I wrote a funny (I think) e-book, Flying Across the Sawgrass Prairie, because of things I saw and learned about human trafficking, slavery, horrendous housing, and man’s inhumanity to man when I worked out in a lawless rural area a long time ago. The reason for being there was to develop affordable housing for the rural poor, including migrant farmworkers. The neighborhood was diverse, with people from all over the Caribbean, and Central and North America. and a dizzying array of obscure languages. Creole, Quiche, Mam, Kanjobal–imagine, as was necessary for homebuyer education, having to arrange for translating and explaining “zero interest forgivable note amortized over the life of the first lien instrument” to those non-speakers of English, many of whom could neither read nor write. It’s not as easy as you might think.
Growing up in a safe, secure environment with parents who were very much in love, and never spoke an ill word about one another, it was easy to believe that the world was safe, secure and loving, even though my mom hinted frequently that it was otherwise. Then I got out into that world, with a tendency to wander far afield. Which was something of an eye opener vis à vis harsh reality.
But nothing prepared me for what happens to marginalized people in places where the law doesn’t quite reach. So, I wrote a book that embedded the dark, horrific realities of a real life “no rules” world into a lighthearted, funny story, in hopes that at least a few people would learn a bit about what “no rules” reality actually means. It’s not so easy to make awful housing, human trafficking and slavery funny, either.
I’d barely gotten started in that job when I discovered that the firm managing my agency’s farmworker rental housing had for years been buying a bunch of refrigerators and stoves. But when I checked the serial numbers, it turned out the original appliances were still in the units. Uh oh. So the first thing I did was get all the chaotic paperwork and accounting records into auditable form. Because I knew what the guy would do–try to get me fired. The federal funding agency’s bureaucrats already had it in for my agency because, long before I got there, it’d gotten one of their relatively high ranking buddies fired for “doin’ bidness the good ole boy way”. So when I started making unfortunate noises about misappropriation of tax dollars, predictably they figured they’d use auditors to send me packing. (Often little non-profits such as the one I worked for are a bit light on administrative and financial details.)
So they sent in a young guy to audit the books. And I put him in my office, a brutally hot un-air conditioned storage room. In August. Man, it was at least 110 degrees in there by mid morning and got progressively hotter as the day proceeded. And I had a boxing speed bag that the maintenance guy had put up for me. I love to punch a speed bag. Such a gratifying sound and rhythm it makes! The acoustics in the storage room magnified the sound too. So while the poor auditor was sitting there, dripping sweat, trying to concentrate and not drop from the heat, at random moments I’d hop up and punch the speed bag for awhile. Hard. It was deafening. Within two days that auditor was coming to the office in shorts, t-shirt and sandals and spitting tobacco juice into a Yoo Hoo bottle. He didn’t find a penny out of place either, except for the management company’s purchases of all those appliances that no one ever did find. Then he got stuck when his hotel forced everyone to check out when a big hurricane hit. That was the kid’s first audit. Welcome to reality. Betcha he still tells stories about it.
Now it’s not that there was no law enforcement in that third world neighborhood in first world America. (If Florida can be considered first world, that is.) The Sheriff’s deputies were tough as nails and pretty diligent when they learned about crime. But this was a place where law enforcement didn’t generally hear about what went on, or when they did, there were “no witnesses”. So their hands were pretty much tied. There was one amusing incident wherein gangs from two rival communities were at a big community picnic. There were scores, if not hundreds, of people there. A gunfight broke out and turned mobile, with carloads of guys racing through the area, firing away. When law enforcement tried to investigate–you guessed it–“no witnesses”. No harm done, amazingly, no one was hurt. One streetwise cop observed drily, of the mayhem, “I guess they don’t like each other”.
There was one immense Sheriff’s Lieutenant–not fat, just enormous–a very tough guy, who used to chew gum constantly, very, very gently. He always left the impression that those jaws might just snap shut like a bear trap under the right circumstances. And there was a thief, who also fenced stolen goods, who lived right next door to a house I was building. The residents used to chat–or at least the ones who could speak English did–and tell me about the local scene. So I asked the Lieutenant one day how come he didn’t bust the guy. After a wary silence and a hard, considering look, he replied that he couldn’t just go storming in, there had to be probable cause in order to get a warrant. So I said in my most sweet, innocent voice, all wide-eyed, that the next time his deputy was in there banging the thief’s mom, as he did several times a week, maybe he could just wander down the hall and take a peek in the thief’s room and get him some probable cause. And ya know, just as hypothesized, those jaws snapped together so hard ya could hear it from across the room. Yep, just like a bear trap. Snap!
