July 30, 2004: Headlines: COS - Jamaica: AIM Viewpoint: Sean Pentis says as a Peace Corps volunteer living in Jamaica, I use the ride as a way to understand this country, which has been my home for a year and a half

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Jamaica: Peace Corps Jamaica : The Peace Corps in Jamaica: July 30, 2004: Headlines: COS - Jamaica: AIM Viewpoint: Sean Pentis says as a Peace Corps volunteer living in Jamaica, I use the ride as a way to understand this country, which has been my home for a year and a half

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Sean Pentis says as a Peace Corps volunteer living in Jamaica, I use the ride as a way to understand this country, which has been my home for a year and a half

Sean Pentis says as a Peace Corps volunteer living in Jamaica, I use the ride as a way to understand this country, which has been my home for a year and a half

Sean Pentis says as a Peace Corps volunteer living in Jamaica, I use the ride as a way to understand this country, which has been my home for a year and a half

An Expatriate in Jamaica

Sean Pentiss

I sit shirtless on my Jamaican verandah, in the heat of a Caribbean morning, waiting for the #61 bus to carry me from my Gordon Town home to my job in Downtown Kingston. I read Atlas Shrugged to pass the time until the bus arrives.

Gordon Town, with five hundrend residents, rests in the tight cleavage of two lush mountains. As I turn page in my book, the morning sun breaks the eastern peak and shines on the fruit trees that grow in Gordon Town yards—mango, breadfruit, plantain, banana, orange, ackee, avocado, and lime. Five miles downhill from Gordon Town begins Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, a one-million-person harbor town that spreads across the flat Ligunea Plain. When the next bus arrives, I will board it and get carried to work on a bus that will ferry me out of the mountains and the cooling air. The bus will take me from rural to urban and carry me through layers of Jamaican culture. As a Peace Corps volunteer living in Jamaica, I use the ride as a way to understand this country, which has been my home for a year and a half.

I return to my book until screeching brakes of the #61 bus rattle me. The bus, belching and whining as it idles, parks in front of the blue cinderblock police station. A few passengers step off the bus. A small gathering of Gordon Town residents loads up.

From the clothesline strung across my verandah, I remove a once deep-blue but now faded-gray-from-hand-washings business shirt. I pull it over short cropped hair, and button the shirt over my pale, one hundren and thirty five pound frame then hustle to get a seat before the bus fills and then overflows. Already, at 8:30 a.m., the temperature rises above ninety degrees in the shade of my Gordon Town verandah. Inside the bus, it will hover around 110. Getting a window seat offers the comfort of a slight breeze for the hour and a half commute, which takes me twelve miles through Kingston.

I place twelve Jamaican dollars ($0.40 USA) in my shirt pocket, in a location tricky for pickpockets to reach, then grab my backpack loaded with journal, lunch money, and pen advertising the Jamaican Chamber of Commerce, where I volunteer as a business advisor. The pen reads, “Building a Better Jamaica.” I embody that slogan. My Peace Corps assignment includes providing business loans and advice to persons starting micro-enterprises in Downtown where unemployment lingers at 80 percent. I also help families start backyard farms. The foods grown supplement their diets and income. I wonder, though, if these projects or I really help Downtown residents. Too often, I feel similar to the #61 bus, idling uneasily.
I place my humidity-dampened book into my pack and skip down the stairs that lead from my porch towards the only road in town. With pats on the head to three yard dogs, Ren, Rex, and Purple Dog and a shout of “Mornin” to my landlady, Nurse, I’m in the Square. I hear Nurse’s aristocratic Jamaican accented reply, “Yes, Sean, yes,” as I trot past the barefoot deafmute. He grunts good-naturedly. I wave at him before dodging Gordon Town’s rude boys—Jamaica’s young, angry, unemployed males. We share an age bracket, early twenties, but they slump against the police station wall wearing low-slung jeans and mesh tank tops. I hustle past in casual business attire.

