Once you’ve seen the devastation of abject poverty – real, inescapable poverty – your view of the world changes.
I’m not talking about some goofy ‘social consciousness’ marketing strategy adopted by multi-millionaire hippies making ice cream in the idyllic dairy fields of Vermont – or the narrow view of some wet-behind-the-ears college student masquerading as a “resistance activist” while seeing the world outside their parent’s house for the first time from the ivy-covered cloisters of higher education.
When I was a much younger man, I found myself in the Dominican Republic – an incredibly beautiful Caribbean nation of some 10-million which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti to the west.
I found palm trees, soft white sand beaches, the friendliest people you’ll ever meet and some of the finest baseball anywhere in the world. I also quickly found myself in a relationship – and, eventually – a marriage.
My second wife lived with her extended family in the capitol city of Santo Domingo – a teeming metropolitan area on the banks of the Ozama River – in a desperately impoverished quarter of Ensanche Espaillat.
The area was so ridden with violent street crime and utter destitution that taxi drivers refused to bring me to my in-law’s neighborhood – essentially a chain of interconnected tin-roofed shacks with bare block walls joined to others by wooden partitions and overlapping sheets of rusted metal.
A place where it was not unusual to see a skinny chicken run inside the house from the street, skip across the living room coffee table, and blast out the backdoor in a flash of filthy feathers – while outside laughing women gossiped and threw soapy wash water into the street before hanging colorful wet laundry on drooping clotheslines.
When my wonderful friend, Dominican native Miguel (who, for over 20-years now, has lived and thrived in Ormond Beach with his beautiful wife Gloria and two incredibly talented sons, Miguelito and, my Godson, Juan Carlos) would drop me off at the end of the dirt road, I would stop at a small bodega on the corner and buy a bottle of Brugal Anejo, an unbelievably smooth aged Dominican rum, as a gift for my wife’s maternal grandfather – who I respectfully addressed as “Don Julio” – an aging, ebony-skinned afro-Caribbean man who barked rapid street Spanish, smoked hand-rolled cigars and ran “things” in the dilapidated “Barrio.”
For instance, my mother-in-law operated a brisk clandestine Bingo game using loose American cigarettes for prizes – a commodity that I supplied by the case from a duty-free shop at Miami International.
Anyone who got out-of-line in the neighborhood – or tried to cheat the family gambling enterprise – answered to Don Julio and the ancient Colt 1911 .45 pistol (marked U.S. Government on the frame) that he constantly carried in his waistband.
The old man liked me. We were friends.
It was rumored that he fought for the resistance elements that ultimately toppled the brutal regime of Raphael “El Jefe” Trujillo, the country’s long-time dictator responsible for the deaths of some 50,000-innocent people and the wholesale looting of the national treasury.
I was told that during the 1960’s civil war, when my now ex-wife was a small child, to visit a doctor her father would cover her in his arms and run while ducking gunfire in the streets.
A beautiful, incredibly complex, tropical paradise.
I fell in love with the place – and the people – and during my frequent visits I tried to help whenever I could.
Once, while traveling in the lush hills near Santiago de los Caballeros, Miguel and I came upon an overturned truck whose cargo of fresh mangoes had spilled all over the roadside.
With the driver’s permission, we quickly gathered up several bushels, paid the man a few pesos for his scattered wares, and loaded down the trunk of Miguel’s immaculate Chevrolet with the tasty tropical fruit.
When we returned to my wife’s parents home that afternoon, I carefully distributed the fruit, ensuring that every family in the neighborhood received an equal amount – and that every child who flooded the street, grabbing at the hem of my shirt, had a sweet dessert and a few pennies in their pocket that night.
I never once felt threatened – or even uncomfortable – in that terribly impoverished place.
Only love and unconditional acceptance.
In fact, my fondest memories of Santo Domingo are of sitting in an old wooden chair on my in-law’s front porch – with a belly full of rice, yucca seasoned with garlic, salt and lime, and savory Sancocho – having my hair expertly trimmed by a neighbor using only a double-edged razor blade clenched between her thumb and forefinger – while sipping an ice cold Presidente, listening to Merengue and watching the vibrancy of life pass on the muddy clay street outside.
These stories bring back fond memories for me – from hiding in the backseat of Miguel’s car as we raced along the Malecon, dodging flaming tires and groups of angry rioters that blocked intersections during a quickly called Huelga – a short, violent general strike common in the region.
Or the time I spent hours listening to tall tales told by an itinerant ship captain – an actual descendant of a 17th Century English pirate from Roatan Island – over rum cocktails and strong Honduran cigarettes in the bar at Las Americas International Airport.
He spun a fascinating yarn about an isolated South American Indian tribe who still hoard Spanish gold as we waited for an airplane to Port au Prince that we both knew wasn’t coming.
It sounds like a Jimmy Buffett ballad – but it’s real life in the Tropics.
Something that will never be copied by a Canadian developer in an artificial “Caribbean theme” retirement community carved-out of the pine scrub west of the Interstate.
And it has nothing to do with escapist marketing.
From this rich experience, I discovered that people who have absolutely nothing can be among the most proud, generous, loyal and intensely happy people on earth. I also learned that those who have everything can be among the saddest, selfish, most self-serving louts I have ever known.
A society divided by class – the haves and have-nots – can be a dreary, often frustrating place.
You know, I can come off like a disaffected hardass, but I still believe that most people, if given the opportunity and a level playing field, will work hard to support themselves and their families.
They will strive and sacrifice for a better, more prosperous life.
I also believe that recent events prove that the “Daytona Beach Resort Area” still has hope for something better that what it has become.
In my view, many in the Halifax area are trapped in the housing Catch 22 – just enough income to rent month-to-month – a situation where they quickly become victims of unscrupulous slumlords – scumbags like Jack Aberman.
For years, Aberman’s GEA Seaside Investments has preyed upon the least of us – taking money from the working poor and the elderly in exchange for dilapidated and substandard housing in properties that should have been declared uninhabitable and demolished years ago.
It represents the epitome of greed – something that has played such a devastating and malignant role in so many aspects of our lives and livelihoods here on the Fun Coast.
During this week’s Daytona Beach Special Master hearing, a few of Aberman’s victims came forward and gave accounts of the atrocious living conditions – rats, insect infestations, compromised roofing, rainwater and the elements pouring into living areas, broken appliances, no maintenance and desperate calls for help being ignored.
The stories they told were heartbreaking – and exemplified the level of arrogance that allows Aberman and others like him to openly skirt building codes, housing regulations and basic life-safety regulations – violations that have allowed some areas of Daytona Beach to take on the look and feel of a Third World shithole.
In my view, these rental scams represent criminal negligence and endangerment – cruel consumer fraud – and continuing criminal enterprises that should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
I hope you will join me in commending Special Master David Vukelja, and the staff of Daytona Beach Code Enforcement, for aggressively enforcing the rule of law and intervening in this horrific cycle of victimization and blight that has had such a profound effect on true economic development and the quality of life of our community.
Their work gives us hope. And that’s a start.
Photo Credit: The Daytona Beach News-Journal