It was supposedly suicide for a white person even to enter that scary place, and I was the only one who actually had an office there. But no one bothered me, or stole from or vandalized my job sites. Except for one small incident when I was out there late at night. The deputies didn’t normally go there at night, so I was definitely on my own. It was hot and the door was open–no A/C, which would have pleased all those folks who are so annoyed about poor people not having to live like animals. And a very large Haitian guy showed up and stood there at the door, staring in a very discomfiting–okay, threatening–way. So I pulled out my switchblade, snapped it open and started cleaning my nails, looking him in the eyes. Then I got up and told him I was busy and I was gonna close that door. And “no tellin’ when I be done bein’ busy,” but when I was, that door was gonna open. And he’d better not be standin’ there when it did. And ya know, when I opened that door, he wasn’t there. One old guy in the neighborhood, obviously concerned, had asked me if I carried a gun. I told him nope, don’t like loud noises, am careless and would probably shoot myself by accident. Besides, someone could take that gun away and shoot me before I could get out of range. Then I winked at him and said, “Nope, no gun.” Pause. “Switchblade.” And he grinned and said “You’s a smart lady!”. We had a good laugh. Good times, as they say.
It was a not entirely uncommon occurrence for illegal migrant workers to get their throats slit out there. One of my clients had been walking with a buddy when his friend got his throat cut, and there was just a short paragraph about it in the newspaper on the coast. (There wasn’t any local paper.) The (mostly illegal) immigrants–nearly all of whom had fake green cards they’d purchased in Nogales–and the locals didn’t get along. This was in part because the social workers tended to favor the immigrants, who were nowhere near as cranky and aggressive as the locals. And the locals were mad about it because, they were there first and the newcomers were, essentially, cutting in line for scarce resources. So it was open season on the illegal immigrants, who had a bad habit of getting very drunk and carrying all their cash on them. The locals would look at them and think, “Lunch money!” then cut their throats, take the cash, and be on their way.
Once, within a couple hundred yards of my office, a guy was shot five times and run over because of a dispute about a gambling debt, variously reported to be somewhere between $5 and $60. That was the price range of a life. $5 to $60. My boss, a former Marine Sergeant, used to let me go home for the holidays at Christmas when people started shooting for solely celebratory reasons. He sentimentally pointed out that the reason was, “Cain’t have you gettin’ shot, kid. Ya bring in way too much money.” (The mayhem really picked up around Christmas in that small neighborhood with 32 churches. What would Jesus say? “Take cover!”)
So you can see why one would feel a great deal of empathy for those residents who were working hard and just trying to take care of their families and keep everyone’s head above water in a very challenging environment. Those folks were just wonderful people. Sweet, helpful and tolerant. Too tolerant in my view, but definitely a good investment for our society, although the vast majority of the millions of dollars I raised were not tax dollars. And ya know, I’m pretty sure that to this day there is a zero default rate among those very, very poor people. They made the most of the opportunity to own a new home of their own.
There were a very few social services workers, women only, who would go in that free fire zone to ply their trade of aiding the downtrodden. Once we were all at lunch and I wondered aloud what our significant others “think we do out here, anyway?”. “Little holy things,” replied one. We all snickered at that. It seemed pretty likely that, if they knew, the husbands and boyfriends would have been appalled. And that was the genesis of the main character’s boyfriend in my book
On one occasion I needed some photos for a presentation, so I asked this, not quite elderly but getting there, very, very devout Catholic woman if she could drive while I took pictures. This charmingly naive and aristocratic Cuban lady asked why I needed a driver. “Because when you’re taking pictures where people are selling crack, they don’t really like it. We’re liable to need to make a quick getaway and there won’t be time to put down the camera, put the car in gear and go.” She didn’t hesitate to agree, and, although no one actually shot at us, there were some tense moments. Her husband, a very old-school Cuban gentleman, would have had an absolute fit had he known his delicate and beautiful wife was being exposed to such things. She used to pass me on the way home, going 85 mph and saying her rosary.
In her world all things were attributable to divine beings, their relatives and their pals. One day I was in her office and a woman who’d given me a hard time and bad mouthed me to boot, was sitting waiting her turn. She was right under a sign that had a picture of the Virgin Mary on it. And that sign fell down on the bitchy woman. My friend just gave me a knowing look, like “See? Told ya so.” and mentioned pointedly that the sign had been there for years and never fallen down before. She was incorrigibly devout. There’s a character kind of like her in the book.
And there’s a part of the book that describes the conditions of the women who’d been trafficked as sex slaves. I hate to say it–because it’s true, not because of reticence–but the actual conditions of the poor souls who were/are thusly ill used was/is actually far worse than in the book. That aforementioned gum-chewing Lieutenant described to me actual conditions based on a bust in which he’d participated. It would make you shudder just to hear of it. And, personally, I think that similar stuff goes on all the time here in Floriduh and America. All those runaway kids who disappear–what d’ya suppose happens to some of them, who are never heard of or from again? Those women who are enticed to come to a new country for a job and better opportunities? Yeah, and it could happen to you or yours, if you didn’t live in a nice protected setting.
Grim, no? But the book’s funny in spite of it. Or at least it’s supposed to be. You can find it on the internet. Take a look at it, see what you think.