I board the primer-colored bus and find a seat beside an open window. The bus soon fills, growing hotter and more oppressive. Although passengers cram in, we remain hushed. In Jamaica, riders refrain from speaking. Buses are for transportation not socialization, so I sit silently and wait for the bus to begin rolling.

As people load onto the bus, it coughs, sputters, and wheezes seeming ready, willing, and even hopeful of dying right here in the Square, which is dissected by the single road that runs through town. Along this road six churches serve the faithful—the women, children, and elderly men. Seven bars minister to those searching for drink—the rude boys, middle-aged men, and myself. A beer distributor, two restaurants, a post office, and two grocery stores, all built of cinderblock, complete Gordon Town. All these businesses could squeeze into a doublewide trailer. The largest bar owns ten seats. The shelves in the grocery stores run as long as a walk-in closet and hold everything I need—rice, beans, milk which sours in three days, chicken necks and backs, unsliced hard dough bread, local vegetables, sugar, and processed cheese that, when melted, separates into oil and a yellow mass—but nothing I want.

Gordon Town acts as the eastern terminus on the #61 bus route and sits half way, in elevation and distance, between the damp, jungle peaks of the Blue Mountains and chaotic, pulsating Kingston. While waiting for more passengers to board, I draw Atlas Shrugged from my backpack and begin reading Ayn Rand’s story of individuals battling government interference and structure. Rand created the philosophy of Objectism, which believes in laissez-faire capitalism. Objectism opposes government regulations and believes citizens should only make sacrifices to themselves and never for others. In poverty-wracked Jamaica, I imagine the opposite—a nation where the government assists those oppressed by poverty, unemployment, and violence, and where people sacrifice for each other.

I lean left, and gaze out the window. The “driva” and conductor, known as “ducta,” amble across the plaza and board the bus. Both wear gray shirts and blue pants, their outfits faded, torn, and stained. On the driva, who stands tall like a drink of water, the uniform doesn’t reach long enough to cover his ankles. In the afternoons, the driva, with graying hair and beard, returns to the bus from the distributor with a glass of 190-proof white rum. At this hour, he comes back empty handed.

The ducta, a glossy skinned, stern fat woman, squeezes past standing passengers to collect fares—six dollars to Papine, eight to Ligunea, and twelve to Downtown. The ducta reaches me and jingles a fist of coins. Without looking up, I give her a ten-dollar bill and two dollar coins. With fares collected the ducta bellows, “Run, driva, run.” The engine revs and the driva grinds the bus into gear. We lurch from Gordon Town with 50 people crowding this motor coach designed for 40. Before Downtown we’ll carry 100 passengers sitting, standing, and dangling from the door.

In about a minute, the driva decelerates as we enter Industrial Village, a minuscule community near the base of the Blue Mountains. I gaze out the window into Kelly Jo and Simone’s yard, to see if they attend school or if they stay home to help their aunt Daisy. Often if I’m heading just to uptown Kingston, I’ll ride a bicycle. Coming home, I’ll stop at Daisy’s, whom I know from my rides through Industrial Village. As the bus coasts through Village, I remember my last visit, five days ago.

Exhausted, I stopped my bicycle in front of their house and gave a shout. Nine-year-old Kelly Jo, and seven-year-old Simone, shy and slender with kinky hair and a high voice, saw me and yelled in unison, “Sean, Sean,” as they ran and wrapped small arms around my waist. Daisy, with gray, wiry hair, ambled from the house looking weary. I unzipped my backpack and pulled out a flower that I bought in Kingston. “Daisy, I couldn’t buy you a daisy but I got you a rose.”
A smile spreads across her face. “Dat’s so nice. You kind. How you a been?”
“ Great but tired. This hill wears me out.” Sweat dripped from my chin.

