Scars on the inside and on the Outside

Been together like school children,
Then you hurt me just in vain.
Lord, I’m your weary child.
Happiness, come back awhile.
Cause if you don’t come, I’ve got to go
Lookin’ for happiness.
The road is dangerous.
Well, if you don’t come, I’ve got to go
Lookin’, Lord, for happiness, happiness.

—I’m Hurting Inside, Bob Marley

I know this man. Not terribly well. But in the way I know a lot of people. I talk to him every now and then. Depending on the route I take to go home. He always struck me as a gentle soul. Willing smile that lights up his eyes and you don’t notice that he’s missing teeth. He’s too young to be an elder but too old to be a contemporary. So I listen to his jokes when I stop at his van and crack a joke or two of my own and he’s nice enough to laugh at them. He is the coconut vendor who occasionally gives me advice on my love life and my work and whatever is on my mind that particular day. I guess I like him because he listens without prejudice. We give each other glimpses of our very different lives and I am usually thankful that I took the time and unplugged myself from my headphones long enough to share with someone who is not part of my immediate circle of loved ones and friends.

This day is the first I have seen him in a few months and it is so hot that I harbour soucouyant fantasies of escaping my skin that I swear is sizzling like I have already turned into a ball of fire. The asphalt is melty soft under my feet and Maracas is too far to be an achievable goal at this hour. He smiles when he sees me and I ask for my usual medium jelly. The jelly he has is firm and so he waits for me to drink the water and then patiently scoops the jelly out for me, more concerned about me breaking my nails than I ever could be. It’s then that I notice that his skin on his right arm is singed. Pink flesh peeps through burnt black patches. It looks like it’s healing well. I watch his arm as he separates the jelly from the husk and I wonder if to engage my Trini maco gene and work this obvious scar into the conversation. I am suddenly shy and wishing that I didn’t notice. I fear that I don’t really want to hear the story.

I don’t know if he has noticed me watching but he offers an explanation. He says he got into a rage and burnt his car and himself in the process too. I try to make light of the situation. Why you do dat, boy? I try to disguise the horror in my voice behind my Trini tone of trivialisation. He says, rum nah. Matter of fact like.
It’s obvious that this is the answer. He tells me about his wife again and I remember him telling me a few months ago that you can be with someone and still be all alone. He says now that he wishes she would leave him alone after he’s had a long day and not come and bother his head with her own failures. I don’t know what else to do. So I stuff my mouth full of jelly so I don’t have to come up with a more reasonable response. And I give a noncommittal nod. Like I understand the need to be left alone sometimes. Like I am secretly relieved that he only burned his car and himself.

Relatively speaking his behaviour is reasonable. Domestic violence headlines haunt us every day. I am disturbed that I am relieved at this man’s self-harm. I don’t ask any more questions. I am not a counsellor. I try to listen without prejudice but find myself wanting to plead with him to get help from some place that I fear does not exist. I don’t know where to tell this man to go and get help for his rum problem. Or his anger that he is now wearing as a scar on his right arm. I eat my firm jelly and he looks off into the setting sun. It is still unbearably hot but the coconut water soothes me a bit. The streets blare with police sirens, shuffling piper feet, the cursing of some inebriated hawk-and-spit regular.

When I am finished swallowing my jelly and the tears I want to cry for a man I hardly know, he is upbeat. He says he is going to get back the car he burnt. I ask what he’s putting on the arm. He says he is monitoring it. Testing his healing by his capacity to feel pain. The day he stops feeling, he says, is the day to get worried. I am more worried about healing the other scars. I manage to ask him, so you done with that rum ting, right? Nah! His response is swift and backed up by evidence of his continuing habit, a bottle of something held triumphantly in his hand before he puts in back in the barrel at his side. Rum till we all die, amen. I make a parting plea with him to give up the rum ting. He smiles and says okay, he will try. I smile and say take care of yourself.

