The worst thing about stupidity is when you're the one thinking it or doing it. Deeper still is when you're sixty-one years old and should know better. The following is a lesson in street-level survival, a true story of how – in ninety minutes– my vacation turned from terrific to terrifying. It was the Bahamas, New Year's Day, 2016. My luck had run out.
Two days before my scheduled departure I had a change of heart. I wanted to stay one more day. The airline countered by saying, “Any changes in flight reservations will be an additional nine hundred dollars as a rescheduling fee.” When my latest brilliant idea fizzled, I resigned myself to the conclusion that I'd be flying out in less than twenty hours.
I awoke to the sound of the hotel's front desk telephoning to announce that it was check-out time. One final baggage click later, post vacation syndrome had set in and I had not even left the room. Given my money was running out, and few accepted American Express, I decided to take the bus to the airport. After thanking the staff, taking one last look at the pool and all of the hotel amenities, I walked the dirt path down to West Bay to wait for the bus. Each foot-dragging stride signaled one step closer to the end of paradise. My over-packed suitcase was heavy, and it was being on wheels I felt the strain. Once out on the street I waited at what looked like a bus stop. Caribbean bus schedules are flexible. The bus arrives when the driver feels like it; be glad he shows up at all. That is not a problem for locals, but I was an outsider who was used to promptness. The airline said to be in line two hours before take-off. The clock was ticking.
“Need a ride?” streamed in like a black swan carrying a black secret.
My head snapped around, convinced that the city bus driver was talking to someone else. “Who, me?” was the only reasonably intelligent reply I could muster.
When he nodded, I dashed across the sparsely populated street, hoping my rescue had arrived in a squeaking, not-so-shiny four wheel beast. After my attempt at Caribbean barter failed with the driver, I was back across the street to rejoin my luggage. In the dictionary under defeated there was a penniless picture of me. Suddenly, a car appeared. The driver looked shady, volunteering to get me to my plane on time. A quick glance convinced me that he was not trustworthy; that was without my glasses. “No thanks” sent him on his way. Now missing my flight had become a real possibility.
Just then a second car dropped up. “I'll take you to the airport” sounded and felt less threatening that the previous offers. This driver was young and hip-hop; the element that I was accredited to back in the US Putting common sense on the back burner I replied “Okay.” That one word would change my life forever.
I climbed in the back seat, closing the door behind me. He told me to sit next to him. Why would he care about seating arrangements? Then the electric locks engaged, signaling the first red flag. Once underway I quickly related to the rap music that blared from his patched- together stereo. I figured a rap conversation would loosen him to where I could peek into his mind. On the fly I had become a mind reader. Wrong! Soon our conversation shifted from hard core music to me asking, “Why do not you get a taxi license?”
“Can not when you have a criminal record.”
You have to be kidding, I thought with enough reluctance over having gotten into the car to fill a stadium.
“I have many license plates that I use, so I do not need to register with anyone. I switch plates as I need to.” Red flag # 2.
After a mile down the road I realized that no airport bound vehicle would travel in this direction. We were heading out in the middle of nowhere. I surprised where he was taking me, unwilling to ask. Red flag # 3. After a series of turns I asked if he knew the route to the airport. His answer was “Of course. I just got distracted talking” was less than convincing. Red flag # 4. It was 'uh oh' time. The tidal wave of disaster was about to roll in.
“Have you ever been to the US?” I asked, still seeking a way inside his thoughts. “I can not leave the country for twenty years.”
“Guns and cocaine”, he answered matter-of-factly; as though everyone had similar scrapes with the law.
I replied, “Oh, yea”, as though everyone could relate. I was riding with a dangerous criminal who was about to spring the kidnap trap. That's when it hit me to sell him on the idea that he stood more to gain from me being in the United States than any money he could've been taken to gain from my pending reduction.
“Can you move cell phones?” I asked, having remembered a 60 Minutes episode in which they detailed how much money was being made in Third World countries selling stolen US cell phones. A few minutes later I convinced him that I could deliver quantities of stolen cell phones on a regular basis. That was, if could hold up his end and move them once he received my shipments.
Just then an unmarked van appeared from out of nowhere. My driver raced to it at breakneck speed. They raced side by side before finally slowing. “He works for me”, my driver volunteered.
My God, this was the switch vehicle that was to transport me to my final place of capture. “Who's that?” I asked, referring to the van driver.
“Be quiet!” the driver uttered in an authoritative tone.
The first rule of victimization is early in the process never let-on when you see danger. Any reflex responses to save yourself must come before the criminals spring the trap. Anything you say to avoid harm must be said before they make their move. Once the trap is sprung, it's too late to get out.
“Ask him if he knows how to get to the airport”, hoping this was not really happening to me.
“I said, be quiet!” My driver jumped out, leaving the driver's door open. The two talked in ethnic dialect, elaborately keeping me from understanding, periodically glancing over at me. Not soon enough, my driver returned to the car.
“Well?” I asked.
“It's okay”, was all I heard back.
We sped away, leaving me wondering how this was going to end. Immediately I resumed my crooked verbal concoction of illegal cell phone sales potential. He gave me his email address that I wrote on my business card while establishing a telephone code that we would use once I was about to ship the cell phones.
A usual ten minute ride to the airport had blossomed to ninety minutes and the tension was disturbed when he snapped around. “These cell phones are real, right?” he commanded. “Do not play games with me!”
“I'm a straight-up businessman. No time to waste” I snapped, confident that I was playing my part well.
Backed into the proverbial corner he accepted it. After all, we had finally made it to the airport. Once outside the car we changed a criminal's hug, leaving me with a feeling that I had arrived. Inside the airline terminal I asked an airport employee where the men's room was. The men's room mirror spoke too much, shouting how stupid I was to have been lured into such an indefensible position. I was out of the men's room and in line at the ticket counter in about ten minutes. I had nothing further to worry about. The driver was long gone. A sharp knocking on my shoulder provided otherwise.
“Where's your business card !?” The driver had returned, wearing a hostile outwardness that he'd been douped. “This is real, is not it?”
“I needed it to write your email and the code we set up.” Now I'm more agitated. How dare this man circle-back to flex his muscle? Deeper still, where were the police to call? There were none to be seen.
“Where's your business card?” he repeated more sternly. “There's no paper in your car. What was I supposed to write your information on, my nose?” Reluctantly and feeling had, he turned and walked out of sight. I proceeded to the departure terminal and boarded my flight. Whew. And then some. The rock- solid moral to this story is never weigh saving money against instincts. I should've taken a real taxi. That save-a-buck choice almost cost me my freedom and possibly my life.