“ Yah, it steep. Now, Sean, reason wit me for a moment.” In Jamaica, to reason means to converse about important matters. “What you think about Edward Seaga’s 30 million dalla loan?” Daisy wanted my opinion on Jamaica’s opposition leader, the Jamaican Labour Party’s (JLP) Edward Seaga, forgetting about a personal multimillion-dollar loan.

“ I just wonder how a career politician can make enough money to not only take out a 30-million-dollar loan, but also forget about it.”

“ Yah, Sean. I see you a People’s National Party supporter like I. Prime Minister Patterson wouldn’t do such a ting. Him not a tief like Seaga and the JLP.”

I was leery of talking politics because people routinely got killed in Jamaica based on how they voted. Jaclyn, a resident of Downtown, received a loan from the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, and I helped her start a small hair salon. A month before my visit with Daisy, Jaclyn was shot seven times for supporting the JLP. Luckily, she survived the attack. As an outsider hoping to learn and help, I didn’t want to choose sides. As someone working Downtown, I was afraid to offer allegiance. “Daisy, I don’t know enough about the PNP or the JLP to like one. And anyway I can’t vote.”

“ Wit how nice you are, you’d like the PNP. Dat I know.”

As Daisy finished talking, Simone pulled my arm, tugging me downward until my ear lingered beside her mouth. Shyly, she whispered, “Tak me for a ride on your bike, no?” I laughed at her bashfulness and then picked her wispy body up, gently placing her onto the seat. I walked alongside, my left hand on the handlebars, my right hand steadying her back. Her feet dangled far above the pedals. I jogged uphill before turning and rolling Simone back to the yard. She giggled quietly, holding tightly onto my arm.

Chocolate-skinned Kelly Jo rode next and weighed when I pick her up. On the descent she shouted, “Slower, slower, slower,” all while laughing and loving the speed. After the ride, I hugged the three females goodbye before finishing my bike ride to Gordon Town.

From my bus seat, I see neither Kelly Jo nor Simone and I hope that they attend school. I want them in school so that they can use their education and become women who bring positive change to Jamaican society. I don’t want them to end up like lovely Daisy who struggles daily to survive, who as she ages, fades with little support.

There is no future for Kelly Jo and Simone at home, yet too often I see them there on school days as they try to keep the household running. Too frequently I see Kelly Jo carrying five-gallon pails of water from the communal pump because Daisy can no longer lug them. Simone does light work because she has sickle cell anemia, which causes body pains, leg ulcers, and delayed growth. Worse that the side affects is the knowledge that she’ll never receive treatment for her sickness. With proper medical support she won’t live to 40, without it she could die before she reaches my age—23.

If Simone is going to suffer and then die young because she can’t afford treatments, I want her to die fighting rather than struggling to survive. I want her to receive an education so she can promote the exact opposite of Ayn Rand’s Objectism. Simone can work towards helping Jamaican indigents receive better medical care. Can she see this as a possibility from the squalor of her home? Can I help her see?

I want Simone to become a modern-day George Gordon, a Jamaican politician and reformer who led the Morant Bay Rebellion, in 1865, to protest poor conditions for freed slaves. He and 450 others were hanged or shot because of this insurgence. Though Gordon died prematurely, he offered his life to improve living conditions for Jamaicans.

I look down upon Kelly Jo and Simone’s house, which is really just a shack, a hut, a decrepit cabin staggering in shambles, a wooden two-room structure that leaks during each rainstorm. It possesses no plumbing or electricity, like most homes in Industrial Village, and has ten-foot high sheet metal walls surrounding the tiny yard. The metal obstructs views into the house, but from my vantage point I glimpse over the fence and see holes in the roof but no girls. A passenger shouts, “Lek off, driva, lek off.” The driva grinds the brakes, which yowl in disapproval. One rider unloads while 15 jostle on. A few of these new passengers go only as far as Papine, the eastern edge of Kingston. Most join me to Parade, Coronation Market, and Country Bus Station—all located Downtown.

