We have known him since he was small, maybe six or seven, I’d guess. If my husband and I were passing through Puerto Viejo, often as not we would find him on the side of the road with his oversized pants bunched up with a cord, his flip-flops coming apart, his thumb out.
The first time we met him, I rolled down the window of our Jeep pickup and asked his name. Let’s say he said it was Franklin (not his real name).
“Well, Franklin, don’t you think your mother would be worried about you getting a ride from strangers?” I asked.
“Uno no stranger, Uno live in Punta Uva, right?” he asked right back. Hard to argue with that.
“What do you want to go to Punta Uva for, anyway?”
“Not Punta Uva, Lady. I’s want to go to Cocles, see my cousins.”
I opened the door and pointed to the two bucket seats. “There’s no room in the cab, Franklin.”
“I jus’ ride out here on the back,” he says, jumping on the bumper, and hanging onto the truck topper for support.
This might sound dangerous, and I suppose it was in a way, but I grew up with parents who allowed their kids to ride on the fender of our old Reo truck. From the time I was five or six—Franklin’s age— I straddled an old headlight with one leg clamped tight by the motor bonnet as we rattled down the last few miles of gravel road to our Willamette Valley farm in Oregon.
I didn’t figure Franklin was going to get hurt; the roads on this Caribbean coast were so bad back then it was hard to go more than five miles an hour.
And so it was that we stopped for Franklin when we saw him, gave him a ride, and watched him grow. He was a smart kid, curious, and outgoing.
But as Franklin grew so did the area where we live. The roads got better, tourists came, and with them came all the things tourism brings: music, parties, and drugs. First it was ganja. Now it’s crack.
A couple of years ago we ran into Franklin again. Instead of the ragamuffin clothes of his youth, he was wearing a Tuanis- Pura Vida t-shirt, silky purple gym shorts, and name brand leather sandals. He was in his early 20’s, I imagine. He and his brother had started a band and were playing the bars.
My husband said, “You be careful, Franklin. That’s a rough life with lots of drugs.”
“Yah, yah. I knows it,” he said. “Uno come hear me play sometime.”
We never did because we are not night owls, but we saw the posters and figured he was doing okay.
Now he seems to be— how do they say it in the addiction business?— searching for his personal bottom. I see him on the outskirts of Puerto with the rest of the Usual Suspects, bumming tourists as they come out of the bank, offering to carry groceries, begging. Sometimes he has no shirt or shoes, sometimes he is so dirty you can tell he hasn’t bathed in a week or more.
One day he hit me up for money and I told him I wasn’t going to give him anything.
“You know me, though,” he says.
“I know you, Franklin, but what I’m looking at is the drugs, not you.”
“Come on, I jus’ want a little somethin’ to eat.”
“If you weren’t into drugs, you’d have enough money to eat. All I”d be doing is giving it to your dealer.”
“My daughter, she need to go to the doctor.”
“I’ll tell you something. I had a kid that was an addict, and I finally said No to him. You are not even in my family, so imagine how easy it is for me to say No to you. I am not giving you anything as long as you are out here on the street using. Go home to your family. Get clean.”
I haven’t spoken to him since. Sometimes he sings to me as I pass by. “I love you, Lady, yes I do….”
It hurts to write off a kid I’ve known since he was little, but as long as he’s working the long con there is no way I’m going to rise for the bait. Little good it will do, I suppose; the tourists come and go every week and there will always be someone who takes pity, thinking the kid is destitute, a mendigo. He’s not. He is an addict.
My family’s story ended well, everyone healthy and clean. I only hope Franklin survives long enough to get straight.