As we begin 1991, I want to relate this true story to the readers of The Interim. It is a story I go back to, from time to time, when my flagging faith, hope and courage need a little jolt.
In 1983, I was a visitor to the city of Santo Domingo, in the Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic. It was my first visit, and above all I wanted to see St. Mary’s Cathedral, which is the oldest church in the entire western hemisphere.
Business arrangements kept me from visiting the church for three days.
On the fourth day, I was lost in the area of the Cathedral and most impatient to find it. On the corner of the street was a small colony of shoeshine boys, none of them speaking English. In desperate sign language, I tried to explain that I was looking for the Cathedral, when nine year-old Ricardo left the group, simply took my hand and led me to the Cathedral.
Once inside the Cathedral, built by the Portuguese and entombing the body of Christopher Columbus, I was awestruck. I couldn’t believe that the tropical sun was streaming through the same stain glassed windows that had been built in the fifteenth century. Little Ricardo knelt humbly with me, saying the rosary on his homemade beads, fashioned from string.
The word had spread in the streets about the “tourista” inside the church with Ricardo. When we came outside we were surrounded by a group of English-speaking, older youngsters wanting to replace him. The small boy shot a dark look at his older peers and kept pointing to himself and telling me, “solamigo.” Even I could understand he was fighting to hang onto his new-found job by telling me he should be my “only friend.”
During the rest of the Santo Domingo trip, the “tourista” and little Ricardo and his shoeshine box were a familiar sight on the streets.
A friend of the family who spoke English told me that Ricardo was one of eight children and the sole provider for his mother and siblings, following the death of his father in a car accident. My husband took a Polaroid shot of the two of us in front of the Cathedral, and upon my return home I knew I would never forget the sight of Ricardo in his bedraggled blue jeans, holding his shoeshine box and always wearing a funny cap, studded with pins proclaiming the words “Jesus loves you.” The sight of him as manfully waved goodbye to the bus which took us back to the airport lives this day in my heart.
In the two years leading to my next trip to Santo Domingo, I had a few letters from Ricardo. The letters, proudly printed in broken English, told me how he was studying a new language which, he hoped, would lead him to a job that would pay more than a few pesos for shining the shoes of visitors to his city. Somehow I lost his address and when I returned two years later, I went to the corner of the shoeshine boys, but couldn’t find Ricardo.
In 1987, I returned to Santo Domingo on a mission to raise money for Dona Chucha Orphanage. Accompanying me on the trip were three close friends: Helen Di Silaghi, a renowned international artist, talented writer and former Toronto Sun colleague, Dani Crittenden, and Magda de la Torre, then Canadian Trade Commissioner to the Dominican Republic.
On the plane, my friends chided me for voicing the hope that on this trip I would finally find Ricardo. We were to be Santo Domingo only five days; from there I dispatched columns to the Toronto Sun, asking for donations to the poverty-stricken all-girls’ orphanage.
Every day I returned to the corner of the shoeshine boys, asking “Do you know where Ricardo is? Have you seen him?” On my return to the hotel one day, I was told off by my well-meaning friends who reminded me it was ore than a little naïve for a journalist of my age to think I could find one little shoeshine boy in a city of more than one million souls.
One the last day of the Santo Domingo stay, I accompanied Dani Crittenden on a souvenir-hunting forage in the capital. I was a little down that day. Dani thought it was the heat and suggested we head back to our hotel. I was just telling her how disappointed I was that I hadn’t found Ricardo, when we were approached by a young man calling out my name.
“Ricardo,” I cried. Trying to protect me from my own naiveté, Dani warned, “For God’s sake, it’s somebody who, trying to take advantage of your good heart, found out your name back at the hotel.”
With a resolute look on his face, Ricardo went into his shoeshine box and procured the photo of the two of us in front of the Cathedral. Now in his teen years, he had sprung up like a skinny but dogged tropical weed. His English had been perfected, and he still proudly wore the funny cap.
He offered to come the next day to take me back to “our church.” Alas, I remembered that I would board the bus to the plane taking me back to Canada. He asked what time the bus would arrive at the hotel. I told him at 10:00 a.m.
In the morning, as we were checking out of the hotel, the manager came into the lobby and asked, “Where is Judi McLeod?”
When I went to him, he told me, “Please go immediately out onto the street.” I asked if something was wrong, since I noticed him dabbing at his eyes with a white linen handkerchief. When I went out to the street, this was the scenario I found.
“Here she is!” Ricardo exclaimed to his friend. There were eight shoeshine boys – all with homemade instruments, household pots, combs covered in tissue paper, spoons and even a mandolin with half its strings missing. The shoeshine boys rendered a sweet serenade.
I ran back into the hotel, asking my friends to give me whatever pesos they had left. Returning to the street, I gave the money to Ricardo, who carefully divided up the booty into eight equal portions.
We were on the bus, pulling on to the road, when someone yelled, “Stop the bus, there’s a boy holding onto the roof.” The bus driver screeched to a halt. We opened the windows and Ricardo cried out to us, “Adios, good luck, God go with you.”
There wasn’t a dry eye on the bus when Ricardo added, “Judi McLeod, I shall never in all my life forget how God let me find you again, because Jesus loves you.”
Perhaps to some, this story is too small to be considered a miracle. Still, a boy for whom I searched for five years, somehow found his way to me in a city of one million souls.
Anything can happen on a street corner in the cities of this troubled world. And that is why on those rare days when I become discouraged by Canadian politicians such as Evelyn Gigantes, I remember a bedraggled but dignified chorus of shoeshine boys.
I remember how one person and somebody’s prayer can make a difference. I remember God , inspiration and how I still can believe in miracles.