In the late 70s, the magazine group I worked for hosted a training session on a cruise ship to reward us for our efforts. Writers and editors from all five of our sister publications had a chance to bring their spouses along as we traveled to Nassau and Haiti and back to Miami.
Haiti had by then lost the luster it had during the 50s, when it was a place where the rich went to party. But cruise ships still stopped outside Port Au Prince and tenders would come pick up batches of customers who would then spend a few hours on the island.
My then-husband and I were eager to see the island and found seats at the back of the second tender. But once we stepped onto the dock, I began to feel unsettled.
We were immediately surrounded by a throng of agitated taxi drivers who were imploring us to let them be our guide. As we tried to push our way onto the tarmac, I looked down at the young mother who was tugging at me and begging me to buy a necklace she was holding up. She was kneeling on a blanket next to her naked baby whose eyes were dotted with flies.
As we tried to get our bearings, a fistfight broke out between two cabbies who were jostling each other as they tried to get closer to us. We quickly picked a driver and gave him $20 to lead us to his taxi. The rejected cabbie followed behind, yelling at us to choose him instead.
Then I lost my nerve. It wasn’t fear but pain that made me decide to flee. I grew up in neighborhoods where desperate people did desperate things to make a living. My grandfather did time in a federal prison. My best friend’s mom was a prostitute. I knew the look – the bright, begging smile and the dead eyes. And I knew I just couldn’t be there anymore.
I bolted back to the tender, dragging my baffled spouse behind me, yelling at the crew to wait for us. As we headed to the boat, I felt profoundly ashamed at having so much while they had to little. I felt guiltier still when I realized that I had run off without giving the woman and her baby at the dock whatever cash we had left.
Back on the ship, I began to feel better when I saw a group of passengers who had stayed behind laughing and cheering next to the rail. I peered over the side and saw that a number of local artisans had rowed their creaky boats out to the ship to sell their wares. Most were hawking stunning hand-carved statues and masks. One of the Haitians would throw up a rope that he would then use to transport an artwork up to the deck for inspection. A bit of haggling would ensue and, if a deal was struck, the customer would put the payment into a bucket lowered back over the side.
The smallest boat in the tiny flotilla held two young boys who had nothing to sell. Big Brother would urge the passengers to throw their coins over the side to them, and the boys would catch most of the coins on the fly. It a coin hit the water instead, Big Brother would make Little Brother dive for it and the crowd on deck would cheer as he unfailingly came up with the coin and smiled.
A cigar-smoking loudmouth next to me winked and said, “Watch this.” He tossed the silver bottle cap from his beer into the water about 10 feet from the boys’ dinghy. Big Brother again pushed his now-shivering younger brother into the water to retrieve what they no doubt thought a quarter.
The young boy quickly came up with the bottle cap. Imitating a pirate, he chomped down on the coin, as if to test it for gold, then he flipped it back into the water and smiled broadly at the “joke.”
It was heartening to see this guileless young boy make the fat American look like the jerk that he clearly was.
The Ugly American knew he’d been bested, but he lashed back by saying loudly, “Well, hell, he’s probably like all the other n—ers back home who have a Cadillac next to their shacks.”
People talk about seeing red; I actually did. A red mist clouded my vision, and I wanted to hit him. But the best I could muster was to shout “You’re an asshole,” before my husband began dragging me away.
Here I am, 35 years later, and I still don’t know how to make these men stop. But if we don’t take a stand against them, they define us.
lists contact information for Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors. Perhaps it’s time we let them know that we won’t support them as long as they support him.
Helping the People of Haiti
Another way to ensure that the bigots don’t win is to help the people of Haiti. You can text “Haiti” to 90999 and $10 will automatically be donated to Haiti relief through the Red Cross. The donation will appear on your next phone bill. (Do it often to donate more.)
U.S. News & World Report has also put together a list of 10 ways you can help Haitians.