Based on real events, with little added and little taken away. WARNING, some crude language.
I looked toward the five men standing ahead of me, on the corner of the street. Then, I felt a thud and my car was facing nose down.
“You never see the hole?” Clearly, I hadn’t. One man, a few yards away, holding a beer bottle, grumbled: “Him no see de bloodclaat ‘ole, an’ we a shout ‘im!” I looked at him and asked what ‘Whoi!’ meant. Why not ‘Stop!’
I don’t think it occurred to them that a vague yell from a group of men on a street corner in a run down part of a city could have many meanings, like ‘another car is coming’ or ‘something dropped from the car’, or the first of a series of threats.
One of the men came over and we looked at the car, stuck in the hole. “Try to drive it backways. If dat nuh work, we ‘a go lif’ it,” another man said. I got in and started the car. Wheels spun, but no movement. “Come!” A group of men came to the car, and started to hoist the front. I tried to drive again; no joy. “We need to buil’ a ramp,” my first helper said. Several men went to find some board and a rock to place under the front tyres. Ramp installed. Rock it. Rock it. Engine rolling. Movement. “Wait! It a leak! De transmission mash up!” We pored over the stream of pinkish fluid coming from under the car. “Shut off the engine!”
They pushed the car a few yards into the street and a young man, wearing a Rasta-coloured ganzee, said he’d take me to find a mechanic. The street, largely deserted and showing so signs of prosperity, felt like the empty set of a ‘spaghetti’ western; maybe, we should call it a ‘tropical western’.
We walked to a building with a wooden doorway and the youth called out: “Laughie!” It eerie. A man came out and looked at the car, interested but not certain. We went back to the car, and pushed it up to the ‘garage’. “Bway, mi nuh know…” said the uncertain man. One of the pushers, brown-skinned, dressed only in pants, holding a spliff, took control: “Me a go call Bunny.” Spliff in hand, and walking with a purpose as if to find ‘The Sheriff’, he took me with him and we arrived at another building with a boarded front. “Bunny! We have a man who need you.” A man, Bunny, appeared, and walked back to where the car was parked. He looked at the leak. “Nuh good,” he said gruffly. “Push it down by mi yard,” he added. Four men and me at the wheel, pushing and steering, with no power to the wheels, round two corners. We got there. Positioned. Repositioned. Repositioned again. Bunny decided better to put it inside of his ‘garage’, so we positioned again, past a wrecker parked in the street.
The four men who had helped me move the car now waited for their payment. I didn’t negotiate, but just reasoned that $200 would seem like a cheap try (that’s less that US$1.60 at current rates), but could buy a lunch from a cook shop–chicken back and rice was about $150. But, $500 should stop any argument, and I gave the half-naked spliff smoker $2000 to share between the four (that’s about US$16). They were happy; that was the aim. “Good luck to you, Bossy!” I told them that I would plan to complain to the Mayor. “Do that, then we can get the work to fix the trench.” I only half believed him because right now the trench was a source of revenue for him and his cowboys friends. Why stand at a cross roads, where nothing much happened except hapless drivers rolling into a trench and needing to be helped out. Simple economics, that. So, the ‘eat a food’ system worked. Live with the things that don’t work, fix them and gain from that. Repeat.
The garage was like a scrapyard. It was also like the scene of a dark film, where not-good things were going to happen. All it lacked was the background music. I tried to stay relaxed. Who or what was buried under the pile of sawdust smoldering on the floor? But, no need to be macabre.
Bunny got to work, and called his side-kick, ‘Blacka’, to help him try to disassemble the engine casings to get at the transmission lines. Under the car he went, lying on a shiny board that was once a door from a wooden cabinet–nothing but the best. Some of the pieces to be movedfrom the car were simple to reach; others needed more thinking and manoevering. Bunny decided he had to take off a wheel to get at the engine casing better. “Come, Blacka! Pull off di w’eel!” Blacka, like an obedient elf in Santa’s grotto, got working with the jack and the wheel wrench.
Watching all this was another man, standing in his short-sleeved shirt and pants, and wearing a flat cap. “Ooh! Ooh!” he groaned. His contributions seemed limited. But, as time passed, I realized he was the levity to keep matters easy. He has the stories Bunny couldn’t tell from under the car, much as a dental assistant might have jokes while the dentist is drilling and probing. This was ‘Mr. Dunbar’.
