One year of college I worked the dock at the Dallas Trade Center from 6pm-to-6am letting the big trucks deliver items for the Christmas Market buyer booths. I had gotten the job by way of my step father’s cousin, the Hiring Manager. They were from down home in Waldo, Arkansas. The men who worked around me were from down home, too. The folks seeing their name-tagged, blue, striped shirts, stiff uniform pants and thick-soled shoes thought them janitors. However, that crew built the shelves and displays for the marketers to sell their wares to buyers from all over the world. I knew their stories of migration from the hell of Country life to the Big City’s dismissal. Being from “down home” they looked out for one another. In short, you made it to town, asked after somebody from down home and you’d be put to work.
For my season of work I had been sent to the well-known facility to see a man who I knew as cousin, Lou Gene. He was a gangly, light-hued man with high shoulders, freckles and a hat that was a size too small for his head. He had piercing eyes and a toothy grin that passed for both a smile and scrutiny. Without a doubt, Lou Gene, was a BOSS! He knew these men and their reputations from down home and around the way. He took their measure rising out of lawn chairs at BBQ’s and funerals and invited them into his dignified world for a season of hard, heavy and definitive work. I entered that office and was met one question: “Jr, can you do it for two months?”
Some of those men stayed on and worked at various levels over the years. Others came and tasted bits of luxury, had fits of wonder and fell back into old or possibly better, lusts: drinking, fighting, womanizing and, for some, back to wandering. Among them were a number of honest-to-goodness blues men. Some had sung back up while others were the leaders of once famous down home groups. A few were gut bucket men who found their way to the Great Hall on breaks or lunches and burned a hole in your soul with song riffs that could shut down a confessional. Among those men was Rueben.
Rueben worked alone as a floor finisher and he was very good at his work. The word should be “meticulous” but for the fact that he didn’t give a single damn about the shine of the Great Hall’s dynamic, imported wood floor. Rueben only cared about singing the blues. This job afforded him every opportunity to hone his sweet, flirting, smooth baritone riffs to perfection in the cascading echo of the Great Hall’s chamber.
On one long night a new guy arrived and quickly got on Rueben’s bad side during a break in the Great Hall. He had smacked Rueben on the back and howled out, “Go ‘head, Ol’ Dude!” while Rueben riffed a little number with another new guy who wore a loose-fitting red satin suit with processed, red hair and stories about playing with Ike and Tina Turner. Once Rueben and “Red” learned that the new guy was a two-day old newlywed who liked bragging about his pretty gal with a big smile, bigger legs and a penchant for dancing at a familiar hole-in-the-wall…well, ….
Every break in the Great Hall was thumping that night! Almost no work was getting done as the men rushed sloppily thru their set ups, keeping one ear cocked for what Rueben was wailing about downstairs. The longest break was at 2am when all of the crews stopped while a rotund Night Manager, named Charlie, rode a golf cart thru the building to inspect their progress. Around 2:15am one of the guys called me in from the dock with a “Damn!” and sad shake of his head. “Man, Rueben sanging dat po’ fool thru hell“.
Now, this may not be entirely accurate since that night was over thirty years ago, but imagine a sinister Big Joe Turner swaying like a shoulder demon with a lilting rant disguised as a song. Then, imagine him being backed up by a toothy, rancid, hopped-up, red-headed Little Richard on a weeping, wilting piano. Both men were wild-eyed and knife wielding, but armed most dangerously with their giftedness.
I wouldn’t leave that gal a—lone
/young brides like they mans at home
/when you’re gone her skirt will roam
/I just wouldn’t leave all that tail all a—lone
When the young man, his head crooked into his heaving chest, didn’t break into a nervous blubbering Rueben nodded at “Red” who lit a tremendous fire on the keys that caused a shadow to fall into the room. He set off a quick run on the keyboard that rocked the floors with a fast, stomping beat. To everybody’s surprise Rueben began popping his fingers and starting a kind of toe tapping, hip jumping dance step. The men all joined in: snapped their fingers and hooted at that sight. Another man slapped the newlywed on the back and cackled beside him, “Dat ol’ light-eyed fool can get any gal in town!” before Rueben kicked it up a notch:
I left my watch by the bed
/my pants by the do’
/my suga’ in her cookie
/and her fella don’t know ….
Mama’s baby,,,woo…hooo/ Daddy’s maybe,,,yeah/yeah
/ a light-eyed baby in the oven t’night
/made even sweeter ’cause yo’ baby don’t fight
/calls me ova cause you workin’ all night
Mama’s baby,,,Yeah/yeah/Daddy’s maybe,,,woo…hoo
We all agreed that it was that line: I left my suga in her cookie that caused the new guy to buckle and leave the job on foot at 3am to check on his surely cheating wife.
A few hours later when Lou Gene arrived and checked on the guys he chuckled through his admonishment of Rueben. He came over to me and asked if I had heard or seen anything other than the singing before the new guy had walked off the job. I told him that it was just those few songs from Rueben and “Red”. I was told that it didn’t surprise Lou Gene since he knew for a fact that Rueben had sung his way out of a Buena Vista, Arkansas jail when he was a younger man. The young jailer had come on the night watch and heard a sloppy-drunk in torn overalls tuning up a love song from his cell. Apparently, he liked what he heard and made a deal to release Rueben after he agreed to record the song on a reel-to-reel machine the next night with a woman’s name inserted at the right spot. A few days later as the story made its’ way to Dallas and Lou Gene’s desk phone, Rueben was getting ready to knock on his office door. Rueben hadn’t been back to Arkansas and a month later, when my stint on the dock was over, nobody had heard from or seen the back-slapping newlywed.