March 9, 2006


I have always been fascinated by dominos. And not because the word is sometimes synonymous with concealment, façade, or duplicity, which, for a writer, is heaven--figuring out the “truth” of a situation and when that doesn’t work, just making stuff up. Indeed, it is through the game of dominos that I have learned many things about my friends, and I have met many people who have become very important in my life and fictions.

My earliest recollection of dominos goes back to when I was living in Mona Heights, and my brother, Ansel (co-founder of Real Mona a la Real Madrid), Uncle Danny, Uncle Bunny, (uncles of my friend, David), Nando (my cousin), David’s father, and various other “uncles” would begin their games at 12 noon on Saturdays and play until 12 midnight. Of course, there would be liberal amounts of alcohol and the smell of tobacco from cigarettes, cigars and pipes would fill the air. Our aunts and mothers (my mother was excluded, Saturday was Sabbath) would be cooking and supplying food that was either freshly cooked or left over from their mah-jongg or bridge parties on Friday nights. Mona Heights when I was growing up was a cosmopolitan enclave in Kingston where Africans, East Indians, Chinese, English, Scots, Irish (we knew the difference) , Germans (during my adolescence one permanently bikini-clad German woman tried to teach me German--and I was learning a few words!—until she figured out I wasn’t hanging around to learn how to say hund correctly), and homegrown Jamaicans (and this was just my block) who were a mixture of all of these, came together to build a community that fell apart with Michael Manley (another famous JC Old Boy) and democratic socialism.

But the game was the thing, and my friends, Junior, Paul, David, and I grew up watching these men play dominos, and after our football games, we could play dominos on Pat Chin’s verandah or over at Jah Mick’s house ("I Want to Disturb my Neighbor") where we had our first introduction to roots music. Our games, like our fathers’ and uncles’, were friendly and if we did bet, it was usually, “If I lose, I’ll drink a gallon of water!”—sort of like Truth or Dare where we would talk and tease each other about what happened during the week. We were basically amateurs playing what Uncle Danny called, “a big man’s game”.

It wasn’t until I began working at the Collector General’s Office in Jamaica that I realized the truth of that statement.

Dominos at the Collector General’s Office was a serious business. We would play dominos during our morning, tea (holdover from the British colonial system) and lunch breaks with our food or tea (Ha!) served to us my Daisy, the cook from the cafeteria. Shine (who had set up the tables and chairs at the back end of the filing room), Alex, Dicko, Georgie, and Peggy (who became the model for the character in Chapter Nine of Benjamin, My Son) became my mentors. 

They were masters of a game that involves some amount of chance—but to paraphrase W.C. Fields speaking about poker, “Not the way I play it”—concentration, mathematical/analytical skills, and intuition. I am only good at the chance and intuition. Shine and Georgie showed me the dark side of dominos that involves hand signs and codes (strange they should choose that word) to win. It was by watching them that I recreated the Standpipe domino scene in Benjamin, My Son. They were also the ones who dubbed me “The Bareback Kid”—a double entendre having to do with “posing” a tile or “card” without enough similar “cards”, and a reference to having sex without a condom (See also yesterday’s post about nicknames). I learned how the game could be used by brilliant people with excellent mathematical/ analytical skills (who for the most part had been discarded by the system since they were eleven because they had not been given a full high school education at prestigious places like Jamaica College), but knew how to “read” a game and people.

Yet, as good as they were, the master remains for me, Beeline, a small, thin Black man who was always dressed in blue, Banlon shirts. I met Beeline at the Hogg Heaven Hotel in Negril (my friend, Paul, was the manger), and he became for me what the game was all about.

Beeline was a gracious man who could consume huge amounts of whisky, vodka, and John Crow Batty while smoking and telling jokes. Beeline (when I met him, he was in his late sixties and blind in one eye--my one-eyed Tiresias), could read a game (to figure out the cards in each player’s hand with a high degree of accuracy) after one round, and if he wanted to he could win or lose (he would always lose to the tourists—he wasn’t a fool). He could code and could spot a code, but he never used code. He taught me many things about the game and in the short time I was there, about life. He eventually became a character in a short story, "Beeline Against Babylon” which was published in The Caribbean Writer. I’d like to think that Beeline is still down in Jamaica playing dominos, drinking, laughing, teaching the tourist where, when, and what to avoid during their stay. But I’m probably wrong.

I learned about camaraderie and friendship from playing dominos, and my friends, Junior, Paul, Pat (he has since died), and David, have shown me that even though we might be miles apart, if we pull out a pack of dominos (bone, ivory, plastic, metal or wood), a few chairs or crates, a table or flat surface, and a couple of Red Stripes, we will all have a great evening filled with trash talking, jiving, laughing—and everything will be irie.


FSJL said...

The hard part, for anyone who lived in Jamaica in the 70s, is not shouting 'Heineken!' when you slam the cards down.

(Though, I'm compelled to add out of honesty, I was never a good player and haven't played for years.)

Geoffrey Philp said...

Listen to the podcast for 3/11/06.
That's straight from Benjamin: "'Heineken!' "