Wednesday, July 13, 1977

Woke up at 6:30. (My) Temperature was 37.1. Pops laughed and said that I was excited about Karlene's letter and (???), so my temperature went up. Washed, dressed. Covered dog shit (spelled with phonetic symbols). Rested, while mom washed clothes. Then Pops went to Biscayne. We studied Karlene's handwriting. Hear
d "Strange Homecoming" (on the radio). We cleaned our room while Mom and Pop cooked - Mr. O's instruction. T & I ate in our bedroom. Rested. Got up. Temp was 37.00. Showered, p.j.'s supper, "Dulcimina." Bed.

I ate:
  • Breakfast - 2 bananas, 1 mango, 1 slice pawpaw
  • Lunch - Lentils and sardines and cornmeal soup, cornmeal hushpuppies, pawpaw/ mangoes/otahite apple/grapefruit/banana/curry salad, red herring and peppers
  • Supper - 1 1/4 hush puppies, (more fruit salad).
I've been thinking about 1977. On the subway these days there are ads for "The Bronx Is Burning", a mini-series on ESPN. I missed the first episode; I have to catch up. To a New Yorker, 1977 was the year of The Black Out, Son of Sam, The Yankees and Reggie Jackson.

In 1977 my world changed dramatically. Monumentally. On July 13, 1977, the day of the New York black out, we weren't here yet. We didn't yet know that life as we knew it was going to change. I was 12. We heard about the Black Out and the looting on the radio. It made the fabulous and far away Big Apple seem just as scary and out of control as Kingston, Jamaica, with its "Gun Court" and random police detentions, poverty and political lawlessness. But I didn't learn about Son of Sam until way later in the year. We lived 10 miles east of Kingston, about a mile south of a tiny little town known as Bull Bay. Everyone knew we were American, but unlike other Americans who lived a transplanted middle-class life, we were living at about the same level as most of the population, and blended in so well that the government--who had been looking for us on expired passports--hadn't been able to find us. My sister and I spoke fluent Jamaican "patois" with no hint of an accent. We spoke so well my mother forbade us to speak Jamaican in the house, where we spoke only Standard American English, or practiced our British English.

We lived in a three bedroom concrete brick house with a flat roof. Stairs went up the side of the house so that you could sit on the roof. The Professor and I shared the front room, the parents had the back room (the rooms had been switched when Poppy discovered that at night, I was sneaking out the back bedroom door and prowling the yard in the middle of the night. His switching the rooms didn't really stop me; it just made it a little more difficult as I had to sneak out the kitchen door instead and if I remember, the door had a little "catch" to it.) and the third room, on the other side of the house, was used as Poppy's office where he would go to write. The windows were plentiful and made with those louvered glass slats common in hurricane-prone areas. On the outside of the house, there was a large crack running diagonally from the front center of our bedroom to the corner of the house; the foundation, built in sand, had settled. We had electricity, but we didn't have a refrigerator or a stove. Television was a non-entity. Not too many people had them where we lived, and even if they did, TV was only broadcast a few hours a day. But everybody had a radio and listened to "RJR". It was the only station other than "JBC".

Poppy had dug a shallow pit in the back yard sand, and put the metal rim of an old truck tire in it, lined it with large rocks and at least once a day, sometimes twice, we'd line the pit with crumpled newspaper (the Daily Gleaner or the Star), sprinkle the paper with dried twig fragments (kindling) and then lay larger twigs criss-cross across the top. Then larger, greener logs would go on top of that, layered "log cabin" style.

When you lit the paper, it would go up rapidly, catching fire to the kindling and then settling into a slow burn when the flames reached the greener logs. Eventually the fire would settle into the pit and turn to hot coal and we'd set a heavy iron pot--a "dutchie" on top of the coals (or sitting on the ring of rocks) and cook whatever was for "supper". I said earlier that I'm a great outdoor cook... this is why. We cooked scrambled eggs, hush puppies, soups, chicken... anything, on that stove.

We had a dog, Greta who was very bright and loving. She was silky black with a white face and four white paws, a white belly and a white tip on her tail. She'd had three puppies by Rex, the atrociously ugly mutt that lived across the street, and I had witnessed the birth. There was Guerly who was mine (named after my mother's Eau Du Guerlaine perfume), Dumas (my father claimed him; he looked like Greta) and Baby, who was my sister's. Baby was the "runt", and was all smooth and jet black. There were cats, too, but the only name I remember is Pushkin. I think the cats had all died. Baby had drowned in the outdoor drain, trying to lick the sardine oil that had washed down from the kitchen sink.

