Let's talk about the voice, which hurts the ears like a tenor sax with a bad reed — loud, squawky, piercing. Even when B.J. Hart is standing on the deck of the last public ferry in Florida, the voice cuts through the great throb of the diesel that propels the Jean Ribault across the St. Johns River.
"YESSS! OH, BABY. WELCOME ABOARD!''
East of Jacksonville, a Navy helicopter whup-whups overhead. On Ocean Street, an ambulance rockets past with siren screaming. Over on A1A, radios blare hip-hop boompity boomp. Doesn't matter. You can hear B.J. Hart's caw from hundreds of feet.
Man, it is important that he be heard above the din.
See, when vehicles drive onto the ferry, he tells drivers where to park. When the ferry reaches the far shore a mile later, he directs the stream of cars off the deck in an orderly fashion.
But there is nothing orderly in the way he performs his duty.
B.J. Hart is the Louis Armstrong of directing traffic. He's like a jazzman, serious about his craft while making up things as he goes along. He's an artist. He's a tourist attraction.
"Well, well, WELL! Pull in right here, that's right, son — Oh, I SEE your dog! Woof, woof — THAT'S RIGHT. Yes. YES! You park right there next to that pretty lady.''
He shouts his instructions. He sings them. Raps. Points and bows. Some days he spins like a ballerina. Other times he pinwheels his arms like Pete Townshend at the end of My Generation.
He ought to be at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He ought to be wearing tails while appearing with Satchmo or Cab Calloway. They're gone, of course. At 59, dressed in khaki, wearing a ball cap, he is still working and he is still on fire. His stage happens to be the deck of a 170-foot ferry that has room for 42 vehicles.
"COME-A, COME-A, COME-ABOARD!''
Listen: There was a time in Florida when workmen, often African-American workmen, performed their duties with a flair.
If you are old enough to have chicken-skin elbows and hair where you don't want it, you may remember the vegetable man who rode into your neighborhood in a mule-drawn wagon.
He sang: "Here comes that mean old vegetable man. I got the vegetables. Lord, I got the v-e-g-e-t-a-b-l-e-s. Somebody ask me, what vegetables do you got?''
Maybe your grandma shouted from the porch: "What you got?''
He sang back: "I got peas, beans, green apples, cucumbers, squash, cantaloupe, wa-wa-watermelons. I got white taters, sweet taters, agitators, corn on the cob, y'all. A little o' this, a little o' that, child.''
Singing vegetable men strutted their stuff in Miami. In Gainesville. In St. Petersburg.
Perhaps you took a glass-bottom boat ride at Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee or at Rainbow River near Dunnellon when you were a teen. The African-American guide steering from the stern reeled off the names of the plants and fishes — in rhyme.
Once upon a time you may have attended a spring training baseball game at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. Let's say the Cardinals were playing the Mets. Reagan was president and Ozzie Smith was a shortstop. In the third inning, by tradition, the man known as "The Voice" suddenly appeared, as if by miracle, on the ramp behind home plate.
"TUBE STEAKS!'' the hot dog vendor yelled in a voice so loud that even Ozzie looked up.
"We got dogs, dogs, doggone dogs — some folks buy 'em, some folks don't. We got up dogs, down dogs, underdogs, overdogs, north dogs, south dogs, east dogs, west dogs, dad dogs and barbecued dogs. You bring the barbecue.''
The late Tommy Walton, who had learned his craft from his daddy, the mean-old-vegetable man, was invited once to the Smithsonian to demonstrate the lost art of street crying. He sold 36,000 hot-diggity dogs in a matter of hours.
So that's the tradition. So that's the history remembered today by only gray-haired Floridians. That's where B.J. Hart is coming from in 2013.
An old Mercury rolls off the Mayport Ferry.
Behind the wheel: a middle-aged woman with coffee-colored skin and a dimpled smile.
"BABY, PLEASE DON'T GO,'' croaks B.J. Hart, instantly channeling John Lee Hooker.
She smiles back as if her day has suddenly gotten better.
He knows everybody. Not by name, maybe, but by their vehicles and faces. Some days he sees the same customers coming and going. They ride the ferry because to take the Dames Point Bridge across the river adds 40 minutes and 28 miles to their trip. It costs $6 to take the ferry, and they're entertained, at least for now.
The first ferry crossed the St. Johns River in 1874. The Mayport Ferry began hauling cars in 1948. Two small, privately owned ferries operate further south on the St. Johns and there's another small one in southwest Florida near Useppa Island.
For decades the Mayport Ferry has been marked for extinction. It's too expensive to maintain. Not enough people use it. It's not modern, for crying out loud. But every time the state or Jacksonville gets serious, taxpayers raise a ruckus.
For now, HMS Global Maritime is B.J. Hart's employer. He's had others during the last 14 years. But one uniform is as good as another as long as he gets to do his thing.
A grandmother extends her left hand out the window to be kissed, their daily routine. He knows her, knows her daughter, knows her granddaughter.
He knows your dogs. He knows whether you root for the Gators. Knows your last presidential candidate because you forgot to remove the bumper sticker.
He was born in Alabama. His kin were bootleggers. They had to get out of Alabama quick. They landed in Jacksonville. He grew up there. It was Deep South, seldom a welcoming place for African-Americans. Bad times. He likes to say you have to be positive. He likes to say you've got to look ahead. Live in the present, young 'uns.
He got some college. He joined the Marines. A career man. He retired, got antsy, got a job on the ferry, discovered his inner Cab Calloway.
An elderly man with bad eyesight and a Chevy Impala almost takes him out.
"NO ROADKILL ON MY WATCH!''
During Easter season he tries out his Peter Cottontail rap on the little kids. At Thanksgiving "DON'T BURN THE TURKEY!'' is his ear-piercing advice to all cooks.
In December he quietly hands out Christmas cards.
Late in the afternoon. Everybody has parked safely on deck. He leans against a railing as the Jean Ribault, named after a French explorer, rumbles out into the river. He's got 10 free minutes for a quiet chat that turns out to be pretty loud.
"HERE'S MY PHILOSOPHY: For a lot of people who take the FERRY, well, BAD things have happened to them, probably. Maybe they LOST their job. Maybe, they lost their WOMAN. That's what being HUMAN is. We all have DISAPPOINTMENTS. So I try to connect with EVERYBODY on the FERRY and give them a reason to feel better. IT AIN'T NO ACT.''
He works Wednesdays through Sundays, sometimes the shift beginning at dawn and sometimes the shift ending after dark. Sometimes a friend picks him up. Sometimes he takes the bus home. When he arrives, Martha is waiting. They've been married 24 years. She worked for the IRS. She had a stroke when she was 56. It's difficult for her to walk now. She is legally blind.
When he talks about his wife, he turns off the show business voice and grows quiet.
"It's very hard for her. But I tell her, 'My love for you is not about what is on the outside. It's what's on the inside. Your inside hasn't changed. You're still here. You're an inspiration to me.' ''
Bang. Grind. Sound of splinters. The ferry sometimes uses the dock to stop. Pelicans flap away from the dock in a cloud of fury and dung.
Ropes are secured. An alarm sounds, a gate opens. Vehicles go. Then they come again, a long line of them.
He's a matador now, swishing an imaginary cape at an imaginary bull that turns out to be a jet black Infiniti.
"THAT'S MY CAR!" he yells at the driver. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH MY CAR?''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected]
CORRECTION: The Mayport ferry is located east of Jacksonville. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online gave an incorrect location.