Going Downtown means entering politically violent neighborhoods where the PNP wages unofficial war with the JLP. Downtown implies naked mad men with dangling penises walking through the historic old city, now faded from glory, which lies alongside the world’s most beautiful and abused harbour—Kingston Harbour, trash filled, oil stained, and backdropped by the shimmering Blue Mountains. Downtown hunger, anger, and desperation. Downtown slums and drugs, Downtown murders. Downtown, the birthplace of ska, dancehall, and reggae. Downtown prostitutes, Downtown jerk chicken, Downtown love. Downtown, my job waits.
But Downtown still waits six miles away as the bus nears Papine, which isn’t large and, if it weren’t connected to the rest of Kingston would be an obscure Jamaican town. Instead, Papine acts as the eastern edge to the largest English-speaking city south of Miami, and serves as the gateway between the Ligunea Plain, which Kingston rests upon, and the Blue Mountains.
On my ride through Papine each morning, I watch children in school uniforms—the girls wearing white blouses and green skirts, the boys attired in blue head to classes. I again look from my height, searching for Kelly Jo and Simone. I worry about them, though I’m little more than a friend who in a few months will disappear from this island, my two-year volunteer stint finished. I can’t offer Kelly Jo and Simone much; I merely act as a role model and companion, temporarily joining their lives. I worry that Jamaica will turn them from innocent girls into hurt and hardened teens, and onward to helpless women like Daisy. I search for optimism but find little.

I try to read Rand but instead I look back at the Blue Mountains and think about Kelly Jo. I hope she learns to model herself after Jamaica’s mythical Nanny, an escaped slave and a national hero, who, from 1720-1739, hid in the tangled Blue Mountains. Nanny organized runaway slaves into a revolutionary community, the Maroons, and used the Blue Mountains to shield her followers while using guerilla tactics to harass the British. Nanny, Jamaica’s most famous military leader, emancipated the Maroons when Britain signed a treaty granting independence to all Maroons, making them the first free black Jamaicans.

I want Kelly Jo to fight corrupt political powers, the JLP and PNP, for a better future. I hope she finds strength to battle for more jobs, social programs, and hope for Jamaica’s youth. Maybe Kelly Jo can use those lush mountains to lead her struggle or maybe she can fight in the concrete jungles of Downtown. I hope both she and Simone find the strength to do more than I.
As we near Papine, people flood the square purchasing fruit and vegetables from vendors that spread produce across the sidewalk. Others wait for buses to Half Way Tree, Constant Springs, New Kingston, or Downtown. Walking vendors, higglers, shout out their goods in a thick Patois accent: English mixed with bits of Portuguese, Spanish, and African languages (Twi and Ashanti), “cheez on cheez, cheez on cheez, Winta Fresh.” Their voices sing a lullaby as peanut vendors push carts mounted with wood stoves, which blow off steam that gets funneled through a pipe creating a steady whistle, incessant background music to the higgler’s songs.

Passengers shout, “Lek off driva, lek off,” as the brakes yelp. A few passengers unload while a wall of people tussles to climb inward, searching for any remaining spot to stand. The temperature rises; sweat beads my forehead. The ducta collects fares and then yells, “Mash it, driva, mash it.” The bus lurches to a start; we continue towards our ending. I glance up from my book and notice children, a pregnant woman, the sick, and the elderly standing in the aisles. Rarely, I give up my seat. Most days I just hope for forgiveness. Even though I keep my seat, I grapple with the realization that I, a volunteer, choose to sit. I lower my head to avoid seeing.
I can’t remember the day I stopped giving up my seat but I do know why I no longer give it up. It is the endlessness of it. I count 12 school children. I see a pregnant lady and from how she leans, I know that her back aches. An elderly man stands within view. I see just uselessness in the act of standing up. I would be forced to give up my seat everyday and still there would be a dozen people deserving of it. A female rises from her seat allowing the pregnant woman to rest. The expectant woman smiles.

