More Than a Shoe Shine Box

As I reflect this morning upon this practical yet decorative piece of art I created a few years ago. This, which I later donated to Center Church, First Church Hartford UCC for their annual auction. A fundraiser that supported the Church’s Bed-fund at Hartford Hospital, benefiting all of the city’s residents in need.

This program, grandfathered nearly 100 years ago, which is rather unique and-therefore indispensable, since it provides a huge service of love, benevolence, and care, when most needed, as is when dealing with an illness, particularly during these days, where most Americans are one paycheck or an illness away from losing their homes and winding up on the streets. This is no longer a cliche. This is real! Even when talking about the residents’ dwellers inside the “Insurance Capital of the World.”

Anyway, I believe the ultimate bid for my unique, homemade, hand-carved, one of a kind shoe shine box, went for $250.00. Although perhaps it could’ve gone for a bit more, the idea was that we’d tried to keep the bidding at an affordable, allowing all of these donated goods to be sold and put to good usage, therefore preventing the church and church staff from being stuck with them, having to then find storage or donated them to other organizations, etc., etc.

The story isn’t as much about this box or my art, but rather about us following and accepting God’s gifts to enter into our hearts and ignoring our immediate wants, as pressing as our need might sometimes appear… perhaps.

I, therefore, each and every day, give God thanks for such a genius of an inspiration in the blessings bestowed upon… those, which lead me towards the arts… though, in my worst moments of need, triumphs leads to bigger, brighter, and much sweater outcomes.

The year 1970 was perhaps one of the worst years of my young life. The Garinagu Father had been long gone, abandoning his family, after collecting a huge severance package from the United Fruit Company, leaving mother behind with 6 young children, between ages 14 and a 1-month-old. I was just three years old at the time.

This was, of course, during a time when Honduras had yet no standard child support enforcement mechanisms nor a vehicle in place to bring it forth… while still obviously lacking the basic moral fortitude or wherewithal to even consider such an imperative of a social need.

Although as his alcoholism and lack of responsibility and concern grew, mother had consulted her own attorney prior regarding a salary embargo, which at the time, it was all that was allowed by Honduran laws, within the perimeters of an irresponsible dead beat situation. However, such embargoed did not go as far as resting nor retaining any part of his (prestaciones) severance package that was being offered.

So here we were, homeless on the streets. Since he was no longer employed by the banana company, and we lived in company housing, mother was given one month to vacate the premises with all of her children; meanwhile, the man who’d fathered me had already packed and had headed back to his hometown in Punta Gorda, Roatan. We later learned that he had been partying in the streets of Cortes prior to boarding the goletas, or small boats that shuttled passengers and cargo across back and fort to the Honduran bay islands… leaving us, as an ugly pass behind – mother with a one-month-old in her arms, and not a penny to her name… we heard he’d arrived and held a weeklong party throughout his entire village, and gotten everyone who’d partied with him drunk with his money.

So the years had gone by very fast, by now I was 10. Mother had gone on to work, up to three jobs at the time, while we’d been cared for by my grandmother, my aunt, Idoly, and of course, my older sisters. We quickly learned that we each had to take care of ourselves if we wanted to survive, succeed in a poverty-stricken country. Most of mother’s best-paying jobs were all in the domestic area for the very affluent white, European Hondurans, who were often more than generous and very supportive to us all… mother, was proficient in English, although back then in Honduras, it served little to no purpose, except that she also tutored them together with their spouses and their children in English for which, she often received huge bonuses, and much consideration. Unfortunately, all of these jobs were located in what was back then… a very, very racist, Spanish colonial throwback City of San San Pedro Sula.

So at a very early age, I learned to navigate and confront racism and bigotry. Although, as a black English-speaking, Caymanian, West Indian descendent family, we benefited in a small way and feared far better than our Garifuna counterparts, who were only allowed to live in the outer skirts of the very racially segregated city. As we look back and realized how colonialism impedes and creates divisions within people of the same hue and melanated skin to believe that one is better or superior to the other, as they are being used as tools or a means to an end.

