By Johna Till Johnson
“Ya gotta have ideas,” the cab driver said, followed by an uproarious belly-laugh. “Money’s not worth nothing unless you have ideas.”
I laughed along with him. It was impossible not to: the man had the most contagious laughter I’d ever heard. And he had ideas. Boy, did he have ideas.
He wasn’t what I expected when I got into the cab on that overcast, dreary December day a few days before Christmas. All I could see of him was a dark face, beard streaked with a bit of gray. He was eating a late lunch when I got in, and didn’t return my greeting.
So I figured I wasn’t going to hear much from him—and that was fine. I had errands to get done, and worries on my mind. After I told him the destination, I figured that was the last exchange we’d have. Wrong!
I don’t recall how it started, but after a moment or two, we were chatting animatedly. I found out he was from Haiti, headed back there the next day. How long was he staying?
Wow, that was a long time! And honestly, the idea of a tropical island for the next three months sounded sublime. Especially when I found out his plans: He and his wife were going to farm the land they’d recently acquired. Chickens—they’d sell the eggs.
And he was going to start a burger place, serving nothing but burgers and fries. Plantain fries, so they’d be somewhat healthy. It would be a neighborhood joint, a place where the local kids could hang out safely.
And he was going to get to know his son, who was all of six days old. “By the time I leave, he’ll be talking,” he joked, with another one of those belly laughs.
“And you know what the first thing I”m going to do will be?” he asked.
“I’m going to go down to the beach.”
Well, of course. Isn’t that the first thing we all do when we’ve escaped to a tropical island in the middle of winter? But that wasn’t what he meant:
“In the very early morning—4:30 AM. And I’m going to make friends with the fishermen. Because you know what happens when you make friends with fishermen?”
“They give you fish!” Another laugh. He was going to help out with the nets, maybe clean a few boats—and take home some fresh fish for the barbecue.
We discussed fish recipes, and he shared his: Take a fresh fish, newly gutted and just hours away from the sea. Marinate it in lime and some cilantro. Toast some good bread, maybe drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Then take a ripe avocado and smear it into the toast. Grill the fish, and serve it as an open-faced sandwich on top of the toast-and-avocado.
We talked some more, and he told me some history I’d never heard:
“Did you know about the Polish Haitians?”
Another belly-laugh. “Oh yes. There are people with dark, dark skin—black skin—and blue eyes. They are Polish Haitians. From more than 200 years ago!”
Back in the 1790s, he explained, the black slaves on Haiti were in full revolt against the French. Napoleon sent 40,000 troops to back up the French, including some 5,000 Polish Legionnaires. The Poles had apparently been told they were there to “liberate” the Haitians—but once they realized the true situation, they switched sides and joined forces with the Haitians against the French. The vast majority were killed (mostly by tropical diseases), but the few hundred that remained were granted the right to own property by the grateful Haitians, who won independence in 1804. (A good writeup of the story is here.)
Outside the cab, the sky was gray and darkness was already creeping up the horizon. But my mind was filled with images of fresh-caught fish sizzling on the beach at dawn… a farm full of chickens… a neighborhood burger-and-fries hangout buzzing with the happy chatter of local children… and Haitians of Polish descent, with blue eyes blazing away from dark faces.
I don’t remember how he got onto the topic of ideas. But he assured me, several times, that one never got anywhere with money alone. Money without ideas was… well, nothing.
It was impossible to argue. The ideas and images he’d sketched out stayed burning in my brain, and somehow managed to change the trajectory of my day, pointing it infinitesimally more towards sunshine and light. Yes, I agreed with him, ideas matter.