Would You Like A Rum Bamboozle

jamaican rum punchThe orange and white gigantic metal bird stood motionless as it was fed people and baggage. The people in a stream through a rubber extension attached to its side, the baggage through a ramp leading up into its belly. Its fellows hummed and droned nearby ascending the heavens one at a time, as others dropped from the sky to replace them in a roaring, hissing cacophony.

He sat in his window seat watching the stewardesses, faces frozen in plastic smile, conducting the white tourists and mostly expatriate Jamaicans to their seats. At last all the passengers were settled and the pretty, glorified waitresses in multi-colored skirts flitted about making sure seat belts were fastened, seat backs straightened. Next, they stood equally spaced in the aisle and went through the life-saving equipment procedures in precise, dance-like unison to the droning, lilt of the head stewardess’s voice. And then the mammoth metal bird taxied down the tarmac.

The passengers fell silent as they wheeled into place. Soon the empty hangars were whipping past. The broad wings shook. They gripped the armrests as the wheels lost contact with the ground. Flaps up, they broke for the sky tilted way, way back. The quiltwork of dollhouses that was New York City tilted away at a crazy angle.

“Ping!” and the fasten seatbelts signs went off. The slender stewardesses suddenly appeared with trays filled with plastic glasses of a pink liquid.

“Rum Bamboozle, m’am? Rum bamboozle, sir? Would you like a rum bamboozle?” they sing-songed. The city vanished beneath them, as the plane straightened. They were soon enveloped in cloud mist. They dipped sharply, and he felt a sudden cold splash on his thigh.

“Oops. I’m so sorry!” said the passenger next to him, sopping at his lap with a red napkin.

“God!” he thought. She’s a sweetheart. But he didn’t have the heart. He wondered, though, if maybe, just maybe, this long-limbed angel hadn’t spilled her drink on purpose. True, the plane had dipped, but. . .

“Don’t worry. It’s alright,” he said eking out a smile.

“Is this your first time flying to Jamaica?” she asked.  Perhaps she just felt obligated to make small talk because of the accident, he thought. “Looking for things to do in Jamaica?”

“No.” he said, and left it at that. But in the silence he felt that she felt uncomfortable. Perhaps she had wanted small talk, but not that small. What the hell, he thought. Might as well continue.

“Is this your first time to Jamaica?” he said.

“No.” she said.

Now in the ensuing silence he felt uncomfortable, ignored, as if she should have said more. He crossed his legs self-consciously. She scratched at her brow, in turn. Without realizing it, he found himself asking,

“Do you live in America or Jamaica?”

“Both really. Well, not really. I live in New York, but every chance I get, back home I a go,” that last said in patois as if to emphasize her point. He smiled. She smiled.

Again there was silence. He shifted his hands. She reached for a magazine. It was like they were invisibly connected. She had recognized his existence. He, in turn, had recognized hers. Strange, but they could have sat silent and alone for the entire flight. Now, though, now that they had talked, they couldn’t be alone. They were together. And what is more, she was woman, he was man. Had the mating dance began?

The big jet soared over a field of clouds, dotted with wispy top heavy mountains. He sipped his rum bamboozle. She smiled and sipped at hers. Together, they soared above the sweeping, field of blue and white and silence. . .

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Trouble in Paradise

They deplaned by descending a portable staircase to the tarmac like they did in the old-time movies. A short walk brought them to an endless narrow hallway with louvered windows that eventually led to the terminal. Some airport workers lounged about standing in a relaxed, loose-limbed sort of way. Others walked past, a bouncing dancyness to their step. The humid heat was deadening. Suddenly the languid gait of the natives made sense. He also tried to slow down. It seemed to work. But retrieving his bag and going through customs was going to prove the same ball of confusion as usual.

Visit Jamaica, Jamaica, Jamaica, hit him full force as he stood leaning on a pole amidst a gaggle of people boarding cabs or looking for friends. A band of squatting men played what sounded like calypso, but was really mento, the traditional folk music of Jamaica, all but abandoned save for the tourist’s nostalgia. He stood listening to the music as the heat and tempo of the crowd enfolded him. He waited through two full tunes as red-capped bag handlers wove their carts deftly through the throng. He smelled the sweat of the hurrying people, mixed with the thick black exhaust of idling vehicles. He relaxed and acclimated himself to, or rather blended into, the bustling confusion. In time he disengaged himself from the pole and sought out a cab.

