I lived aboard an old vintage sailboat for some time in the Caribbean, working odd jobs to make ends meet before sailing on to South America
A Job in Paradise
It was about twenty years ago that I decided to fix up an old vintage sailboat, a 1967 Pearson Vanguard, and take it on a sailing adventure across the Caribbean and on to South America. To make ends meet, I worked odd jobs along the way, including one on a construction crew on the island of Saint John, in the US Virgin Islands.
In many ways I'd found the perfect job. From my boat, anchored in Great Cruz bay, I would take my dinghy only a few yards to shore, and walk up the hill a short distance to the job site, a new municipal sewer plant, where I'd been hired as a carpenter's helper. The pay was decent, well above minimum wage, and my expenses were few as I had no transportation costs to worry about. At first I was assigned to work alongside the project's master carpenter, helping to drill holes in large wooden beams which would form the roof supports for the enclosed part of the treatment plant. It was repetitive, back breaking work to drill countless 3/4 inch holes in the large wooden beams, yet it was predictable and I enjoyed the company of my coworkers.
After a few weeks on the job, the construction company foreman, a neatly groomed, immaculately dressed Cuban American man from Miami, whom we'll just call "Rick", asked if I'd be willing to supervise a group of workers that were doing similar work on another area of the plant. There would be a $2.00 an hour raise in it for me, so I gladly agreed. It was almost identical work to what I'd been doing, except this time my job would be to read the blueprints and mark the locations of holes to be drilled on the beams by my team of workers. My team was a group of men from the Dominican Republic and all spoke Spanish but very little English. Fortunately I knew enough Spanish to converse with them and this was a big plus for my Cuban American boss, who also spoke the language, but didn't want to be bothered with translating details for the men.
We set about performing the tasks that were assigned to us and I began to get to know my coworkers much better over the following weeks. Carlos was from Samana in the Dominican Republic and I had stopped there on my long voyage down from Corpus Christi Texas. Eduardo was from San Cristóbal and aside from being a master carpenter, had once been a juggler who'd performed on cruise ships. When we had a break from our work, which sometimes happened when we were waiting for more timbers to drill, he would juggle whatever he could find around us for entertainment. Two of the younger men, whose names I can't recall now, were cousins of Eduardo's and would tell me stories about the fish they had caught and showed me photos of girls they were in love with back home.
Each day we ate lunch together under a big turpentine tree at the edge of the job site, listening to each other's stories and resting our aching backs which were sore from handling the large electric drills all morning. All was fine, until one day when the foreman, Rick, came and asked me to come and eat with him.
Come and Eat With the White People
As we sat under the big turpentine tree near the jobsite I looked up to see Rick the foreman coming our way. He was always easy to spot, standing out like a sore thumb in the tropical heat, wearing a starched white shirt which featured his initials monogrammed across the pocket, chinos and freshly shined shoes.
Rick the foreman asked me a simple, yet shocking question that day at lunchtime. Without acknowledging any of my my colleagues he said "Why don't you come and eat with the rest of the white people?" Rick's own complexion was a bit darker than mine, yet he saw my coworkers, the dark skinned Dominicans, as beneath him and somehow not worthy of sharing a meal with. I glanced over to look at my new friends, whose eyes were all cast downward toward the ground. They all knew enough English to know what he'd just asked me.
I was totally taken aback and I had no idea what I was going to say, and then I just blurted out in my broken Spanish. "Señor, no soy gringo, soy Dominicano. Voy a comer con mi amigos!". (Sir, I'm not a gringo, I'm a Dominican. I'm going to eat with my friends!) This did not please my boss and he nodded his head, said "fine, have it your way", spit on the ground, and walked away. I had attempted to make a joke, my usual way of diffusing an awkward situation, yet it fell flat.
I knew that I'd just made a big mistake in terms of my employment situation, yet I also knew, as evidenced by my friend's wide smiles and barely restrained laughter, that I'd made the right decision.
A Plan Begins to Form
Quitting time always varied a few minutes from day to day, since there were often unscheduled breaks to make up for when we'd been forced to wait out short tropical rainstorms. When the boss decided we could leave for the day, a designated employee would blow two loud bursts on a whistle that he carried around his neck. Upon hearing the whistle, most workers would immediately drop what they were doing and head for the gate. Cold beer awaited at a small neighborhood cafe just across the street and for many of the men, to sit and drink a cold one after hours of backbreaking work was the highlight of their day. Hearing the whistle I put away my tools and headed to the plant gate, along with the rest of the workers. Eduardo, Carlos and I joined a group of other men and lined up to purchase snacks and beers from the little burger shack across the way. We talked for a bit about Rick, and most of the men had a pet name for him which I won't mention. He was notoriously racist and would always favor workers with lighter skin color. The fact that he'd given me a supervisor job, despite the fact that Eduardo was a master carpenter, was proof enough of this. Eduardo spoke enough English to read blueprints and must have felt a bit resentful that I'd been promoted above him so quickly.
