Monday, April 12, 2010

This week: Cruz Bay, St. John, USVI


My first encounter with Thomas was by phone. I wanted to rent a car for our vacation in the Virgin Islands. It was four weeks before we would arrive, plenty of time to rent a car I thought. Sitting at my dining table with a list of rental agencies from the internet, I called the first one. I asked for a 2-door Jeep Wrangler. They didn’t have one. The second place I called didn’t have one. No Wrangler at the third place either.

“How ‘bout a Liberty then?” I asked

“No, no Liberty.”

“Well, how ‘bout a Suzuki?”

“No. You don’t get it. We have NO cars” said the rather angry voice on the phone. Not good. I called place number four, still no cars. Place number five didn’t answer. Hospitality Car Rental was number six.

“Hello, Thomas!”

“I need a car for February 24 for one week. Do you have anything???” I asked trying to hide the desperation in my voice.

“Today is your lucky day!!!” he announced in a deep baritone. “I have a regular customer from New York City. He stay inna villa dat week every year, but he jus’ called me to say he not coming.” Without even knowing what kind of car or how much, I asked to rent it.

“No problem!” I heard him shuffling papers through the phone. Thomas told me that every car on St. John was booked. I said I was finding that out the hard way. He said I was very lucky to have called when I did or I might not have found a car at all. Since we were staying on the far side of the island, no car would have been a huge inconvenience. Before he could even finish reading me the rental agreement, I rattled off our credit card number. When the transaction was finished I thanked him. He told me he was glad he could help and then he said “love you, bye” and hung up. Wait…had I heard that right?

So a major part of our vacation plans were in place and everything under control. Four weeks later, we arrived in our stopover, Atlanta. It was 8 a.m. and due to a possible snow storm our St. Thomas flight was delayed. We were stuck in Atlanta for the next six hours. Hoping to catch some sleep I had just put my feet up when my cell phone rang.
“Dis is Thomas. Dere was a problem wit your rental car.” In the airport my phone wasn’t receiving very well. His words were fading in and out, but I managed to catch two of them, tailgate and smashed.

“Oh, if it’s just the tailgate, that’s no big deal,” I said.

“Oh, nooooo ma’am,” his baritone reverberated in the phone. “Not tailgate…Totaled.” Even though I heard him clearly, I asked ‘what’ anyway. Thomas continued, “De car I had for you is totaled. Dey drove it right off de road.”

“Are the people are OK?” Remembering the steep and twisting roads from previous visits, I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.

“Dere were no casualties, but de car is badly damaged.”

“Soooooooo now what?” I asked

“Don’t worry. I got replacement car for you. I begged everyone until I got you a car.”

“So we have a car?” I glanced at my husband who had a concerned look on his face.

“Yes, when do you arrive here?’

“Around 7 p.m.”

“I’ll leave the car in my parking lot and the keys will be under the passenger seat,” Thomas explained. This was all very strange. St. John was a friendly, safe island, but leaving keys in an unlocked car seemed too good to be true. Confused, I told him thank you and hung up. The next ten hours wouldn’t go by fast enough.

At 6:30 p.m. we arrived at the ferry terminal in St. Thomas. While my husband purchased our tickets I bought Coronas from the extremely convenient ferry terminal bar. I breathed deeply the warm, moist air. Aaaah, humidity. The Corona would subdue my nauseous head from the airport taxi ride. We were just taking our seats when Thomas called my cell again.
“I was jus’ calling to tell you I have a car for you. It’s here in my lot wit da keys.”

“That’s great!” I said over the boat’s engine. “We just boarded the ferry. We’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

“Oh, you on da ferry now?” I told him I could barely here him above the motor. “Den I’ll wait for you.” Although I felt bad for making him wait, I was relieved because I barely understood his thick island patois and wasn’t sure I heard his directions clearly.

When we arrived at the Cruz Bay dock, I went to find Thomas while my husband collected our luggage. I had no idea who I was looking for, black, white, young, old. A woman standing at the end of the dock held an island villa sign. She was waiting for guests. Knowing it was a small island, I asked her if she knew Thomas.

