Mistah, Mistah! Gimme cigarette!
No, no! Dont give him nothin. Hes no good!
Nah, he no good.
Give me the smoke. Look at him. Hes dirty an stupid an no good.
Look at he! He stink! He cyaan wipe he mout. He ole, ugly. Mistah, coffee please?
He aint nothin but trash. Dont listen to him. He turns to the other. Go on, get outa here! You scum!
No so. No so. He ole, lyin, ole ugly scum mahn! Is true.
This is what I hear coming out the side door of Catholic church after Sunday Mass. I know both of them, as they know me.
One is an old white guy I first met at Bethlehem House. His family (sons and daughter) sent him to St. Thomas with a one-way ticket from Maryland after he had been released from a State Psychiatric Hospital.
He told me back then that warrants were out for him in three states — his kids figured it was better to get him out of the country.
The other, a young man from Dominica, a boy really, had been hanging around Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral for months. I passed him often shortly after dawn on my way to the Downtown Club for a workout. Sometimes wed talk. Sometimes hed follow me to the gym. Sometimes we just nodded as I passed. Sometimes nothing.
I laughed as I reached for my pack of cigarettes. My wife stared at me puzzled. I gave them each one and said that we should go across the street for coffee. The hospitality room was open after every Mass, and I suspected they knew that, but they waited outside, not yet smoking, as I entered and got two cups of coffee. Although they didnt ask, I put several spoons of sugar in each along with some milk.
Outside, I gave them the coffee, and they went off dissin each other, spilling the coffee as they walked and talked. The old guy was the first to light up. If I were forced to take a count that day, I would have numbered them among my friends. Such were the times.
I saw neither of them again. A short while later, though, I read about the young guy being stoned by kids as he stood near a concrete abutment on the waterfront. He fell in. He couldnt swim. Some kids laughed, taunted. I like to think one or two turned their heads in shame. Maybe even one wanted to help. Even so, the young man still drowned.
When I saw the news, I was shocked by a sense of inexplicable loss.
Who was this young man anyway? Just another one of the growing, annoying homeless. Who was he to me? What did it matter?
For a long time, when I walked my normal route to the gym in the early morning light, I had to fight the impulse to look for him. His absence for months made more of an impression on me than often his presence did.
At the time, I didnt know what to make of this. I still dont, really. As close as I can come is that his life was part of my world. He was a member of my community.
Even now, I remember him clearly. From his dirt-caked locks to his split fingernails. And the grizzled old man too.
It is not only them I think about, though. It is those boys throwing stones. Theyre men now. Living with a weight they either recognize or ignore or run from.
They are now absorbed into the community, perhaps in ways similar to the old man and the boy — barely tolerated, on the fringe. Or maybe they are fine, contributing members of society. Or maybe they, too, are gone — either off island or out of life.
Society uses many threads in the weave of its fabric. Some not as eye-catching as others. Some not as strong. Some so apparently negligible that they are dismissed out of hand.
When I pause to consider, it seems that we are all part of this, arent we? Each strand mirrors a facet of our identity.
God only knows how often I avoid looking in a mirror. Even when Im prepared for the reflection being not what I want to see, I still sneak a peak. Maybe in that glance theres something that appears stupid an no good, or lyin ole, ugly scum that I dont want to recognize. Or sometimes maybe its the handsome, virile, important person that I just wished the world could see.
How different can I be from that troubled old man and that bewildered young man who asked something of me years ago on the cathedral steps? If pressed, I could defend myself in a number of ways, maybe even take a high moral ground, and argue for doing my part for society.
In the dark silence of my heart, though, Im forced to recognize that theres not much difference among the strands of the weave. We are all important, necessary, worthwhile.
Editor's note: Joseph Lisowski is a former professor of English at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Mistah, Mistah! Gimme cigarette!
If you have a news tip to share, please call or text us at 340-228-8784.
Support local + independent journalism in the U.S. Virgin Islands
Unlike many news organizations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as accessible as we can. Our independent journalism costs time, money and hard work to keep you informed, but we do it because we believe that it matters. We know that informed communities are empowered ones. If you appreciate our reporting and want to help make our future more secure, please consider donating.