By Robert Lalah
It really was strange, now that I think about it. It was about five or six years ago and I was standing outside a bank in downtown Kingston when I spotted a short, square-headed fellow I've known for years. Well, 'known' might be a stretch. I have no clue what his name is, or where he lives.
He's one of those people you see from time to time at different places and on each occasion he'll ask you for a 'small change'. I can't remember where we first met, but this sort of give-and-take relationship had been going on for years.
This time, though, there was something different about the man. He was sporting a fancy hat, nice pants and a colourful T-shirt. He was clean-shaven and there was a large silver chain around his neck. A huge step up, this was, from his usual look. He was always more of a shoeless and shirtless kind of guy.
"Big boss!" he yelled as soon as he saw me. He waved and ran over to shake my hand. "Big boss, how yuh do?" We exchanged pleasantries and I asked him what occasion warranted the spiffy new clothes.
"Dem yah? Yeah, man, is so mi roll now," he replied, looking rather pleased with himself. I figured he must have landed himself a job and I was eager to congratulate him on this, when he interrupted me. "Yeah, mi get a gun, so mi criss now," he said, in an alarmingly casual manner.
I paused for a second, caught off-guard by his words. "Yeah, big boss. Mi get a piece now, so no more hungry belly fi me. Anyting mi want now mi can work and get it. Mi can show you it if you want, you know."
SUFFERING TOO LONG
When someone you hardly know mentions having a gun and getting whatever he wants, it can be a little confusing. What exactly was going on here? Was this some sort of veiled threat? Was I supposed to empty my pockets then and there?
I decided not to and instead asked him why he had chosen to do something so foolish.
"Mi suffer too long," he replied, apparently uneasy with the serious turn our talk was taking. "Mi tired a hard life. Mi waan live like everybody else."
I was about to say something else when he tapped me on the shoulder. "Anyway, mi glad fi see you. Mi gone," he said, and walked off. With just a few steps he disappeared, blending into the fast-moving downtown crowd.
In that moment I gazed at the mass of people and wondered how many of them would be able to tell that he was a gunman. They'd brush shoulders with him, stand next to him in crowded buses, but would they know, just by looking at him, that he was a predator with no apparent remorse?
I thought about how many of them were perhaps just like him, walking around like everyone else but at the first opportunity would pull out a gun and take what they thought was due to them.
That moment has stayed with me all these years because it was both shocking and banal at the same time. It was unsettling, yet I know it was quite ordinary.
CONSCIENCE ON HOLD
How many people in Jamaica today, burdened with that deadly combination of poverty, unemployment, poor parenting, hopelessness and ignorance, are making the same kind of decision right now?
When you feel hard done by society, it makes it easier for you to put your conscience on hold. To take, even with violence, what is not yours, is simply righting a wrong. It's combating the forces that have conspired to keep you hungry and suffering for so long. Everyone walking around with nice clothes on, driving on the roads, shopping in stores immediately become the enemy, and to take from them is to make things right.
It's a troubling thought, but one that we cannot ignore. With the economic outlook for this year as grim as it is, the gun is likely to become an even more popular choice among the desperate. What are we going to do when the desperate comes knocking?
Robert Lalah is assistant editor - features and author of the popular Tuesday feature, 'Roving with Lalah'. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.