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Life on the Deckle Edge

Poetry Friday - O Death - Goodbye, Bennett

December 14, 2017

Tags: Poetry Friday, lyrics, O Death, Nathaniel Bennett

Jeff, Bennett, and Seth - 2015


     Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2 , RSV)

Our little coastal town lost an icon Monday night. His death made the front page of the paper, and it’s still on the front page of my heart.

Nathaniel Bennett could drive you crazy. You couldn’t be downtown without hearing his gruffy voice, noticing his shuffling gait, his big presence in a slight, wiry, quick-moving frame.

Hey, can you spare a few dollars for a hamburger and a drink? It costs $7.59 (or some such, and his prices went up, as my husband said, as years went by.) I’m a veteran (fishing a decades-old Army ID from his wallet)….

Or, Hey, can you help me get some pizza? I’ll pay you back….

Or , Can you help me get a hot dog and a pink lemonade? And, can you give me a ride to the corner? They close at four….”

Or, I got paid today – I don’t need any money. Can you give me a ride to AA?

Sometimes he’d be missing from the streets for a few days. He occasionally got banned from one place or another, though restaurant managers still made sure he had something good to eat from the back door. He was sick now and then, hospitalized every once in a while. He wasn't a stranger to jail.

Bennett talked matter-of-factly about his mental illness. And his struggles. Sometimes you had to listen closely to make out what he was saying, especially if he was agitated.

He always remembered exactly how much money I’d given him “last time.” He always asked about my kids, my family. He always expected a little something extra around his birthday. He turned 64 in August.

Bennett was not homeless. He had family in the area, and grown children in different places, and he sounded proud talking about them. He lived in a group home on Duke Street, with some meals provided. He received money from the government and had folks who looked after his finances and his medical appointments.

But his way of being in the world was to create a network for himself, with lots of folks whose cars he recognized and whose habits he noted. I saw him most often at the post office, where sometimes he’d just wait by my car, halfway hiding his cigarette if he had one. (People would joke that he could time travel, the way he could get to different parts of town in the blink of an eye.)

The last time I saw him at the post office, on Monday, he was busy enlisting a young man for some drink money. That night, Jeff and I saw Bennett as we walked out from a restaurant, where we’d met friends for dinner. He had a Styrofoam to-go box in his hands. From across the street, he shouted, “Hey, do you have five dollars…”

“No, Bennett, but do you need a ride?”

He said yes, and crossed the street toward a bench near the barber shop.

“We’ll go get my car and meet you right there.”

A minute later, he shouted, “I got a ride” as he climbed into another car already going his direction. He probably added a "God bless you." He waved. And though it was dark, I know he smiled, too. We waved back.

He died that night, from natural causes, according to the paper.

I found out Tuesday and attempted to go about the rest of my day, with orders to get out for my Etsy shop. I printed two labels for one order (and none for another), not discovering my error until it was almost closing time at the post office, and I couldn’t fix it until the next morning.

I went back to my shop and worked late, again. But it was cathartic, because on my old radio, on NPR's Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviewed a terrific Gullah-inspired band called Ranky Tanky. ("Gullah" refers to the rich culture of the lowcountry sea islands around here, with its African roots.) Click here for the transcript, and here for the podcast from Dec. 12.

The group performed “O Death” on the show.

Here is the first part, in the Ralph Stanley version from O Brother Where Art Thou:

Oh Death,
Whoa, death!
Won't you spare me over 'til another year?

Well, what is this, that I can't see?
Both ice-cold hands taken hold of me
Well, I am death none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell …


Click here for the rest.

The lyrics are rough, but I needed to hear them. (Though I'll admit to running Emily's more gentle "Because I could not stop for Death - /He kindly stopped for me - ..." in my head, too.)

Bennett always slowed me down. Sometimes I even took a different route to avoid him, on foot or by car, if I was in a hurry. It didn’t take me long to learn I wasn’t his only ticket, and that it was okay to say No sometimes, or let him know if I might be having a challenging day myself.

