lowers his eyes, and now Jessie moves even slower, sulky. I drift to the rear of the room, and a few crew members glance at me as I lean arms-folded against a wall, trying to act comfortable with my newness.

When the line begins moving, Jessie appears rankled while he plops food on their plates, much like the surly, desultory Army cooks during basic training. “Do move along,” he chides in a whiny nasal voice rising to a strident singsong. “I say, DO move along.”

A tall, skinny, buck-toothed deckhand complains mildly about his portions, and Jessie stiffens, halts. “No sass from you-all, youngblood, or I stick-whup yo’ ugly black ass til it ain’t black no mo’.” There is grumbling among the men, but they are mostly resigned. “I say, DO move along. Y’all GIT seconds. Don’t wanna hear no cryin’ an’ whinin’ from no lazy ass niggers.”

The captain enters, followed by a small white-uniformed officer, perhaps 30, preppie, boyish-looking. Behind him is another officer, a thickset 40-year-old with a chiseled face and dark, engaging eyes; he smiles and nods at everybody, like an experienced social leader. The three men hang their hats on a rack and sit down. Jessie allows Emmet to take over the serving and flutters to these men, pouring ice teas as Franklin Myles joins them.

“How’s mah cap’n?” Jessie oozes.

“Jes’ fine, Jessuh.”

Jessie gushes over the officers, brings their food, then returns to wait on the last person in line, me, on whose plate he drops extra portions of rice, black-eyed peas, and collared greens, smiling at me as if we’re in cahoots. Emmet places a large wedge of cornbread on the mountain of food and the other crew members glance up to observe my outrageous bounty as I sit at the end of one of the deserted tables, away from the crowd.

I hear Jessie, “Cap’n…,” as he hands the officers linen napkins. “We got us a new sto’keepah, and he done OWN them sto’rooms, suh!”

The captain tucks his napkin at his throat. “Kick me out mah gawdamn sto’rooms!” he bleats, turning to his officers. “Been on the rivah all mah life, and nobody kick me out-a no sto’room befo’. Now this new sto’keepah tell me t’ git out his sto’rooms, cuz them sto’rooms HIS!”

The 40ish man smiles at me and winks. I taste my food, and an elixir moves immediately through my system like a natural high. I eat, and eat, mopping up gravy with cornbread. Jessie smiles at me like an adoring matriarch as deckhands straggle up for seconds. “Aint nobody cook peas ‘n ham like our chef,” he chirps, simpering.

“Now this new sto’keepah say he gon quit he don’t get a raise…after he kick me out HIS sto’rooms! He think this gawdamn ship HIS. Gawdammit, ah guess ah ain’t got a damn thing t’ say “bout nothin’ no mo’.”

Myles giggles and the officers grin as Jessie refills their glasses of tea, the steward last, of course. He moseys by and fills my glass and returns to his station in prim, mincing steps. The crew shuffles along for seconds, and Jessie suddenly seems resigned and too depleted to scowl and wheedle, just plops food into their plates as if he’s got a dirty job and sees no way out but to trudge on, long-suffering, sweat streaming down his molten face and dripping from his chin and nose, saturating his neck.

+++

My storerooms are squared away by mid-evening and I feel like celebrating my new job. Chef Joyner is only too happy to dig into his cigar box and loan me $20 when I ask for $10, a spot against my wage, which is to be $75 a week instead of $65 when the captain agrees to my raise. Damn, I found a home!

Kachefski comes along, and we manage to wedge into Martin’s, finding the Marines, who buy round after round of shots to toast my job. We get pretty smashed, say our goodbyes, and straggle back to the Queen. Kachefski eschews a cot in one of the rooms and rigs up a blanket/pallet atop the 15-foot-high mound of linen. It is dark in my quarters and I stand by my cot waiting for a little starlight to outline the room through the porthole. A long hump is under the covers of the other bunk. I’m sticky and rank, need a shower. I try to make my cot as quietly as possible so as not to awaken the sleeping hump, but bang around while doing so. I creep down to the shower room, where, alone, I soap up and rinse off and return to the room, where my room mate reads, his lamp shining.

Davis sits under his blanket, bifocals in place. He could be 50, hair neatly parted on one side and specked with gray. He is not as dark chocolate as the chef but with similar refined, handsome features, and his neatly clipped mustache is also graying. He glances at me with only his eyes, not moving his head as I stand like a lump, towel around my waist.

“If you’re going to get drunk,” Davis says, enunciating his words carefully like a college professor, which he resembles. “Please do not destroy the room.” His voice is strong, resonant, like a blues singer.

“Sorry. I couldn’t see. Didn’t mean to awaken you, sir.”

He shifts his eyes back to the book. I quickly rummage through my pack and change into briefs and climb under covers. I take out my current bible, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and stare at a page.

After a silence, I ask, “Do you like the porthole open?”

“Always, unless there’s a hurricane.”

“Good. I like the fresh air.”

Davis continues reading.

“Listen,” I find myself saying. “I hate to interrupt your reading, but I’m the new storekeeper, Franklin.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard, Mr. Franklin.”

“Well, I know you’re Mr.Davis. Just wanted to introduce myself.”

“Very well, Mr. Franklin. We are now formally introduced. I will be reading for a short time, until I feel sleep return. Then I will turn off my lamp. If it is your desire to read at night, I suggest you find a low-wattage lamp. You can plug it in my outlet.”

“Thanks, Mr. Davis. I appreciate that. Glad to meet you.”

He keeps his eyes on his book, turns a page with exceptionally long fingers, nails immaculate. His wrists are thick, and, like the chef, there is a natural bulge to his forearms. I turn back to my book. Very softly, the river laps against the hull below our porthole, and I feel safe and secure and adrift from the turbulence of the outside world. I am so tired. The book falls out of my hand. I curl up, turn away; a delicious cool draft from the porthole wafts over me. The reveling down town is finally expiring in the distance. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his chocolate lab, Wilbur, a rescue dog. He is the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice and is currently working on a book about his dad who played professionally in the early days of baseball, The Ball Player’s Son.

 

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