By Akola Thompson
EVERY day, upon a walk through some inner city street, you can see them lying on cardboard boxes, their croaky voices struggling to emerge from their dry throats as their grimy hands stretch towards you asking for help.Most of the time we keep our heads straight, our eyes averted from these downtrodden persons whose names we don’t know and, honestly, do not care to know.
Our minds hardly ever drift back to them as we tell the respective stories of our day; we never wonder what is the story of the man staring into the sunset, and whose life he might have influenced.
It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon when I finally took opportunity to speak with one of society’s downtrodden. The interview had been set for 16:00 hrs, but as the clock fast approached 16:15 hrs, I began to worry that he would be a no-show. I began to wonder how he would be able to tell the time, as I was sure he possessed no watch or phone; and then I saw him arrive.
I glanced at the person who had set up the interview to ascertain I was shaking the hands of the correct man. The preconceived stereotypes I had held before his arrival were suddenly void, replaced instead with curiosity and wonder. Taking my hand into his, he introduced himself as William Samuel Bremner, and stated that he preferred to be called Samuel, while nervously glancing around the café.
He stood approximately five inches above me, a gold-coated stud glinting in his right ear, his hair low and cleanly shaven. Tightly squeezed in his right hand was a beige cap. The t-shirt he had worn was clean and neatly tucked into his knee-length pants. On his feet were sharp black shoes, which stood in sharp contrast to his white socks.
As I escorted him to a seat, his nervous glancing became more apparent; and upon sitting, he explained that people often judge others harshly based on their appearance, and he knows that many people would rather not have him around. He said that while he has had to grow a thick skin over time, people’s insensitivity still gets to him.
AT AGE 12
With his shoe tapping against the tiled floor and his head bent slightly, he explained how, at age 12, he was already living on the streets.
As a child, Samuel said, he lived with his stepfather and other siblings after his mother migrated to Canada. He explained that while his stepfather purported himself to be a “churchy man, he really wasn’t”, and this caused an extreme amount of turmoil in the household.
One day, in an effort to be more self-sufficient, Samuel said, he decided to iron his own school clothes but mistakenly turned the iron too high and burned a hole in his shirt. Within a few seconds, his stepfather had pounced on him and began beating him about the head.
“I got so angry,” Samuel said, “I took the iron and pressed it into his chest, and he kicked me down the stairs for that.”
In a fit of rage, his stepfather ran down after him, but fearing for his life and trying to slow down his assailant, Samuel said, he threw a rock, which caught his stepfather at the side of the head. Upon seeing his stepfather fall, Samuel said, he ran, and did not return to the home until years later.
“I didn’t dare go back,” he said, adding: “I thought I had killed him.”
With no one to turn to and the only home he had known now inaccessible, Samuel joined a group of street urchins who operated behind the Stabroek Market. These survived on what little they obtained from strangers, including scraps of food.
Samuel said those were extremely hard days for him. “You have to remember that I was accustomed to a middle class lifestyle; (and) to move so suddenly from a life of comfort to one of destitution can be extremely hard for anyone, especially for a child,” he said.
One day, while walking in the market, Samuel said, a towering officer stopped him. At this point in recounting, he became visibly animated and expressed the deep respect he still feels for the man, Dr Constantine. “When he saw me wandering, he asked me, ‘wa you doing here, boy?’ I was scared, so I told him that I had come to the market to buy something and had gotten lost. He then took me to a bus and told me to go home.”
However, still afraid that he might have killed his stepfather, Samuel jumped out of the bus as soon as it went around a corner, and returned to his haunt behind the Stabroek Market.
A few days later, Samuel, realising he was still a child and needed help, sought out Dr Constantine, who worked around the area, and told him he had run away from home.
“After that day, I slept in the corner of their workspace…I became like an errand boy; everyone seemed to have forgotten that I was a runaway,” he revealed. He would, however, still go to the other street urchins.
“At the time I wasn’t very big,” Samuel said, indicating with outstretched arms the size of his small frame, “but I was very smart, and so a lot of them looked up to me and saw me as their leader…. Every day, I’d send different persons to different locations in an attempt to get money so they could eat,” he said.
Aside from being errand boy and urchin leader, Samuel said, he soon began forming friendships with sailors whose vessels would moor at the Stabroek Wharf. He soon became a “liaison man.”
At this point he became evidently uncomfortable, his words occasionally interrupted by sporadic coughs. His discomfort was understandable when I realised that what he meant was that he was facilitating the trafficking of women. Simultaneously expressing regret at what he had done then and later on in life, Samuel pointed out that he had never slept with any of the women because he was then still very “churchy-churchy, as that was how I had grown up”.
Eventually, he became extremely good friends with one of the sailors, who would sometimes bring him clothes, such as leather jackets and jeans. Upon returning one time, the sailor told him that they were headed to England, and if he wanted to go, they could stow him away in the ship’s stern.
It did not take much to convince Samuel that he needed to go. With no discernable local ties, the dream of having a better life on better shores, and aided by others, Samuel sneaked onto the ship at 01:00 hr, hoping that a better life awaited him in England after the ship departed Guyana at 04:00 hrs.