I am so miserable
I am so tired
I just sit on the Mississippi River
and watch the fish swim by

My life is so confused
But I don’t wanna die
I wanna go to Heaven
but I’m scared to fly

—O.V. Wright, “Everybody Knows (The River Song)”

I was walking down Decatur Street in New Orleans one morning when I caught a glimpse of the Mississippi and crossed a parking lot to be near it. Two men were asleep on a grass bank. Five stairs carried me up to a paved riverfront walk, where I found a bench.

I had a heart full of trouble and some questions in my head which I couldn’t answer for more than a couple of seconds and my mind was shorting out. I watched the interplay of sunlight and shadow on the wind-riffled surface of the river, trying to empty my head and disconnect from the exhausting expectation that all nature and experience were raw data to be processed through the little hole of my consciousness. I stared at the water, trying to do a mind-clearing perceptual trick whereby the light and dark of the ripples switch their emphases, in a way, or do the opposite of themselves.

The song “Dock of the Bay” came to me, and I felt it, or remembered what it’s like to be in a city with no money, knowing no one, unknown, at the end of the line, and all you have is time. A man came along the walkway with a cane. We nodded to each other. He looked a little like Otis Redding. He said “Every day I gotta make it to this last bench.” Carrying himself straight, he limped past where I was sitting and reached to touch the last bench with his cane.

It occurred to me that the opposite of despair is gratitude, and at times the two feel almost the same. But, like the water trick, I couldn’t quite get to gratitude, I couldn’t let it happen. Again I heard the words of the slender, bent, elderly bishop of a church in Memphis from two days before: “This is the day! That God made. This is the day that God made! And if you’re not rejoicing—you’re living below your privilege.”

The man came back and asked if he could sit down. We started talking.

After working in restaurants all over the country for fifteen years, he went back to Minnesota when his mother got sick with cancer. He took care of her for a year until she died at fifty-three. With no family and nothing to keep him in Minnesota, he landed a job in a restaurant and moved to New Orleans. Four days later he was hit by a drunk driver. Shoulder and both legs broken. Now, a year later, he’d been through eight surgeries, all his savings, and was homeless. He’d been arrested twice for sleeping outside, and was waiting for Friday to have his right leg amputated below the knee. He had a staff infection in the bone, and his present fear was that he’d be arrested for vagrancy again between now and Friday and miss the surgery.

People tell him to count his blessings, but he doesn’t see that he has any. He said this simply and with acceptance. Another homeless man suggested he get himself arrested again so he could go to jail. The suggestion angered him. I said that if he were going to think that way he might as well jump in the river, and he agreed.

He said the police in New Orleans are hard on the homeless. A tourist can pass out anywhere and sleep unmolested, but if you’re homeless they run you in. The city jail holds eight thousand people—he pointed downriver to the Wyndham Hotel to show me the size of it—and the city gets fifty dollars per night from the state for everyone they bring in.

He showed me the leg, swollen black from the calf down.

After the surgery he’ll be eligible without contest for disability. The benefits will allow him to go back to school in Virginia for a three-year program of culinary arts. After that, he’d like to move to San Francisco.

We talked for about half an hour.

Then I said “My name’s Mike.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m Rodney.”

We shook hands.

I said “I’m going back to where I’m staying.”

“Thanks for listening,” he said, touching his ear.

“Sure.” I stood up. “Can I give you a few bucks to get you through the week?”

“Sure,” he said. “Anything.”

I gave him some money. He thanked me.

He told me I should keep my eyes open, in about three years, for a new executive chef somewhere in San Francisco named Rodney. I wished him luck and left him there on the bench.

The other night I watched one of my favorite John Huston movies, Fat City, from the excellent Leonard Gardner novel of the same name. A woman I was worried about in New Orleans had left me with everything I felt for her and nowhere to put it. I was trying to pass the time before turning out the light. At the end of the movie, Stacey Keach runs into Jeff Bridges after they haven’t seen each other in a while and persuades him to go into a poolhall for a cup of coffee. Stacey Keach is a drunken ex-fighter at thirty who’s back on the skids and Jeff Bridges is a younger man who’s still fighting now and then while trying to support a wife and kid. Stacey Keach has nothing to hang onto but his former dream. Jeff Bridges has put the destructive notion of glory aside and settled for meeting his responsibilities. They sip coffee and Stacey Keach does most of the talking. Jeff Bridges doesn’t want to be there. Through a window on the kitchen we see an old Chinese waiter making coffee. It’s hard to tell whether he’s smiling or his face is just like that by now.

Stacey Keach says “How’d you like to wake up in the morning…and be him?”

Jeff Bridges says “Maybe he’s happy.”

Stacey Keach thinks it over and then, in a lucid moment beyond bitterness, says, “Maybe we’re all happy.”

Lyrics: M.J. Keep/Roosevelt Jamison, copyright MCA Records, Inc.

Photo Source: RiverBills

Michael DeCapite was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His first novel, Through the Windshield, was written in London and New York from 1985 to 1990. Although the book gained a small underground reputation by way of published excerpts, readings, and word of mouth, it was unable to find a publisher until it was brought out by Sparkle Street Books, in 1998. DeCapite’s short story “Sitting Pretty” was published as a CUZ Edition in 1999 and then included in The Italian American Reader (William Morrow 2003, HarperCollins 2005). “Happy” was written in 2004, for Radiant Fog, a column he wrote during 2003 and 2004 for the monthly Cleveland arts magazine angle. In 2006, he completed a second novel, RUINED FOR LIFE! He lives in Brooklyn.

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