Quick! Your Best Smile

Yeah, my layers are thick


And I’ve got bad attitude.


Yeah that knife in my back


Has fingerprints that belong to you.


Got a grudge, got a grudge


Got a grudge that I’m holding


For as long as I like


Cuz you lied, you lied


You lied to my face


And that’s something that I can’t forgive

—Fuel My Fire, The Prodigy

Quick! Let’s see how much of ourselves we can polish up in the next two weeks. This is an urgent assignment. This is like the whole country putting on its Sunday best to go and parade for all the neighbours to see how well its doing.

I mean, who doesn’t want to look nice for their guests? So hurry up and get with the clean-up programme. Come on man, it’s just three days. We can do it! Yes we can! We can make the whole city look like a million dollars. Oh no, make that 600 million. This is no time for sticking, T&T. These last 12 days are a grace period in which we can have a total makeover! It’s like a facelift and a tummy tuck for a bored housewife. We’ll worry on April 20 about the cause of the boredom or why the housewife let herself get fat and frumpy in the first place.

Quick! Look busy. Obama is coming. And we don’t want him to think he’s coming to a meeting on some mosquito-infested banana republic. Move a little faster! This is no time to question our own leadership. This is no time to be thinking about local government elections or possibly corrupt ministers or spending millions to build a stadium on sapatay. No, no. We need to forget all of that bacchanal and get focused on the two weeks left before an even better plundering of the national coffers than Miss Universe 1998. 
This is the biggest, best mas we will ever possibly have to play. So we better play it and play it well.

Imagine all the things we’ll get for our $600 million. We’re bound to see a return on our investment, because of course Fox and CNN will be walking in the streets singing wild praises at how much like Miami our waterfront looks.
And what else do we want but the nice white people from for-eign to think that we are advanced? I mean it says it all when our buildings are taller than coconut trees.

Imagine the jealousy all our small-island neighbours are going to feel when they see our Papa Patos standing there welcoming Obama to Trinidad. It takes a real man of vision to pull off such a brilliant move. How it go look if his vision is hard to see in the La Basse smog. Quick! Say a lot of prayers that these next two weeks don’t turn rainy. We wouldn’t want to be having the Summit under water. We wouldn’t want Obama to get marooned on his way to the meeting if it rains for ten minutes.

And pray too that the guntas take a killing holiday. Pray that they’ll just go away. Or better yet, maybe we should build a platform and put a couple containers and put them on some North Coast beach to make sure they’re not in the city that weekend. Quick, let’s try and get the place looking good before the Summit, so that after it’s finished at least people will have good memories and not notice if we have to devalue the dollar or that many more thousands are going to be on the breadline.

We’re going to have to pull out all stops to make it through this one. So we’ll need all hands on deck. No pesky protesters trying to make us look bad. No stinking vagrants, no cavernous pot- holes. Quick! Can you imagine what is going to happen when all those international media come here? And God alone knows they’re going to be looking for some dirt. Quick, quick. Put some ads with cricketers and soca stars in the papers so that people don’t make out that, actually, we have had no luck securing our citizens, we don’t have a clue how to promote human prosperity and our idea of energy security and environmental sustainability is to rapidly monetise natural gas and put up a smelter and a steel mill and some ports in mangroves.

Get those streets cleaned, chop chop. Clean up nearly five decades worth of dirt congealed on city streets. Hide the human filth in the closets. Put away the street children. Hide away anything that would suggest that we have screwed up priorities and should be spending $600 million doing the things we are paying lip service to in the Summit of the Americas declaration.
Let’s put on our best smile and hope the world doesn’t notice the holes in our teeth.

