Ecclesiastes 1:9. ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun’.
Jay stood by the gate, the white painted column to his right and the tall bushy tamarind tree at his back, both blocking him from walk foot and vehicle traffic passing by, allowing him to see everything happening on the road without anyone seeing him. These were rough times and Jay liked to keep a low profile. It was Friday night, four weeks before Christmas and two weeks before the 1976 general elections and Jay was waiting for his friend Blacka to pick him up. Jay just knew Blacka would pick him up, just like he did every Friday night and they would travel together through Kingston.
Jay had met Blacka when he needed a radiator repair man – he found him on Eastwood Park Road and Blacka fixed his Ford Anglia. Their spirits took to each other, and often times they would just sit and drink a Heineken, smoke a spliff and talk about things. Two years after their first meeting, Jay sold Blacka the Anglia – not working for 6 months, he needed the extra cash to tide him over, and used some of the money to buy an old black Honda S90 to get around on, not a ride to be wandering through Kingston on a Friday night.
Jay was 21 years old, and still hidden by the column and the tall tree, razor sharp in his black Arrow shirt, tailor made lengths and Clark’s desert boots, he started musing on friendships. He learnt early in life that when you have cash in your pocket, then friends are a dime a dozen – you can buy them a beer, or a spliff, or put on a chalice or two, or pay for them to go to a dance, but when you’re not earning you don’t see them.
Blacka was different. Blacka was the one who would check Jay now and then and see he was okay. Blacka would just pass by sometimes and give Jay a $2 note, sometimes more. And always a Heineken.
And then he heard the Anglia coming, the big muffler pulsing along Mannings Hill Road by Mary Brown’s Corner. Jay fixed his brown Kangol beret tighter on his head, walked out and got into the Anglia as Blacka pulled over by the column. Out and away before the car even fully stopped. Synchronised steppa!
Blacka handed him a Heineken. And a $2 bill. Jay said thanks, but knew he didn’t have to. Blacka was just like that, he knew Jay would buy him a beer, it was how they moved.
Down Constant Spring Road, over Sandy Gully bridge, past busy plazas and into Half Way Tree, calling out to the dreads selling pants lengths by the sidewalk, Blacka turning onto Hagley Park Road. Half Way Tree was alive.
Down the road to Three Miles, the roundabout was clear, Blacka held a second gear and the brown and white Anglia purred in and then out onto Marcus Garvey Drive and over the train line.
Blacka said he wanted to date a Twelve Tribes of Israel girl, said he liked how they moved and reasoned. Jay smiled. Jay had carried Blacka to a few Jah Love Musik sessions – Ilawi the selector and Brigadier Jerry as DJ. Blacka had been fascinated by the women with their red, gold and green wraps and their long dresses.
They turned left into Industrial Terrace and then into Tivoli. West Kingston. Tivoli was a maze of roads, and Jay knew if he had to find his own way out he would be in trouble. They parked near to a group of men sitting around a small burning fire and got out the car, the smell of ganja all around and smoke from a chalice drifting ever upwards into the dark of the night sky.
Jay sat on a concrete block to the left of a standing man in a white string vest, a huge shining gun tucked in his waist. The man held a coconut chalice in his left hand, and chanted ‘Fire bun Joshua, kill, cramp and paralyse Michael MenLie and all socialist conception, praises ever to Uncle Eddie’, before blazing the cup, hiding his upper body and head in smoke when he exhaled.
A little apprehensive when he was handed the chillum, Jay took a couple sips of the cup before passing it to his left. He was desperately hoping the chalice would not burn out on him on its return, as Jay knew he would have to light a fresh cup while giving praises. Lighting a chillum took effort, and he figured the men would be listening to every word he said. Blacka sat quietly smiling. He was enjoying himself. He knew Jay was not into politics.
They spent a couple of hours with the group, some of the men talking about politics and how the government was mashing up the country. They talked about destroying their enemies. Jay listened, nodding his head now and then when someone caught his attention with a comment.
He didn’t say much, the herb and the Heineken in his head. It’s how Jay got, a little withdrawn, and a little deep into his thoughts, thoughts now of how the political elite was wrecking Jamaica, how they brought about the tribalism that had the poor fighting and killing each other for the spoils and political patronage. He despised the politicians. They were not leaders, they were not teachers, they were vampires, only caring for what was in their own best interest, no real love for the poor of the land, making themselves rich off the back and sweat of the poor through corruption.
Jay looked up and saw Blacka talking to the man in the white string vest, the huge .357 magnum glistening in the firelight.
The next moment they were on the move again, back into the Anglia, out of Tivoli, and about 14 minutes later they drove into Arnett Gardens, lovingly called Jungle. Concrete Jungle. Another garrison community, this time allied to the government in power.