“He was standing right there,” she pointed, but there was only empty space. Then she started shouting, “Thomas! Thomas!” A man walking down the street in a white t-shirt and dark blue jeans turned around. “Thomas, this woman is looking for you.” A smile lit up the dark man’s face.
“Car Rie! I have your car!” he emphasized with a hug. My husband caught up to us. Thomas graciously grabbed our largest bag and we walked across the street and around the corner to his parking lot. The car was a Jeep Liberty 4-door, way bigger than we needed.

He once again apologized about the car we were suppose to have. Thomas said it was a complete loss and he had to call in a few favors to get this new car. It was from another agency, St. John Car Rental. Even though we were getting a larger car, he said that we would still only pay the Wrangler price. Then Thomas explained we would have to come back tomorrow and take care of the paper work with the new agency and to get a refund from him since he had charged us in advance. He also told us that we could use both his parking lot and the other rental agency’s parking lot for free anytime we were in Cruz Bay. With parking a scarce commodity here, this was a generous offer. We thanked him and shook hands. Riding in the comfy Liberty on the way to our lodging, I was finally able to relax.

The next day we saw Thomas again in his dark blue jeans a crisp white t-shirt, but the shirt looked fresh. Like most men, he probably had dozens of them. He was tall and bald with huge arms and if he had had a gold hoop earring in one ear, he could have been a black Mr. Clean. We didn’t notice it in the dark last night, but his parking lot was also a smoothie stand, so we ordered a banana, strawberry and mango smoothie. He used fresh fruit that had been stacked at his order window. We ordered a small, but he gave us a medium for the small price. Then we sat next to his parking lot under a large canvas with a few plastic tables and chairs. The thick and rich smoothie could have been a meal by itself. Thomas came out of his stand to sit with us. Placing his cell phone on the table for easy access, he explained why getting a rental car was so difficult.

St. John was a tiny island. There were only two public roads: Northshore that followed the coastline went to all the beaches and Centerline, which cut over the middle to the island’s eastside. These roads were narrow and vertical. And for no good reason anyone could give us, they drove on the left side of the road in right-sided automobiles. During high season, these roads were packed with rental cars, taxis and scooters. My husband then mentioned all the construction trucks that were trying to keep up with new development. On top of that, Thomas added, the daily car barge was bringing over rental cars from St. Thomas. With accidents a frequent and sometimes deadly occurrence, something had to give.

“A few years ago, de government banned rental cars from St. Thomas coming over here,” he told us. “Now we have less traffic, which is wonderful. However, dey keep building more and more hotel rooms. Dere are twice as many people, but de same number of cars. Dat is why it so difficult to find a car. You have to start six months in advance.” My eyes bugged wide as I slurped my smoothie.

“Crazy,” Thomas slumped back in his chair. “Tis great for my business, so I don’t complain, but also ridiculous, you know? Lemmie get dat refund for you,” He said as he stood up from his chair. We thanked him for his hard work in getting our car and said we would stop by again.

The next afternoon we returned to Cruz Bay after a morning of snorkeling. We parked our car in Thomas’ lot and then ordered two more banana, strawberry and mango smoothies. He asked us if we wanted a shot of rum in them, but we declined because happy hour at Woody’s was less than an hour away. After getting our liquid fruit we sat in the plastic chairs and enjoyed the shade on a hot Caribbean day. It was cruise ship day on St. Thomas and that meant day-trippers, dozens of them roaming around town and buzzing by on scooters. We could distinguish them by their backpacks and large tote bags stuffed with beach towels. A family came up to Thomas’ stand and bought some smoothies. Thomas greeted each family member individually with a “Good afternoon. How are you today?” While the blender whirled, he would ask them where they were from and what they liked most about St. John. After handing them their drinks, he would tell them to enjoy their stay. Behind the family was a young couple and he greeted them the same way. They told Thomas they were from Seattle, which caught our attention because we rarely met anyone west of the Mississippi on St. John. We conversed with them while Thomas made their smoothies. We invited them to sit with us, but they had to get to the return ferry. With a break in customers, Thomas came outside to hang with us. He had a package in his right hand wrapped in foil. Turned out to be his lunch, roast chicken and rice. It smelled delicious, but the smoothie was quickly filling me up. Thomas asked how we were doing, but before we could answer, more people walked up to the window. We decided not to bother him so we waved goodbye and said we’d be back tomorrow.

