Gordon Robinson, Contributor
Alex's alarm woke her up at 3:30 a.m. Already? That's the first word popping into her dazed mind as she swam through the fog of sleep into the mist of semi-awareness. Didn't I just go to sleep?
Alas, no. She'd finally fallen into bed after her final chore (ironing) at 10 p.m. She was 21, reasonably fit and full of enthusiasm for life, so five hours per night ought to have been enough. But, of course, it never was.
She tiptoed around her small, two-bedroom Portmore home so as not to wake her mother. Once in the bathroom, she turned on the tap (just in case). No luck, water hadn't returned. Regular water lock-offs were a feature of Portmore residence (and most of the Corporate Area). Water was often locked off for weeks at a time, as it had been for the past several days. During rainy season, water disappeared around 9 p.m. and returned about 6 a.m., but Alex was never at home for that blessed event. In order for her to arrive at work (where she became Alexandra Peters) in Kingston in time to begin her secretarial duties at 8:30 a.m., she had to be out of the house by 5.
So she began her morning routine with buckets of water from the water truck's last visit: one bucket to flush the toilet, one first for washing of hands with a small amount poured into a separate bowl, and then the rest for a most demeaning - bucket bath.
It's not that Alex was poor. Nor was she rich. She was one of the teeming hundreds of thousands of Jamaican girls born to lower-middle-income parents whose father had disappeared early. Her pale skin colour simultaneously gave away the temporary nature of her parents' relationship and fuelled inflated misconceptions about her means. Her mother had struggled to send her to a good secondary school but, after that, there was no money for tertiary education, so she turned to the job market. This was 1983. Computers hadn't yet taken over and there were jobs in the secretarial field for girls like Alex. She wasn't a trained secretary, nor was she suited to secretarial work. Her talent and acumen went way beyond that. In an equitable society, she'd be destined to lead a large corporate entity. In Jamaica, she lived with Mom in cramped conditions, celebrated each visit of the water truck, worked as a secretary; and took whatever life gave, determined not to be caught inside feeling sorry for herself when her chance came.
Ablutions completed, she headed for the kitchen and put on the kettle for coffee before remembering that the coffee had finished last week and there would be no more until payday (at least a week away). Well, there was always the canteen at work. Meanwhile, she had a cup of tea (no sugar) and two carefully counted slices of bread (toasted on the stove) for breakfast.
She glanced at the clock as Mom's gentle snore assured her all was well. It was 4:25 a.m. Already? She hustled to get dressed in her freshly ironed uniform. Heels were a must (never know who might come to the office), a ribbon in her hair which she brushed into submission, minimum lipstick (bright red), and a last look in the mirror. She was a plain girl with a disposition that made her pretty and a figure that would attract any man. Most important, she was bright, confident and carried the aura of fearlessness only youth can offer. She was ready.
Every weekday, she walked two miles from home on to the Causeway to catch the minibus as it headed into Portmore. It meant an extra fare, but it ensured her a seat on the bus and being on time for work. If she waited for the bus to come to her, it would be 9 a.m. before she got into one without a public brawl.
This day, everything seemed to work like a charm. The minibus arrived at her stop less than two minutes after she did and she was able to get on without a fuss. By the time they reached the turnaround terminus, an unusual flood of people had entered. Alex felt obliged to give her seat to an elderly lady who walked with difficulty and who was eternally grateful. "God bless you, my child," was what she said to Alex, who just smiled. Maybe He will, she thought.
Packed to capacity
The minibus was at sardine-can capacity by the time it reached the Causeway and 'Driva' wasn't planning a leisurely trip. The minibus swayed from side to side as its survival mechanism from the strong cross-winds and the driver's heavy right foot. "Wan stap, Driva!" was the regular shout, which brought the minibus to an instant, screeching halt. Bodies pressed on Alex from behind and she pressed on to people in front of her. A mild concern did cross her mind but she dismissed it until, all of a sudden, she felt a rush of wetness spreading on the back of her dress. Horrified, she looked over her shoulder to see an old man with crooked teeth and fetid breath, smiling at her in contentment and a look that smirked, "Wasn't that good?"
