What I Learned from John the Drifter
John was someone I most likely would’ve never spoken to, let alone made prolonged eye contact with, if circumstance hadn’t brought us together.
We first met on the island of Utila in Central America on one of those sweltering hot days when you can feel the sweat drip down your back and cascade between your buttocks. John happened to be my new housemate, but it wasn’t the most typical of arrangements. We had inherited him along with the furniture from the previous residents, and a condition of the tenancy was he could remain on the couch once we moved in.
John had a thick Southern American accent and did not appear to own a shirt or shoes. In fact, we later found out he had once been refused passage on a plane back to the US because he’d thrown his only shirt in the bin, in what was an aggressive protest against the police who were trying to force him to wear it. A victim of his own political agenda and unwavering passion for social justice, John found himself back in Utila, a scuba diver’s paradise, entertaining himself with everything but scuba diving.
One of John’s most important roles was protecting our household from the infamous “Jimmy”, the island cross-dresser who resided in a shack behind us, his porch littered with beer bottles and a colony of kittens. According to unsubstantiated reports, John had previously slept in a hammock under the house and once woken to Jimmy standing above him, lust in his eyes, whispering sweet Spanish nothings in John’s ear. No one is quite sure what happened next, but eye witnesses claim to have seen John chasing “that damn ladyman” down the main street with a broom, keeping pace with Jimmy’s high-heeled, gazelle-like legs. Never again did Jimmy step a well-pedicured foot on our property, yet he was never far, throwing compliments at us every morning as we walked past. In hindsight, it was really quite a pleasant way to start the day. I wish people called me handsome more often, even with disturbingly sexual undertones.
While John had certainly proven himself an elite security guard, his talents ranged far wider than simple intimidation and protection. He could often be found sipping on a bottle of rum, offering life advice to bewildered tourists who hadn’t even asked but would no doubt be better off for it. His greatest talent, in my eyes, was to tell strange personal anecdotes and somehow turn them into poignant lessons on living life as he saw best. Take the following, for example:
“One day I was doing chin-ups in my house, and then someone came in and hit me on the goddamn head. So I fell off the chin-up bar, and lay there on the floor thinking about who would want to hit me on the head. And then I realised it was my damn chin-up bar. So while I lay there on the floor, I decided something: I ain’t never going to do no exercise ever again, it’ll kill you. I’m going to take up something safer, like crystal meth.”
Lesson: Try everything once. If it doesn’t work out for you, move on and find your passion.
“The other day I was chatting with friends about coffee, it’s a social drink for me, because I really don’t like the taste. I only need it when I’m freezing, going to work, in jail or at an AA meeting, so I decided I shouldn’t drink that shit anymore. Look where it got me.”
Lesson: Find your kryptonite, recognise it and eliminate it. Also, try to stay out of jail.
“Watching the college kids drink themselves stupid makes me feel not so bad for being able to polish off a litre of rum and still hold a conversation, but I think the jig is up – no one believes I’m a college student anymore. The best part about Spring Break is finding all the stuff drunk kids leave on the beach.
Lesson: It’s ok to stand out from the crowd, but it’s frowned upon, to attend Spring Break as a 35 year old.
In a world where everyone not only has an opinion, but also a platform to loudly, continuously express it (thanks internet), it is often infuriatingly difficult to sift through the garbage to find some truly great advice. Sometimes, you need to meet that special someone who can give you a different perspective on life. For me, it was a drifter named John and I will remain forever thankful for making his acquaintance. More importantly, I’ve been terrified of drinking coffee ever since.
Cover by Ian Schneider