The road was straight, the sky blue, the air warm and salt-tanged from the indigo rippling sea that stretched far and wide on both sides of the narrow strip of sand that held the narrow road that bravely traversed the rocky harbor. The cabbie barreled silently down the two lane highway leading from the airport to Kingston, hunched weirdly on the right side of the car, driving on the left, not the right, side of the road. They zoomed past the rotting hulk of a long ago abandoned ancient vessel. A sea gull glided barely above the water tempting a landing.

Now they were on the mainland and they rumbled past a massive quarry, a huge hill of yellowish white rock was being systematically sheared away to make concrete to fuel the building boom in Kingston. The air was tinged with a thick whitish mist of dust that seemed to make the sun hotter. To their right the half shorn away hill shone yellowly, to their left, the ruffled blue sea sparkled with myriad bits of white.

On the radio he heard the pounding Reggae rhythms. A gravelly voice crooned, “Sit on me veranda. Smoke me marawannah. Me a no jester. Don’t want no polyesta. . .” as the lead electric guitar ping pinged the beat while the electric bass ba-ba-boomed the melody.

Now they were plunging into Kingston proper. Kingston in the popular mind meant pirates in the past and clean, white-stuccoed buildings in the present, and gaudily dressed police gesticulating to bustling traffic in the administrative capital of a coconut, palm-studded, sleepy paradise. However, many, in fact most, of the legendary coconut palms had soured. Plagued by the yellowing disease, their fronds gone, they looked like warped telephone poles. Now that the road had wended in off the coast, it became a dusty patchily paved track in spots. Bars dotted both sides of the street. Goats, pigs, even cows wandered about, heads bent in their eternal eating. Boisterous men gathered at the watering holes while outside children gamboled and women balanced loads on their heads with an erect gait, arms swinging in perfect synch with their legs in the maddening blaze of the white noon sun.

The busstops all had shelters built to protect against the rain, and the sun. On their outsides were plastered ads for Appleton Rum, Wincarnis Wine and Panther Condoms. And there were ads for Dragon Stout, fortified with iron, guaranteed to “Put it back!” On the radio the haunting Reggae thumping was interrupted for the following terse announcement.

“Under this State of Emergency, the government suspends some of the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed under the constitution. This is for a limited time and is to allow the forces of law and order to come to grips with any situation which threatens the life and safety of the nation and its citizens, most of whom are decent, law-abiding people. The freedom of a few is being restricted so that the freedom of the many may be protected.” Then back to the staccato beat and the words, “. . . Me fling off me shirt and me fling off me vest. . . She rub me ‘pon di chest and me fling off di rest. . .”

True, the words were funny, but the rhythm, like much Reggae, had an undercurrent of menace to it. No, this was not the Calypso, and this was certainly not the fabulous 1950s. Still, though, he took heart that the words were merry. Just then a jeep filled with soldiers bumped across the street in front of them as they waited for the light. Their black skin contrasted jarringly with their olive khakis. The severity of their helmets, the look in their eyes, the terrible stiffness of their semi-automatic rifles, all lent them a look of ultimate ferocity. . .

One Hot Day In Jamaica

Jamaican Bar

The sweetish sting of the heady drink told him he was home. White rum, real overproof white Jamaican rum can only be had in Jamaica. A weaker version is exported. He took another sip, and his limbs seemed to loosen. He wagged his tongue about how good it was to be home again, and his uncle said something funny and slammed his drink down hard. His aunt was in the kitchen supervising the maid as she prepared dinner.

What with the jet lag and the rum punch on the plane and the hot drive through town and now this, the good stuff, he was feeling no pain. But then he remembered the announcement he heard on the radio in the cab on the way in from the airport. Something about a State of Emergency. And then there were those grim faced black soldiers in bright khaki in those jeeps that they’d passed.

“What’s this about a State of Emergency?” he asked looking out over the terrace of the big white house.