And just as the now-infamous story of the Tutus and Hutsies depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda, the division among the Honduran Garifuna and black English speaking people had now been put into place.

West Indian descendants or English speaking Hondurans, played the role of educating and teaching Honduran, Latino, Arab, Chinese, and European descendants communities much needed English, as they prepared to travel to the United States of America, expand commerce throughout the globe, but would be denied any kind of access to even a tiny sliver or crumbs of the now growing economic pie.

My grandmother would often come up and help out, while we barely got a chance to see or spend much time with mother. Of course, this was also prior to the advent of legalization or highly religious acceptance of birth control. By now, mother had given birth to three more babies, one who barely lived 9 months. And this would definitely take a toll on our overall economy, as well as on her health and that of my youngest sister, Maria Dolores (Tita), whom I had seen, kissed, and smiled with, just minutes before she’d taken her last breath.

1970 was the year following the dumbass fútbol war with our neighboring country of El Salvador. This, which also further threw the Honduran poor into a tailspin, since the enraged, Honduran pro-nationalist protesters, anger, had burned out many Salvadoran owned businesses and deported many of the longtime wells to do Salvadorans living throughout Honduras, who was actually many of their employers. So good jobs for blacks became relatively almost nonexistent, regardless of our level of education.

The long term juggling of three different employments, without ever taking a vacation, another serious failed relationship, long hours, without any days off, followed by now with a total of 9 children… all of this, in a country that at the time, and even today, still doesn’t have unemployment, welfare, foods tamps nor any kind of social network support for working parents, whom often slides through the cracks.

This all had begun to take a serious toll on mother’s physical and mental health. As I am more alert and, of course, educated in the science, I could further understand enough to deeper analyze mother’s the seriousness of her depression. Although several of her friends, sisters, and other relatives, who had traveled to the United States to work, and of coursed, forced to leave their children behind, had gotten her jobs, mother’s love toward her children’s exceeded all, perhaps a bit of paranoia and insecurities by torrid years of deceitful lies and single parent struggle, mother refused, held on strong, as she assured us that she’d always be there for us, no matter what.

And we began to sell off our belongings s as de practically gave our things away in exchange for a piece of bread or a cup of flour, milk, and sugar to savor that one meal a day, cup of porridge.

I had seen her physically and mentally collapsed several times prior; mother was very strong, both physically and mentally… with a super sweet personality, although she was also a fighter for equal rights, justice, and her children’s well-being.

In fact, she had once been taken to jail and had to settle for grandma bailing her out after she’d beating down a woman who had slap my oldest brother, Overton when he was about 13 years old. By now, she was 40, and 40 years old for anyone in 1970, especially with all of those continuous layers of stressors, was more as 80 today.

As I reflect today on my feelings of such, I seriously thought that this time, this brake down… I really didn’t think she would pull through and make it back to her feet. This was both physical and mental. Her heart was given out, high blood pressure was through the roof, and she couldn’t focus straight enough to even remember our names… besides, she was also breastfeeding, while food had often been pretty much nonexistent, obsolete often nada on days at a time.

It was perhaps my first time ever, really coming to God in prayer, begging him to take me and to spear my mother, who still had all these young children to care for while making a pledge with the almighty God, promising that if mother health was returned that 10 years old me, would be the best son, best brother and best child ever. I guessed God did answer my prayers many folds over. A few weeks later, mother slowly recovered, my aunt Idoly and my grandmother had come up to help us out during our crisis and in return taken back down with them, my three youngest siblings back to Puerto Cortes – leaving my sister and my 9-year-old sister and our youngest sister Tita behind, since my other older siblings were studying, working and one had gotten married and moved on.

Of course, I’d kept my promises made to God. At 10 years old, I’d already gotten a job helping to wash cars and clean engines in exchange for learning mechanic in a nearby garage. Although I didn’t like the idea of working and not getting paid, particularly while still being hungry. Due to the extremely impoverished situation in which we’d fallen, I’d been forced to leave public school. I took English tutoring at home from mother and other family friends since their West Indian accented Spanish was indeed rather limited.