He was the one who ‘explained’ about Bunny’s baby mother. She’d come by and stood in the garage doorway, heavily pregnant and asked ambiguously “Bunny, you wan’ me fi lif’ anything?” She stood there, profiling for about 10 minutes, showing off the ‘lifting’ Bunny had already done. I’d met one of their children earlier, who ‘carried’ the name ‘Nickwanda’. He was playing with his grandmother, who looked like she was no more than 30. I heard the baby mother already had four children. What were they breeding the children for? It was a sport? A rite of passage? A way of having more power and influence? Who was catering for them all? Sure, Bunny (what name for a man who sired so many children?) could earn good money from fixing cars, and while I was with him a steady stream of people came by with a series of problems, small and big, not all to do with cars.
I had driven into the hole at about 10:15, and it was now nearly 11. I thought ahead. I had no idea what this job would involve, so decided to put a plan in place to collect my daughter from school and get her to afternoon swim practice. That way, my mind could focus on getting nowhere fast. The call to my wife’s office wasn’t without incident, as I had a conversation where I could hear but the other person couldn’t. Breathe in. Breathe out. Eventually, we arranged a driver would do school pick-up.
I was getting thirsty; we’d had a long series of very hot days in Jamaica and though down by the Kingston waterfront, hardly any breeze touched us. I asked where I could get some water. Bunny took a break and we headed across the street, to a boarded building front. He pushed open a small door and we entered a ‘compound’, where two women were combing their hair. “Gimme a wata!” Bunny ordered. A little boy was sitting at the feet of one of the women, shyly hiding; he looked about two, just under, maybe. This was Nickwanda. I asked the woman, whom I thought was the mother, how he got that name. “A so im fada name him,” she said, looking over to Bunny. I had no argument with that. I paid, and we headed back to my lame car.
Wheel off. Engine casing out: it had been sent off to another place to have a dent knocked out. I had no idea when that had happened, or where that beating it was going on. Rather it, than me, though, and I wondered briefly if all was going to stay simple.
‘Dunbar’, as everyone called him, was still hanging around. I was a little tense and joked about a few things.
While I’d been waiting for the work to start, I had made up a few silly rhymes that seemed to fit this strange setting:
I came downtown to get some papers
Now I find I’m in these capers
With mean who could be theirs and rapers
Would I be missed, I cant say sir…
Dunbar had been listening and completed me on my lyrics. While I was seating in the ‘waiting area’ of the carnage–a seat made of a piece of plywood set between a welded iron frame, I had nothing but time and creative juices to use. I looked around and asked how they came to be in this place. I noticed the tree that was inside the garage gave excellent shade. Hot though it was, it would have been roasting without the tree. “It jus grow up after we moved here,” Dunbar explained. Birds were in the tree and now and again small insects would fall to the ground. I asked what kind of tree and birds were with us. No one knew the type of tree, so it was a ‘bird-feeding tree’. No need to explore more.
I wondered at the old cars sitting around us. Were they abandoned, never to be claimed and so Bunny’s to use as he wished? My mind strayed to think if they were stolen and just scrapped. But, most still had a license plate, so that would make sense for stolen cars. Dunbar broke my thoughts with some mention of Bunny’s ‘exclusive’ woman. I presumed that was another woman that Bunny had sex with, either because his baby mother was pregnant or because that’s just what many men do, especially one that had steady money and plenty of it. We allude to ‘bananas’ and ‘plantains’. Another rhyme came into my head:
Bunny get out him plantain
From then he wasn’t wantin’
He could give the woman somethin’
With much humping and gruntin’
Bunny and Dunbar laughed: “Dis man have lyrics!” Bunny’s body was shaking under the car as he tried to laugh and not do himself damage. Dunbar grabbed a cigarette. Bunny called out from under the car: “I am the big plantain. Dunbar is the black banana! Hear that, Dunbar?”
