They don’t go alone
IF YOU have lived long enough and your life took you into varied areas, you would recognise why the idea of earthbound spirits became a folk culture ‘secret belief’ relating that some souls haunt certain locations long after those locations fade before the emergence of another time. These are called ‘Comfort Zones’. While they existed they were an active, exciting and imposing community like a cultural magnet. One such was the area known a long time ago as ‘South Hampton’, then located at 110 Robb and Wellington Street and named after the movie of the same name. When this cultural zone existed, the Globe, Astor, Metropole and the Strand cinemas were landmarks of its environs. That also consisted of the hotel and bar Chokit, on Robb Street which was a stone’s throw from Avenue of the Republic. Oasis at King and Robb Streets then owned or ran by Bize; the King Boy Club, the old auditorium in Charlotte Street that was transformed to a gambling location; Bonnie’s Hideaway on Regent Street, where Matt’s Record Bar is now located. On Wellington Street was the popular Morris Fenty the sign artist and his close friend the street fighter KC. Other Sign painter talents included Blackie and the now- late Gordon Critchlow, who had promised me some pictures from the early days before he passed.
Gordon was himself an excellent drummer and cousin to George Reid, the lead guitarist of Combo Seven. That cultural hub included singers Otis Holder, Mark Bryant among others, and then at the corner was a businessman who bought all kinds of booty and encouraged hustlers.
This environment was by no means ordinary or easily navigated. You were either cool, streetwise or wandering ‘wanna-be’ prey. Understand that without swift conclusions, many businesses were always clustered in the mentioned streets with staff that came in and out and minHaed their own business. There were serious businesses of all kinds: next to Freedom house was Jems the record store; going east was Graphic Book Store that sold all the top comic books and magazines. Universal Bookstore was also on that part of Robb Street going east near to Rendezvous and Tangs Bakery, where many citizens including myself frequently snacked. Many of the store employees were not living in that area as were the streetwise occupants. Nor were store employees random targets. This was a business area that included a top music equipment store that sold stereo sets and was said to identify locations to certain people who entered premises and stole the identified systems, which he bought back.
The popular culture perception of 110 Street or Metropole corner to the rest of blue and white-collar city dwellers was a criminal enclave. Yes, it was a kind of meeting place for pickpockets, con men, gamblers, high-end weirdos and society people seeking booty of all sorts to buy and immoral services.
But the cinemas were also a viable employment venue and stress relief location for the dozens who didn’t find morning employment at GRB and other waterfront picks on job locations; who would hang about the cinemas; win or get broke in the Metropole yard gamble; survive not getting into a ‘pashway’ (fight), would go into some one o’ clock show with puri, fry fish and peanut punch and then head back to GRB to fall into the 16:00hrs to midnight shift. One prominent character in the cinema ticket hustle was Barnabas Johnson aka ‘Barney’, a friend of the Mighty Sparrow who never missed Trinidad’s carnival. Barney was also a former PPP stalwart, who I cautioned a little cousin to keep far from when he could not understand what Barney meant by “fifty cents or flesh” referring principally to the price for a pit ticket, explaining the ‘flesh’ made him proceed to buy a house ticket for both of us, after assuring me that he was broke.
The ticket sellers Achar, Bumpy and others made a killing when new films opened. These guys would provide above price tickets and an easy way into the cinema to a better seat. The cinemas also employed chucker outs and general usher staff, among them at Metropole was my spar Paul Bourne. Not only new films carried the rush but classics. A double feature like ‘Good the Bad and the Ugly’ and ‘For a Few Dollars More’ also were ticket seller paydays. Then there were the con men like Doc Sharples and his crew who always had schemes going with requests for special artwork on special paper, of demons etc.
There were guys who boomed a pants length, the money to sew it and then party money. Then there were the weirdos’ like Billy Moore the musician who wrote the Christmas song ‘Church Bells are Ringing’ who advertised a coming show with Nat King Cole and other artistes-who were all dead at the time- featured on a banner. His buddy was Roydon Hinkson who was in pursuit of higher spiritual hierarchies; cousin -according to Roydon -of a former Mayor and he would assure me when we meet of progress in that mystic area.
These corners were products of a colonial social order. They evolved as hangout places for unemployed tough youth living in the long (“nigger”) yards that were common in then Georgetown-North Road, Alexander Street and the famous Federation Yard, where the GuyOil station is now located on Regent and Wellington Streets. In closing I remember Brian from Albertown, Six-Inch Andrew August, Tumbay-Sparrow and the other gamblers who were enveloped in that era, an unorthodox no holds barred survival ‘Comfort Zone’.
Then came the collapse of that special environment: Chokit burned down, Oasis was sold, the cinemas declined as TV came to Guyana. The cinemas could have survived as an employment fixture but the government after 1992 made no effort to regulate the pirate TV stations and the cinemas died, and with them, a human survival comfort zone. Before I did this article I had a chat with my buddy ‘Boyblue’. We concluded that the recent spate of strokes hitting some senior colleagues were a result of ‘Flashbacks’ of millions wasted in gambling, lost opportunities, related to the current endgame status. I watched back then, as characters who could not adjust declined. Some ended up dead on the streets, others retreated but gave up to bad lifestyles and the mental fatigue from the trade winds of change and the torment of flashbacks; Brave, Touch-A-Salt, Cats and many others from a subculture worth remembering, of which all has not been said.