"South America on $320" story # 5

Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago           May 5, 2002

"Well ... it's only paint."
     Dexter's father comforted Dexter's mom as they stood on their paint-spotted driveway, eyeing the splotchy gate which I'd nearly finished painting white.
     Three days earlier, Dexter's parents had offered me work painting their fence. Eager to enter the world of the hardy labourer, I accepted. They would pay me 200 Trini dollars (US$34) for approximately two full workdays.
     On the first day, I got a ten o'clock start to my priming of the front gate. Dexter was beside me washing the car. I was in high spirits.
     I said, "I think it's pretty impressive that I only graduated from college in May, and I already have a job as a painter!"
     "There are lots of people who'd like to be in your position right now, boy," said Dexter.
     "I'm climbing the corporate ladder."
     It was a tough and tedious climb. The gate - my canvas, if you will - was twenty feet long. It was solid only at the top, in the middle, and on bottom. In between, I had fifty thin bars to paint, some straight, some corkscrewing. There were also a ground-level guardrail, spiky things on top, and a nightmarish caged box. In order to achieve the angles necessary to paint all corners of the gate, I would've needed to be a three-inch hurculean contortionist.
     The atmosphere was nice. We were in a quiet suburb of Trinidad's capital, Port of Spain. Many yards grew trees sprouting orange berries and purple flowers, and just behind the houses loomed hills so overwhelmed with green that the plants resembled islanders packed into a reggae show. And it was hot, the merciless sun forcing sweat from my pores and into my eyes.
     A friend of Dexter's, smily Jason Kendall, came by and laughed, "You got your first job in Trinidad?" On only my fifth day!
     Dexter's uncle came by to drop off his bratty kids. "If they break anything, take it out of his salary!"
     Dexter's friend, Johnny, said when he saw me working, "Dexter, is that any way to be a host?"
     I took a short rest. There was red primer on my hands and red pride in my stomach. Hard work makes the world go round, I thought. I left Dexter to work and sang, "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go!" The Seven Dwarfs were definitely communists.
     I finished my work for the day, turning the rusted gate from dingy white to maroon red. It looked good, even the spiky things on top. At the night's party, I boasted to people, "Yeah, just call me Michaelangelo. If anybody needs to know where Dexter lives, just drive around looking for a gate that reminds you of the Sistine Chapel."
     Over the next three days, as I painted the gate fresh white, its appearance began to show signs of humbleness. Dressed in my painting gear - Dexter's old shorts, t-shirt, and cap - I toiled fruitlessly. I had to apply thick globs of paint to counter the red primer beneath. This led to drippy lumps solidifying in some spots, while red was still visible in others.
     And it was still hot. Nun-cooking hot. Sweat was pouring down my face. I had to take breaks, at times, between every brush. It was slow and tedious, but I finished the job, even that hell-sent caged box.
     "Look at that paint job; it's shining like the pearly gates of heaven," I commented to Dexter's brother.
     "Except it's not pearly," he said.
     "Yeah, that's true." Hey! What was that supposed to mean!?
     The paint-job looked new. The paint-job looked archaic. But, up close, it looked pretty sloppy.
     At a large party, Dexter's mom was asked if I was a good painter. "No," she said. There was no mistaking the lack of hesitation in her response. All the party-goers I'd originally viewed as potential employers sadly lost all prospect.
     For the sake of those of us who need things painted, hopefully I'll never a hold a paint-brush again. I moved from Dexter's place and rented a room near downtown Port of Spain for 850 Trini dollars a month (US$140).
     On my first day of looking, I found a job more suited for me. (It's fairly surprising I found work so quickly, since it's a developing country and the streets of Port of Spain have many homeless and beggars.) I'm a waiter in a casual restaurant, bringing home a whopping US$2 an hour with tips.
     And now, my friends, we come to the sad lesson in third-world ice cream economics. A waiter's salary doesn't buy the two liters a day needed to sustain the all-ice cream-diet, of which I'm the sole subscriber to and unsuccessful spokesman for. What it buys is peanut butter, the highest calorie-to-cost ratio around. A whoooole lot of peanut butter. That's what I eat.
     But, the job is fine. Sometimes, I can even understand my co-workers. The kitchen staff picked up street Trini accents and spit their sentences out in a tongue-less ball. The worst is Suci, the small, dark, always-smiling, fifty-year old dishwasher. When it comes to the States, he's more knowledgeable than George W. Bush - bad example; than Colin Powell - and runs to me, saying, "ElO, American! Djagaduh kno daghuj yoo-ess army jbaguh gobj ga Trinidad dejerguh gajda Eisenhower?" When he's not talking about my country, you don't have to understand him to know he's talking about something perverted.
     The restaurant's upper-class diners speak familiarly, as does the owner. Although, on a few occasions, the owner mumbled something, and I filled in what I didn't hear using the paranoid fear I have that bosses always want to fire me.
     The Alexander the Great-like owner, who's built like Robocop and walks like a speeding bulldog, grunted something that sounded like, "'Seewhythissmart-assthinkshe'squalifiedtoworkhere," when he was training me. Another time, I impressively managed to carry a full tray of drinks through a thick crowd on a Friday night. He mumbled something as I passed that I couldn't possibly have heard, but I assumed it to be,"Youjustsavedyourjobthereforalittlewhile."
     For the sake of comparison, I'd just like to bring up Gary, who I recently waited tables for at magnificent Scrumpy's, in St. Pete, Florida. He's a balding, glasses-wearing Magoo-like character who'd been driven crazy by the lack of prosper his restaurant had brought him in two years.
     He used to stand at the front of the empty restaurant, pleading for somebody - anybody - to come in. "C'mon, you old fogies!" he'd say. Or, my personal favorite, "Everybody's gotta eat!" It was sad.
     He also loved reciting, in a mocking whiny voice, all the complaints diners had given him. "What? Is there a shortage on lettuce?", "Is he the owner? Bad owner!", "Geez, this place used to always be so much busier two years ago."
     I preferred working for the crazy guy.
     Seeing how we're on the subject of making a buck, let me leave you with a good Trinidadian joke Dexter told me:
     "There are two guys, right? One uh de guys sells the other guy a donkey for $100. But, when de guy goes to get the donkey, it's lying there, dead.
     "Well, de guy want his money back. But the other guy says, 'too late, you gave me the money, it's your donkey.' So, the guy say, 'that's alright. Don't worry 'bout it. I'll get de money back."
     "Uh week later, de guys see each other again. De one guy say, 'how'd it go with the donkey?'
     "An' de other guy, 'oh, fine. Ah got my money back.'
     "How?' de guy say.
     "I had a raffle for the donkey. I sold tickets to a hundred people, for five dollars apiece.'
     "'Yah, but whad'yu do with the guy who won?
     "Well, I gave him he five dollars back."

Later, Modern Oddyseus

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