Saturday, July 26, 2014

Crystal Clear - the cycles of poverty and ignorance

I used to think that the situations on the Jerry Springer show were staged. But that was before we visited Daytona Beach.
I used to believe that the sheer ignorance and depravity of the people on that show were faked for some sick pleasure of the audience.
But that was before we visited a local laundromat in Elizabeth City. Where we met 'Crystal'.
One thing I love about cruising is meeting people from all walks of life. In every type of place imaginable.
And then there are the ‘Crystal’ days. When I marvel at this world and all it’s made up of. America, fabled land of freedom and opportunity. Where Crystal is a 25 year old blond, blue eyed, toothless, clinically obese girl, sipping on a McDonalds Big Gulp trying to get her laundry done ‘cuz she works 7 days a week at Hardee’s’ fast food up the road. 

Why does she work so much? Cuz she “loves money, sho’ nuff!”
Like us, Crystal is complaining about the laundromat. For me, it’s the thick layers of grime on the walls, floors, and pretty much every machine. I’m worried the clothes will leave this place dirtier than when I brought them in. Crystal says the dryers don’t work and it’s a rip off and the place should be ripped down. I agree.

But we are drawn together in this place, out of necessity.
For Crystal, it’s because her landlord refuses to fix a leak at her apartment and she is refusing to pay her water bill. So presumably the water’s been cut off. She assures us that she ‘ain’t payin’ the rent neither’, so presumably she’ll be on the streets again soon.
This won’t be the first time. She points a stubby finger through the grimy window across the street. “I was staying in the shelter beside the Taco Bell” for a while when I had my kids.
Crystal has two children. Their names are tattooed boldly on each arm. The girl is Nevaeh (heaven spelled backwards) and the boy, Isaiah. She explains that they have been taken away by Child Services and have been adopted by some ‘army family’ who live across the country. They have been gone two years. But she is sure that she’ll get them back one day.
“It’s my family’s fault. They’re racist bastards. They hate black people and my kids are mixed race. They called Child Services on me and had my kids taken away lotsa times. Charged me with neglect. But they never helped me with ‘em. The last time they went to the day care and stole ‘em. Haven’t seen ‘em since.”
Crystal pulls out her fancy Samsung phone and finds some photos to show us. Staring back at me on the smudged screen is a frail 3 year old in a torn pink t-shirt, a huge smile. It breaks my heart.
Crystal tells us that the adoptive family has changed her kids names – both first and last names. At 4 and 6 years old. This sounds absurd to us, along with the fact that she pays child support monthly or it’s garnished from her wages.
She lives with her Haitian boyfriend who she repeatedly calls ‘crazy’. They have his 7 year old boy with them. What about the father of her own kids? “No where to be found. He don’t care, don’t look after them, never did”.
She hasn’t seen her own family in over a year, though they all live in this town. All 14 siblings. According to her, they’re all racist. Except her brother. But he’s been on the run for 9 years.
What for? “He done did some things he shouldn’ta done. Robbed some warehouses…”
Crystal smiles as she remembers, “he robbed Honey Bun warehouse one time, showed up at my sister’s house with a whole heap of donuts. Snacks. Like a whole truck full! We said ‘where you get all them donuts from?! And he’s like don’t y’all worry, just give ‘em to all the kids. Next thing you know the cops show up and tell us we gotta give back all them snacks!”
Crystal also tells us about her other 2 kids, and when JW almost falls off his chair, she explained that they were dead. She casually describes being beaten at 5 months pregnant, at a house party, with her daughter standing by.
It was two women and a man and they kicked her repeatedly in the stomach. As we gasp, she laughs. I guess it’s been a crazy life! But anyway, my daughter was cryin’ after me, and later I jus’ started bleedin’”.  She lost the twins within a few days. Later she was ridden with infection and had to have a full hysterectomy. Maybe that was a good thing. Is there anything good in this story?
She showed us her scar ridden, gelatinous belly. That was the icing on this dismal cake. The life of the uneducated, repeating the mistakes and patterns of their parents before them…
She was taken away from her mother when she was a kid as well. She has never been happy, never felt loved. I saw her in her daughter’s eyes.
And then she was gone. And our laundry was done and we moved on. Untied from this city dock, and headed out. 

Shiloh, tied up on the city dock in Elizabeth City - even had our own gate!