“If you ask me they shoulda done it a long time ago,” said his uncle.

“Done what? What’s going on down here?”

“Certain people out to tear up this country!”

“Say what?”

“The criminals them is out of control, out of control. The Gun Court didn’t do the job so now we need stronga meashas.”

“The Gun Court?”

“Yes, sar. Them pass a law that anyone caught with a gun get life in prison. LIFE, you see!” he screamed.

“Life? For simple gun possession?”

“If you ask me they shoulda shoot them all.”

“Come on now.”

“Masta, things was never like this. Nevah! Decent people can’t even go about they business.”

“Still, though, I don’t know. . . Sounds like something they trying in New York. We just passed this law that they call the – “

“Jamaica will never be Jamaica again until we get the criminals them off the street!” bellowed the older man.

“Don’t you think fighting hate with hate will only cause it to intensify? Like in New York they just passed this new drug law. It says that – “

“Guns! Seems like overnight, guns are everywhere!”

“Here its guns. In New York its drugs! We have a law now that requires 10, 15 even 20 year sentences for just simple possession of drugs.”

“It’s time to take the gloves off!” the uncle ranted.

“Yeah. But what’s going to happen down the road when these people get out?’

“Out? Them never getting out!”

Suddenly the dogs erupted in a horrid commotion. Looking down he saw a burly black man stride shirtless down the dead end street where the uncle’s house stood at the end, and they sat drinking on the second story verandah looking down at him, machete at his side, a determined figure of retribution.

The neighborhood dogs barked and charged at his heels, hoping to nettle him and then perhaps to bite him. But he didn’t flinch. He only walked straight as a man could walk, streaming sweat in the dizzying just past noon sun.

“Someone to see you, sar,” called out the maid. Uncle went downstairs to meet the baleful figure. He soon returned sticking his wallet back into his pocket as the man left, the dogs again nipping at his heels. He was the gardener. He had just been paid. The young man remembered how the maid did not look up at him when she him in. He recalled hearing on the radio that Parliament was considering a 20 dollar a week minimum wage.

“A bird cannot fly on one wing. Come on, let’s have another!,” laughed his uncle as he bustled about the tinkling tray filled with liquor bottles, soda, glasses and ice. And why not, and why not, thought the young man. He needed a good stiff drink to stay in the bright Jamaica and out of the one that was not, and after all, it was hot, hot, hot!

The Jamerican

jamericanI am neither American nor Jamaican, and yet I am both American and Jamaican. I am a “Jamerican.” I was born in America, but my parents are Jamaican. Up until the late 1960s there were few people from the English-speaking Caribbean living in New York. The only time I heard a Caribbean accent was in my home or at a relative’s house. My people always spoke fondly of Home, of how much fun they had there, of how the sun always shone there, how the people were so friendly, the land beautiful, the fruits sweet. I thought “Home” was another name for Jamaica, and wondered why they had ever left. My playmates were all Americans. We never had any problems, but I was aware of slight cultural differences, and so were they.

Starting in the 60s, most of the aunts and uncles and cousins who had only peopled the legends of Home, began appearing in the flesh in New York. I eagerly embraced my young cousins and tried to dance like them, talk like them and act like them, but I could not, and they good-naturedly called me a “Yankee.” So there you have it. I am a man without a country, or with two countries, a Jamerican. Whenever I have heard African Americans criticize people from the Caribbean, I would speak as a fellow African American in their defense. Whenever I heard Caribbean people put down African Americans, I would speak as a Caribbean person, in defense of Americans. Some say that people from the Caribbean are pushy, others that African Americans are lazy. Which is true?

Both are false. The initial wave of Caribbean immigrants may have been more ambitious than many African Americans, but that was because they were not truly representative of those back home. They were the ones willing to leave family and friends and suffer untold hardships to start life anew. Once immigration restrictions were lessened, a broad cross-section of the population began to make the trip. Their average economic performance tends to parallel African Americans’. Any remaining differences may be traced back to the days of bondage when many of the Africans on the islands tilled their own individual plots of land called “provision grounds.”