Dunbar pulled up his shirt and showed me a belly that was not excessively big, but round. He could have been six months pregnant, but I didn’t dare ask. “When I got gun shot and they sowed me up again, they did something to my bladder and now I can’t go to the toilet the right way,” he said. I wondered what was the ‘right way’. Did he have to stoop? Or was it that his bladder had little control? I wanted to go for a pee and asked where I could go. “You is a man! Go inna di corner. Nobody gwan bodda you!” Bunny urged. We then had a long conversation about the damage that can be done by not following the urge to pee. Dunbar was well-informed on that. He ended his explanation as he got a call. I sneaked off to the corner, and noticed that the ‘toilet’ had a drainage channel out into the street; truly a convenience.
Without any warning, a commotion started outside the garage and I could hear men’s raised voices. “How much him wan fi dem?” one voice asked. Bunny slid from under the car and went outside. He joined the argument quickly. “Give him a $1000…Gimme 7 bills, he already have $300,” Bunny said. The man rolled his eyes. He complained that he’d paid the boatman $500 for gas to go to sea; $1000 wouldn’t do. Four men stood by the vendor. His handcart laden with ugly conch. But it was Conch man against the world. Dunbar took up one of the shells: “Clean it off and make nice soup…” My wife wouldn’t think these conch should go anywhere near a human’s mouth. But, the deal was done. Happiness was not important, but money was. Money wins.
Back inside the garage, Bunny got back to work. Dunbar started muttering: “31, 31, that ha fi play. 31. Cashpot draw 31. I realised that he had been noting some of the numbers on my car licence plate. That’s how the lottery gambler ‘feels’ the numbers. The car was a sign. Luck may be hidden in the incident. Dunbar got up and walked out of the garage.
He was gone about ten minutes, then came back with an aluminium pan–a real cash pot. “Me play di number!”
Dunbar got into some stories about previous gambling adventures, including how he had come across a car with a trunk full of money, and what he did with it.
Time had moved fast and it was not well into the afternoon, about 1.30pm. I asked Bunny how things were looking: “Good, man. We a get you straight.” He must have thought I needed convincing, with many pieces of my car engine on the floor or outside the car. Then, he shattered my calm. “Blood claat! How de peeple buil’ engine so?” I didn’t immediately understand the problem but did quickly. The reservoir for the transmission fluid was not a simple case with a cap, but an area hard to reach at the bottom of the engine and it needed a special tool to remove the cap that would allow it to be refilled. “Damn Germans smart, to rahtid!” bunny got up and paced around, then went out of the garage. He came back about ten minutes later and went back to work, this time sitting beside the wheel. He probed and pushed. “Bitch!” His head leaned under the wheel arch, and probed and twisted. “Damn bitch! You a go come out!” Then he looked up with a toothy grin. “Beat Bunny? No sah!” He had a small bolt in his fingers, and waved it. Now we can get somewhere he signalled.
Bunny said he had needed to get back my casing that had been worked on. He needed money to pay and told me to give him $2500, after he’d negotiated that instead of $3000. I was no wiser, and handed over the few remaining Jamaican bills I had, but it wasnt enough. I had some US dollars in my bag, so pulled out those and asked if that might work. No problem: US20 would cover the bill. Bunny strode away. He came back with the repaired casing. “We’re ready to go, now,” he said, and was again under the car.
Dunbar and I got talking about ‘life’ and women. “Imagine! Di woman tek picture of her fat pussy and sen’ it to the man! Why she do that? Dem t’ing should be private.” More breeding rituals? I could only imagine what was going through the woman’s mind, and what she expected from the man or men who got the ‘calling cards’.
Blacka went to get a tube of silicon and started to prepare the gasket for the casing. He passed it to Bunny, now working like a surgeon on his back. He was speaking with a little lift in his voice. I was happy, too, as we seemed to have turned the corner with the work, glad that I was not having thoughts about how to make my afternoon duty trips. Bunny sent Blacka off to buy some transmission fluid. Like everything else, there were places to buy thought they were hard to see, or even guess at. Bunny slid out. He looked around for a funnel. Found, he positioned it over the engine. He needed a longer nozzle to reach the opening for the fluid tank. He found some old garden hose and poured some fluid into it, looped it, then walked around shaking and swinging it to remove the dust that might be in it. “We dont want any dirt going into that engine,” he muttered. He then emptied the hose and blew into it, again, again, shook it out, blew into it again.