I glance down and pretend to read as the bus departs Papine, and rumbles past the University of the West Indies, Jamaica’s sole university. From the road, only the entrance stands visible. The buildings, students, and parking lots filled with imported cars hide behind thick bushes. America conceals its lower class by forcing them into urban slums or rural farms. Jamaica, though, hides its wealthy. Expensive subdivisions obscure themselves at the back of dead end roads. Upscale shops line roads that offer no bus lines.

The college disappears as we travel down Hope Road, the main east/west thoroughfare in Kingston and soon the bus passes Chelsea’s Bar. Last Saturday I visited George at Chelsea’s to wish him goodbye from Jamaica. George, thick and muscular with chiseled cheeks, a sharp nose, and small ears that cling tight to short cropped hair, was an American graduate student who did research on Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow National Park.

George lived at park headquarters and he and I spent many nights talking about American foods, sports, and beers, about owning a car again, and no longer being stuck on the Jamaican buses. We were each eager to have a fellow American to reason with about the USA political elections and what it meant for America’s environment fo finally have a Democrat, President Clinton, back in power. We joked about the things we’d seen in Jamaica. George spoke of visiting historic locations where Nanny battled the British and told of marijuana farms he’d stumble upon, massive pot trees clustered together, standing 15 feet high and hanging heavy with drug. I spoke of soldiers patrolling Downtown in Jeeps mounted with M-60 machine guns; soldiers on every corner.

Last Saturday I bought George farewell double shots of rum. Quickly, as drunkenness is liable to do, our words drifted from casual conversation. As the bus travels past, I remember that conversation.

“ George, the park won’t be the same without you. Who’s going to buy me Red Stripes?”
“ You’re gonna need to find a new grad student to care for your poor, white ass.”
“ Yeah, I will. Send one down from America. And do it soon. I’m thirsty.”
“ Shit, I’ll buy you a beer if it’ll shut you up.” He motioned with a flick of his brawny arm to the bartender who delivered two more Red Stripes.

We raised our bottles as I said, “To America. The land of the free, home of the brave.”
Ice clung to the bottles, the frigid liquid slid down my throat. George stared at me intently; his bottle untouched.

I looked at him, “What’s up?”

“ I just can’t help but think that all white people are the devil. I’ve been treated like shit by so many of you that there’s got to be something evil in you all.”

I stumbled for a reply, surprised at this turn in the conversation, “There are a lot of racists out there, but do you really think we’re all like that?”

Normally George spoke with a gentle North Carolina accent but his voice lost its soft inflection. “Yeah. There’s something evil in white people.”

“ Even me, George? Do think I’d be living in a nation that’s 95 percent black if I was a racist?”
George tapped his fingers on the wooden bar, “Yeah, even you. You haven’t done anything yet but you have it in you.” His words had a home in an intense pain that I could never understand because my skin offers privilege and opportunity. My hands shook like an alcoholic in detox.
George fared no better. He escaped anger, and instead fell into a sadness, “A friend and I were in Raleigh presenting a paper at a conference. We were spending the night in a hotel and I went to get ice to cool some beers. On the way back, I walked past a guy sitting on a Hog. I barely noticed him until he called to my back, ‘Nigger, go home.’ I’ve heard this so many times I just ignored him. He shouted out louder, ‘I said ‘go home nigger.’ I turned and glared at him. He looked like a Hells Angel but I thought I could take him. Either way I went back to my room and locked the door. I didn’t even tell my friend because it would have just pissed him off.
“ Thirty minutes later I hear motorcycles pull up to our parking lot. I don’t think much of it until this voice yells, ‘Where are the fucking niggers?’ Within seconds they’re pounding on our door telling us to come out. You’ve got to be fuckin’ stupid if you think I was going to open that door.
“ My friend jammed a chair under the door handle and I called 911. Then we grabbed beer bottles, ready to hit the first person through the door. An Angel took a run at the door. I’ll always remember that door bending, bending, bending. Then someone kicked near the lock. I knew we were dead. All I hoped for was to take one or two of those bastards with me. That was all I wanted.

