The Block Island Times

How I spent my summer vacation, foreign language version

By Jon Campbell | Jul 16, 2011

Some days, after a long stretch of foggy weather, when the sun comes back like a multi-alarm firestorm, visitors and residents alike find themselves seeking a quiet, cool spot. This could be the porch of a hotel, a quiet cottage on a laneway, an air conditioned pub — anywhere beyond the beat of the blazing sun.

On a recent Saturday, I found a shady oasis on a picnic table outside the library, while a friend checked her email on the wireless, having decided not to pay $10 for the privilege of access at a nearby internet cafe. Since the kid on the other side of the table had earphones on as he used his laptop, we carried on with some extended conversation and laughs. After a while his curiosity got the better of him, and he took out his ear plugs to listen in, and once we had his participation we asked him his impressions of the island.

This kid (obviously a member of a more recent generation, the earphones gave him away) is a resident of a small Caribbean nation, and a seasonal worker on a sort of work/study program. He prefers the scenery of Block Island over the scenery of his last summer posting, which was on the northern edge of the Great Plains, where he blended in like a Canada goose in a flock of swans.

As imported labor, he like the many Eastern Europeans, Guatemalans and other seasonal workers was happy to have found work, and had specific plans for the money he hoped to make during the season.

As he spoke about his time on the island, certain matters he spoke about got us asking more specific questions. For instance, he claimed he lived in a room that held six bunk beds (11 roommates, we wondered? Yes, he replied.), and he said that an amount was routinely taken out of his weekly check for housing, without any explanation (How much do you charge to rent a room to a dozen tenants?).

He said that sometimes the dinners in the restaurants are so expensive, with the drinks and all, that patrons are reluctant to leave a decent tip. He said that his schedule varied so much week to week that he couldn’t commit to a second job anywhere else (thereby affecting his earning potential). He said he was at the library because his employer had blocked internet access for the employees.

Interestingly, these claims were all made without anything like whining or outrage. His matter-of-fact discussion, and the occasional shrug, seemed a little world-weary and stoic for one so young, but plainly he was glad to be here, and would do what he had to in order to make it a successful summer.

While my friend, who comes from a family with a long history of political activism, began researching minimum housing regulations on her laptop, I thought about my antecedants who had emigrated to America in hopes of finding prosperity and dignity in a far-off land. My grandmother used to show us indenture papers some long gone ancestor had signed, basically selling his services for a finite time period, in order to secure passage to this country. Perhaps their attitude was similar: you put up with what you have to in order to better your conditions, you keep an eye on your long-term goals and ignore a certain amount of the discomfort that might be your present reality. Keep your head down and your mouth shut, do your work, and maintain.

Our new acquaintance laughed that most of the American kids had quit before the end of the second week, but he and his roommates had all intentions of finishing out the season.

Although most employers who use temporary imported help do so in an equitable manner, and I know personally of many such situations, his is a variation on a story that I’m certain you can hear in Newport, Montauk, the Cape, even in Point Judith, where a recent case found 13 young seasonal workers housed in a basement, and their passports locked in the employer’s safe. It is remarkable that this is still the way it is for a percentage of the imported labor that keeps the economies of resort communities humming in the summer months.

So perhaps we can all help by treating the seasonal island workers as if they represent our own ancestors and their struggles, keeping in mind that they are a living continuation of the desire for a better life that built this nation. Their hopes are really not much different from those of our great-grandparents, or whatever ancestor of yours got his or her DNA to our corner of the world.

So I suppose we, at the very least, even if we don’t give each and every seasonal worker a round of applause and a chorus of the Star Spangled Banner, can manage to leave a decent tip.

As a sidebar, my own parents were temporary seasonal help when they met on the island back in 1949.

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