Oil spill sloshes over spirits at waterside Mississippi restaurant

By Dan Zak
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; C01

MOSS POINT, MISS. -- Three dollars'll get you the "gulf oil spill shot." Blue Curacao polluted by black vanilla vodka and Bailey's. The shot goes down sweet, which means it's downright medicinal in these parts, where oil bitters every boat ride, every sunset.

It's open mike night at Rachel's Widow's Walk, a seafood restaurant on stilts above the Escatawpa River, a 10-minute drive from the Alabama border, five miles in from the gulf. The spill shot sells. Two young guys attempt "La Bamba" using only vocals and drums. A clutch of middle-aged couples on the deck slurp white zinfandel as pink as the western evening sky. They murmur about out-of-work shrimpers and "livelihoods lost." Waitresses slop chicken salad and potato salad from Tupperware to Tupperware.

Cutting through a flank steak with a pocket knife on Saturday is a man everybody calls Hippie, on account of the long silver-white hair he recently cut off. His real name is Gary Williams, and he's a charter boat captain. Or was. Or is still trying to be. Less than a month before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Williams sold his camper in Ocean Springs, Miss., his wife moved in with her mother and he moved into a 32-foot sloop in a slip by the restaurant's dock. After a cash-poor 2009, he was going to save money and put everything left into his charter business.

"This summer was gonna make us or break us, and it looks like it's gonna break us," says Williams, 55, who wears a black baseball cap stitched with the words "Pirates for Hire."

As oil troubles washed in with the surf, the calls stopped coming from casino customers in Biloxi. He got a two-week contract with BP's Vessels of Opportunity program, which employs local boaters in cleanup efforts, and hasn't been paid, though he gets e-mails saying the money's coming, the money's coming. He can't file a claim on lost business because he doesn't have sufficient proof of income.

Then there's that tart smell on the estuaries around Moss Point. Regulars at Rachel's Widow's Walk know that smell isn't from boats or factories. They describe how the oil will come in with the tides, how it will soak the marshes, how it will sweep spawning shrimp out to the gulf.

They take another sip of zinfandel.

They light another cigarette.

They look out at the water, at a shipbuilding facility, at the soaring Route 613 overpass, at the tiny golden McDonald's arches that seem to rise, planetlike, over the tree line on the far shore.

"La Bamba" is still going. It's getting more arrhythmic, and drunker.

"Change the drummer!" a customer shouts.

"The drummer sucks!" bellows another.

Williams says he's out of money. His slip is $180 a month. He doesn't quite finish his fried okra.

"BP needed to have something set up for this," he says, on the deck. "But I understand it's a big job. It's like trying to push a piece of cooked spaghetti."

The restaurant can't get oysters for the foreseeable future. The shrimp supplier is running low. The cost of gulf shrimp -- the heart of these estuary communities -- will soon be edited to "market price" on the menu, according to Sam Kraft, proprietor of Rachel's. Eight years ago Kraft spent every dime he had to buy this plot of land. After Katrina, he emptied his bank again to build the restaurant, he says. He lives above it and operates the marina out front, where Williams docks.

"I've got all my eggs in one basket," Kraft says. "If I get oil here one time, I'm out of business. During high tide with a heavy south wind I get water across my property for a couple hours, four to five inches deep. How much food do you think I can sell when I have men in white suits washing rocks in my driveway? There's 26 square miles of marsh here and there's no way they can keep it boomed outta here."

A man in a straw John Deere hat wobbles onto the deck. He says that his name is Lucky Junior, that he's a boatman living under the overpass. He wants to communicate how scared he is, how scared everyone is. To do so, he employs a lyric by a famous son of Mississippi, and recites it like an epitaph.

"Livin' on sponge cake," he says, tongue tripping over gnarled teeth. "Watchin' the sun bake. All of the tourists covered in oil."

Margaritaville, paraphrased, gone perverse.

Williams finishes dinner. He'll charge it to his tab, which is adding up, though the restaurant knows where to find him if it needs to settle the bill. He'll be at home, 50 feet away, bobbing, waiting.

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