My first big reporting job was on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in the mid-eighties. I worked for a local television station in Biloxi, covering the towns that stretched along the state’s 26 miles of beach. There were no casinos, then, or the businesses that pop up with them. No tourists, except for people from not too far away, who came to swim in the summertime. The road along the beach was dotted with antebellum homes and curly iron gates, and lovely restaurants that served etouffe and oysters. Not a paper napkin in sight. Town leaders gathered for beignets in the morning, or shrimp at lunch, making deals, slapping backs. It was a very pretty place, and an intriguing place, for a northerner dropped into it, like okra into oil.
I spent a lot of time at the beach talking to the fishermen. Biloxi was the Shrimp Capital of the country, after all. These were a sturdy lot, bold, outspoken, and really, the fiber of the community. Their granddaddies fished, and great-granddaddies. They had boats and nets and pails that looked as old. Skin that had seen a storm or two, not to mention sun. So much sun.
I remember walking along the dock in Gulfport one particular day, my reporter heels clicking on the wood. A man called to me from down on his boat, crisp white, with a red bottom.
“You want a story, young lady?” he called. “Come look at this.”
I still hear his voice, fast-moving, Cajun, mad. I understood every other word. He climbed up on the dock, keeping one foot on the edge of his boat. “Look at that,” he pointed where the water met wood. “Look at that line.”
A storm drain in the harbor was dripping oil. A storm drain is not big, about four inches in diameter, at most. You can’t see a drip when it comes out from the hole in the cement wall. But you can see it on the boats, dark sticky tracks that ring the hulls. The shrimper yelled into our camera. His wife yelled into our camera. It was going to cost them nearly a hundred dollars to clean and repaint. It was going to cost them time. The city hadn’t responded. The county hadn’t responded. We were their last hope.
When I watch the spewing rig on television, I see the storm drain in the Gulfport harbor. I see my shrimper and his wife, in her calico print top and kerchief. I see how threatened they felt, from just a thread of oil at their waterline. I dug up my old videotapes and found the story.
“We make our living off the water,” the fisherman said, floating up and down with the current. “Can you know what I mean? Can you?”