-To my friends of Cassava Alley, Trinidad, and all the other Alleys in the Caribbean. You asked for it!
By Tony Deyal
Nineteen and having got my first salary, I was under the streetlamp just up the road from my house, gambling away my money, when I heard shouts, “Police! Police!”
My family had been forced to move from the sugar cane belt of Central Trinidad to Grell Steet in the oil-field town of Siparia in the south. There, apart from playing cricket or football in the evenings, I had nothing to do but hang out or “lime” under the streetlamp where we gambled, told dirty jokes and picked the team for the next match. We constantly teased the girls passing by with endearments like, “Darling, of all my sugars you are my granulated!” or threatened their boyfriends if they were not from our neighbourhood. Because we were on the outer boundary of an area named “Cassava Alley” which had no streets, no lights and harboured fugitives from the law, we always had a lot to talk about, and even more to hide from the police.
Normally, the police avoided the “Alley” because they were not sure what they would meet there. In this case, however, they were armed with “bullpistles” (a.k.a whips made from dried bull penises). Speed was of the essence and I headed into my Chanel No. 5- Cassava Ali. I was running as if the Dogs of Hell were behind me (and maybe they were). I was sweating, blowing and about to collapse when I ran up the steps of a house and begged for help. “Hide me, Police!” I stuttered. The owner of the house made me sit on a chair next to her two grandchildren, put a cup of coffee and a plate in front of me and advised, “If the police ask you anything, tell them you teaching the children English.”
Nolan (a.k.a. Tunos)
One Carnival Monday as we were about to set off for the “best band” contest, we realised that there were no wheels on Nolan’s bass. Nolan, in the midst of a good cussing for his carelessness, said, “Wait, ah coming back jest now.” He left walking but returned on a bicycle from which he calmly stripped off the tires and put the wheels on his “pan-mobile”.
Whatever other forms of petty larceny he dabbled in, Nolan’s first love was stealing cattle. He would subsist for a while on marking cards, stealing fruits, gambling, taking candy from babies and sundry other peccadillos but then he would head straight for the nearest cowshed. He was a barn rustler. There was never a cow that he did not want to steal. He would walk into your pasture and take your cow and when the police caught him one night stealing one that was tethered in the Siparia savannah and asked, “Where you going with that cow?”
Nolan looked back and around and asked, “What cow dat? Me eh see no cow.” Another time the police saw Nolan with a rope in his hand attached to which was a cow. His explanation was, “Officer, I was standing up here good, good and this cow was passing and the rope catch up on mih foot and just as I was unwrapping it from mih foot all-you come and find me.” It didn’t work. Nolan went off to his home away from home, the Royal Jail, cowed but not daunted.
Feco and the others
One of my best friends and “liming partners” Franklin (a.k.a. Feco), was as lethal a pelter with the cricket ball as with a stone or stick “licking down” mangoes from the tallest trees. He was so deadly that not even the leathery skin of an iguana could stop a piece of molten lead propelled from Feco’s sling-shot.
Around this time, we changed the name of Cassava Alley to “Peyton Place” because of the 1956 book by Grace Metalious which became a movie and America’s first “Prime Time” tv-show. It continued for years to shock Americans (and titillate Trinidadians) with its tales of secrets, sex, and hypocrisy in a small New Hampshire town. Interestingly, nobody complained, especially the police, who felt it was the right name for our community. Our postion was that there was another “Cassava Alley” in the town of La Brea where, “All they have there is pitch. We have bacchanal like bush.”
Apart from Feco, we had Jimmy who, while running from the police, knocked down a latrine in which Nolan and his father were fighting for the right to hide. There was Mud, a young lady who was arrested for loudly changing a keyword in the Calypso, “Archie Buck Them Up”, to one that the police considered totally inappropriate. There was “Ambition” who earned the nickname because he never went anywhere without a tie. Most of all there was Ross, the first person I met who had no fear and absolutely no conscience. Once, when three men were hassling my girlfriend and I was going after them, Ross threw me down with, “You have exam to write” and left all three on the ground.
There was also Bread Boy who got his nickname because his father owned a bakery. He threw a beer bottle with deadly accuracy so we called him “Bren Gun.” One night, in a fight in a club, one of the “bad johns” was hiding behind an upturned table, popping up occasionally and throwing his bottle with relatively good aim but not hitting anyone. Bren Gun waited for him and the next time the man’s head popped up, Bren got him with a bottle straight to the forehead.
Ivan Marchand (a.k.a. Rabbi)
Rabby was our leader. He took a wild bunch of ex-convicts, would-be bandits, petty thieves, unemployed young men, gamblers, drinkers, womanisers, no-hopers and sometimes dopers, and the supposedly innocent like me and welded us into a cricket and football team that won all the competitions we entered.
Rabby was only interested in winning. What he had, more than everyone I’ve ever worked for, or with, including prime ministers, was leadership. Rabby was the best natural leader I ever met. Even though he boasted that “all his convictions were for wounding”, he did not need to resort to physical dominance – he was in charge and everyone knew it and respected him. What I have learnt since is that every country has its Rabbi, but there was only one Ivan Marchand.
I also learnt that I was not the only player in the games of Cassava Alley or other “Alleys” in the Caribbean. In my many years around the region, I have met many better and faster runners, more stories to tell, more leaders to fear or admire, more Rosses, Bread Boys and Nolans, and everywhere I went I found overwhelming proof that we have more in common than we have differences. In every “Alley” there are always characters very much like the ones I have written about.
*Tony Deyal was last seen saying if you like cricket, football, reading and jokes, you’re right up his alley.