Total economic production came out of the sugar plantations. Therefore, those kept in bondage could not be fed on food grown elsewhere, as often happened in America. They had to be permitted to grow food for themselves on their own land, their own provision grounds. Many, therefore, were able to hold onto some of their independence and self-sufficiency even during slavery. In addition, once the period of bondage was over, Europeans out-numbered more than ten-to-one, had to turn to people of color to handle key jobs on all levels of these developing societies.

In Charleston, South Carolina and in the islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, we find a people referred to as Gullah, or Geechie, who speak their own particular tongue. It sounds very much like the speech patterns one hears in the English speaking Caribbean. Here, during bondage as in the Caribbean, there were very few whites and so the people here were also self-sufficient. They succeeded in maintaining many of the African traditions that those of us from the mainland have largely lost.

So we see that between African Americans and Africans from the Caribbean, there are basically superficial, cultural differences. Ethnically, culturally, we are one and the same, different branches growing from the same African tree…

Once Upon A Time In Jamaica

old-wooden-houseTheir daylong trip out of Kingston, Jamaica over the winding, mountain roads led to Treasure Hotel, but the treasure was long gone. Weeds grew thick about the grounds and invaded the quaint, old wood-frame building whose paint peeled and shutters needed fixing, but never would be. The front desk was smashed in, and the lobby reeked of salt. The rooms were ransacked. Outside the sky was low and dark over the troubled sea, its final ripple viciously pounding the darkish shore. The pool was an eerily empty, rectangular, concrete hole. The older man shook his head in disbelief saying to his friend,

“This here was once a fine place, you see, masta.”

“Oh yeah? You used to come here?”

“Yeah mon, a few times well,” he said shaking that gray head, remembering fancy times in times past.

“Well, what happened to the place?”

“Certain people out to tear up this country. That is what,” came the enigmatic answer.

The young man did not press the question. He saw the conversation heading into politics. And so he left him there with his memories in the shambles of the once ornate ballroom, and went wandering off on his own through the enchanted, moody ghost of a building.

On the way out, the old man sailed over the pitted road, through parched fields dotted with black grazing cows. Just before they began to ascend the hills, they passed a house with a crowd of ominously, well-dressed country people spilling out the front, milling about and hardly talking. Others came up the road dressed in dark finery too, shoulders stooped as they headed sadly up the hill.

By the time they reached the long, rolling plain that led to Kingston, epicenter of the island’s violent political struggle, it was the tail end of twilight. The sky was just about wholly consumed with night, but at the horizon, there was still a whisper of blue, albeit dark blue. They passed a sugarcane field afire. The air smelled sweet. Big sparks popped above the heavy, orange tongues of crackling heat. . . (by Arthur Lewin)

Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey And The Fighting Maroons of Jamaica

bobmarley-marcusgarveyThe uplifting, inspiring, empowering music of Bob Marley is to reggae what the rousing, revolutionary music of Public Enemy is to the pop tunes that dominate hip hop today.

Bob Marley took the words, beliefs and rhythms of the Rastafarian movement and brought them to the Jamaican public, the American public and ultimately to the entire world. Freedom fighters in Africa joyously went into battle against the Portugese colonizers and the repressive White South African regime with Marley’s words and melodies ringing in their ears.

The Rastafarians were Jamaicans, inspired by the prophecies of Marcus Garvey, who looked at the Emperor Hailie Selassie I of Ethiopia as the Divintiy. Selassie I was said to be able to trace his lineage back 3,000 years to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Before ascending the throne, he was the “Crown Prince” which in the language of Ethiopia means he was the “Ras Tafari.”

Marcus Garvey, as a very young man in Jamaica, was inspired by the teachings of Booker T. Washington, and so he came to America to become one of his disciples. But by the time he arrived, the great man had died. He soon began setting up his own organization based on Black self reliance, “Black Is Beautiful“, and “Africa for the Africans.” It came to be known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the UNIA. Though based in Harlem, it had millions of followers around the world. It contributed mightily to the development of The Nation of Islam in America, the Black Panthers, the African and Caribbean liberation movements and to Black nationalist organizations around the globe.

