December 3, 2007

My Jamaica: Part Two

JamaicaMona had changed. It was not the manicured lawns of my childhood nor was it the world that I'd described in some of my stories that I'd published in Uncle Obadiah and the Alien in which my friends, Paul, David, Pat, Bruce, and Norman appeared in my thinly disguised fictions about growing up in Jamaica.

In fact, I didn't see any children playing cricket or football as we had done at Top Park, Bottom Park, and the community center, or in front of our homes. It was a symptom of the exodus that began in the late seventies when I and many of my friends left for London, New York, Ontario, Atlanta, and Miami. This saddened me a bit because it was in Mona Heights that I developed my sense of community and learned how to foster many of the relationships that have played an important part in my life.

I walked through the streets like a ghost, unknown and not knowing anyone, until I reached the gates of my aunt who had lived in London, Ontario, and New York. I didn't expect her to be home because the process of moving her possessions from all the previous places where she had lived had been slow, and at her advanced age, she is often in transit between continents and the island.

I knocked on the gate and one of my cousins, Paul, peered up from behind his car. This was a sure sign that she was home because Paul has been charged by my uncle (her brother) with taking care of my aunt whenever she is in Jamaica. He opened the gates and went around the back to tell my aunt that she had a surprise: I was home.

Paul and I chatted for a while and he told me that his brother, Hew, had moved to Canada and that everyone in the family had seen the review of Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories in the Jamaica Observer. We continued talking until my aunt came outside to the verandah and greeted me. She was as feisty as ever and chided me (only as she could) about not calling beforehand. I accepted the mild reprimand as we sat and she asked about my family and work. We talked about my mother and she told me that she was proud of me. I accepted the blessing.

Then, she asked me where I was staying and she offered to give me a ride to the hotel. I told her that I wanted to visit my old school and she understood. I said goodbye and as I walked through the gates, I looked back at the woman who I admired for being one of the most independent of my grandfather's children. She had never got married, never had any children, never took any crap from any man, and never compromised on anything. And now she was being helped into a car by my cousin.

I crossed Daisy Avenue and then, over to Hope Road to Jamaica College where I was confronted by a security guard. (So many sentries have been appearing in my life!) I told him that I was a former student and he allowed me into the school to take a few pictures, yet he watched my every move.

As I walked by St. Dunstan's, past the names of the JC Old Boys who had died in World War I, I saw behind an open window, the eager faces of young men behind desks in what was once One Chambers. I used to be one of them. I snapped a few pictures of the school and felt vaguely nostalgic about the place that been the setting for my semi-autobiographical novel, Benjamin, my son. Of course, I had to take pictures of "Holy Ground," and the Assembly Hall, and then, went back to Mona on a hunch, a feeling that Paul Smith, one of my childhood friends was back in Jamaica.

I was right. The hunch paid off. Paul wasn't home, but his helper gave me his address and synchronicity! His business, Reggae Vacations, was right beside my hotel in the heart of New Kingston. I practically ran back to Hope Road, jumped in a mini-bus that now played music videos instead of CDs, and headed off for Half-Way-Tree.

From Half-Way-Tree, I walked over to Reggae Vacations and went up to Paul's office. I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked gain. Still no answer. I went down stairs and talked with a receptionist who insisted that Paul had not left the building.

I want upstairs and knocked again. Nothing. Then, I heard a voice that I was certain was Paul's coming from an adjacent office. I knocked on the door. Silence. A voice said, "Come in." It wasn't Paul's. I backed away from the door. A moment of hesitation. The door opened and my Idren, Paul, was startled. He laughed. He immediately introduced me to his friend, and we were off to eat at one of his favorite East Indian restaurants in Liguanea.

It was if we'd never had a break in seeing each other. We picked up the conversation since he told me about three years ago that he was leaving for Dominica. During that time, we'd exchanged a few e-mails, but nothing big. We bragged about our kids and families. Paul said that he was surprised to see me because I hadn’t mentioned the trip on my blog. I knew he had subscribed, but I thought he was still in Dominica working with their tourist board. After a few laughs and Red Stripes, he told me about his work with the cruise industry and about another of our friends, Norman Pennycooke.

Paul, Norman, and I go way, way back. Our friendships started at Mona Primary. Norman's mother was our teacher in sixth grade and we were the three kings in our annual Christmas play. I was Gaspar ("Gold"); Norman was Melchior ("Frankincense"), and Paul was Balthazar ("Myrrh"). When we graduated from Mona Primary, we went to Jamaica College where our friendships deepened and was tempered by competition and cooperation.