Even the gentle souls here brush up against the face of violence. And some of us carry our scars outside but there are many more of us carrying our scars inside. And the rest of us look on powerless to intervene except to give whatever extra love we have to spare, even as we try to love ourselves into healing our own wounds. Shocked that the people we know. Our neighbors and friends. Our lovers and coconut vendors, all have the capacity for violence. It’s not just the monsters in the newspapers. It’s not just the disturbed teenagers beating up their school mates on tape. It’s not just the sicko police man brandishing a gun in the middle of cricket to stop the dutty wining antics of pitch stormers. Violence is closer than we like to admit and growing to be so common that soon scars outside will be national emblems.

He smiles his gappy smile and I go home, even more acutely aware of how powerless we all are to confront the growing diseases of violence, anger and how those problems are heavily medicated with alcohol. Who will save us from our scars? Who will be able to tell where the scar tissue ends for the healing to begin?

Lambs to the Slaughter

What yuh see is just an illusion
Trapped in yuh worries
And your confusion
Your philosophy just a fusion
Of your illusion
Hallelujah Hallejuah
Jah gimme de strength
And I see right through yuh
Don’t think that I would submit
To the pressure
—Trials and Tribulations, Orange Sky
Sharpen your political cutlass he says. In a country where people kill each other for the slightest of slights. He is telling people to sharpen cutlasses. Political violence fill your city, yeah. Laugh and say ray as he sharpens his political cutlass to buss the throats of more of your children. To fight for political power endorsed and blessed by the Fat Arse Brigade. Blessed by mothers who have wept for their murdered sons. Wept for no water since they first voted for the PNM 50 years ago. He is sharpening his political cutlass on stones painted white by Cepep workers. Because every overlord needs peons to do his bidding, a willing and unenlightened mass easily entertained.
Sharpen your political cutlass he says. Sharpen it like the fangs of all the snakes in that there clump of balisier. Who, unlike the UNC who openly fights for power scraps, play the genteel games of a nouveau riche black elite digging out the eyes of their own. Not seeing the reflection of their grandmothers, and tanties, and great uncles. Those who worked hard and long and fought for their right to go to school and have a respectable civil servant work. Those who sold toolum and beat clothes on rocks for them to now become these insufferable stuffed-shirts who sneer at anything grassroots but are not averse to using them for political mileage. Like all the La Brea residents that Fitzgerald Henry used two years ago before he was MP of La Brea to support his pro-smelter rally outside Whitehall.
Back then when the political cutlass being used was the promise of jobs in their Alutrint smelter. Jobs that if anyone had read the Environmental Impact Assessment would have known didn’t actually exist. And now Fitzgerald Jeffrey speaks of being disappointed about the lack of jobs being offered to locals. Now it is not outsiders who block the streets of La Brea but the people who were promised the world for a smelter in their backyards. But they are sharpening. As people become more and more agitated, more nervous about job losses, more antsy about the recession that is bound to come in the wake of all this excess. They start to talk fighting talk. Planass talk. Chop-up talk. Political badjohnism fills your Parliament, yeah. As if this country were not violent enough. He encourages us to really turn on ourselves now. To really begin to feast on our own blood.
The father of the nation is “bloodthirsty” and he is cleverly calling out his army to do the work that will dirty his own hands too much. And you know that these are not idle threats from people who make deals that no-one in this whole nation of macos, picong masters and satirists has the cohones to question. The subtext of this call to arms is to ask the most important question on this force-ripe small island right now. And that is, which side of the cutlass do you stand? Are you the chopper or will you be chopped. Are you willing to dead stupid to prove a point? Or are you going to stand on the side of the wrong and strong. Like an area don he demands loyalty. Like a gangster defending his turf he gives his neighbours the most sinister of ultimatums. If you’re not for me then you must be against me. And I can’t guarantee you protection when things start to go haywire.
It is the hardest decision you will ever have to make. It is the difference between life that is livable and the one that you cannot even bear to imagine. Where the police see your mother and tell her that they’ve just seen you in town, just so that she knows they are monitoring your movements.
Where a seventy-something year-old man staging a placard protest outside President’s House gets threatened by police for exercising his constitutional rights.

