Back On the Rock

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Wars on the Home Front

The murder rate has hit its all time high in Jamaica, but yet sometimes I feel very removed from it. Nobody in my family seems to be perturbed. While I fret and frown over security concerns, my family carries on with their lives with a calm I find confusing.

Take our neighbourhood crackhead. “We have a little crackhead,” my stepmother tells me casually when I first arrive. “He’s harmless.” The crackhead rolls himself around Hope Pastures in a wheelchair, except for on the steepest inclines when he hops out and pushes the chair up the hill. He slides in and out of locked houses with impunity, stealing money and small items. I don’t find it harmless when he breaks in and steals a purse that was resting a mere two feet from my head. But nobody else seems to be really upset.

The crackhead’s face is smooth and clean-shaven. But for the blank eyes, he could have been handsome. I see him in the street one day, on our way to the supermarket with my step-mother. “That’s the crackhead,” she says, pulling over, then calmly, almost gently, she asks him, “Why are you here? You need to leave this neighbourhood, okay?”

He robbed my father’s house again that night. He stole money, cell phones, a single sock and a bottle of antibacterial hand wash. And he relieved himself on the lawn (hence the sock and the hand wash, I guess). He threw the bottle of hand wash back through the window in a gesture of thoughtfulness that is, apparently, his MO. When he stole the neighbour’s pants off the clothes line a few months ago, he hung his pair neatly in its place.

The crackhead fascinates me, but not as much as the way my family and the neighbours view him. They are mildly irritated, but not much more.

“Somebody broke into a house in Barbican,” my stepmother tells me one night. “Fished out the key with a pole and a hook and just let himself in.

“I think it was our crackhead.”

Our crackhead. I can’t tell from her tone if she’s sad or proud that our crackhead has expanded his turf.

The policemen who come to investigate the latest robbery are equally casual, if slightly less benign. “The said crackhead breaking all the house up here?” the lead investigator asks, sounding genuinely confused.

“So why unnu don’t shoot him? Nobody up this side have a piece?” Struck dumb by my just-come-back-from-foreign political correctness, I barely manage to mouth a ‘no’.

The terrorist in my mother’s neighbourhood is not a crackhead. She is a seamstress. An old seamstress, whom I remember from childhood as sane, if slightly caustic. I still have a laundry bag - in perfectly good condition - that she made for me in the early eighties. It appears that in the years since then her sanity has not held up as well. She planted a pumpkin patch, nearly 10' x 20', on the left side of the parking lot. The parking lot pumpkin patch, it appears, bothers no one but me. “It makes a great ground cover,” my mother says in defense of the seamstress. I suppose it may have at some point, but I am certain that, even in Jamaica, ground cover is not supposed to be 4’ tall.

At first I thought the pumpkin patch was the work of our neighbour, the Dread. (Colour me guilty of stereotyping – the Dread and the pumpkin patch seemed like a logical fit.) But when I went to discuss the patch with the Dread, I learned the true story.

“A she. She with her almond dem and her jungle.” The jungle in question is the miniature Fern Gully the seamstress has planted right in the parking lot of my mother’s apartment building. An almond tree on the far side of the lot arcs across and descends into a 12' x 20’ patch of trees, potted plants and assorted shrubbery, that she has planted and placed right in front of her door.

“This is my car,” she says in response to my protest. “I am entitled to a parking space and I am using it.”

Life in Jamaica is full of these moments – the absurd, the inexplicable, the scenes and statements to which there is no appropriate response.

Or so I thought, until I pulled into a gas station in Liguanea with my step-mother and encountered an old man standing in front of the station’s convenience store. Arms skyward, screaming at the heavens, soaked in perspiration and frustration.


The cause of his angst? One ancient, rickety bike. One large ‘carton box’. And one extra-large, higgler-size suitcase. Every attempt to balance the box and grip failed, sending the bike crashing to the ground.

On goes the grip. Then the box. The bike falls.


And so it went on. My step-mother and I laughed and laughed. Then, in an attempt to be helpful, I crossed the gas-station and approached the old man.

“Let me help,” I said. “It’s better for you to put them on the bike when you’re ready to ride out. Just leave them on the ground. I’ll watch them while you go into the store.”

The old man seemed startled, and not in a good way. He looked at me gravely and declared:

“Lady, this is between me, God, and this bike.”

As I walked back to my car, the bike fell again and the old man screamed:


I drove to my mother’s and, to my utter shock, found the crackhead wheeling his chair up her street. Before I could process this latest turf expansion, I was distracted by the sound of almonds raining down on the roof of my car. I pondered the crackhead, the jungle, the pumpkin patch, trying to find an appropriate response.

I went inside, slammed the door, and screamed.