Junior Captain at the helm, up the 'ditch'

Tying up in a lock
What lies ahead and to either side of us?
As we snake our way up the ditch, trees lining our path, I wonder what human stories are lurking, the pain and heartaches, the innocence of the children. The sordid details that are making their way to the next Jerry Springer line up.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What?! This blog’s not gonna write itself? Musings on diners and the ditch

When you travel up the US coast on the ICW, you can stop in places like St Augustine and visit Tammy’s Comfort Food diner where the sign that greets you on entering the small greasy ‘prison brick’ swamp green walled diner, says “I’m running out of reasons not to stab you.” 

The emaciated adolescent waitress actually has a great sense of humour and apparently 2 young boys at home. She claims she’s known around town for filling her pick up truck with trash. At Tammy’s you can get deep fried pork chops and battered and fried okra with fried hash browns and … well there is a theme there. 

Friendly and one of a kind, it’s on the main highway along with Walmart Supercenter and the Piggly Wiggly. You could also walk the quaint historic downtown with it’s cobblestone streets and ghost tour operators beckoning. You can also make yourself literally sick with free samples from the rivaling fudge and praline shops… not that I know by experience!
Main tourist street St Augustine - the guy on the right never moved. For days.

You might stumble upon the 4th of July celebrations and be treated to the best fireworks on the planet and share the experience with thousands of patriotic Americans. In fact, you may be caught up in the spirit of it all, and a 2 day stop might become a week!

And then, to make up time, you might decide to head out to sea through one of the inlets where rip currents well, rip. Where the seas could go from a couple feet to 10 feet in minutes and the wind could pick up to 25 knots directly against you. The sky could be building a plethora of monstrous storm clouds to usher you along, with the constant threat of lightning strikes and torrential downpours to compliment the wind and the big seas…
You could be out there on an overnight sail – because up the ICW you just can’t drive in the dark and you have so many hundreds of miles to cover – and of course only as darkness descends, the storms become a mass over you on your radar and in reality, and the crew will huddle inside as the rain beats and whips your boat as it surfs high, then plunges into the caverns between the waves. If you look out your windows – which Shiloh has many of – you will see only grey, sea foam and buckets of rain making it all a ‘perfect storm’ blur….
And this could be your reality for the whole night. Hours of rain and waves and no sleep to be had. You will realise you haven’t eaten the whole day and that it’s not only due to your queasy stomachs, but also the fact that you could barely pour water to drink, let alone grab food from the fridge or spread anything on bread. Cooking?! Hah!
But when you arrive in the next port, 130 miles further north, drop your anchor right in the channel at 6am and pass out ‘til noon, you wake revitalized and convincing yourself that was the much smarter thing to do. By that evening you could be walking around a neighborhood amusement park with rickety rides and an outdoor bingo hall and you could be enjoying it all as much as the locals.

Oh yeah! Outdoor Bingo!

You might forget for an hour or two that you still have the dream of sailing into New York, waving at the Statue of Liberty from your humble boat below… and that it’s more than 500 miles further north.
You have, after all, covered 4 states in the last few weeks, and have started counting when you’ve washed your hair by the state…
You may decide to ‘do a couple days up the ditch’ as the ICW is affectionately known locally, marveling at the endlessly long jetties that reach out from the swampy shores toward you, the millions of homes that line the banks, shacks to mansions and of course the trailer parks, and the smiling waving people in speed boats and jet skis that whiz past. There are the friendly, clean and helpful marinas that fill your always hungry diesel engines (since you can’t actually sail), and the endless supply of free water – gone are the days of .90 cents a gallon like Bequia and the Bahamas. Here, there is everything in abundance.

Historic houses

Local houses

Lovely marina for a fuel stop - Fernandina Florida

There are the rare but lovely uninhabited islands like Cumberland where wild horses roam the expansive beaches, and the trails are beautiful and so well maintained… Then there are the huge factories pumping out smoke and stench and are less than picturesque…
Walking over to the beach - Cumberland Island

You might be tempted to snicker as the boat in front of you hits the shoaling ground just off the marked path, only to hit it like a ton of bricks yourself the next day, all 15 tonns of your boat meeting thick, black, immovable sludge, and though you manage to back up ‘real fast’ to free yourself, you’ll feel much better about that investment you made in ‘TowBoat US’ you made when you first arrived…

But however you slice up your journey, it will NOT be boring.
You might find yourself in Swansboro at Yana’s Ye Old Drugstore diner, plastered as it is with 70’s wood paneling, dusty Elvis and Marilyn paraphernalia, and hungry local fishermen and their families on a Saturday morning, earnestly gulping down hot grits…

There will be many more towns and taverns and some sailing out there as well. Each night you will be in awe as the sky dazzles red orange and fuschia as the sun sets over the anchorages and towns. And as it all chocks up to an experience, you will never for a moment wish you were anywhere else.