Sharpen your political cutlass. Not to clear land to grow food. Not to clear a path to a nation of citizens who feel a sense of what or why this country is worth fighting for. Not to get rid of all the negative forces that lurk in our psyches. Not to create a new paradigm, a new vision, a sense of belonging. Nothing but endless violence. Nothing but endless bloodloss. He sharpens his political cutlass and we like willing lambs offer ourselves up to the slaughter.

Macoing but not seeing

Giving your heart and soul to vanity, yeah
Makes your life filled with pain and misery
While life goes on everyone’s got to stand strong
You can’t surrender

—Sitting and Watching, Dennis Brown

Ceaseless chatter ricochets around these islands. Chatter about everything but mostly about nothing.  In this nation of talkers, big talkers, robber talkers, too-too talkers, no one can seem to find anything sensible to say. Reading the newspapers becomes a chore, but mostly a bore. Nightly newscasts send you to sleep.  It is then that you have to conclude that Trinidad is annoyingly small. Small to the point of causing claustrophobia. Small to the point where if one person sneezes the whole country catches a cold, gives it a name, laughs about it. One thing bothers me. And it is how come in a country of macos, gossips, mamaguy and mauvais langue is it possible for the people who took a little girl to be so hard to find?

How come children still manage to disappear? In a nation of macos, where people seem to derive so much pleasure from minding other people’s business, they can’t find children who go missing. But perhaps it is because of our highly developed macoing skills that some of us have developed the capacity to hide, to disguise ourselves as whatever is acceptable at the moment. To be horners or paedophiles or in public office and unapologetically commit fraud. Perhaps these people are the real heroes of Trinidad. Those who have escaped our scrutiny as we obsess with inanities. Trinidad is so small that we can’t find criminals. We can’t find missing children. We can’t find a functional government or a serious opposition. We concoct whole stories about a container full of missing children. 

The funny thing about Trinidad is how everybody always has a tanty, some friend, their neighbour outside brother-in-law friend, who knows somebody who was passing through when it happened. Yet no one has a tanty, uncle or nennen that saw when they took Leah away from her school. In broad daylight. Yet no one gives any attention to talk that work is going on up in St Ann’s for containers in which they will house Port-of-Spain’s homeless so that all the Government’s Summit of the Americas guests won’t see our human eyesores. We would rather believe modern folklore about yawning metal mouths eating our children than take note of the soucouyants in the Red House.

Trinidad is so small enough for us to not have a problem with the culture of talking without actually saying anything. We are all about the navel gazing, the status updates, the endless barrage of Trinis on scenes, smiling with a drink in their hands. So obsessed with keeping up with what is happening, with staying connected, plugged in, hooked up that people have forgotten how to communicate. How to warn each other of danger. How to grieve when there is loss. How to look out for our neighbour’s children and expect that they will return the favour. We have dumbed down macoing, like everything else that perhaps was ever good about ourselves. I would like to believe that there was perhaps a time when macoing was a good thing. When we sought each other’s interests and protected each other from real and imagined fears.

Now that our walls are too high to see over, we peer into each other’s lives in other ways but know less. We go to fete not to fete but to see and be seen. We maco, not to look out for each other, but to pass judgment, to have something for discussion. Except when it matters. When it really matters suddenly our maco senses are dulled. In the same way that we don’t want to take responsibility for all the children who are in front of us begging for help and attention and love, we dismiss the things that we really should be macoing. No one is macoing NEC’s presumptuous soil testing for a port for which they have no Certificate of Environmental Clearance.

No one is macoing what is going on in our schools that are breeding grounds for boredom, underachievement and criminality.  No one is minding our collective business, where our money is going. How much money they’re really spending on the summit and what possible benefits it will yield us, aside from being a government wank all over our Treasury. It must be that some of us are okay with children disappearing or with the Treasury being pillaged. It must be that we are willing to not see the things that we do. That sometimes we fight our maco gene. We deny it just when it is needed the most. In this tiny little country of watchers, no one seems capable of seeing clearly.