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Cheerleaders in Cricket

Cheerleaders. With pompoms. It is too scandalous to believe. There I was on the Cycle Track—now a grassy knoll—asking the gods not to send the rain. Feeling happy to be in the Oval yet another time, calling down damnation on the heads of the England cricket team. I was waving my T&T flag in the gentle Oval breeze, trying to channel Tantie Merle in my movements. I was scanning the grounds, looking at the masses of my people, cricket people on their feet cheering on the West Indies team as they came out to take up their positions across the field. And there, like a big meggie in the middle of the cricket, were the cheerleaders. I thought for a second I was hallucinating. Like I think I’m hallucinating when I hear some wild rumour that Papa Patos wants to invoke the Terrorism Act during the Summit of the Americas to stop people from protesting. I mean it can’t be, can it? Cheerleaders in cricket? Why, that’s like making Trinidad mas in sweat shops in China. I guess in the whole scheme of things, pompom-toting cheerleaders are not that terrible. I mean, it could be worse. We could be kidnapping homeless people and hiding them away where the all the foreign press can’t see them. Oh no, we’re already doing that. I guess we still have culture. We still have a film industry. It’s not as if the Government has cut the funding to the T&T Film Company by 50 per cent. Oh no, they’ve done that too. I have to admit that the cheerleaders with pompoms upset me a lot. Not to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the royal cut backside England got from the West Indies. But I have to admit that half of the hoarseness and the pain in my throat came from my scandalised exclamations of rage at the sight of the pompom-toting cheerleaders. I don’t know whose idea it was. And I don’t particularly care to know either. But I suppose if you pay $600 for a sporting experience then you expect to have something completely devoid of any connection to the sport at all. Like premium-ish liquor and girls with pom poms. At least they were red, black and silvery. From what I could see on the other side of the Oval they were doing their job cheering the team on. At least somebody could learn a thing or too from their commitment and professionalism. Still, I wondered if they were being prompted when to jump up and dance and shake their pompoms for our boys. I mean I though Caribbean women didn’t need pompoms because we had bam bams? I must have it all wrong. I must be just jealous because I am not a pompom-shaking cheerleader in the $600 stand with all the beautiful people. I must be the outsider looking in. Wanting to be shiny and beautiful too. My flag sags in the dipping Oval breeze. But I refuse to be defeated by shiny cheerleaders with their Visa tot tots and designer batty riders. The woman to my right who, like a prime ministerial prophetess, declared that England would make no more than 120 runs, feeds me plantain and callaloo and buss-up shut and watercress to cool my righteous pompom indignation. I mean, seeing those cheerleaders with pompoms in cricket makes as much sense to me as the day before when I was at Phagwa celebrations at the Divali Nagar and Geeta Ramsingh of the Hindu Prachar Kendra announced that they had received a cheque of $5,000 from the Ministry of Culture for this year’s Phagwa celebrations, which includes the staging of the Pichakaree competition, among other things. Tantie Merle wherever you are, I’m so sorry. Uncle Ravi Ji, for all your work and effort to make this place a more livable place, I am so sorry. I try not to let the cheerleaders get me down. But this is hard, because they are right in my line of sight. The image of them is permanently etched in my consciousness. This is progress, yes. This is priorities and productivity. This is us being more than we could ever be. We have reached the summit of our national potential for the small fee of $600 million. And I wonder if cheerleaders with pompoms at cricket matches also feel like the country—stuck at silly point.

No We Can’t

We goin right down to the heart of the matter

Where reality bites

And illusion shatter

Right down to the heart of the matter

Desire go buss

And reality scatter

He promise the fire next time

And who eh dead

They badly wounded

—Talk Yuh Talk, 3 Canal

No we can’t. We can’t speak out.  We can’t have opinions.

No we can’t. We can’t go on air and question our leaders. We must behave. We must tow the line. We must be loyal subjects or be labelled as traitors.

No we can’t be outspoken. We can’t be satirists or investigators or analysts. We must take nice pictures of ministers.

It was a dream dreamt many years ago by a man in dark glasses who would sometimes take off his hearing aid so he didn’t have to listen to other people’s nonsense.

It was a dream he dreamt when he was putting his own mentors under house arrest for having too many radical ideas.

No we can’t.

We can’t have a functional media because that would mean there would be too many unanswered questions.

It was a dream founded in a divided society. Where big business calls the shots for small journalists and editors become the pawns and take intimidation like they take free tickets and nice food at corporate functions.

No we can’t.