I guess he had heart trouble, but his true heart was open to people, open to some bit of goodness in each new day. Rest in Peace, Bennett. I'll miss your stories, your hugs, your fist-bumps. We all miss you.

From The Fresh Air Transcript:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE SONG")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Got to be going. Goodbye. Got to be leaving. Goodbye. So nice to meet you. Goodbye. So nice to see you. Goodbye. Got to be going. Goodbye. Got to be leaving. Goodbye. Can't wait to meet you. Goodbye. All nice people.


(Here’s a link to a local story about Bennett.)

For this week's Poetry Friday Roundup, please visit the always-amazing Diane at Random Noodling.

Comments

  1. December 14, 2017 8:43 PM EST
    I saw your post on Facebook, but this is so much deeper and moving. We all know these kinds of characters. They enrich our lives.
    - Margaret Simon
  2. December 14, 2017 9:38 PM EST
    Wow! What a post! How moving and touching! It's not quite the same, but I had a homeless woman (girl, actually - she couldn't have been more than 25) who I gave all of what little extra money I had in those days. She always slept on a heat great near Berklee College of Music and then one day, she wasn't there. I felt badly for a long time. I know it's not the same, but your story remembered her to me. The bereft of the world...
    - bjleepoet
  3. December 14, 2017 10:08 PM EST
    So sorry, Robyn. Thanks for sharing your words and for showing us that every relationship has its ups and downs, but beneath it all is mutual love and kindness.
    - Diane Mayr
  4. December 15, 2017 12:03 AM EST
    "You run my life right out of my soul." I am sorry for your and your town's loss. There are those people who surprise us by their humanity, and how much they bring the community together just as they are.
    - Linda Baie
  5. December 15, 2017 6:38 AM EST
    I'm so sorry. Your portrait of Bennett is a moving tribute to a man who lived life on his own terms and created webs of people to connect.
    - Anonymous
  6. December 15, 2017 6:43 AM EST
    That anonymous poster is actually me, Kay. I somehow turned on the incognito setting on my phone. I hope I've figured out how to turn it off.
    - Anonymous
  7. December 15, 2017 8:37 AM EST
    Thank you for acknowledging - and loving - a fellow human who was "different." And thank you for sharing Bennett with us! That gullah music rubs one raw, doesn't it? Powerful. xo
    - Irene Latham
  8. December 15, 2017 8:54 AM EST
    Hi, Margaret - both descriptions are spot-on - "character" and "enriching." Thanks for coming by.

    B.J., I'm sure your kindness meant a lot to that young woman. Thanks for visiting.

    Diane, perfect way to describe it - thank you. And we all appreciate your hosting this week!

    Linda - "just as they are" - yes. There are a thousand sermons in that; thank you.

    No worries, Kay - thanks for persisting! Your comment fits Bennett to a T.

    Irene, powerful is right re. that music! I sure did love that exasperating fellow. He really did have a twinkle in his eye.
    - Robyn Black
  9. December 15, 2017 9:13 AM EST
    Funny how hard things can hit us, knocking the world a bit off its tilt. Something's changed. The absence feels sad. Bennett sounds like he had a big heart, making everyone part of his life, trusting people. I love your big heart, Robyn. I love your little town and its character. I love the poetry that you make.
    - Brenda
  10. December 15, 2017 10:02 AM EST
    Oh, Brenda - you always have just the right words. Thank you for all the love you put into them. :0)
    - Robyn Black
  11. December 15, 2017 11:38 AM EST
    You do such a wonderful job of explaining this complex man and his intricate relationship with you and the town, and the absence you're feeling in your heart. Hugs to you!
    - Tabatha
  12. December 15, 2017 11:44 AM EST
    P.S. Yesterday a neighbor brought me a Halloween candle and a gumball ring as a Christmas present. She's pretty eccentric (for a while she kept bringing me dozens of overripe bananas at a time). My kids love her for her eccentricity. It keeps life spicy.
    - Tabatha
  13. December 15, 2017 12:06 PM EST
    Tabatha, thank you so much. And I'm not at all surprised that the spicy folks in your neck of the woods are welcomed and appreciated by you & yours! (Guess you made banana bread?!)XO
    - Robyn Black
  14. December 15, 2017 1:05 PM EST
    Beautifully written, Robyn. You captured him and his relationships with such honesty. Sharing your sadness.
    - Doraine Bennett
  15. December 15, 2017 1:34 PM EST
    Thanks for this moving tribute to Bennett, Robyn. It made me think about kindness, humanity, compassion, and interdependence. It's amazing how strangers can enter our lives and make an unexpected impact.
    - jama
  16. December 15, 2017 3:21 PM EST
    Thank you, Doraine, for the kind words and the sweet support from afar.

