June 25, 2006

The End of the Beginning

The air was different. It was more humid. Yet everything seemed familiar—the sea, the palms, sea grapes, and the punishing sun. Nothing had prepared me for this. I had read most of the poems and novels of exile by West Indians in England and I’d loved The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, but the weather didn’t match. I felt more like Mersault in Miami.

I had arrived on one of the famous “five flights” with my requisite seventy dollars and convinced that I was an utter failure. I was sure that anything else that happened to me was going to be more of the same.

It was 1979 and South Florida was not the haven for West Indians as it is now with Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Guyanese and Barbadians capturing whole sections of Miramar, Pembroke Pines, and Lauderhill, and with Sean Paul on every American and Caribbean (AM &FM) radio station. I remember standing on Young Circle and straining to hear another West Indian accent. In that moment, the line “It is wanting to hear the lisp of the sea curled on the tongues of passersby,” came to me. I crushed it. What’s the use? I thought.

Yeah, I’d published a few poems in The Sunday Gleaner, and John Hearne, after giving me a few pointers about writing on a rainy afternoon at the Extramural Center, sent me on my way with the revisions he wanted to see, and published my short story, “Escape,” in The Creative Arts Review. But I was now in America. To the Americans, I was just another boy from “the islands.”

Seventy dollars doesn’t go far and I wanted to help my mother and our family. I tried getting a few jobs in Hollywood, Florida that I now realize, due to my naiveté, I was never going to get. But I couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing. I gave up my pride and landed a job as a bag boy in Publix. Could things get any worse?

They did. I could never understand the rain in Florida. Still don’t. In Jamaica I would look up at Long Mountain and depending on the shade of gray on the clouds, I could wash my football gear, hang them on the line, walk down to Liguanea to buy a patty, coco bread and cola champagne, walk back to my house in Mona, take my clothes off the line, and sit on my verandah while reading a book and watch the rain pour down Plumbago Path before I went to play football at the park on Arailia Avenue.

Not so in Miami. I learned the hard way. I was living on 44th and Johnson and I wanted to go to the Hollywood Fashion Center. It had figured it was an easy fifteen minute walk, and when I was in Jamaica, I walked or rode my bicycle everywhere. But this was America. They didn’t know how to drive and would probably run me over on my bicycle and claim it was “accident.” I didn’t want to take the bus because after the first few times that I had tried to sit up front, the stares guided me to the back of the bus where I belonged. No joke.

I decided to walk down to the Fashion Center. It was bright, sunny day without a cloud in the sky. I had barely walked four blocks when I was caught in the middle of a torrential downpour. I was drenched. I had to go home and change. But then I decided not to go anywhere because I didn’t want to take the bus and face those stares again.

And it only got worse. Working as a bag boy in Publix during the summer is written in some secret annals in the Vatican as a penance for all venial sins. Dressed in my white shirt, brown, striped tie, brown polyester pants, brown socks, brown, leather shoes, and green apron, I shuttled cartload of groceries for little old ladies from one end of the parking lot to the other. And I never took any tips. Rules were rules. I was a Christian boy (although I hadn’t gone to church in a while) and I had attended Jamaica College. You can’t get anymore righteous than that!

On some days dressed in my uniform, I would be caught in an afternoon thunderstorm in the middle of the parking lot, and I would be soaked down to my brown shoes. But still I persisted until I couldn’t take it any more.

So when I told my boss that I was quitting and that I was going to college, he wouldn’t hear it. The little old ladies had told him how polite I was and what a good boy I had been. He offered me a raise and a promotion. I told him I was moving to Dade and that I didn’t have a car. He offered to pay for my taxi fare (true-true) until the raise kicked in and that he could get me a good deal on a car. I kindly refused and left Publix.

Somewhere in a parallel universe there is a Geoffrey Philip (strange things happen in the realm of quantum physics) who is bitter and divorced, childless, but is a successful manager of a Publix in Daytona Beach who writes poetry late at night and weeps. I wish him well.

I signed up at Miami Dade Community College where they promptly rejected my GCE “O” and “A” Levels, and I had to start from scratch. No problem. I was beginning to get the hang of this starting over business. I was happy just to be back in school. Still, when I called my friends in Jamaica (living in Miami can be cruel that way—so near you can hear them breathe; so far, you feel the distance between each sigh), I would tell them that I was studying in Miami and by my tone insinuate that I was at the University of Miami. I never corrected them.

