Monkey Business

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– To Tickoya Joseph for sharing Stranger Than Fiction and Gleaner Editor-in-Chief, Kaymar Jordan, for her ongoing help and support.

By Tony Deyal

I take after my father in my sense of humour. He was a truck-driver and once told me about this “loader” who was assigned to work with him. They were supposed to be transporting cement from the factory and, as my father complained, “Boy that handyman wasn’t handy at all.” When my father eventually found him sleeping under a tarpaulin in the back of the truck, the man’s excuse was, “Mr D (short for “Deyal”), you should know that empty bag can’t stand-up.” My father explained to all of us, “What he mean was that all he was handy with was food and he wanted me to give him something to eat before he lift up any cement bag.” My father continued, “Well I buy him four ‘hops bread’, a quarter pound of cheese and a Coco-cola and I tell him, ‘Eat and then stop loafing and start loading.’”
My father went to get his breakfast and upon returning, not a bag on the truck and the loader seemed to have gone AWOL. “Well ah went looking for him,” my father said with a smile, “and I couldn’t find him anywhere, not even under the tarpaulin. Then I find him in the loading room behind the pile-up cement bags sleeping. I wake him up. I was upset and say, ‘You tell me that empty bag can’t stand-up and I give you food and you eat it and then you gone straight back to sleep? You come here to work not to sleep!’” My father, took a drink and continued, “The man look at me, he wipe his eyes and then tell me bold-face and full of talk, ‘But Mr D. You don’t know that full bag can’t bend?’”

While my father had no tolerance for “lazy” people, he had a weakness for alcohol and even as a boy cutting grass in the cane fields, from the age of seven he would “take one” with the older men. He was always brave enough to climb the highest trees around, especially if they had avocadoes (known to most of us in Trinidad as “zabocca”). Because of the speed with which he climbed, everybody in the village knew my father as “Monkey” and, despite his own many shortcomings (including his height), they called him “Monk” for short. I eventually laughed when I learnt more about the English language.

I found out that a Catholic priest would also be called a “Monk” and whether it was my father or one of that lot, “Monk” was definitely a four-letter word. My father never felt content, happy or even high unless he had over-proof “Puncheon (White) Rum” in a shot glass chased down with some water. One day, accidentally, he drank his shot, thought the bottle next to it was water and took a second shot. The people in the bar still talk about that day when “Monkey” didn’t know what tree to climb.

This is why, when one of the two newspapers that have carried my work for the past thirty years, The Jamaica Gleaner (the other is the Barbados Nation which was the first to use it) started a series called “Stranger Than Fiction” I was immediately interested. In the Caribbean I can understand, “Stranger Than Diction” since Jamaicans say “Hackee” for what most of the rest of us call “Ackee”. They also say “Abit” for “Habit” and it is not only a bad habit but they do it “H’often”.  However, I “H’andastan” the people well enough and since I say “bhagee” or “spinach” for what they call “callaloo”, I should stop behaving “H’ignorant”.

It is even worse when “Stranger Than Friction” runs into Diction. There is an old joke about a man of Chines descent who walked into the currency exchange section of a bank in New York City. He went in with 2100 yuan and walked out with $300. The following week, he walked in with another 2100 yuan, and was handed $276. He asked the teller why he got less money that week than the previous week. The teller said, “Fluctuations.” The Chinese man stormed out, and just before slamming the door, turned around and shouted, “Fluc you Amelicans, too!”

I became a total fan of the “Fiction” column when my father starred in it. In an article entitled “Humans inherited their love of alcohol from monkeys”, I thought immediately about my father and wondered if the researchers found him as the missing link. However, their theory is based on modern-day apes who are attracted by over-ripe fermented fruit. The experts claim that millions of years ago, the smell of alcohol led our ancestors to ripe and nutritious fruit. I can see my father and his friends with the monkeys, tails and hands linked in friendship, singing, “Rum till I die/ Rum till I die/ She tell me she don’t love me/ And that’s the reason why.”  

What is even more interesting is that an analysis of the urine from black-handed spider monkeys in Panama proves that the theory still has weight and that is not just proof, it is over-proof! Professor Christina Campbell, from California State University, said: “For the first time, we have been able to show, without a shadow of a doubt, that wild primates, with no human interaction, consume fruit containing ethanol. This is just one study, and more needs to be done, but it looks like there may be some truth to that ‘drunken monkey’ hypothesis.”

Given that my mother and I had to live with a “drunken monkey” for so long, it was always more than a hypothesis for us. What helped a bit was that my father was very quiet when he was sober and was generally a lot of fun when he was drunk. He sang, played the harmonium and made jokes. However, depending on who he was with, he would sometimes end up gambling and inevitably came home with a big smile and no money. This was my mother’s jurisdiction and when she laid into him, if you thought that Stranger Than Fiction, Friction or Diction were bad, you would have learnt that the worst is dereliction.

My father got demoted from “Monkey” to “Monk” and got a benediction from my mother that was not just worthy of his malediction, but very scornful of his addiction. However, what was most interesting was the contradiction. He would fall asleep snoring drunk but at four in the morning she would shake him awake, give him his breakfast of coffee and a piece of roti or bread, hand him his packed food in his bag, and he would head out to work, even when he had been fired the night before by his boss for drinking on the job.

*Tony Deyal was last seen remembering when he ran out of the car as soon as they reached the beach and his father called him back and laid down the law, “Eat your food first. When you dead they does bathe you but they don’t feed you.”

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