    Jama, you are so right - these unexpected relationships, the ones that catch us by surprise, are dear ones indeed.
    - Robyn Black
  17. December 15, 2017 3:47 PM EST
    Robyn, that was really beautiful. Thank you for sharing your recollections of Bennett. In my town,growing up, it was Maynard. What good fortune that Bennett was in your life and he in yours.
    - Linda Mitchell
  18. December 15, 2017 5:09 PM EST
    Very touching, Robyn. Thanks for sharing this. It made me sad and happy at the same time. Mental illness is tough, but it sounds like Bennett and the folks of your town made the best of a tough situation. He sounds like quite a character.
    - Penny Parker Klostermann
  19. December 15, 2017 5:26 PM EST
    Thank you, Linda - and wonderful that you remembered Maynard. On the phone last night, my mom reminded me of the special individual years ago at our local grocery store, Leon, and how everyone so missed him when he was gone.

    Hi, Penny - a character he was, and then some! Thank you for taking the time to read and respond, and bringing your light around. :0)
    - Robyn Black
  20. December 15, 2017 8:57 PM EST
    What a tribute to a local character, Robyn. We must all have one. You made me realize I have not seen ours -- Jose -- in quite some time. Peace! -- Christie @ https://wonderingandwondering.wordpress.com/
    - Christie
  21. December 15, 2017 9:24 PM EST
    It's so easy to not see the humanity in those who are different from us. I'm glad your eyes and heart were open to Bennett, and you shared a little of him with us.
    - Buffy Silverman
  22. December 16, 2017 3:41 AM EST
    What a wonderful tribute you've written to Bennett here. I'm so sorry for your loss.
    - Molly Hogan
  23. December 16, 2017 4:23 PM EST
    Let's all try to live so that we will be fondly remembered by many when we're gone.
    - Mary Lee
  24. December 16, 2017 7:38 PM EST
    Hi, Christie - thanks for coming by. Here's hoping Jose is doing all right, wherever he might be.

    Buffy - thanks for the kind words. I noticed today that a few more items/words were added to the little makeshift memorial someone started in the heart of downtown. He touched a lot of folks.

    Many thanks, Molly. I'll still be looking for him for quite a while, I think - it was such a part of my daily routine to wonder where he was most days.

    Yes, Mary Lee - a good goal!
    - Robyn Black
  25. December 17, 2017 11:35 PM EST
    Robyn,
    thank you for sharing this poignant post. Thank you for treating Bennett with kindness and understanding. You set an example for us to all follow. And yes, it's not always easy. I can imagine how unsettling it was to hear of his passing after just soeaking to him.
    - jone
  26. December 18, 2017 2:33 AM EST
    Robyn, thank you for your interesting story and great tribute. It makes me realize that there are so many different types of people in this world and all voices should be honored.
    - Carol Varsalona
  27. December 21, 2017 7:48 PM EST
    Hi, Jone - Many thanks for coming by and leaving such kindnesses. It was a jolt, for sure.

    Carol, thank you for visiting and for your warm and thoughtful response - and for all you do to make room for so many voices in poetry!
    - Robyn Black

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