I began freshman composition with a teacher, Bruce Firestone, who after reading my first essay asked me what I was doing in his class. He sent me over to see a friend of his, Susan Lev-Koren, who introduced me to the director of the Writing Lab, Elaine Ludovici, who hired me as a peer tutor. I learned a lot about Miami in the lab and I saw firsthand the effects of the revolution, the children of exiles who were growing up in Miami and who knew even if Castro died the next day, they would never go back. They had become Americans.

When I was around the other peer tutors, I kept to myself because although they were fluent in English, they spoke Spanish when they were outside the classroom There are many times I have apologized in my mind to Helen Morris, the wife of Mervyn Morris, who taught Spanish at Jamaica College and who told me I had potential. I dismissed her. In my mind, I was born in Jamaica, I was going to live in Jamaica, and I was going to die in Jamaica. Teenagers can be so foolish.

Soon I met a fellow Jamaican, Barrington Salmon, and he introduced me to the other Jamaicans who hung at the “Jamaican Corner” at the college. This was our little area that we had captured.

From our corner, we watched the other displaced persons like the Iranians (when the Shah fell, the men began wearing disguises and covering their faces and the girls began practicing hijab), Pakistanis, and Cubans and stroll through the campus. We would play reggae, argue go off to class, come back in the afternoon or the next day for more of the same. Yet, there was one name we never mentioned in all our arguments: Michael Manley. The wound was still fresh.

We talked about Bob Marley and we found out that one of our company, Paul “Lurks” Fakhouri, had played with Bob on a couple of gigs and was looking forward to a couple more until he hooked up with Pluto and began playing at Sundays on the Bay.

I was beginning to feel a bit more relaxed and showed one of my poems to Barrington, who showed them to one of the teachers, Ron Silverstein, who said I should enter the poem in the Fred Shaw Poetry Contest. I told him no. I was scared. No one had heard of Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris, or Tony McNeill. Only a few of the liberal Anglos, who I knew were smoking weed, had heard about Bob Marley. I wasn’t going to set myself up for failure again. Not in America. I was a tutor in the Writing Lab and that was it. No more.

But then I met this Colombian girl, Nadezka—her father had been a communist and he had given all his children Spanish versions of Russian names: Katuska, Tatiana, and Jose Stalin. The Colombian girl had heard about my poems and wanted to see more. I had seen here from a distance (from the “Jamaican Corner’) and I wanted to show her some more.

Both of us were on financial aid and our work study was in the Writing Lab. We worked during the day and for extra hours, we worked the evening and night shifts. We took breaks during the afternoon to get ready for the classes at night by drinking Cuban coffee (cortaditos). We began long conversations about Start Trek, Camus, and she gave me a translation of a book her step-father loved, A Hundred Years of Solitude.

I showed her some of my poems and she tried to convince me that I should enter a poem in the competition. I balked. By now everyone in the lab knew that I was a writer and I was not going to fail in the eyes of these girls from Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Georgia and now Colombia? No way. Better to be a big fish who never dared to swim beyond the shallows than to be a failure and flop on the sand.

Yet, she convinced me. So, after a one long afternoon in the cafeteria at Miami Dade, I walked over to the English Department and submitted my poem at the last possible moment.

We waited for the results for at least three months. In between that time, I went on vacation in Jamaica. I met the few friends who were still there, played a little football and met Beatrice. Before I’d left she wasn’t talking to me or I wasn't talking with her. Either way, we were pissed off with each other. But Jamaica is so small, and especially when you move in certain circles, sooner or later you will bump into former friends, lovers, and enemies. Sometimes all three in one. So, you learn to behave yourself.

We talked briefly, but the Colombian girl was now on my mind. I told Beatrice I was studying in Miami. She told me she was happy for me. We left each other at the closed gate of her home and we never saw each other again.

Somewhere in a parallel universe, Beatrice…I wish her well.

I came back to Miami and classes were going great. I’d made it to the Dean’s List, and I was happy. But as one guy on the “Jamaican Corner” said, “It’s not like it’s Harvard! It’s only Miami Dade Community College.” I should have hit him. Instead, I got depressed until I heard the Colombian girl had broken up with her boyfriend.

A month into the semester, the English Department made the announcement that my poem, “The Lady Awaits the Sting,”—a combination of Tony McNeill and Dennis Scott--had won the Fred Shaw Poetry Prize at the North Campus. I was thrilled.

The Colombian girl congratulated me with a kiss. Things were looking up.

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