We can’t be anything else but suspicious of each other. We can’t speak our truths without first wondering and agonising about who will be antagonised.

It was a dream dreamt by teeth-baring maximum leaders who set their minions on defenceless journalists. Who demand apologies for real and imagined offence.

No we can’t.

We can’t move on from this stagnant stink of self-censorship. How it go look if you say that? They go come for you. Legal or illegal. Accident or accidentally on purpose.

No we can’t.

We can’t bear to think that we have a right to speak up for ourselves. So we hold on to our hurt or become vapid exhibitionists who only read the papers to see who was in which cocktail party.

No we can’t. We can’t be Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. We can’t satirise our leaders or make fun of their mismanagement of our lives.

No we can’t.

It was a dream born out of picong and mauvais langue being no longer acceptable except on the hustings or in Parliament.

We must be all that the maximum leader wants of us. His vision is the only one that matters.

Some animals are more equal than others. But the leader says that all citizens have the right to speed up the Bus Route and through the traffic. All citizens have the right to buy gas to have outriders and air-condition on full blast. All citizens have the right to clear the traffic out of their way in the heart of the city to pull up outside an office and walk in and complain.

All citizens have a right to ignore the Media Complaints Council and private legal advice. It’s not a big deal.

No we can’t.

We can’t possibly think that change is ever going to come to this place of ignorant, quick to anger, thin-skinned leaders.

We can’t ever get out of this morass of idiocy.

We can’t get up off our backsides and select someone younger and more thoughtful, whose vision is not of his own reflection.

No we can’t.

We can’t imagine ourselves ever as anything else but good slaves, doing massa’s bidding. We can’t bear the threat of massa’s whip coming down on our backs, or worse the committed slave that sells you out for daring to try to escape your enslavers.

We can’t be anything that is not expected of us. Loyal servants, with ready smiles and words of praise.

We must not ever even suspect that there is another way. For what would be left of our leaders if they were to realise one day that we didn’t need them to be our thought police? What would they be without their control and their veiled threats but frightened old men who want to hold on to their power like they want to hold on to their thinning hair and even thinner grasp of logic and/or reality?

No we can’t.

We can’t ever forget that they need us more than we could ever need them. We can’t ever leave them alone. Who then would give their lives meaning and purpose?

No we can’t.

Lost in the Floods

You may say that I’m swimming against the tide
You may say that it’s just my sense of pride
But I still believe that no one can match our natural energy
Even though we seem to be running on empty
I still believe that we’re the land of plenty
I can still hear it in the sweet lilting way that we talk

Beloved, David Rudder

Red, black and white buntings flap in the rain. Red, black and white dresses in shop windows. Red blood spilt on black asphalt. White rain falls on my rusty galvanise roof and I wonder late into the night about people on the other side of the island whose houses are swimming.

It’s the week before Independence and the streets are hot with people bawling at the price of school books, even as sportswear outlets encourage parents to buy brand name shoes so that their children will feel good about themselves and therefore be more willing to learn.

The rain comes with as much vengeance as the heat, a sudden dread greyness descending on the city, sending shoppers, posers and commuters scampering.

In the shadow of red, white and black buntings, as Papa Patos flies around, trying to convince others to get together, hear people talking independence talk.

They are watching the fruit of their litterings bring floods to lap at their feet clad in too-expensive brand name shoes.

If the white people was still in charge, hear a woman say. If the white people was still in charge we wouldn’t have these problems. Say what you want about them, the white people know how to run a country. They put everything in place for us to run the country and what we come and do with it?

If the white people was still in charge we would of know our place in the world and it wouldn’t have floods to stop us from reaching home.

Even as New Orleans braced for another battering three years after Ms Katrina swept through to reveal that even white people in charge could run their countries inefficiently and with a startling lack of concern for poor people. Our leaders have learned well.

Red, black and white buntings flap in the rain and a pirate blasts songs about Laventille sung in a Jamaican construction. There’s a sound clash going on, between the pirates and the water rushing like Port-of-Spain is a big river.

