A few fellow Automatticians and me were having drinks at Annabelle’s tonight. Stephane and I stepped outside for some fresh air. An older black man walked over to us and started singing The Dock Of The Bay. He said his name was Otis as he politely asked our names. He offered a fist bump instead of a handshake. He looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties. His hair was balding, he had a short and scruffy salt and pepper colored beard. He was dressed in a worn out navy blue blazer, pin-stripped shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. He was missing his upper teeth, but that didn’t stop him from singing his heart out.
I knew that he wanted money, and I rarely ever give money to people on the street, but he seemed eager to sing us a song in exchange. Surprisingly, he sings very well.
I gave him the twenty-dollar bill I had in my wallet. I figured he’d just move on, but he stayed and talked to us for a while. He said that he always sings The Dock Of The Bay “Because everybody just loves that song, they always ask me to sing it for them”.
As it turns out, Otis was from “A little town called Stamps, Arkansas”. I said, “Well, I’ll be damned, I’m from Waldo”. He smiled real big and said, “Yeah, that’s not too far from Stamps is it”. “Nope, only about twenty or so miles down Highway 82”, I said.
I asked him how long since he’d been back to Arkansas. He said he hadn’t been back there since the early 80’s. He said he still had family that lived in Stamps and Pine Bluff.
Otis is a bit of a storyteller. He told us a story about his father who lived to be one hundred years old. He said “Daddy was a hell of a shot, even at seventy years old he could still throw an apple up in the air and shoot it with a pistol using only one hand”.
He told us about how he used to be homeless, “But now I have a hotel room” so he felt like he was doing pretty well. He said, “One time this man gave me a hundred and fifty dollars just because I sang for him and just talked to him for a while. That man offered to take me to the store and buy me some groceries too. But at that time I was homeless and wouldn’t have anywhere to keep them. So he just gave me another eighty dollars. Just like that.”
For some reason, Otis’ story touched me. He looked like he’d lived a hard life, but over the years he’d also known kindness from strangers. That makes me happy and sad at the same time.
I’ve been sitting in my hotel room listening to Otis’ song over and over again while writing this. I wish you all the best Otis. Thank you for the stories and for your song.