New Orleans, LA – December 13, 2012
I slipped into the water at sunrise, the French Quarter thirty-five miles away, and paddled past a line of freighters anchored like steel fortresses. Tugs droned and whirled to life and I felt my stomach tighten. The last thirty-five miles would not come easy.
“What the fuck are you doing? Get the fuck out of there. You got the whole fucking river on that side. Go over there and quit fucking around,” a badger-of-a-man had shouted at me from the pilot house of the first tug I ever saw, way back in Minneapolis.
I wanted to stick to the bank and he wanted to park.
After that, there was nothing, no shouts, no hellos. The tugs and their barges moved like autonomous robots, never talking to me, never seeming to notice, never waiving back except once when I stood on a dock in Cassville, Wisconsin, and I saw the captain of the Jerry Jarret’s arm wave in the air after mine. I remembered that wave every time we passed, but I never saw it again.
Nothing, the barges became nothing but moving islands of metal, loud engines, and wake, beasts with glowing eyes in the night, monsters waiting around bends. They grew bigger and I shrunk away, hiding, filling those quiet, unused spots on the river.
But there are no unused spots anymore, nothing but machinery and commerce from bank to bank. Parking lots of barges hang hundreds of feet into the river. Swarms of cranes surround anchored freighters. Loading docks wait with a hundred tangled pipes to pump in and out of the commercial stream.
“No one wants you there,” I heard in my head over and over.
I clung to the anchored freighters and docked barges, clung to them like a remora clings to a shark in the ocean, slipping by their side, hiding in their shadows, knowing that sharks give each other space. Then I heard a voice shout down to me. I looked up and saw four men from Panama leaning over the railing fifty feet above my head.
“Where are you going?” they called. “Where is Key West? Florida? Good luck!”
They waved. They smiled and waved. Then workers on barges looked up and waved too, tipped their hats, laughed and grinned, tapped their friends on the shoulder and pointed. Then they cheered. They cheered the audacity of being in seventeen feet of plastic next to a thousand feet of steel, of staring up ten stories into the sky to wave hello, of dodging and weaving like butterfly. They cheered even as they felt certain I would die.
“Hey, hold on a minute, let me get a picture,” a man called out from the side of a barge.
“Sure,” I said, following him in the water to a tugboat, the Virginia, that waiting along the stack of barges he was working on.
The man disappeared inside and came back out with his camera.
“You need anything?” he said. “Water? Food? I got some cans of Vienna sausage or something.”
I thought of the French Quarter, now just five miles away, of fried chicken and gumbo, of red beans and rice, of jambalaya and po’boys, and shook my head.
“No,” I said. “I’m headed in to New Orleans, so I’m all right with food and water. I just got a few miles to go.”
More of the crew came out, we started talking about the city, about where to get the best burger, the river up north, which bank to stick to around the next bend, what radio channel to call boats on, where the traffic would be thick and thin.
For months, the tugs were giant machines, autonomous robots, but then, in that last moment, they became Walter and the rest of the Virginia crew, they became accents and smiling faces, hand shakes and offer of help, they became people.
A mile down river, a tug fired to life next to me and began to move. I hesitated, trying to figure out where to go–rush forward and swing out into the river or pull back and wait–then the radio cracked to life.
“Hey, you see our guy? He’s right behind you, watch out for him,” a voice said.
I saw a head snap around in the pilot house and the tug paused, waiting for me to pass. A man waved from the deck.
“I got ‘em,” a voice answered back on the radio.
“Thanks,” the first voice said.
It was the Virginia. She called every boat ahead, watched over me, made sure they saw me, made sure I got to the French Quarter, made sure I had a piece–my piece–of the whole fucking river.