Women in nice shoes shelter from the rain, talking loud above the din about who saw whose photos on Facebook, the most stylish mode of macoing for the upwardly mobile Trini. They talk their Independence talk about what fetes are on this weekend. What red dress they will buy to show how independent they are. They don’t need no man to buy nails for them. They are independent. They are free to shake their assets, free to spend their minimum wages, free to wear good hair made in China.

The rain eases up and people move on, returning to the regular Port-of-Spain beat. The more things change the more they stay the same. Square-jawed soldiers, big-armed with big arms, walking around, keeping the peace.

Endless jam session on the streets. The highway floods again and the Works and Transport Minister thinks it’s bizarre. He thinks it’s a man-made problem, blaming it on irresponsible citizens who denude hillsides and not at all on an irresponsible government deregulating the quarrying industry and rabid concretisation by big and small business.

Red, black and white buntings flap in the breeze like flags in a fete, and on Thursday night like the red, white and blue flags in a stadium in Denver where all eyes are on a wondrous sight.

And the man in the stadium in Denver speaks with eloquence and fire and spirit and a whole set of things that you wish you could get in more politicians.

The thing that stands out the most is when he says we can’t meet 21st century challenges with 20th century bureaucracy.

It’s the truest truth ever expressed about Trinidad’s failure to truly experience independence in these here times, even though it’s not about us.

Bunting flaps to the rhythm of our shortcomings, un-lived dreams and broken promises of fathers in dark glasses who leave us only words. Words that 46 years later ring hollow. Somebody else’s dream from somebody else’s time.

Surely we are more than red, black and white bunting. More than parades and fetes and changing the names of awards.

We are more than we can imagine in this Independence time. Bizarrely, all that is worth holding on to keeps being washed away in floods.

Yes we can too

It’s been too hard living
But I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there
Beyond the sky
It’s been a long
Long time coming
But I know
A change is gonna come
Oh yes, it will.
Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke

Yes we can. Yes we can. Say it like a mantra, because if you chant it enough you might actually begin to believe that it’s true.

In this cynicism time, in this hopeless time when I am tired and fed up and just about ready to give up on humanity, a source of possibility comes from the least likely of places.

Here in the shadow of the US, here where our resources are being used to fuel their excesses so that we can then afford to make them ours. Here where foreign men are given absolute power to make decisions about how we are to see ourselves. And conquistadors still think the natives will be fooled by their shiny trinkets.

And it’s not like I want to count egg in fowl bottom or anything, but someone like Obama as President of the US is almost too much for my radical heart to bear.

With little black boys falling like so many tears of so many mothers.

With Mugabe frothing at the mouth in Rome and Papa Patos smelterising on fertile soil that we could be using to feed ourselves.

Obama’s newness is enough to make you think that it really might be possible for things to start to change. And no, I don’t think that one, maybe two four-year terms is enough to repair 200 years of genocide and Manifest Destiny. One, maybe two four-year terms will not make me forget Grenada or Iraq.

And no I don’t want a black messiah. No, I don’t want another black man for us to make excuses for. I don’t want another jive-talking politician. And I don’t want to be a member of anybody’s fat-arse brigade.

I just want something else. Something different. Not another old white male fossil. And it’s not that there is anything wrong with old men per se. Jah know we need our elders now more than ever to remind us of what used to be good about Trinidad. What they were able to create in spite of enslavement and indentureship and war and oppression.

Not another big business, old money, barely literate liar like Dubya. Enough already.

In the same way, we desperately need something different here in the shadow of America. Not another old African/Indian male fossil. Spouting the same rhetoric. Bankrupt of ideas. Bankrupt of vision. Bankrupt of integrity. Making us feel that is the sum total of our potential. To become somebody else’s version of ourselves.

A society’s politicians reflect that society. So it’s opportune that Obama has arrived when he has in the way he has. Maybe there are more people in America now who want something different.

But if we are to take that same principle, what do our politicians say about us? And what does it mean about us if no brave souls with integrity and vision are willing to come forward and take a chance?

Down here in the shadow of America I have to say he’s as much my presidential candidate. All of us have to take an interest in what goes on for the next few months, because it’s as much about us as it is about them.