We ate a lot of sardines. The Professor and I joke that we knew 365 ways to cook sardines. Because of that, I get cravings for sardines every so often but the only ones I can stomach are the little ones in oil. We ate cans and cans of the big ones in tomato sauce. The other thing we ate too much of was pawpaw; he had a tree on the side of the house and discovered that green pawpaw, boiled and served like a vegetable, helped to stretch out the meal. Unlike sardines, I will never eat pawpaw (Papaya) ever again.

We were homeschooled, though probably in today's politically correct jargon, we were being "unschooled." Except the future Professor, 9 years old, had never been to a school in the first place, and I had only gone a few years. I read very well; much better than my Sun does now. It was the only thing to do and I read everything; books, magazines, the newspaper. I taught the Professor to read before we'd been evicted from our house in Kingston three years earlier, and she read as much as I did.

In Jamaica, most kids--the ones who went to school anyway--wore uniforms and we told Poppy that if he was going to teach us, we needed uniforms, too. So he got them; navy tunics with light blue shirts and we'd dress in them, leave out the front door of the house, walk up the hill to the main road and then down through the brush and come in through the side door into Poppy's "office". Poppy would become "Mr. Winfield" our teacher and we learned useful subjects like world history (where we studied "Pink People's" stories and Greek Mythology) and spoken English (using phonetic pronunciation symbols). Pretty soon, you wouldn't be able to tell us from any proper British kid. Sometimes in "English" we'd read excerpts from our diaries, but usually that was reserved for Saturday's Sabbath Service. At the end of the Service we'd pick a day from the week past, and each of us would read our diary from that day.

My mother somehow never got a "teacher" name, but she taught us math (adding up how much food we could buy with the little bit of money there was), sewing, and Home Economics (cleaning the house).

I guess in July of '77 we were on vacation, because there is no mention of school.

The only other house on our little cul de sac street was owned by a man who's wife had left him the year before, taking her oldest daughter. I realize looking back that the oldest daughter probably wasn't his, anyway. The mother had, for awhile, left her younger daughter (who was a little older than me) and son, (who was about my age) with their father and he would beat them regularly. Especially the daughter. I remember going over across the street one day and my freind had a black eye that she tried to hide under a floppy, plaid hat. The family moved back to Kingston, leaving the house in the care of Ms. Mathis, the housekeeper/cook who came every other day or so, and Speedy the "yardboy" who was pretty much there all the time. The dogs, including the atrociously ugly Rex, stayed behind as well. I often wonder whatever happened to the kids...

On the south side of our house was an unfinished house construction that started maybe a year after we first moved in. They had never gotten any further than attempting to lay a foundation since the shifting sands prevented it, and the workers all packed up and left. Beyond that lay a road that ended perpendicular to our house and then turned into a foot path eastward. Beyond the road lay the beach. The water was very choppy with a strong undertow, and we were wise--or lucky--to never go swimming there. On the north side of the house lay a lake that would periodically stink like sulfur, and all the ugly little cat-fish-like fish would die and float belly up. We couldn't figure out if it was a natural occurrence or if something was being dumped there. But it was awful, and probably poisoned the cats. There were big nasty-looking toads too, but they came out at night and took over the yard. I stepped on once; it was smooth and cold and when I jumped damn near out of my skin, it hopped away. Beyond the lake lay the road to Kingston and then a mountain. To the west of us were a smattering of houses; one was owned and lived in by our landlady, and another was owned by her son. He was a dj at the radio station but he was also a little nuts. Behind us, the east of us was a mountain we were told was called Sugarloaf. It was very pointy--almost looking like a volcano. As a matter of fact, it's situated at the curve of the bay, much like the Sugarloaf in Brazil. Maybe that's why it was called that...

For the next few weeks, I'll post my day as it was written in 1977. I'll add pictures as I find them. Consider it part of "Tales From La Vida Low Budget." I know huge chunks of the story are still missing; the only time I wrote about it we had just left New York for Paris, and there's all that stuff to go over and to explain how we got to Jamaica in the first place, but if I keep trying to be anal and do it all in order, it will never get told. So periodically I'll try to "flashback" but for now, just jump in and take the trip. Get sucked into the Family Vortex..... that's how it is if you met me in real life, anyway....


Regina said…
I absolutely LOVE the way you write! If you ever write a book, I will be first in line at the store! You just carried me off to a place I have never ever been, and I can see it all as if you had posted a photo of it.

More - I can't wait for more!!!

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