I sat on the cool concrete steps just outside of the sun’s reach. His straw hat provided shade, but could not hide the sparkle in his eyes. As the sun broke across his dark face, his toothless smile grabbed hold of my heart. I stole quick glances up at him and was immediately reminded of my own grandfather. As I crimped wire for the rebar men, I sensed him looking over my shoulder. The child in me longed to say, “Am I doing this right?” My own grandfather would’ve admonished me for cutting the wire too long and wasting the length. Instead I said the only thing I could, “Bonjou. Bon?” The old man looked at me and smiled.
I was given wire cutters, not a sledgehammer. the sledgehammer, pick axe and shovels were for the working men. I was not a man, and he was not picked to work. He followed me as my job was complete and he waited, as did I, to see what was next. One worker laid down a shovel, and I put back the wire-cutters. It was in my mind to work with these men. I picked up a hammer and someone said, “Mesi” and took it away.
Soon there was an influx of women and food and coffee and children. The tools were laid to rest for a moment. I sidled my way up to a shovel and used it to fill the wheelbarrow with concrete. My sunshine, toothless smile stood to the side. The men watched. I moved the rock. If he were my grandfather he would have taken the shovel and showed me a better way. Silently, though, he took the shovel from me and began to work. This Haitian man filled with years of hard work longed to contribute as did I.
His smile grappled with my heart again, and I knew this would not go well. Just as he took the shovel from the “blan” woman, someone would take the shovel from him. He was not a worker that day. There were no wages for him. He was soon to find another shady spot on the concrete steps. Before I burst into tears, I excused myself and hid away from the workers and the shadowy grandfather man. I cried an ugly, from the depths of my soul, cry out to God for the disparity in this world. I cried for the naïve part I played in the old man’s misery and my own. I cried for letting him take the shovel without truly understanding why it would hurt him in the end. I cried that pecking order has no rhyme or reason. That Truth and Justice don’t play out like we envision. Then, humbled and ashamed I realized that this story does not begin or end with me or my understanding.
Sunglasses to mask my tear swollen eyes, I joined him on the steps. My heart in tiny pieces, I could barely look at his face. I would have sat at his feet for the rest of my Haitian days if I knew how to serve him in a way that mattered.