One of these days, I must acquire a modest but reliable car. But like the promise to floss when Dr. Behnke pries below my gum-tissue, and inflicts pain, this thought is only fleeting. It comes and goes. But it always comes, when I’m the fifth man in the fifth seat, stuffed into the fifth row in a coaster at the Darling Street bus terminal. “Where must I sit?” I will ask, as if I didn’t already know. A fellow passenger helps by reminding that, “dem naa leff until dem get five-inna-a-row faada.” So by arguing, all I’m doing is, `holding-up progress’.
The fifth seat is not a seat in the real sense, as one of our politicians might be prone to say. It’s comprised of an 18” x 6” bridge, placed in-between a fold-down, and a regular seat, and below a flimsy vinyl-covered foam-stuffed back-brace. When the contraption is positioned, and I’m instructed to `rack-up’, I’m tempted to lament, ‘look what I’ve come to’. Then I go through my progressions. First, like the seat, the discomfort is not permanent. And secondly, would I rather get a drive in a spacious car from somebody else? Hell no!
As the vehicle eventually makes its way, I’ll reach for my J$400.00, pay the ‘ductor, and that’s it. The transaction will be a clean one, and I’ll disembark with my life-story intact. In a private transport – especially on a long journey, I feel like a captive, who sooner or later will be debarked, and his state-secrets extracted.
On the other hand, public transportation I liken to flying into the eye of a storm. The ride getting to the eye might be bumpy. But once inside, there’s not only the soothing of a breeze, but the tranquility of thought. My better thoughts usually come surrounded by silence, not when I’m being interrogated. Secondly, I fancy finding out about Jamaica by roaming it for myself, and not by being told about it. Invariably, if I am told, the south side of the story is left out. And so, suffer I must.
As the driver slips on his blue shirt, takes his seat and revs up the engine, as if to suggest that departure is imminent, experience tells me that it’s not. The bronco is bucking, but, the gate-flying is about half-an-hour away. A truer sign of imminent departure, is when the `loader-man’ puts his hand on the driver’s window, and `a money’ is pressed into it, and then crushed by crusty fingers. Poor Nanny, or whichever one of our national heroes that might happen to be.
My gage of commerce is not measured by the litany of public pronouncements of foreign investments, but by my walk from South Parade going west along Darling Street, and through its bedlam. En-route, everything under the sun - from a pin to an anchor, is up for sale. Colorful dancehall dresses stretched over curvy wire-frames, are bound to disappoint when taken home. No human frame can be as curvy. Shoes and underwear are heaped on canvas squares; belts, briefs, socks and whatever else, are loudly advertised. At some corners, ladies do hair and perform pedicures. And at others, colognes, perfumes and gold (looking) jewelry, are being feather-dusted – an unending job. I’m at peace with my logic, as I ask myself, why would I be singled-out?
Then I come to the produce-end. Hand-cards laden with foods from Jamaica’s breadbaskets, are neatly laid-out – bananas, calaloo, carrots, other greens, peas, pines, spices and yams, you name it. A J$100.00 cup of red pea-soup from a roving-stall, settles my nerves. And a J$50.00 plastic-bag of peeled sugar-cane from a stationary one provides sustenance. Why not? I’m now in the eye of the storm.
Once safely seated, then here come the hawkers. “Peanut-an-popcorn,” a man with a limp, bellows. And at the end, he will roll his tongue, and look anticipatory. “Face-towel – ‘undred-dolla; socks – ’undred-dolla,” another offers. “Foan-charga,” another shouts. But the most popular product among peddlers is the doughnut – sold in small boxes. But more practically, if you happen to forget any toiletries or any piece of undergarment, for `a-undred-dolla’, you can be made whole.
A young man comes by with a full-sized speaker pushed on a porter-trolley. On top, sits his electronic controls. It belches songs like, ‘There’s not one broken vessel that God can’t mend’, and, ‘Since I met you Jesus, my whole life has changed’. He moves slowly and quietly as if to prick the conscience of the un-saved – the music speaks for itself. Women offer cool drinks in cardboard boxes, heavily taped for reinforcement and longevity, and held shoulder-high. “How do people make a living out of this?” I ask myself. And yet, most of their eyes are bright, and their faces are lined with creases of dogged determination and perseverance. Not of desperation.
As my transport pulls out of the terminal, Tivoli Gardens Recreation Center is dead ahead. The bus makes the right and then the left turn, and I am washed by a different emotion – one of anger. Queen’s Theatre is on the left, shuttered and in tatters; further out, after several hill-n-gully bumps, what was once the front perimeter fence of May Pen Cemetery has now been mowed-down, and the privacy of the dead, exposed. How a nation treats its dead, can tell loads about its character. “How’d we come to this?” I can’t help asking myself. Then I come up to 203A Spanish Town Road. I know it, because the car examination depot has always been across from it. The signage of Jureidini’s – the now defunct bottling plant, is still there, atop its gate. The building looks much the same as when I would visit on a Saturday some fifty-odd years ago. And my mother’s sacrifice re-visits me.
Out of town, the cool breeze blows; the wretchedness recedes; and I’m overtaken by other more pleasant thoughts. A lady in the front passenger-seat holds on to her head of hair for dear life. Hares fly-off. Hair should not. As the acreages of plains – some planted-up, and forestry roll by, and as the hills to the north, rise, I see Jamaica in its splendor and its potential for self-sufficiency. And I am thankful for being a Jamaican and that Jamaica belongs to me too. But my thankfulness is only to the Almighty, for the luck of my draw. Not to anyone else. If it was, then I would be hauled-and-pulled, just like how touts haul-and-pull passengers at Darling Street - and that, I am not into. I fancy neither being a cheerleader, nor a pawn.