Jay sat quietly, pondering, thinking this is so near general elections and he and Blacka have driven only 14 minutes from a labourite stronghold to a socialist one.
Garrisons. Guns. Gangs. In both communities.
He shook his head and must have sighed as Blacka asked him if everything was okay.
Before Jay could respond, a dreadlocked man with three upper gold teeth, each one sparkling with a diamond shaped coloured glass – red, gold and green – got up off a stool outside a small bar on a corner and walked over to the Anglia. The dread smiled warmly and Jay realised he had met him before, but he couldn’t remember where. The dread’s teeth flashed briefly yet brightly in the glare of a street light, and he beckoned Jay and Blacka to come.
Jay got out the car and the dread took them through the bar and out the back door, picking up three Red Stripe beers from a small fridge on the counter of the bar, telling the shapely bar lady to keep a look out. Behind the bar was a yard and house, and sitting around were 5 young men, all about Jay’s age, music playing quietly from two large speaker boxes set diagonally from one another. A sixth man was playing the music. Jay remembered hearing ‘Silhouettes’ by Dennis Brown. Three dogs were lying by a mango tree at the side of the house. Minding their own business, every now and then giving a low growl, as if to say don’t worry we are not sleeping.
One of the men was cleaning a sawn-off shotgun, his upper body and head moving to the music. He worked methodically. With pride.
The dread called a youngster and told him to bring the board and chalice. Jay thought not again, he was already quiet enough, but knew he would have to join in. The Red Stripe beer was going down a treat, no more after this one Jay said to himself.
Dennis Brown again with ‘If I follow my heart’. The music was background. Nice calm lovers’ music, and Jay was enjoying himself. Being a little away from the main was good, hidden behind the bar offering solitude and distance from passing people.
The dread was now seated and cutting up the herb, the youngster who had brought it from behind the house sitting next to him. The dread introduced him as his son, he must have been about ten years old. His name was Marcus. Jay looked at the youngster who nodded his head at him. Jay nodded back. He liked it here.
Jay saw the chalice, made of grey PVC plastic and shaped like a V. Vikings? The dread blessed the offering, this time no political chants, just praises to the Highest, asking for protection from the forces of evil. Jay felt better. Much better.
The man cleaning the shotgun pushed a Honda 50 big head from the side of the house, and with the shotgun wrapped in a cloth hailed up everyone and went through a zinc side gate and out onto the road. Jay asked the dread if he would be okay, and the dread told him he was not going far, just down the road, and the area was well guarded. Jay nodded.
But he knew deep down that the shotgun was to be used in the tribal wars, whether for attack or defense. A shudder ran through him. Politics again. The so called political elite, using poor people for their ends and means. Jay hated them and what they had caused, what they were causing.
The cup was passed around, the music playing. This time Bob Marley’s Concrete Jungle, still background. Jay was deep in thought and felt a gentle touch on his right arm. He looked around and saw the dread passing him the cup, looked into his sad yet kind and gentle eyes and remembered he had met him on Long Lane, opposite the National Water Commission treatment plant. He and Blacka had given him a drive down the hill to Constant Spring. It was the eyes, the sadness that Jay saw deep within them then, and saw now, the same silent sad struggle that Jay could only wonder about. He liked the dread, a kindred spirit, a nomad walking through the trails, and trials & tribulations, of this life.
Jay knew he would be back. After elections, though. He was going to speak to Blacka, as moving like they did back and forth between ‘east and west’, between capitalism & socialism, was not safe. Too easy a target as political tribalism was just too raw, too contrived, poor people fighting for their lives and existence, for money and contracts, at the beck and call of the big man.
They both said their goodbyes and left the yard and bar, the dread’s son Marcus following them to the Anglia. Protection. It was a silent drive back to Constant Spring Road, apart from the deep purr of the car. No roadblocks tonight. Jay was glad.
When Jay was getting out of the car, Blacka said he wanted to go to the Twelve Tribes HQ next week. Jay said sure, but no more east and west for now, elections were too near. Blacka agreed.
Forty years later Jay looks back in history at Jamaica and its lack of growth, its indiscipline and criminality, it’s number 5 ranking in the world for per capita murders, it’s below standard education and its endless poverty, and he still blames and despises the political elite, those who brought tribal war to the land of wood and water, who keep the people impoverished for their own means, for votes, who all lived, and live, grown fat in their grilled & alarmed uptown houses while they manipulate the poor and less educated, the oppressed of the land.
And Jay knows that very little has changed in those 40 years. Cosmetic changes. The poor are still poor. And uneducated. What a waste of years.
With a sad and sombre look in his eyes, remembering the dread with the gold teeth, Jay thinks things may never change.
‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun’.