“ Then there were sirens. The Hells Angels took off before the cops pulled into the parking lot. The police pretty much told us we must have started in on the bikers. That it was our fault. My friend and I moved to another motel in the bad part of town, the black section. That’s how it goes. That’s why I think ya’ll are evil. I got hundrends of stories like that. Some crazy, some subtle. They all suck.”

I hated George’s words but I couldn’t hate George. Instead I tried to make him believe in the potential of the individual to overcome the cultural beliefs that often shape us. Maybe this is part of what Ayn Rand writes about in Atlas Shrugged, the ability of the individual to find strength within himself, to shrug off the weight of a culture.

“ It’s just fucking skin,” I said quietly.
George just shook his head gently in disagreement. “I’ve gotta go. Take care.”
“ Respect, George respect.”

George extended his fist. I followed suit. We lightly butted our clenched hands in the Jamaican sign of respect and then George walked from Chelsea’s. I watched him disappear before I went to the bathroom, locked the door, sat on the toilet, and cried.

The physical presence of Chelsea’s fades from sight faster than that night with George. The bus turns down Old Hope Road leaving Chelsea’s behind. A rider from the back shouts, “Stop driva, stop.” The air hangs heavy with heat, which saps my energy. I perspire in this rolling, rocking, shaking sauna. Sweat drips from my forehead and lands on my lap. With my hand, I wipe my face.

Once the bus pulls over, seven passengers force themselves past 100 seated and standing travelers and disembark at the end of Uptown, at Wohler Prep, Jamaica’s most exclusive private school. One hundren yards from the school, tenement living begins. I look down on volleyball and tennis courts that sit on the Wohler’s campus.

The bus moves and with one turn we enter Downtown. From now on we travel through inner city destitution. Sheet-metal-enclosed shantytowns appear through smeared windows. The ride grows more bumpy and hot; the cooler air of home lies ten miles east, within the Blue Mountains. I’ve sat on this bus for an hour. Sweat drips into my eyes. My shirt clings to the torn plastic seats, the soft padding lost; the seat rigid.

The bus rounds the eastern edge of National Heroes’ Circle in its overgrown, disheveled glory. This three-acre park spreads unkempt, grass uncut for months. A few poinciana trees grow lush green leaves with blossoms of red tinting upper leaves. Alexander Bustamante, Marcus Garvey, Norman Manley, and other deceased political and social leaders rest here eternally, their names remembered but their graves forgotten. Nanny and George Gordon are also memorialized in Heroes’ Circle.

I think of Gordon and Nanny, and I wonder what I’ll have to give up to stop some of Jamaica’s biting poverty. Must I spend 19 years in the jungle waging guerrrilla war? Am I willing to die for a cause like Gordon? Jamaica’s cause? Must I surrender blood? Or is two years enough?
Across from Heroes’ Circle a man lives in a mango tree. The local newspaper, the Gleaner, reports that he moved into the branches in 1974, two years after I was born, when an application for a visa to move to America was rejected. He silently protests the long and, oftentimes, unfair immigration process. Instead of going abroad, he built a home in tree limbs and from them dangled hundreds of cut up cardboard pieces containing “the written word of God,” he says. The cardboard is littered with ink writing, some Bible passages, others words said to be straight from the mouth of God. I can’t argue with him. I’ve never lived in a tree or spoken to God.

A passenger from the back yells “Lek off driva, lek off.” The brakes grumble and an old woman and two children disembark. As we near the Kingston Harbour, the sea adds humidity to the air. With the bus stopped momentarily, I look at the cardboard spinning from the limbs, twisting in a gentle breeze that doesn’t reach me. I strain to read the words; maybe one will catch my eyes. I hope it will provide undeniable answers but the cardboard spin unreadable.

