The trip down the St. Johns River to Jacksonville has been good. A bit windy perhaps. A little choppy too. And the fresh water system is leaking and the bilges are full. The Captain is venting and Ship’s Cat is sulking. But it is a relief to be underway again.
Underway. Where the world ceases beyond the bow and the stern. Where there is no politics and no commitments, and the only news that matters is weather. It is a relief.
The Captain’s irritation creeps past venting and approaches tirade as we turn to stem the current and ease up to the Landing’s seawall, where the sign says “thou shalt no longer tie up here because we said so.” Around we go, scooting along the Landing until there are no more signs and we can land for the night.
Somehow we always arrive at Jacksonville on a Friday or a Saturday when the City has arranged music and entertainment. We typically tie up as far from the excitement as we can but now the City has forced us into its midst. Listening to the thump thump of a simple yet repetitive bass line I decide it is worth my while to reread the signage at the far end of the Landing. Maybe we had misinterpreted.
A few raindrops spatter but so what? I reach the first gazebo. The wind picks up. I hesitate in the shelter of the gazebo studying the clouds and estimating how long it will take me to get to the signs and back and just how wet I could get in that time. I hesitate just long enough for the skies to turn from grey to black and the rains from sprinkles to gushers. From nowhere people appear in the gazebo sheltering behind the pillars trying to block the wind and rain.
I shout over the wind to a fellow near by and point out to him a dry spot yet unoccupied. Soon we are all comrades, sharing the common misery of cold and wet and wind, shouting commiserations and humor to each other. The people are the invisible people of Jacksonville Landing, the homeless and displaced.
One man had lost his tools and his truck to some situation and was left unemployed. And Ira was using his hard luck to get help going to school and retraining for a career which he plans to fulfill in Europe. And another, Early, had worked most of his life “under the table” and now his Social Security is a pittance. Early tells me that being homeless (camping he calls it) does not mean you have to be dirty or smelly. Nodding in agreement I respectfully decline a sniff of the proffered armpit, using this opportunity to further our connection with tales of our travels, by boat. Boat campers.
“Early”, I ask, “What do you do with all your free time?” Early takes me by the arm and leads me over to the trash can.
“I look for food,” he motions toward the can. “I don’t eat nasty things, only closed things. If someone closes it, it means they want you to have it.” With a laugh he assures me the food is clean. He does not eat open, contaminated food. His fellow “campers” agree. The rain is easing up. Early sees me gauging the distance to the boat. “You can make it,” he laughs. I smile back and take my leave.
As I swing aboard the boat the Captain indicates it is time for cheeseburgers, something we only get when we are in port, and we set off for the nearest eatery. Awaiting our dinners my thoughts return to the Jacksonville Landing campers sheltering in the gazebo. On a whim I order two cheeseburgers and fries to go. Maybe I can find Early and Ira again and share more than sea stories …