I mentioned that I'd probably managed to fall from Rick's good graces, and the others agreed. In Spanish Carlos told me that he was a vengeful man, and left no slight against him unpunished. I half expected to be fired the next day.
The next morning I rowed my little dinghy ashore from my boat, trudged up the hill with my lunch bag and entered the Saint John wastewater plant project, unsure of how my day was going to unfold. Rick saw me enter the gates and with his index finger beckoned me to come over to him. My orders for the day were to move heavy sacks of cement from one side of the newly built shed to another, about 100 yards away. There was no hand truck, wheelbarrow or wagon, just my arms and legs to move about 100 heavy bags. I knew I was being punished, but having never walked away from a job before I decided to just do the work. I'd have time to think about what to do as I carried bags for the next 8 hours and at least I was still being paid.
Lunchtime finally came, signaled as usual by the same whistle that dismissed the men at the end of the day, except instead of two blasts for quitting time, there was just one, meaning "break for lunch". I sat with my friends under the tree and none of us spoke very much. We ate our lunches mostly in silence, perhaps with a comment or two about the weather or the upcoming weekend.
Suddenly it came to me. I knew that I couldn't work for a racist tyrant like Rick anymore. I'd already saved enough to sail back over to Puerto Rico, where the cost of living was cheaper, and chances were good that I could find some part time work there. A new resort was being built on the island of Vieques. Carlos and Eduardo had told me about the new project and were thinking of quitting and going there as well.
I finished my task of moving the bags of cement and upon hearing the two blasts of the timekeeper's whistle, left the job site and headed back to my boat, back aching, but with a devious plan forming inside my head. Along the way there was a small tourist shop, selling everything from shell necklaces to Virgin Islands tee shirts and, fortunately for my plan, a large plastic toy whistle.
The next day I woke up onboard my little sailboat, popped a couple aspirins and downed my coffee. My back still ached, but I looked forward to my workday and toward causing a bit of mischief before the day was over.
I tucked the whistle into my lunch bag and headed off to work. I was summoned again at the gate by Rick. He was apparently satisfied that I'd been properly punished and sent me back to work with my crew, drilling holes in the wooden beams. At lunchtime I made sure that I exchanged contact information with all of my friends, but told no one what I was planning.
Shortly after 1:30 PM, several hours before quitting time on that Friday, I slipped away from the group and found a spot just out of sight, behind a large earth mover, up on a mound of dirt overlooking the project site. I pulled the whistle from my pocket, took a deep breath, and blew two long bursts from it.
Within seconds, men began dropping their tools and heading for the plant gate. Rick came running out of his office near the gate, yelling at the men, yet they paid no attention to him. They'd heard the official whistle, it was Friday and they were "out of there" in what looked like a stampede. As I passed by Rick I saw his eyes were on fire with rage. He glared at me, along with the other men. I shrugged my shoulders and with the rest, made a beeline to the cafe across the street. It was a beautiful thing, that whistle. It only cost me 99 cents, but the look on Rick's face was worth a thousand times that amount.
Over at the little cafe I was treated to several free rounds when word spread that I was the "whistleblower". Nobody seemed to mind getting off early, though my prank had reduced their take home pay just a bit. For that I felt a bit guilty, yet there seemed to be no hard feelings from anyone, just cheers for getting one over on Rick.
I went to collect my final paycheck the next day and when the office manager handed it to me, I pulled the plastic whistle from my pocket and gave it to him. "Those island kids, playing silly tricks on us, they must have dropped this." I said before I left. A while later, I looked up the large Miami company on the internet and sent them an email describing the racist behavior that I had witnessed on their Saint John job site. After a bit of back and forth correspondence I learned that Rick had been fired. Someone, on one of the company's many projects had apparently had enough and had collected enough evidence to sue for discrimination. I never learned the outcome of the lawsuit, yet I hope that their whistle blowing yielded much more than my practical joke did that day.
© 2021 Nolen Hart