“If I survive, I will spend my whole life at the oven door seeing that no one is denied bread and, so as to give a lesson of charity, especially those who did not bring flour.”
Osvaldo Guzman picked up this hitchhiker Wednesday near Alligator Alley in Florida after I had spent a few days sleep deprived, sick with the flu and all day without food or water.
In a thick Cuban accent, he said he somehow recognized me.
See, three times Osvaldo attempted to get the United States via makeshift boats from Cuba. Each boat was a hodgepodge of discarded tires and wood, overcrowded and without enough to eat or drink.
He knows that look, he said. I believe he meant, “need.”
On one trip he started out with 17 people on a floating deathtrap and set sail for 10 days without food or water. Just 10 people were alive when the US Coast Guard picked them up and escorted them back to Cuba.
Osvaldo got his legal immigration papers about seven years ago. He’s married to an American woman, has a five-year-old boy and lives in a Cuban community, where he says he mostly speaks Spanish to his pals.
At 40 years old, he’s got his own heating and air conditioning business which he supplements with an Amway dealership.
He gave me an Amway energy drink, vitamins and dropped me off at a roadside rest stop on Alligator Alley – just picnic tables, information boards and parking spaces. A gate separated the stop from the Everglades but a large opening with fan boats was at the end of the lot.
He dropped me off after several harrowing stories about crossings and exuberant stories about living the American dream, via family and Amway.
I watched him drive away from me on Alligator Alley, with vitamins and a drink in my hands and thought about …
“God damn immigrants.”
After Osvaldo left me at the rest stop, I was rousted by two cops. The first, a state trooper, kindly brought me more than 15 miles down the road to the Miccosukee Indian Reservation along Alligator Alley.
There I was asking truck drivers and others at the gas station for rides when a second cop, a heavily tattooed, short but buff reservation cop came up from behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and threatened to throw me in jail.
Little did he know, a prison post would be an interesting Eyes Like Carnivals read.
He forced me to leave the gas station and walk to I-75, Alligator Alley, to hitchhike at 10 pm at night, in the rain.
Instead, I threw down my sleeping bag and slept in the mangrove beside the road, with an open pond on one side and thick everglades on the other. In an area known for alligators, Black Bears, snakes and even a few panthers, I knew the risks but was beyond weary.
I was sleeping bait.
I dreamt I woke fighting a black animal, a Black Bear or an alligator. But a real animal, an incredibly strong shadow. I grabbed it and I was losing because my legs were caught in the red sleeping bag.
I woke alive. Collected my sleeping bag and pack, went back to the road at 5:30 am and was miserable again.
Thinking, as I so often do, of being homeless, having little prospect of selling this project, of once having young promise.
Now standing wayward.
Five hours of that, then a white van and a wondrous story pulled up in front of me in the form of another refugee from a tough landscape.
Nick came from Albania eight years ago, after political opponents burned his business and threatened to kill him and his entire family.
“People would see you and say you are a hobo, but I knew you no hobo,” he said. “I left home when I was 15, I learned how to read faces. I know 99 percent of the time, I see a face, I know him.”
Songs so often go through my head and when Nick went on and on about me looking like a hobo, I thought of all the writing I’d done on hoboes when I was a journalist and a song sung by Woody Guthrie, “Hobo’s Lullaby.”
“I know the police cause you trouble
They cause trouble everywhere
But when you die and go to Heaven
You’ll find no policemen there.”
An extravert, Nick told me “Albanians are fighters” and it “is good to fight, it makes you feel young. Young people are fighting all the time. You fight you feel young. Don’t cry. Crying is for losers. Sometimes I feel like crying but I think crying is for losers. You must fight.”
He’s fighting for legal residency. He’s now owns a successful home painting business with employees in Naples. But a judge rejected his immigration status THIS WEEK. It means his son is losing a college scholarship. He has to appeal to federal court, a long shot which is going to be King Kong expensive and another year in court.
But he says he’s a happy man, “with money or no money.”
“This is your lucky day my man,” he said.
Nick drove me an hour along Alligator Alley to Marco Island, across the island and to the front door of my parent’s home, where I intend to spend Thanksgiving with my daughter.
My ‘lucky day’ ride brought me from dark thoughts to a new point of view, a new landscape.
Driver is a happy man
I was finishing a two day hitchhike from Waycross, Ga., on the border of Okefenokee Swamp, working for Amusements of America.
I road the first segment with a carny woman who is trying to leave her carny boyfriend, who beats her. She’s so jaded about life she said she doesn’t know if she can be kind to people anymore, “they just sh*t on you.”
She left me off in Fort Lauderdale, far from Alligator Alley. I was on foot and lost.
I spent the Monday night outside in an office park grove. I was rousted by three separate cops on Tuesday. I slept in the Everglades and was picked up by two remarkable immigrants, one from Cuba and the other Albania.
When Nick left me on Wednesday, I had essentially hitched from the doorstep of my Georgia carnival to the doorstep of my parent’s home on a Florida island.
Nick and I had shared our live stories and though he’s younger than me, he had advice for the hitchhiker who talks “smack” to himself while waiting for rides.
“Happiness is not about being taller or shorter, or skinnier or ugly. Happiness is in the spirit. It is from within. From God or somewhere. I don’t know … I am a happy man. You should be happy.”
I’d gotten rides from two happy men from another landscape. I know these rides will carry me. No loosing to the swamp creature. No crying. Fighting.
I’ve completed a season of working in traveling carnivals, living on carnival wages and hitchhiking almost 13,000 miles between spots. I’ve worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas and Georgia. I’ve followed Mexican carnies to their hometown in Mexico. My year ends in February and I may work a couple more carnivals. Mostly, I’m now attempting to find an agent or publisher for a book on my year and my new perspectives.