Poverty, harsh and cutting, surrounds the bus, poverty so different from Gordon Town’s rural poverty, which possesses a feeling of peacefulness. Here and now, though, I watch children, bellies bloated from hunger, run barefoot through the sewage mixed with rainwater. Rastafarians, with large dreadlocks, sit with their backs to cement walls smoking marijuana joints rolled in newspaper. Their frayed clothes and melancholy eyes make them appear disenchanted but stlll I wonder if one of them could be the next Gordon, willing to lead today’s inner city Jamaicans to a better standard of living.

Sitting alone on the sidewalk is an elderly woman. She slumps cross-legged on the concrete, a tattered dress fully removed from her body, leaving her naked except a stained bra. She cleans her own shit off wrinkled skin.

A rider shouts, “Buus stop, buus stop,” as we turn south onto Tower Street. Twenty passengers get off. Once the bus begins rollling, another passenger yells, “Next stop, driva, next stop,” Another 30 displace themselves. Twenty passengers remain. As the bus nears the Jamaican Chamber of Commerce, I build up courage and shout in my best Patois accent, “One stop driva, one stop.”

I shout louder than needed, trying to sound Jamaican, to become Jamaican. “One stop, driva, one stop,” these words become my morning mantra. In my mind I practice them trying to perfect the accents, the pronunciation. One stop, driva, one stop rolling over and again in my thoughts, meaning let me off the bus, allow me to explore Downtown in its worn splendor. Give me a chance at another day of work, even if it becomes a workday of little progress. But what I do accomplish is each day I see Jamaica and each day I shout, “One stop driva, one stop,” sounding just a bit more like a Jamaican though each day I struggle to understand how to rectify my privilege with the oppression that occurs daily. And I do worry that George may be right, that somewhere within my privilege, within my culture, lurks a devil. How many bus rides will it take to figure it out, to accept it, to rectify it?

The brakes squeal in dissent as the driva pulls over. I step down from the bus and land on a trash littered sidewalk. The #61 bus lumbers away, leaving me alone. A hot city breeze washes the smell of burning rubber mixed with rotting flesh over me. I look around and find what I expect—a smoldering tire placed upon a dead dog. The dog was probably hit by a car and once it began to rot someone tossed an abondoned tire on the carcass. The heat and flames consume tire, dog, and stench. Behind the flaming mound, a building lies in rubble, only the arch of a doorway remains. I turn and walk towards the Jamaican Chamber of Commerce.
A higgler selling coconuts yells, “Buy an ice cold jelly, white mahn.”

I look at the higgler in tattered pants and an unbuttoned short sleeved business shirt like the one I wear, except the higgler’s shirt carries stains and smudges across it from too many wearings. He smiles and his white teeth beckon me. I walk to the higgler and his push cart, which is nothing more than a broken refrigerator mounted horizontally on wheels.

“ Me wan one jelly.”

The higgler overturns a five-gallon plastic container, “Sit down an reason with me, nah?”

I take a seat as the higgler picks a coconut from the refrigerator and grabs a large machete lying on the ground. He then hands me the shell. I reach out with expectant hands and pull the hard fruit to lips.

I drink deeply—the viscous milk slides down my throat and I am thankful to be able to afford this coconut jelly, to support this tattered economy, and to reason with the higgler.

“ What you name, white mahn?”

“ Sean. And yours?”

“ Mi friends call me Juice Mahn. You call me that.” He extends his clenched hand. I offer mine and we butt knuckles. “Respect.”

I take another drink from the coconut. The milk chases away the heat and stops sweat from dripping into my eyes. Juice Mahn begins talking about the PNP and the JLP and how there needs to be an end to this violence, how too many of his friends and family are dying. I listen as I sit in the heart of downtown Kingston. I sit in the heart of it all.

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Story Source: AIM Viewpoint

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