Since I had all of the time available on my hands at age ten, and Honduran boys back then were considered rather indispensable, as a means to an end, rather than children with rights to be afforded the opportunity to play, develop, become educated and grow into manhood. There was always some family member or friend wanting to hire me out as if I was a field hand or enslaved cattle, errand boy, or sales subjected toward one of their many gimmicks. Stemming from selling gigantic baskets of coconut breads to assistant factory workers.

As I remember, it was one Sunday afternoon that Don Ines Flores, one of my father’s second cousin had bounced back into town from Punta Gorda, and he’d recently gotten a job as a carpenter at the mattress factory (Camas y Colchones Ideal.) It wasn’t really a skilled carpentry job; he built mattress box spring frames. Of course, he was lazy and somehow suggested to mother that I was big enough and that I shouldn’t be lazy and wasting my time… that I should learn the carpenter trade and get a job to help her out. He offered that he would take under his wings onto the factory floor and teach me.

Although the original offer was that he would pay me 2 lempiras a week. Such was the equivalent back then if $1.00, one US. Dollar. This was hard work for a grown man, never mind a 10-year-old boy… so we worked from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM, none stop, but for a quick 30 minutes lunch break… all day, lifting boards and running a powerful electric saw, hammering, etc. the job was also about 5 miles out of the city, which, in order to get there, we had to take the city bus.

Now keep in mind that I wasn’t actually attending school because we had no money for food. Meanwhile, this greedy, cheap-ass bastard was so bent on getting free child labor that he forgot I had to eat and that it was also going to cost him transportation to get me there on the factory floor. Of course, oftentimes, bus drivers wouldn’t charge minors traveling with adults if they remain standing, but it was often up to each driver’s discretion. Sometimes, he had to pay the 0.5 cents, which was actually half the complete adult fare.

And so, three weeks went by into the apprenticeship, and I wasn’t being paid. However, Don Ines reluctantly would spend 10 cents from time to time on lunch. However, I’d probably been working all morning without breakfast, but water hungered to the point of collapse. While I’d also help cut wood and provide material for the other carpenters at their worksite, they’d also often shared their lunch. So things

I asked for my money, and when he refused to pay me, arguing that he “had to feed me and pay for some of my bus fares,” I threatened to take him to labor law. Of course, I was always aware of my rights, and I knew enough to realize that he was in violation. Although, since mother had actually given him the okay, I realized that she too would be in trouble for encouraging child labor.

So I went to his bosses and the head of the company, and he got into trouble since he’d never really gotten official permission from them… whom I’m sure that they would’ve taken one look at me and refused. I was a skinny runt looking, a little ten-year-old boy.

Now here’s how we get the true story behind the shoe shine box.

As we were forced to relocate from our very nice neighborhood and into one almost outside the city, where at the time, only people on the fringe of society actually lived.

Most of the boys in that area from ages 5 and up were in the shoe shine business… no one attended schools; it was as if we’d fallen into an abyss of desperation. Well, as usual, there was always someone approaching mother about my unemployment status. Only this time, the offer appears as if I’d be working for myself.

The deal was, they’d rent me this shoe shine box, and I would go out and hustle a living and pay them daily for their box rental, including shoe polish and all necessities.

Of course, I have always been willing to give a try at new adventures. Unfortunately, once I got out there, I realized there was much more than shoe shining going on. That there was thievery, fighting among these boys, who were often abused and not paid by the people who’s shoes they shined, often Honduran police and military, local politicians, etc.

It was then that I realized I could now swing a hammer, measure, and run a hand saw… I didn’t need to be shining nobody’s shoes. And it was then that God inspired me to come up with the idea of instead building the shoe boxes, but building rather a much better one with different compartments and selling them to the guys. This provided us with much-needed money to get out of that horrible place and eventually back to Puerto Cortes, where I would again be allowed to regain some part of my childhood, at least until the age of 15 when I embarked and God would continue to bless me and my work on the ships until I could finally get my entire family out of the depths of the impoverished hellhole our Caymanian ancestral folks had come and dumped us in nearly fifty years earlier.

Thank you for reading:
Novel and autobiography coming soon.

For reading and updates, Stay tuned.

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