Beginning in 2003, Suffering, Praying Hands frontman Ricky Thompson periodically vacationed in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory he fell in love with the first time he visited. Then last fall, after another stay on the island, he decided to pull the trigger on something he'd thought about for years.
“Maybe a week after I came back [from Puerto Rico] I was like, ‘I'm moving there as soon as I possibly can,'” Thompson said on a recent morning at a Clintonville bagel shop. “It's all the good stuff about living on an island and none of the bad. It's just paradise. … I was sick of Ohio winters, and the weather [there] is perfect.”
Thompson made good on his plan, settling on the west coast of Puerto Rico in the surf town of Rincon. Before he left, Thompson and longtime musical collaborator Tom Butler shelved their previous band, Barely Eagle, and opted to write and record an album for new project Suffering, Praying Hands — a dark, moody band informed by spaghetti Westerns and Thompson's musical saw.
Other than occasional trips back to Ohio to play shows, Thompson intended to stay in Rincon indefinitely. Then the hurricanes came.
In early September, when Thompson got news of Hurricane Irma's approach, he took it in stride. “I was just playing it by ear. No one else was panicking. Everyone else on the island, they go through this twice a year and usually it misses,” Thompson said. “On that side of the island, rarely do hurricanes hit. Honestly, Irma barely nicked us. … In the U.S. we're conditioned to panic. I think that's another thing I found so charming about Puerto Rico. It's so chill. Everything is laid-back. It's exactly me. It fits my personality.”
Irma knocked out electricity in Rincon for a couple of days, but Thompson said life went back to normal fairly quickly. After the storm he also got a job working in the kitchen at a bar and grill to help pay his $100 per month rent. Then on Sept. 20, two days after he secured the job, Hurricane Maria hit.
“3:33 a.m. is when the electric finally went out on our side of the island,” Thompson said. “I fell asleep at some point and woke up around 8 a.m., and the old man who lives downstairs — a friend I was keeping an eye on; he's an 85-year-old Korean War vet — I woke up to him saying, ‘Ricky! How the fuck are you sleeping through this?' I calmed him down and got him back downstairs. The winds were bad. I was gathering stuff to go ride out the storm downstairs with him, and a little before 9 a.m. I heard a crash in my bedroom.”
“I went in there and the door was hanging on by a hinge,” he continued. “I ran to get a key for the deadbolt, figuring that would hold it. The wind blew it right back into place, so I grabbed the door handle, went to put the key in, and the wind just took the door off. It almost pulled me out, too.”
Thompson tried to get out through a different door, but a fallen tree was blocking it. “I ended up riding out the storm for 32 hours on the second floor,” he said. “[My friend] was on the first floor. The winds were pounding. Occasionally I'd hear glass break. … I was afraid I'd go down there and he'd be dead.”
Thompson and his friend made it through the storm, though family members didn't hear from them for days. Eventually, through a friend of a friend, Thompson gained safe passage off the island to Florida and then back to Central Ohio, where he remains for the time being. But immediately upon his return to the States, Thompson felt a sense of unease.
“That white privilege thing kicked in and I was like, ‘Why did I leave?'” said Thompson, who wrestled with his own ability to depart while others were left to deal with widespread power outages and a lack of safe drinking water. “I felt really guilty about that for days. I couldn't watch the news without tearing up.”
Thompson is attempting to help from afar through a Puerto Rico benefit show at Spacebar on Thursday, Oct. 26, with Suffering, Praying Hands and Cliffs, among others. Proceeds from the night will be donated through Delivering Good, which accepts cash and products such as clothing, diapers and personal care items; for more information, go to delivering-good.org/disaster-relief. Also, any money Suffering, Praying Hands makes on its Bandcamp page is being sent to Thompson's friends in need in Rincon.
“When I was in Puerto Rico, we were sawing up trees and getting them out of the road,” he said. “Now I'm back here, and I don't know how to help at this point other than to donate and play shows. I feel kind of helpless.”
Before long, though, Thompson intends to return to Rincon. “I sold everything I had to move there. I'm definitely going back,” he said. “I consider it my home now.”