by Kyle K. Mann
Gonzo Today Contributing Editor and Publisher
St. John, Virgin Islands. Not a penny to my name. Homeless, jobless, friends and family thousands of miles away.
I’m the happiest man in the world.
1990. I’m hitchhiking through Mexico, calling in live reports on the phone to a Hawaii radio station about my adventure. I was on a shoestring budget, but loving the madness of it all.
But after several reports, the News Director at the station had bad news. “We can’t air any more of these, Kyle.”
“No banditos, no Federales, no action.”
Maybe I should have stayed in L.A., I thought to myself. “It’s turning out to be the point of the journey… it’s actually safer here than it is in California.”
“Well, it’s boring. But good luck.”
I hung up the pay phone receiver glumly. Now what, I thought. Screw it, I’ll just keep hitchhiking south. Maybe that rumor is true about the radio job available in Acapulco.
I arrived in the resort town with just enough change for a phone call. “Hi, I’m an English-speaking radio announcer… I hear you are looking for someone like me.” They were. I miraculously as usual landed a cool radio gig.
Six months later, after numerous adventures in Acapulco, I had become bored to death making English-language commercials, and had saved just enough money to fly to Puerto Rico, where I’d never been. I needed to hear salsa music. I needed warm Caribbean waters. I needed a different brand of adventure. Surely I could find another on-air gig there.
Except when I got to Puerto Rico, I couldn’t find a local broadcasting gig for the first time in my 10 year radio career. A week of searching for a job with the English-language radio stations produced zero good results. “Do you know how many experienced, talented radio people on the East Coast want to come down here to work, so they can get away from those cold winters?” I heard various versions of this every call I made.
In those times back then I had no credit card. I’d already borrowed from family and friends. I had to face a horrid fact.
I was about to run out of money.
I’m floating on the fabulously clear water of Trunk Bay on St. John, staring around in wonder through my snorkel mask. There’s an underwater snorkel trail there, with descriptive signs eight feet down… signs saying things like ‘Brain Coral’, next to a gigantic six-foot specimen that literally looks like a huge human brain. It’s all unbelievably beautiful.
Despite the growing hunger pangs, I’m delirious with pleasure.
San Juan, P.R. It seemed to me I should try my radio-job luck in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a ferry boat ride away from Puerto Rico. But I really loved Old San Juan, and wanted to look around. An amazing place, with some of the oldest buildings in the Western Hemisphere. Scenic, historic. An astounding city altogether.
I walked to El Morro, the giant fortress guarding San Juan Harbor. It was fascinating, and I was amazed by references to “the pirate Sir Francis Drake” which I found jolting. OK, he tried to capture El Morro from the Spanish. Wait, where I’m from the guy is a hero. Hell, they named a major roadway in my childhood home in Marin County after Capt. Drake. Pirate, hmm?
I wandered into the National Park bookstore and stole the biggest coffee table book I saw. I sold it to some tourists for ten bucks and now had enough for one more night at the cheap hotel I was staying at. I’d turned the bed on its side and slept safely in my mesh tent free from fear of bedbugs. But this was my last paid night, unless I wanted to keep stealing stuff. I did not.
No money! What to do, I mused at sunset, headed back to my residence zone. My mind returned to those radio stations in the nearby Virgin Islands. Worth a try. But dammit, how to get there with no money?
Brooding deeply as I entered the plaza the hotel fronted, I suddenly became aware of a lot more people in the plaza than usual. There were trucks, lights in the growing dusk, equipment everywhere. I approached an official-looking young man holding a walkie-talkie, and asked him, “Hey what’s going on?”
“Filming a movie called ‘A Show of Force’ with Andy Garcia…” he said distractedly. He glanced at me briefly, looked away, then turned back and regarded me more thoughtfully. I beamed hopefully at him.
“Cool! Got any jobs?”
The dude nodded. “We are looking for someone to be a featured extra. You have to take direction really fast, it’s a complicated scene. None of our extras speak good enough English to handle it.”
I didn’t think twice. “I’m your man.” He grinned in obvious relief. 20 minutes later I was standing on the film set in the middle of the shot.
I’m starving in the most beautiful place in the world, the Virgin Island’s Trunk Bay. The shockingly surreal crescent white sand beach stretches before me, but I have to eat. I hitchhike into town to a restaurant that has a salad bar.
I gorge on the fruits and vegetables, thinking furiously. I’ve already pitched half the businesses in town for a job, any job. No one is hiring. I leave the restaurant quietly, without paying, feeling guilty.
I’m in the plaza in Old San Juan, and it’s night. Two kids run towards me, hands outstretched to grab two sparklers. Yes, lit sparklers, shedding colorful sparks. The kids are a bit afraid, and fail to make the grab cleanly. “Cut!”
An assistant director runs up. “Don’t worry, the sparks won’t hurt you,” he tells the kids. We reset the scene to go again. “This time try turning a bit more towards them, and your outside hand a bit further out,” the AD says to me. “Yeah, like that, maybe just a bit further.” He smiles encouragingly. “You’re doing great, the kids are just a little afraid.”
Eventually we get the shot, and that’s how I got onscreen, grinning like a loon, in ‘A Show of Force’ for all of two seconds. If you freeze the frame, I’m full screen. And I’m in another shot, still waving those damn sparklers. But that’s it for my onscreen movie career. It ain’t how I got in The Biz, though.
“What’s your address so we can send you a check?” The AD looked at me quizzically as I began to stammer. A higher-ranking AD walks up.
“Well, ah, you see, I, um…” I took a breath. “OK, I’m traveling with no money. No address.” The higher ranking guy grined widely.
“Don’t worry, we can pay you out of petty cash,” he laughed. “You were a big help, thanks. And good luck! Take him over to the production trailer, will ya?” He departed, still grinning, and the lower guy led me to a woman who gave me money, a handful of 20 dollar bills.
That night I decided I would definitely try my luck in the Virgin Islands. But first, I’d take a look around the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Day 3 in Trunk Bay, island of St. John, Virgin Islands. We have a new visitor off the beach. I swim vigorously out to a beautiful three-masted schooner, a real dream of a ship, with the name Elinor, and with an unusual flag flying from the stern, anchored in Trunk Bay. What a fabulous addition to my refuge!
“Hi there,” I call out with my radio voice to a deckhand coiling up a rope. “I don’t recognize the flag.”
“We are from Denmark,” he says curtly.
“Denmark!” I laugh, treading water, and the deckhand gives me a sharp look. “Did you know Denmark sold these islands to the USA for 25 million dollars in 1917?” I pause and gesture at the staggeringly scenic beach with an arm out of water. “I think you got ripped off.”
He gazes at me stoically. “Too late.”
My Puerto Rico adventure was concluded. I had had hitched around to the south side, taken acid and seen a fantastic free concert by the legendary salsa band El Gran Combo, where I danced like a lunatic, much to the amusement of the locals. I’d camped in my mesh tent with no problems, except the last night at Seven Seas Beach where I’d been clobbered by an epic rainstorm that knocked my tent down, flooded the insides and left me soaking wet on the porch outside the locked park restroom.
No matter, I thought, I’m still loving this. I’ll see if that radio job can be whomped up in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. I took one last swim in the lovely water and made my way to the ferry boat dock in Fajardo, bought a ticket, and watched as the islands rolled by.
St. Thomas was a shock. I spent an afternoon fruitlessly calling radio stations. They all laughed at me.
In my ten years in radio I had never failed. Now this series of brutal rejections, with one exception, a station who sounded hopeful and who wanted me to call back next week when the guy in charge had returned.
What now? Fuggit, I thought, I’ll go wait on the island of St. John. With the last of my money, I got a ticket for the short ferry boat ride over.
We arrived at dusk, and I strode off the dock, pack on my back. A couple guys stood there checking out the departing travelers. “Taxi?” The clean cut young black guy who spoke up looked at me curiously.
“No thanks, can’t afford one.”
“If you can’t afford a taxi, you can’t afford to be on the island,” an older taxi driver sneered.
“We’ll see,” I smiled, determined to be friendly, and walked down a road in the growing darkness, almost getting hit by a car driving on what I thought was the wrong side of the road. It turned out they drive on the left side in the Virgin Islands! I adjusted and started hitchhiking in the dark, looking for a safe place to camp, as a fabulous full moon rose overhead.
The car that stopped for me was decidedly funky, old and beat up. A beach cruiser, we used to call them in Hawaii. I fearlessly threw my pack in and jumped in the back seat. In the front seat, two rastas sporting huge wild dreadlocks looked at me with expressions bordering on disbelief. One held a lit spliff that smelled delicious.
“Where ya goin, mon?”
“Looking for a nice safe beach to camp on. No money for a hotel.”
They nodded, and I was handed the fuming herb stalk. “You want Trunk Bay, we going past.” I took a big hit, handed it back. “But go down to the end of da beach, wade around rocks to little beach. In da morning at first light, roll up ya tent, hide it. Or National Park Police take ya away, mon.”
A few hits later, I was about as stoned on pot as I have ever been in my life. Good shit! I got out at Trunk Bay, and I thanked the rastas. They nodded and rattled off, slowly. I watched them go, then shouldered my pack and headed down the access road to the beach.
Trunk Bay by moonlight! Glints sparkled on the calm Caribbean Sea as I made my way to the perfect white sand. A warm puff or two of breeze caressed me. My altered mind whirled I thought about a girl I wished I was with. Damn, she’d freak out if she was here, I thought. Impossibly romantic. At the end of the beach I stripped down and held my pack over my head as I waded in the chest-deep water. There, around the rocks, was a tiny pocket beach, empty and inviting.
First up, moonlight swim. The water was absolutely clear. I could see a stingray flapping lazily a dozen feet below. Unreal.
I set up my mesh tent, stared though it at the endless stars, and drifted asleep to the murmur of tiny waves.
I awoke in Paradise.
Cut to Day 4 at Trunk Bay. The schooner Elinor had sailed off, much to my regret. Damn, I loved seeing that ship floating on water so clear that it appeared to be floating in air. It was like a symbol of adventure.
I’d found a papaya in the jungle, which I devoured.
I shaved daily in the National Park restroom to keep from looking like a bum. The beach park had drinking water, so at least I wasn’t thirsty. I snorkeled most of the day, slept like a top on the short summer nights. I still had some stamps and writing materials in my pack, so I wrote letters and postcards, too proud to mention my dire financial condition.
The last radio job call to St. Thomas to the guy who had been on vacation was a bust. Laughed at again, I was scratching my head. What to do?
So I’m in my tent, gazing at the stars, hunger gnawing me to bits. Desperate, and deeply humbled, I begin to pray.
“Mighty One, I know I’ve taken you for granted, taken my luck for granted. Please show me the way. Give me a sign. I don’t know where to go, what to do. Help me Lord. Help me.”
I don’t sleep for a long time.
I awake fast, aware of a couple things. First, I’ve overslept and it’s bright daylight, and my tent is still up, a major bust. Second, I hear a motorboat approaching. I’m about to be hauled off to jail.
As I scramble into my pants, I can’t help but think of the scene in ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ where the Paul Newman’s fugitive hero Luke prays in a church, only to be surrounded by cops. “Is that your answer, Old Man?” Luke asks. That’s what I’m thinking. I’ve got to run, abandon my stuff, and haul ass outta here.
I unzip the tent, ready to flee, shirtless, shoeless, penniless, but still free. I turn and look back to see how close the boat is.
Hmm. The boat says “Beyond Therapy” on the side.
Hmm! Probably not the National Park Police. A wave from the guy operating it. He shouts a greeting.
“Hiya! Can I gun this thing up on the sand? Any rocks?”
“No rocks,” I yell back. “I’ve been swimming here for days.”
The guy grins and zooms his boat in, right up onto the beach. He’s a clean-shaven youngish fellow with big glasses. “Nice place to camp,” he smiles, looking around. “I’m Eric.”
We chat, and I tell him briefly about waiting for the radio job that hasn’t showed up and how much I’m loving being at Trunk Bay, the underwater trail, the fantastic sea life. He looks around and sizes me up, takes a breath.
“Well,” he says, “I’m a locations scout, and I’ve just decided this is our location for a commercial shoot. And we are gonna need a Crafts Service helper. Are you interested? We can pay you a hundred dollars a day.”
I freeze, stunned into silence. So that’s your answer, Old Man? Wow. I blinked in confusion, staggered by this seeming clear response to my prayer. “Uh, hmm, ah gah…” I drawled slowly.
Eric looks at me thoughtfully, misinterpreting my shock for hesitation. “I know its not much… listen, we can also let you stay with the crew at the Virgin Grand Hotel. It’s a 300 dollar a night room.”
I’m still processing. What the hell is Crafts Service? I decide it doesn’t matter if it’s digging ditches in the hot sun. Take the freaking job, you idiot! “Yeah, OK,” I manage to utter.
“Great!” Eric smiles broadly at me. “You now work for me, so help me push the boat out into the water. We have to go find the ship that we use for filming.” He laughs in a friendly way.
What ship, I think, but say nothing. I hide my tent behind the rocks, grab a shirt and my sandals. We shove off and I sit on the prow, wind in my face and tears flowing not entirely from the wind in my eyes, feeling profoundly incredulous by my turn of fortune. Some spatters of rain hit me but I’m way beyond caring. Could this get any better?
Yes it could. Around the point is a perfect complete rainbow. Directly beneath, in fabulous full sail, is my beautiful dream schooner, the Elinor.
“Ah, there it is,” Eric laughs behind me, and guns the engine.
My career as a film crew worker had begun.
Kyle K. Mann
June 1, 2022