She looked around in desperation. She didn't cry, "Wolf!" but, still, nobody came. Nobody seemed to have noticed except the man standing in front of her who shrugged his shoulders in resignation as if to say, "Gone bad already." She felt her self-confidence oozing away through every pore. She was devastated. She shouted for the bus to stop. When it did, she staggered out of the bus feeling more dishevelled than she looked. Through tears, she could vaguely make out buildings that suggested she was near Newport West. She walked the rest of the way to work, crying every step of the way. What did I do to deserve this? Over and over again in her mind, she replayed the event. Why'd nobody stop him? Did they think I knew what was going on? Oh, God, what do I do?
She got to work at 9 a.m. She didn't care. She headed straight to the ladies' room. She did what she could without once looking at herself in the mirror. Then she went directly to her immediate supervisor's office. "Mr Jones," she said before he could speak, "I would like a car loan. I must buy a motor car."
Fast-forward 10 years. Government introduces a school bus system. New Mercedes-Benz buses are purchased and, during school hours, dedicated to 'schoolers'.
One morning, on a full school bus, conductress senses a mild disturbance at the back. She heads to the scene where she sees a male student, about 15 years old, in full uniform, sitting on the back seat legs apart and trousers zipped down. Straddling and facing him is a 14-year-old female student, also in full uniform. The conductress realises, like a bolt from the blue, that they are, in the vernacular, 'doing it'. Or, more accurately, she's doing it. He's merely enjoying it.
The conductress is shocked. "What do you children think you're doing?" she exclaims. "Stop this immediately."
The girl turns to the conductress and, without pause, shouts, "G'wey, gyal. A jealous yu jealous 'cause yu nah get none!"
Rewind to 1973. Two teenage boys take the bus from Mona Heights, where they live, to Half-Way Tree. They change buses and arrive at the turn-off to Caymanas Park on Washington Boulevard. There they wait patiently, with others, until a van stops. They jump on to the back of the van; pay a small fee; and are transported to the racetrack. Save for the fact they're stone broke at the end of the day, they enjoy the races.
After the last race, they somewhat sheepishly walk out to the main road and wait at a bus stop. Soon, a stake body truck squeals to a stop a few yards past and persons run from the bus stop to jump on the truck's back. The boys give each other a quick look; simultaneously shrug their shoulders; and get on the truck. They know not where the truck is headed, but it's pointed in the right direction.
Night has long fallen when the truck takes them through Tivoli and leaves them on the western side of Coronation Market. They hop off the truck, walk through a deserted market to a West Parade bus stop. Before long, an empty 22 bus stops. They beg the conductress a free ride. She takes one look at them, decides they are worth taking a chance on, scolds them regarding the evils of gambling, and allows them on the bus. Tired but happy, they get off in Mona Heights and repair to their respective homes where their parents listen to tall tales of studying in the school library and losing track of time. The parents resign themselves to their children never amounting to much.
These stories are true. Names are changed to protect privacy.
The bright girl who was practically raped on the Portmore minibus? She bided her time, plotted her escape, soon married an Englishman, and bolted to England where she has lived as a housewife bringing up their two wonderful, well-adjusted children. Her commercial potential remains unfulfilled.
Score? Jamaica less one potential leader.
The 'couple' on the school bus? Nobody knows where they are. They dropped out of school when the girl became pregnant and haven't been seen or heard from since.
Score? Jamaica less two more potential leaders. Gains two malefactors? Neither ever knows their potential.
The two boys who jumped on the truck back in 1973? One grew up to be a Terrible Tout. The other lives with wife and son in Florida with a successful career in pharmaceuticals.
Score? Jamaica plus one potential leader. Both fulfil their potential.
Question: What has happened since 40 years ago? What have we learned? Is safe, controlled, public transportation a fundamental responsibility of government? Is crime control government's irrevocable responsibility regardless of available resources? Or should we depend on frightened witnesses we can't protect, and robot taxi and minibus operators of dubious qualification?
Peace and love.
Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.