On Friday morning, we arrived at Thomas’ smoothie stand again. Thomas was outside at the tables with stacks of fruit boxes - bananas, oranges, mangos. A beautiful brown-skinned woman handed him a box of straws and said she would see him later. She was already chatting on a cell phone as she got her blue SUV parked in the street next to the stand and drove away. She was as tall as Thomas, had shoulder-length curly brown hair with blonde tips and perfectly arched eye brows. Despite the humidity she wore pastel make up on her eyes and cheeks, but what really blew me away were the tight blue jeans and high heels she wore. This woman was dressed to the nines and it wasn’t even noon yet. Sadly I looked at my own attire: gym shorts and tank top, hair pulled into a pony tail. The only thing on my face was sun screen. I couldn’t even fathom wearing denim jeans in this heat and the humidity would sweat make up right off. Thomas smiled as he shook my husband’s hand.

“Dat was my wife. I needed some supplies.” My husband told Thomas he “done good” in the wife department and he flashed us that all-knowing smile. He told us about his family. He was born and raised on St. John while his wife was originally from St. Croix. They had three sons and the oldest was getting ready to go to college. He was considering the University of Minnesota, which we thought odd; an island boy who had never seen snow before going to Minnesota. Thomas, however, had a different view of higher education. Although proud his son was going to college, Thomas didn’t think it was all that necessary.

“I know doctors, teachers, I even know a judge...deese are my classmates who went to college and dey make no money. I never go to college and make lots of money. Education is a good ting, but it doesn’t guarantee success. Here in school, dey teach you science and math, but dey don’t teach you how to balance a checkbook or how to invest your money. People do such foolish tings wit deir money. Me, I teach my sons how to handle money so dey know what to do.” Thomas pointed his index finger to the table. “It tis the business man dat make money here (St. John), not doctors and lawyers.”

My husband asked Thomas if he made all his money from rental cars. Thomas said no, it was actually from two apartment buildings in Cruz Bay that he owned and collected rent from. However, the smoothie stand and rental cars were his first businesses which gave him the capital to invest in the buildings. Owning property on an expensive Caribbean island was quite impressive and we asked him why he didn’t just kick back and let the rent checks roll in. He told us he wouldn’t be as successful if he did that.

“I have to work all de time. I have a family to take care of, besides if you want to live long time and make lots of money, you must keep working.” We laughed because we were on vacation, not working. Thomas then asked us if we wanted our usual smoothie. That was Thomas, always working, always making money.

We sat in the shade of the canvas enjoying our smoothies while the rest of Cruz Bay worked. Pick up trucks with construction company names on the doors drove by. Thomas waved at a passing police car. The mail truck stopped with Thomas’ mail. A waitress we knew from Woody’s walked by. Thomas asked her what she was doing away from the bar. She said they needed more napkins and headed to the convenience store across the street. After unloading his fruit inside the stand, Thomas came back out to sit with us. He asked us what we liked about St. John.
“Meeting people like you,” my husband replied. “Bet you can tell us a great place to have lunch.”
He laughed. “De Fish Trap has excellent food. De chef is a friend of mine. Remember dat chicken I had yesterday? Dat was ‘im. You tell ‘im I send you; he make you de best meal for a good price.” Having finished our smoothies and knowing Thomas had to work, we said goodbye.
A few days later we returned to Cruz Bay to return the rental car. After settling our bill with St. John Car Rental, we walked the three blocks to Thomas’ stand and had what would be our last smoothies of the vacation. It was another cruise ship day and there was a line when we arrived. No problem, we had all afternoon. We ordered our “usual,” size medium. Thomas handed us two larges and refused us when we tried to give him full price. We told Thomas we had returned the Jeep and thanked him again for all the trouble he took to get it for us.

In his island accent he said, “No problem mon.”

Thomas did not want his photo taken, but I did get one of the fruit stand. Also included is a photo of the huge rental car. Check out these Cruz Bay websites: