Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Just Another Body in the Water

On sabbatical in Baltimore, a Nashville poet considers our shared humanity

We pay our bill at the register at Jimmy’s on Broadway, grab the Baltimore City Paper, and pull on our jackets and scarves as we squeeze outside past the crowd at the door. Sunday morning means getting to Jimmy’s before nine—after that you have to wait for a table. We always take the two-top behind the cement post because it’s toward the back and protected from the cold blasts of an opening door. Besides, that’s where the waitress expects us to be. Today, it isn’t too cold.

Free of the crowd waiting to get in, we set off toward home, but up and down the road flash the urgent lights of multiple police cars, two ambulances, an AirFlex van—I really wonder what that is—and three fire engines. People clasp their cups of steaming coffee close to their chests and gather in small groups in the square, and we edge across the street at City Pier. Sirens blast. A rescue boat patrols among the Saturday night flotsam while divers bob and search.

“Anybody know what’s up?” The sirens keep us jittery.

“Eh, probably just another body in the water.”

Still, no one is quite as blasé as he sounds. We look over the side of the pier and wonder where footholds might help a person up, but we can’t find any—just some rubber bumpers one might hang onto in the freezing water, the under-pier mallards looking on, curious and wordless. We think of last night’s drinkers, one of whom might have stumbled in. We think of despair—so many homeless, so many loves gone bad—and we think of families, but we see no one who looks any more personally involved than simply considering the hazards of his own living.

Finally we move on to subjects unrelated to the vehicles revving around us, the noise of the sirens and the blinking lights, and we discover that the man who’s now wandered down the vacated pier with us is retired, has lived in the area all his life, and has a daughter who gave him his NCIS hat. (“She’s always bringing me some little gift.”) The brick she donated to the harbor promenade has his middle name spelled wrong, the Anglo one squeezed between Mario and Silvestri. At eighty-three, he just can’t retire. He drives cars for the auto-auction house, the one that sells barely-used government vehicles on Tuesdays.

The three of us spot something in the water. It floats away from us on fast-pushing waves. “It looks like an arm, maybe,” I say. “Just a log, I think,” says John. I zoom to it with my cell-phone camera, but the glare on the surface makes it impossible to see what it is. It would be so much more striking were it a dead body, but I don’t say this and banish the evil wisp of wind that suggested it. “People see something, call it in,” Mario says. “Usually it’s a false alarm.”

“But these rescue units could have put out a three-alarm apartment fire by now,” I say. “Shouldn’t they be on call in some other part of the city? And all these police could have arrested a whole mafia ring. Why so many?”

Mario shrugs. Others turn back toward wherever they were headed. I think it’s a case of human solidarity—all those big guns turning out for the support of a single life. Hospital staff are waiting up at Maryland General, fresh sheets stretched across a wheeled bed. Warmth would be offered. Yet chances that someone would be found alive are nearly zero.

Tonight, the local news has reported the incident as a false alarm with good intent: someone thought she saw a human being in the water, and she called 911. The firemen put their gin-rummy hands aside and pulled on their shiny protective clothes. Divers rolled out of bed and struggled into wet suits and strapped on tanks. Police officers left the streets for the harbor. And we came to help with our hope for drama and our support for life, two strange buddies in our make-up. Yet everyone stands ready to be a hero, at least. Everyone wants to save a life–at least one.