It’s All About the Ideas

By Johna Till Johnson

Haitian fishermen (photo Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

“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?

“Until April.”

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.

No, what?

“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?”

No, what?

“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.

Sounds delicious!

We talked some more, and he told me some history I’d never heard:

“Did you know about the Polish Haitians?”

Say what?

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.

43 responses to “It’s All About the Ideas

  1. What an i teresting person to meet. Sounds like he has a zest for life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am always won over by a good belly laugh! I am guessing you stepped out that cab smiling. :)

    Like

  3. Great story: I thoroghly enjoyed reading it.
    A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and Vladimir,
    Pit

    Like

  4. Its so much fun to discover that kind of sunshine on a dull gray December day. His energy makes me long for warmer climates, good friends, and oceanside delicacies. Thank you for sharing … loved it!

    Like

  5. I love hearing stories like this, chance meetings that entertain and inspire in completely unexpected ways. I’m going to use your recipe on Thursday, when we’re anchored in Puerto Ballandra, near La Paz, so thank you! We just got fresh fish at the local market, and froze it, but it’s Huachenango (Red Snapper), which keeps it’s texture and flavor. And who knows, maybe a fisherman will sell us fresh fish! Happy Holidays to you and Vlad!

    Like

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Happy holidays to you, too! Sounds wonderful. According to the driver, the key is marinating overnight….if you can get fresh, very much better, but if not, a good marinade takes you a long way.

      Like

  6. awesome encounter…sometimes it seems magical doesn’t it…

    Like

  7. It was inspiring to read in it’s own unique way. Thanks for sharing this. Have a Merry Christmas full of love and happiness <3

    Like

  8. Happy post! What a zest for life, and hope, and positive attitude! Happy Christmas

    Like

  9. Melissa Shaw-Smith

    Just what I needed on a grey winter morning. Thank you!

    Like

    • Johna Till Johnson

      I’m so glad, Melissa. That’s exactly how I felt. And amazingly, I don’t think the driver even knows the impact he had, on me and on us….Just goes to show you, there’s no way you can judge your true impact on the world.

      You are most welcome!

      Like

  10. I’ve always hated money but also accept the fact that money and society have a symbiotic relationship. I must pay my dues or leave the world behind . Something I’ve seriously considered more than a few times.

    I like what this taxi driver has to say and bless him for his thoughtfulness toward his family, others and life in general.

    Like

    • Johna Till Johnson

      I’m glad this resonated, and I know what you mean about money. I actually have a fantasy of living in a shipping container somewhere–though I’m sure the reality wouldn’t live up to my fantasy. But focusing on the ideas instead of the money…. now there’s an idea! Thanks for posting.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Fine post! Thank you! I tell my students the same thing, ideas really do matter. They shape our worlds.

    Like

  12. Must not have been an Uber driver! Finding wisdom everywhere what a good gift to share. Many thanks
    Carol

    Like

  13. I love finding magical moments in everyday occurrences and learning everywhere.

    Like

  14. I adore stories like yours, Johna. I think ideas go very well together with being openminded like you are. Suddenly an apperently dull hour can turn in to an adventure. Thanks for making me smile :-)
    Merry Christmas to you and Vladimir,
    Hanna

    Like

  15. What a fabulous image and a great story too! Laughter is the best medicine :-)

    Like

  16. Sometimes these random interactions give you the most food for thought — if everyone waited for the financial footing, so many ideas would never have made it off the ground. Balancing “live for today” with some security for tomorrow can be a tightrope act!

    Like

  17. This is what’s wonderful about New York – those chance encounters that are full of life and emotion, and refresh the spirit. And you know what? You write beautifully – I somehow haven’t noticed what a good writer you are before. This is so well told. Thanks for the smile & have a fabulous holiday!

    Like

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, blue! Do you miss NYC, or are you overcome by the charms of the pacific northwest? I guess “yes” could be an answer to both… :-) Thanks for reading, and for the kind words!!

      Like

  18. Some of my most memorable conversations have happened with NYC taxi drivers. One driver from Russia wisely told me (many years ago when I was young and impressionable) that Americans have too much freedom, a concept that I have agreed with since.

    Like

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Totally agree on the memorable conversations. Maybe not so much on the concept of “too much” freedom–it’s true that many choices can paralyze people, but part of becoming fully adult is developing a framework that enables you to make wise choices. That isn’t an option if the choices don’t exist in the first place, so I would argue that “too much” is better than “not enough”. At any rate, thanks for reading, and posting!

      Like

  19. There are such amazing people in this world! Thank you for sharing this heart warming story!

    Like

  20. Very interesting, Johna. What a jolly cabbie – may all his dreams come true.
    Happy New Year to him – and Vladimir and yourself. :-)

    Like

Comments are most welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s