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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.

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