Marcus Garvey was descended from the Maroons of Jamaica. They were fiercely independent Africans living throughout the interior of the island. When England seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, the Africans that the Spanish had enslaved escaped into the interior and joined forces with the surviving native Americans and were never conquered. These ferocious guerilla fighters shattered numerous regiment after regiment of the legendary British Imperial army. Thus, Marcus Garvey translated the unbreakable African spirit of the Maroons into a political movement, and the Rastafarians turned the Garvey movement into a “religion” whose doctrines Robert Nesta Marley set to popular music. (by Arthur Lewin)

My Last Jamaica Visit And Police Encounter

Jamaican PoliceIt was mid-day when they arrived in the town of Montego Bay. The lunchtime crowds were milling about Jarrett Square, daring the stream of cars, buses and trucks for a share of the streets. The whipping breeze on their drive into town had cleared his head and Bennett now felt at ease. He said to Valerie, “Every time I visit Jamaica I see a new hotel going up somewhere, but the heart of Mo’Bay is still the same – dirty and stinking.”

She laughed. “That’s what gives it character. Daddy says the tourists are always telling him how they love the ‘quaint’ little town. They don’t mind it as long as they can go back to the hotel and find their beds made and hot and cold water in the bathroom.”

“I think you’re right.” he said. “If they ever rebuilt downtown, and covered up the sewer drains, it would be just like Miami or any other American resort. Well, this is it. I’ll wait in the car – you run in and get the plates and cups.”

They planned a picnic on the beach. He had pulled up in front of a supermarket that took up half a block on a narrow lane off Jarrett Square. Valerie grabbed her purse and dashed into the store. Bennett settled back in his seat. The supermarket was the best stocked in town, and at this time of day, it would be chock full of shoppers. He closed his eyes, trying to sort out his impressions of last night’s meeting with her father and his associates. It was too early to tell if they’d buy into his business plan.

Lost in the train of his thoughts and the backdrop of noisy street activity, he failed to notice the policeman approach the vehicle. He was startled out of his wits when the red seam, as the local active-duty constables were called, shouted in his ear, “Bwoy! Move this car NOW!”

Bennett stared coldly at the dissipated brown face thrust through the open car window. “No need to shout officer.” He said calmly. “I am waiting for someone to come out of the supermarket.”

The constable looked shocked. Face flushed with anger, he sprang half a step back from the car as his hand fell to the service revolver at his side. “What! You arguing wid me!” his voice raised to a nearly hysterical pitch. “You little ‘sweet boy’ you think you can come talk outta you nose and back talk me!” This last comment was a reference to Bennet’s Jamaican upper-class, English-sounding speech. “I say get this fucking car out of here.”

By now passersby were slowing down, stopping, sensing a bit of street theatre in the making. Bennett, opting for discretion over valor, leaned forward to start the car. Just then Valerie, using her shopping bag to force a path, broke through the knot of onlookers. She smartly tossed her sun-reddened hair, and glared at the posturing ‘red-seam’ over the roof of the car.

“What is going on here, officer?” she demanded. “This car is waiting for me.”

The cop switched his gaze to her. His features sagged through several changes of expression ending up looking sheepish-indignant.

“Oh! Is you him waiting for?” he said. That last shot of overproof white rum that capped a lunch hour spent in Rosie’s Bar & Grill had exploded in his head like a red flame after fifteen minutes back on duty in the hot glare of the square. He did not recognize the woman, but something about the way she spoke and acted… You learned to tell the types who can make trouble, that is, the people with connections. “Is no problem, lady. But this is a no parking zone.”

“We will remember that next time, officer. Thank you for letting us know.” Valerie answered with a smile as she got in. She turned to Bennett. “Can we go now?” She tossed the bag into the back. As they pulled away from the already vanishing ring of humanity, Valerie gave her view of the incident. “Fresh little country bumpkin! They give him a gun, and now he thinks he is somebody.”

Bennett said nothing, though inclined to agree, he also saw in her attitude to the dark-skinned cop, and the cop’s obsequiousness to her, troubling signs of the deep fissures in this ancient, caste-ridden society. And he wondered how his plan would fare, how he would fare, in the weeks and months ahead, now that he was home, for what he had thought would be for good…  (by Wendell Scott and Arthur Lewin)