By Anthony Deyal
There is a character in German literature and folklore called the “Sandman” who puts people to sleep and encourages and inspires beautiful dreams by sprinkling magical sand onto their eyes. The sand in Siparia, Trinidad, the southern town to which we moved when I was eleven, was everywhere as were the chiggers (pronounced “jiggers”) which I did not know anything about until I got too big for my boots. The creatures had lodged under my skin and while my feet were swollen, I was feeling very far from swell. I learnt, however, that sprinkling sand in the eye of anyone was a good self-defence strategy provided that they did not wear sunshades or glasses and you were able to run really fast. In other words, as Usain Bolt might say when running the 200 metres, the future is in your lap.
I had left Picadilly E.C. School in Port of Spain which was shunned because it was “behind the bridge” to live in an area of Siparia, the oilfield town in the deep south of Trinidad, that was “behind the Savannah” or what, because Siparia has sand instead of dirt or clay, we called the “Sand-vannah”. My parents hoped I would settle in and settle down to my studies so I could get a scholarship to go to secondary school. I actually exceeded their hopes because I settled into the culture of Siparia far too quickly.
Apart from playing cricket or football in the evenings after school or work, we had nothing to do but hang out or “lime” under the streetlight where we gambled, told tall tales and delved into other people’s business. 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” (later “Peyton Place”), which had no streets, no lights, was linked by tracks in the sands and harboured fugitives from the law who were “cooling out”, we always had a lot to talk about, and even more to hide from the police.
Some of my friends who left school early to “learn trade” (become apprentices in garages or with carpenters, masons or electricians) were not successful either in the accumulation of wealth or its management. There was Nolan, the cattle thief, who when caught with Miss Popely’s cow that she had tied in the “San-vannah”, told the police that he saw this piece of rope on the ground and picked it up intending to use it to tie his goat. He did not realise there was a cow at the end of it. The problem is that Nolan did not own even a second pair of pants at the time, much less a goat. Then there was the day the police raided a card game in a corn-field in the back of the alley.
In a desperate effort to save themselves from being beaten with police “bull pistles”, Nolan and his father, Papa Shewey, ran to the same outdoor, rickety latrine, with boards sticking out on the side, and while hurrying to take their pants off, started to fight for the right to the seat. At that point, the fastest of our runners, Jimmy, took off so quickly that all you could see was the parting of the corn as he whizzed through. I doubt he saw the tightly nailed board which jutted out on the side of the facility. Jimmy hit it with his right shoulder and the pain spurred him on to even greater speed. Unfortunately, he did not look back to see that he had caused the latrine to lose its moorings, taking Nolan and his father along with it in a scramble of legs, arms, rusty galvanize and bits of “Gazette” paper. It was a wipeout.
One story I have not forgotten because of its moral, or lack of it, is the one about my recently deceased, quiet but deadly friend Ross whose last name was, significantly, “Arson.” He, the accurate “pelter” of beer-bottles named “Bread Boy” because his parents owned a bakery, and Boyie, who later ended in charge of a gambling club in La Brea, had an early stint in the Youth Training Centre (YTC) and came out worse criminals than when they went in for assault with intent. They robbed a man and threw him into an oil tank.
I met them when they returned and maybe they identified me as a kindred spirit, or perhaps they felt sorry for me, but all three, especially Ross, adopted me. He had stolen a whole roll of tickets for the Siparia Plaza Cinema and anytime that colour (yellow) was used, we went to the show for free. What I will never forget is one All-Saints night when I took time out from studying for my “A” Levels (the CAPE equivalent) to hang out with my girlfriend in the crowded cemetery. While everybody was busy lighting candles, three boys of about my age started to harass my friend. As I ran towards them, intending to fight, I was rudely pushed aside, Ross growled quietly, “You have exam to write” and he beat up the three boys and left them lying in the sand. No cussing, no shouting, and he disappeared without another word.
Ross never worked in his life. He was always maintained by at least one woman. When the one he was living with was transferred to Port of Spain he had to go with her so he asked a couple of the guys what he should do in Port of Spain to make sure he wasn’t terrorised by the “bad johns” there. I’m not sure if it is Bread Boy who advised him to go into “town” (as we called it), find the biggest bad-john around and “buss” his head. Later, as I read history and strategy, I realised that as a tactic it was well-known and used over the years, and even had a better than even chance for a King and his army to gain “nuff” respect.
So, Ross went up to town, entered a busy club with the toughest men around drinking and behaving really and dangerously bad, ordered a beer and sat sipping it while looking around for the man who was most feared in the joint. When he identified the appropriate “example”, Ross quietly walked up to the man and hit him on his head with the beer bottle.
The man got angry and then, realising that Ross had not moved or said anything, muttered, “This is a mad feller here. Better leave him alone before he kill somebody.” Even the worst criminals in the city never went too close to Ross after that. In later life Ross followed his lady to Montreal where he was supposedly a hired gun. However, even now, I look back to those days in Siparia and still remember the lesson Ross taught me from early in my life. It was that in Siparia, because of its geology, it is easy to have sand in your shoes, but in the bigger, more dangerous world we live in, (as Mark Twain wrote in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”) it is much better to have the sand in your craw.
*Tony Deyal was last seen recalling a Western movie line Ross constantly quoted, “There never was a horse that couldn’t be rode; there never was a rider that couldn’t be throwed.”