Norman, as it turns out, was doing well in Dominica and that was expected. We'd attended the best high school in Jamaica (take that Kingston College and St. Georges!). In between clients for his reggae themed vacations, I teased Paul that he'd never capitalized on his music lessons, but he told me in some ways that had paid off. A few years ago, he was the leader of a reggae band, MLC (Mid Life Crisis) and they'd played a few gigs around the island.

We started calling friends around the island and I learned that Bruce was now a successful dentist in May Pen. I asked about Errol McDonald (Macky D) who given me the name, "Herbert Spliffington." He said Errol was in Ghana touring with a reggae band. For the most part, most of our friends were doing well, but then the dread catalog began: those who had been killed or became killers; those who had died from natural causes or had become invisible in America; those who were on the FBI's "Most Wanted List," and those who had suffered from an extreme case of "lead poisoning" to use one of Jimmy Carnegie's favorite euphemisms.

By the time we had caught up with everybody and everything, it was dark and we decided to go to the Top Park in Mona Heights. There we saw old friends like Larry Smith, Boothes, and Peter Moses. Peter teased me about gaining the extra weight since my Manning Cup Football days, and then, he went off to play with the "old timers." Men my age or a few years older.

As we were about to leave, Paul's sister, Gail, came by and we sat down and ate barbequed chicken (Okay, Peter, I hear you!) and talked some more until nine o'clock We reminisced about the annual Christmas fair at the community center where many of us smoked our first cigarette or kissed or first girlfriend. Or got caught doing both. Sometimes on the same day and by different parents.

We finished the chicken and our beers at about ten thirty and followed Gail back to her house. Paul drove me back to the hotel and promised me he would pick me up the next day and take me to the airport.
I slept well that night and got up the next day, ready to go back to Miami and to read at the Miami Book Fair International.

As I waited for Paul on a bench near the reception area of the hotel, I looked up at the hills how much I had missed waking up every morning as Paul, Norman, Bruce and I walked to Jamaica College. I was glad that I hadn't given into my fears and that I'd seen Kingston on foot and by taxi, bus, and mini-bus. I remembered Minto's comment about me becoming Americanized and yet in some ways how I had remained stubbornly Jamaican.

I opened Kendel Hippolyte's Night Vision with the haunting phrase, "our first generation of unmeaning," and I became conscious of how much I had changed and my connection with the generations that had grown up since I had left in 1979 was tenuous at best. My impending mortality in the face of my aunt (I turn fifty next year), and that my football friends were now called "old timers" stayed with me.

Listening to the hotel workers going back and forth as they did their duties, I realized that Jamaicans laugh at the sheer pleasure of being alive. No matter how hard the times, how dread the circumstances, we laugh. A lot.

I glanced across the front of the hotel. The two guards that I'd talked with the day before were outside smoking cigarettes and I told them about my adventures. One said that I was brave and one hinted that I had been very foolish to go out on my own like that. But that's Jamaica for you. Put two Jamaicans in a room and you'll have three different opinions. And all of them are right!

I sat back on the bench and looked at the hills once again. I closed my eyes and gave thanks for the good time, however brief, that I'd had on my return.

When I opened my eyes, my Idren, Paul, had pulled into the driveway to take me to the airport and back to Miami.
For photos of the trip, please follow this link: My Jamaica.
On Wednesday (12/5/2007), I will be posting"A Conversation With Peter Schmitt," and on Friday (12/7/2007), I will be featuring an interview with Mervyn Morris.


Stephen A. Bess said...

This is a great story. I saw it yesterday and told myself I would come back to read it. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing. By the way, thanks for the affirmation on my post. I knew that you would understand.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Stephen.

Yes, Anita Baker is one of my favorites.


Anonymous said...

This is a great story. I saw it yesterday and told myself I would come back to read it. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing. By the way, thanks for the affirmation on my post. I knew that you would understand

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Anonymous, wherever you are.

Mad Bull said...

Geoffrey, I forgive you for that crack about STGC. I know that you were overcome by your emotions. Its the only way you could have made such a statement (JC the best school... please!) ;)

Great story of your visit. Bless.

Geoffrey Philp said...

something like that, Mad Bull.