Blacka came back. Bunny got to work, like he was holding a drip feed over a patient: one bottle, another, a third. All looked good, but… “Bombo claat! Where it a leak?” Bunny looked at the little drips plopping onto the cardboard that was under the engine. He went under again. My heart sank. All this time and it was not yet fixed. The gasket had shifted while Bunny had been resetting, and he had to undo it and reposition it carefully. He and Blacka put a cut plastic bottle underneath and let some of the fluid drain and not be wasted. Bunny got working again and the repositioning took another 15 minutes. He wiped. He peered. He wiped again. “Done!” he crowed. “Let’s put everything back in, now.”He and Blacka gathered parts and started to put them back under the bonnet–battery, filter, manifolds–nothing was just press and click and some of the screws were hard to manage, but little by little, the pieces went back in.They worked about 30 minutes to get the engine back into proper state, with Bunny rubbing together the two poles of the battery to ‘reset’ the engine. Then Bunny needed to replace a big plate under the engine, that was there to catch fluids and protect the underside of the engine area. Six screws and a little wiggling and Bunny slid out again, beaming. “Blacka, put on back di w’heel!”
Blacka worked to position the tyre and start to replace the bolts. That took about 10 minutes. “You sure dem bang?” Bunny asked, and Blacka gave the wheel wrench another little crank on each bolt. The car looked ready. “Come! Let’s go test it.” Bunny rubbed his hands clean, then took off his shirt, shook dust out of it, and then put it on again. He nosed me towards the car, asked if I had some paper to put on the seats, and told me to jump into the passenger seat.
Bunny turned into Lewis Hamilton, as he backed the car out into the road, then gunned the engine to head fast along the 50 metres to the junction with Harbour Street. Bunny turned the wheel and we then headed at breakneck speed around the block and back up towards North Street. Another left, there, and another left and we were back ‘home’. I’d never been that fast down narrow streets, before. Or, was it that someone else was driving that made it seem so fast? “She good, now.” Bunny handed me the key and got out of the car. “What’s the damage?” I asked Bunny. “Well, if you did tek it to di farriner dem a woulda easy US$300 dem woulda charge you. So, seh US$200,” he explained. I understood, and offered him US$150. He took it. “You good, man, no problem,” he said as he folded the notes and put them into his pocket.
I promised to bring him some nice tee-shirts next week, when I had to go back to finish my business with the police. “That’d be nice,” Bunny said.
I started my journey home, and say a young woman walking with two toddlers in hand towards the waterfront. Ironically, they were passing a light post with ‘POW’ scrawled on it. Prisoners of War? A social war. Imprisoned? Just living the life they had to? Should I mention that the main penitentiary was a block away to the east?
Was it just an odd coincidence that on the radio they were playing a flashback interview? It was 2010; west Kingston; people living in Tivoli Gardens under the ‘care’ of ‘The President’, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. People spoke about the life they ‘had to live’ because nothing much was happening to change their lives. Tivoli was not the same as the area in east Kingston where I had spent most of my day. Tivoli was a warren of newer apartment blocks that huddled people together into a ‘community’. Where I had been still had all the shape and texture of Kingston from the days when I growing up as a boy there in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The main change was that the homes and businesses were mainly hidden in what looked like gutted buildings. Gutted of their original purpose, maybe, but filled with lives.
One woman being interviewed talked about how Dudas was good to them. He made sure children went to school, funded parties for them, made sure they had supplies of ‘nice’ things–name brand sneakers, Jansport backpacks. Asked if they knew how he afforded these things, she added “Me no know and me no wan’ know.” Another woman could be heard giggling in the background. Ready to turn a blind eye to the source and you don’t have to worry about your role in making the illegal legal? Many had men in prison who were not coming out soon, so had little source of income from working men. As working or non-working women, they had to do what they could to survive. I thought back to the woman who was sharing the pictures of her private parts.
So, it is, for many who’ve sunken to or always lived in that low level in Jamaica that many call ‘downtown’ in Kingston, or ‘ghetto’ in other cities. I thought about why the gunmen thrived in urban communities.