by Tim Gilmore, 4/17/2021
“At the edge of the Ribault River, floating on this dock,” Tedesha Richardson finds her “spiritual release” and peace. “I come here when I’m feeling like it’s me against the world,” she says. “When the soles of my shoes hit the rough and gritty gravel, I get excited because I’m almost at the edge.”
Doesn’t even get in the way, though Tedesha mentions it, that when Dr. E.H. Armstrong originally advertised this neighborhood called Riverview in the 19-teens, he called it one of “America’s greatest opportunities,” with “lots sold only to the Caucasian race.” Not only does Tedesha not see how Riverview provided anyone the “greatest opportunities,” she won’t let a dead real estate scam man keep her away.
Armstrong, an optician who traveled from one Florida town to the next, advertising in local newspapers that he’d be available for business at certain dates “at the leading and most central hotel of each town,” planted notices across the nation that Riverview was one of Jacksonville’s most beautiful suburbs. Riverview, however, hardly existed. Most lots remained unsold until humble ranch style houses sprung up across these roads decades later. Original street names–Prospect and Tourist and Grand–linger still like empty signifiers.
But like a city itself, a neighborhood, even a spit of land thrust through the reeds of marsh down into the river, acts through time on its own autonomies. Nobody else can determine a place’s character. Like a forest, with its countless communications, old before old, through underground networks of tree roots and fungi, place emerges from its own determinations.
Nor does the fact that the Thomas K. Stokes Boat Ramp means other things to other people, the site of grief for James Tracy Wilson’s family, counter the peace the place provides Tedesha. She watches the seagulls perch on docks, the great blue herons forage in the muck, the tiny crabs clack and skitter through the mud.
It was January 3, 2013, two years before police pulled the 2007 four door Buick LaCrosse from the Ribault River, when James Tracy Wilson’s family reported him missing: white male, 5’11”, 200 pounds, blue eyed and bald.
On Thursday morning, April 16, 2015, a fisherman pointed out an oil slick on the river and a tow truck pulled up a Buick sedan, coated in mud and water weeds, dragged it up and across the boat ramp. In the back seat were “human remains.”
A neighbor named Mike London looked into TV news cameras and declared, “If someone was in the back seat, I’m sure someone had to drive the car down,” but police said they’d recovered “only one set of remains.” London recalled another car pulled “from the exact same spot” not long ago, and said, “A lot of people fish here, and a lot of crabbers. They go out every morning.”
When Hamlet says, “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” and Claudius demands, “What dost thou mean by this?” he replies, “Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.” Death, democratic. E Pluribus Unum. We are one.
Wilson’s obituary said, “He enjoyed being called Tracy Monster by his great-nieces and nephews. The family would like to thank everyone for their support and prayers over the last two years. There will be a private family service to celebrate Tracy’s life.”
“It’s ironic,” Tedesha says, how peace comes at cross purposes. “This neighborhood was not created for people who look like me.” Between 1956 and 1965, according to the Department of Parks and Recreation, this site offered basketball courts, tennis courts, a playground and softball field. Then in the ’70s, Parks and Rec removed the playground and athletic amenities and built three boat ramps. Tedesha doubts this place could bring her the peace it does if the basketball court and playground were here still, but acknowledges all that was here contributes to what is.
The river breeze she feels on the dock reminds her of the peace she’s found since the turmoil of early years. Her stepfather was abusive, alcoholic, and every single day was the struggle of a lifetime for her mother. “I was never able to speak with my parents about how I felt because they were dealing with their own mess. I’d hear screaming until the wee hours of the morning. Seemed like every night I cried myself to sleep. I broke all the rules. Everybody thought I was a troubled kid. I was crying out for help the best way I knew how.”
When Tedesha was 16, her mother finally left her stepfather, died two years later from cancer. Tedesha felt both “lost in darkness” and “trapped in a cage.” Later, she says, going to church, keeping a journal, writing poetry—all those things helped, “but nothing worked like finding my quiet place, the place I go when I need peace of mind, the place I go when I feel like I’m losing it. When I’m on the edge of the dock and I’m looking out over the Ribault River, watching the sun set and the trees sway in the wind and the water ripple in the current, I feel a calm in my soul and I feel larger than life.”