And I never thought I would find myself saying these words, but this is one time when we should be following America. This is one wave to become caught up in. This is one wave I want to arrive at our shores and wash away the apathy and the lack of political substance.

To relieve us of our extreme boredom with what passes as leadership in the Lower House. A bunch of bepping kicksers who have nothing new to contribute.

Yes we can too. We too can change our politics. We too can get rid of the old guard. Even if the new guard is to make mistakes.

Chant it like a mantra. Chant it until you too start to believe.

Cocoa in the Rain

Them belly full but we hungry.
A hungry mob is a angry mob.
A rain a fall but the dirt it tuff
A pot a cook but the food nuh nuff.

Forget your troubles and dance.
Forget your sorrow and dance.
Forget your sickness and dance.
Forget your weakness and dance.

Cost of living get so high,
Rich and poor, they start a cry.
Now the weak must get strong.
They say, “Oh, what a tribulation.”

Them Belly Full, Robert Nesta Marley

I couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture of her.  An old woman digging in a dustbin.  It’s not like it’s something I haven’t seen before.  It’s not such an uncommon sight in Trinidad. Sweet T&T where people are robbing food trucks now.  A part of me wants to go back to the days when people were robbing jewels and sneakers and completely inconsequential things that only pointed to how manic this society makes you if you don’t look like you belong.
My Trini class consciousness and obsession with not looking poor tells me this is a terrible thing, digging in dustbins.  But is it a shame for those digging in the bins or to the people who have thrown away food that they could have shared with others?
I myself in other places and times have feasted with activist friends on the spoils of what they call ‘skip diving’ that is, looking in the rubbish bins, particularly those outside supermarkets and bakeries where they throw out perfectly good food.  Fruit and vegetables and bread and cheese. And some proprietors are kind enough to separate the good stuff from the bad stuff so skip divers don’t have to deal with rodents and other nasties.  We baulk at those who make a brisk trade in the La Basse because everything is rubbish and filth is not something that us nice clean people want to think about it, although it is well known that it’s the people with more who have more to waste.
But I suppose the fact that a whole section of our society lives on what we throw away is a good indication that we are achieving that most desirable developed nation status.
She was digging in a garbage receptacle under the street sign saying La Fantaisie in St. Ann’s. Down the at the end of La Fantaisie I can just make out the Trinidad and Tobago coat of arms gleaming blood red on the gates of the palace.
It occurs to me that it’s ten kinds of ironic that this woman could possibly be digging through what Papa Patos has thrown away. I wondered why she chose this particular garbage bin. Maybe she thought Papa Patos’ waste would yield some higher quality food than what was on offer downtown.
I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of her. I couldn’t reach into my bag and pull out my extra set of eyes, a bourgeois indulgence that I am at pains to live without.  It would have been too much.  She looked up at me for a minute, she was bent over double, arms immersed in the garbage, that didn’t have that hot, stink smell that usually accompanies garbage sites.
Still Papa Patos says we shall overcome.  My grandmother in all her barely literate wisdom used to warn, when you have cocoa in the sun you must look for rain.  I never had to look for rain because my great grandfather sold much of his Santa Cruz land to old man Stollmeyer for less than a fraction of what it is probably worth now.  So I, like so many others who call ourselves Trini own no piece of land from which to chase fruit thieves.  I know no days of wandering in bush that is mine, of watching the sky and knowing how to tell the rain is coming simply from the smell of the wind.
I remember my grandmother when I see this woman digging in the dustbin under a sign saying La Fantaisie.  And I hear Papa Patos getting all hot and sweaty about increasing domestic food production after years of destroying agricultural land to build highways and houses.   Now that the rain has come down, he is making a mad dash to save the cocoa.
Now that people are robbing flour trucks and soon you’ll only be able to eat a doubles in one of those designer restaurants he’s talking about overcoming when we should never have reached here in the first place.
The man in the palace in La Fantaisie says this too shall pass. This waste and this want and this nothingness in the midst of so much abundance.   This guava season when we have cut down all the guava trees.