Fri | Dec 14, 2018

Tony Deyal | Watermelon man

Published:Saturday | April 14, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The British gave the name 'High Street' to the main business centre and thoroughfare in many towns and cities of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth. Whether it was altitude or attitude, the height of optimism or the upper reaches of alcoholism, they gave us four High Streets in Trinidad.

The major one is in the bustling, hilly southern city of San Fernando. The second is a winding road through the centre of the town of Gasparillo (Spanish for 'centipede'), which is close to the oil refinery in Pointe-a-Pierre, so that the 'Gas' in its name is mistakenly thought to be of hydrocarbon origin. Then there is a third in 'Princes Town', which was elevated in 1880 from a mere mission (Savana Grande) when it was visited by two British princes, Albert and George. They planted a poui tree (one of 99 species of Tabebula found in the Caribbean) in a town famous for 'stick-fighting', an art and pastime in which cured poui wood plays an important part in the choice of weaponry.

The fourth High Street in Trinidad is in the deep-south town of Siparia and it is high in every sense of the word. Approaching it from any direction, the drive is uphill. In the 1960s, there were many rum shops, in those days called 'snackettes', along its length, most of them directly opposite the two police stations, the one that took care of the town and the other that managed the entire Southwestern Division.

 

Busy weekends

 

Many of the people who lived there worked in the oil industry and were paid weekly. This meant that weekends, especially Friday nights, were as busy as the 'Busy' corner, which was the heart of the town, and the alcohol consumption justified the name of the street. In Siparia on a Friday night, people did not sip, they gulped. I will never forget the Christmas Eve night when I was hustling past Saney's Snackette on my way to midnight Mass at the Catholic Church that in 1758, the days of the Capuchins (the priests, not the monkeys), was the village hub.

"Way youh going?" a voice called out above the noise of the already high celebrants. When I looked, it was 'Ghost' Rivas, a former neighbour and one of the most feared 'shooters' in the country. "Church," I mumbled. "Dat could wait," he said imperiously. "Come and take a drink." Choice was not an option. One drink led to two and, many bottles of Scotch later, the owner, Norman Saney, said to Ghost, "You know Ghost, you call down a lot of drinks already. What about paying for what you take so far?" The earth stood still.

Norman started shaking uncontrollably. Then Ghost said loudly, "Norman, my name is crime and crime don't pay."

I was 11 when we ended up on Grell Street, Siparia, which sloped almost precipitously down from the High Street. In some ways, life was downhill after that, because my friend Ralph and I learned to ride by walking our bikes up the hill and coasting down until we had to pedal.

Life in Siparia was more like my days at the Piccadilly Elementary School in Port-of-Spain than my years in the central village of Carapichaima. The British may have erred a bit when they gave the name High Street to village thoroughfares, but calling a street Piccadilly in an area known, even in the early fifties, for violence had to be the worst example of wishful thinking ever perpetrated on a country.

Life on Grell Street was like that. First of all, on the other side of the street was Cassava Alley (later Peyton Place), where several illegal immigrants lived and petty criminals, "breaking warrant" or avoiding capture by the police for crimes committed mostly in Port-of-Spain, hid out.

 

Bible-bashers

 

After the initial racial and pecking order squabbles, I found my place in the mix and became part of a brew and brood frowned upon and looked at with deep distaste by the village Bible-bashers. And they were as right as they were righteous.

I am not sure whether our behaviour came from the example set by the guys like 'Ghost' who had made it beyond the alley, or by others who had progressed to the Youth Training Centre (YTC), our version of the British Borstal detention centres for delinquents, or merely the supersaturation of undisciplined teenage hormones rampaging in the glee of unrestricted freedom, but on a night like tonight, the climax of two weeks of celebrations called Siparia Fete, we would have been at our worst.

Between the two police stations on High Street, the watermelon vendors from the surrounding agricultural villages of Penal and Debe set up their tables, their flambeaux (bottles filled with kerosene with a lighted wick), and did a brisk trade. We used to sneak in from the unlighted and extremely dark savannah side, come quietly up the hill to the street level, roll the watermelons down the hill, and then carry them off to gorge on or share.

Meanwhile, the games of chance that really did not give the bettor much of a chance, the merry-go-round and chair-plane, the drinking, gambling and fights went on around us with a kind of desperation. From Good Friday, people of East Indian descent brought their children and their wishes, dreams and prayers hoping for the intercession of the black Virgin Mary they called 'Siparee Mai (Mother)', which was found in the forest and worshipped by the Catholics.

What made me stop was a night in 1967 when I walked into the poker room of a club owned by another Saney, Moses, and saw that all the players round the table, including a female brothel owner from San Fernando, had guns on their laps. In biblical terms, Moses club was the parting of my ways.

- Tony Deyal was last seen remembering Afro-Cuban jazz great Mongo Santarmaria, as he thought of the night he became a watermelon man.