It’s an old joke, but it still makes me laugh.
“What’s the difference between a boatyard and a bar?”
“In a bar, someone might actually do some work.”
In truth, some of the hardest workers in the world spend their days in boatyards. It’s also a fact that, down by the water, boatyards and bars alike shelter a high percentage of reprobates, scam artists, hustlers and hard-drinking, hard-living sorts who aren’t necessarily subscribers to the Protestant work ethic. Generally skilled but not always schooled, they drift through coastal towns like so much social flotsam and jetsam, rarely noticed or remarked by those who comb along life’s beaches.
On the waterfront, where skilled craftspeople and under-employed shrimpers, undocumented workers, refugees from corporate boardrooms and just plain boat junkies ebb and flow with the tides, there’s room for the hard-living and hard-drinking in the easy-going camaraderie that develops. When the idiosyncratic and quirky, the lazy, the obsessive and the mysterious get thrown into the mix, the fun only increases.
A constant presence in the yards and on the docks, Varnish John was the most mysterious boat worker of all. I never knew his full name. I knew only that he was “about” seventy, that he was from “up the coast” and claimed to be the oldest varnisher in the area. Tall and slender, carrying only the slightest reminders of youthful dissipation, he favored jeans and faded cotton shirts, apparently convinced tees were too informal for “the office”.
He could work without gloves in the winter and walk barefooted on the docks in full summer, and the docks and yards were the only places we ever saw him. He didn’t seem to frequent cafes or bars and you’d never catch him sitting around drinking beer and telling tales by the waterside. His varnishwork was as beautiful as any I’ve seen, but he worked only for a few, select customers. When he’d disappear for a month or two we always assumed he was in the islands, varnishing some elegant beauty of a boat in the warm, Caribbean breezes.
When he was around, John rarely had much to say. He’d nod or speak in passing, but idle chit-chat wasn’t his style. He seemed wrapped in silence, and unsubstantial as a wraith. He wasn’t exactly intimidating, but he wasn’t approachable either. He simply was, like the osprey and heron who watch from the edges of our world.
One day, bent over a trawler’s rail with my brush in hand, I felt a sudden sense of presence. Looking up, I was startled to see John standing a few feet away, watching me work. Assuming he’d have nothing to say, I was surprised when he commented on the weather and asked a question or two about my varnish and brush. Not wanting to be impolite but unwilling to stop, I answered his questions as I kept the varnish flowing. When I reached the end of the rail and straightened up he said, “Good. You didn’t stop. Everyone wants to talk, so you have to learn to work and talk at the same time.” With that, he bid me a good afternoon, turned away and walked off down the dock.
It was the first of many encounters that always took the same form. John would materialize, watch, make his pronouncement and leave. Sometimes he’d offer a technical tip so casually it hardly was noticeble: some people are using this solvent rather than that, a different caulk might not mildew so badly. He could be unbelievably practical. It was John who insisted a shower and shampoo were mandatory before varnishing, even if you hadn’t been sanding. As he taught me to vanish on “clean” winds off the water, to recognize the first tendrils of winter fog and guard freshly-applied varnish like a pit bull, the truth of our relationship slowly dawned. I had a mentor.
Eventually, John revealed his inviolable Rule For Living - a single rule I’ve come to cherish because it seems to apply in every circumstance of life. Whether John needed to vanish in uncoperative weather or was facing the aftermath of a hurricane, his rule was the same. Start where you can start, and do what you can do.
For years I used John’s Rule as I coped with the vicissitudes of the varnishing life. And then. as tropical storm Allison blew through Houston, swamping neighborhoods and floating semis down freeways as she destroyed much of our downtown and medical center, I learned first-hand the Rule’s value in more critical situations.
Like thousands of people in the city, I returned after Allison to a house that appeared absolutely normal, unless you noticed that barely visible water line four feet above ground level.
Stepping through the door, it was clear that “normal” was a thing of the past. It was as though a giant, malevolent hand had reached into the house and stirred everything together. Water from a rising tributary of White Oak Bayou had swirled bedroom items into the living room, dining chairs into the bath and canned goods into the office. Files, photos, magazines and mail were soaked. Mud was everywhere, even in closed cabinets, closets and drawers. Cleaning supplies, pots and pans, clothing and tools were covered in mud. The soaked carpet squished, and only furniture that could be taken outdoors and hosed down was usable. The stench was overwhelming.
Worst of all, the refrigerator had been tipped forward by the flood waters and turned on its side with both doors opened. Broken condiment bottles, spilled milk, spoiling meat and limp vegetables had mixed with mud and now lay there in a sodden, stinking mess. Looking around, wishing I were anywhere else, shocked by the destructive power of flooding waters and aware that my understanding of floods had been substantially limited, I didn’t have a clue what to do.
On the other hand, in the midst of total chaos, the refrigerator seemed an achievable goal. Gathering a few heavy-duty trashbags, a bucket, some rubber gloves and a mop, I gave a sigh and started. Two hours later, the mess was gone, the refrigerator had been righted and the floor washed down with water and bleach. Looking back on it now, I recognize it as another example of John’s wisdom. You start where you can start, and you do what you can do. Then, you start again.
Today in Nashville, another woman stands in the midst of her own muddy chaos and wonders: what now? In Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida people hold their breath, waiting to see if their livelihoods will be destroyed and the world they’ve cherished be ripped from them forever.
Grief, anguish and gut-twisting fear are common and understandable. But there is no undoing the past. The flood has come and the slick is spreading, and there is nothing left but to respond. Freshly returned from a trip to the bayous and swamps of Louisiana, still moved by their unutterable beauty and the fragility of their treasure, I have no way to combat my own sense of despair over what has happened except to remember John’s words.
I haven’t the knowledge or expertise to engineer a solution for the gushing oil. I haven’t the certification to clean shore birds, or a boat to pull booms. I shouldn’t travel back to Louisiana and beyond to volunteer in offices or transport creatures. There are people enough for those chores.
Instead, when Houston’s Oiled Wildlife Response Team becomes involved in this massive effort, I will volunteer here at home, helping to transport and care for creatures of our own who still require help despite circumstances in other parts of the world. I will contribute money. I will add my voice to the chorus of those demanding accountability for the past and responsible stewardship in the future. And of course, I will write. In short, I will start and I will do, and I will pledge to do it as long as necessary for the sake of those in need.
Across the country, others are doing the same. A musician writes a song for Nashville and offers it freely on his website. Otis Goodson stirs some hay into a barrel of water and oil, and hope for remediation is born. Organizations like Audubon help to coordinate and educate volunteers for tasks as varied as bird distribution counts and wetlands restoration. Photojournalists record the awful realities of the spill and the heartbreaking innocence of creatures unaware of impending doom, even as school children collect paper towels and a weeping man puts his boat into the water for a solitary fishing trip he fears soon may be impossible.
Taken individually, each of these gestures may seem insignificant. Seen as a whole, they reveal something both touching and heroic about the human spirit. As William Faulkner expressed it in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech,
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
Or, as Varnish John might say, even when the task seems impossible, we’re willing to start where we can start, and do what we can do.