gall and gumption

Friday, June 23, 2006


I keep myself awake at my job these days by listening to talk radio from Jamaica. In the few weeks since I started listening (it streams over the Internet) I have heard the following:

A man calls from the hospital in Montego Bay where he has been for several weeks awaiting surgery after a car accident. The surgery cannot be performed because the air-conditioning in the operating theater is broken, has been broken for weeks. He is, from his speech, a poor man from deep in the country somewhere. It turns out that a few of the other people who were injured in the accident are also there in the hospital with him, waiting for surgery, unable to leave while the bill for all this waiting runs into the thousands of dollars. "Please I beg you call somebody, Mr. Perkins, do, sah, because if you can't help we them might as well put we in a barrel and roll we down a hill."

A woman calls in to complain that her husband's application for a renewal of his driver's license has been stalled for over a year, despite his having presented all the paperwork and paid all the fees. As a result of the delay he can't drive his truck which they use in their business, a chicken farm. In the background of the woman's voice, sometimes angry, sometimes lamenting, I can hear the voices of chickens. They are making that noise that Robert Herrick so happily called "creaking" which sounds like they are terribly concerned about the whole situation also.

For a couple days early this week the host of the show, Motty Perkins, was away. For the previous week and into this week he had been talking about the history of Jamaica in the 1970s, when Michael Manley declared a state of emergency and put a lot of his political opponents in prison. This all happened right about the time I was leaving and I was really only dimly aware of all of it, as most of my mind was taken up with boys. For the two days when Motty was away from the show there was a spectacularly annoying woman standing in for him. I had to take breaks sometimes so as not to start swearing at her in my cubicle. She also was discussing this controversial period, and apparently, during one of my breaks from listening, I missed a moment when she accused a woman caller of selling her vote to Michael Manley's party for a tin of condensed milk. (Such things did happen during that era of shortages of basic things like rice, toilet paper and soap, and they should give you pause.) The woman was so incensed that she literally laid a curse on Motty's annoying stand-in, invoking the Blood of Jesus Christ. I learned from calls that came in throughout the rest of the afternoon that this curse is serious obeah business. One woman called in and explained that she knew the caller, and the woman was not a real Christian and therefore the curse would not work. Another called in and had a lot of quotations from the Bible to prove that the Blood of Jesus Christ could not be used in that particular way. Later on a Rasta called in and simply said that the host had nothing to worry about, he was burning fire to remedy it even as they spoke.

What I love is that these people were calling in on cell phones and these conversations were streaming over the internet to me at my desk at one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world.

On Sunday nights in Jamaica my mother, my brother and I listened to the radio. We listened to a program called "What's Your Grouse?" For a while the host of the program was Wilmot Perkins. Then he left the show and Rabbi Bernard Hooker, an English Rabbi, took over as host. People all over Jamaica would call in with all sorts of problems. The Rabbi had one of those very nasal English accents - southern but not high class - and he was kind and thoughtful, and gave a lot of comfort. Everybody could do an impression of the sort of exchange that was very typical. The Rabbi greeting the caller with "Good evening. This is Rabbi Bernard Hooker" Then a woman would get on the phone and tell a long rambling story about her baby faada and how she went to de ospital to try to get de birt cerfiticket and the Rabbi would make some helpful suggestion. Or some man would call to complain about the state of roads near his village out in the country and just blow off a lot of steam about the government. My brother and I shared our mother's delight and amusement in the voices and characters. What makes your family your family is any number of little rituals, idiosyncrasies, habits and oddities that make no sense to anybody else, things that you take completely for granted -- until they're gone and you find yourself trying to describe what they were like, what they meant. Well, listening to "What's Your Grouse" was like that. Except for a few years of farming, Motty has been on the air running his talk show all these many years. Jamaicans call in from inside and outside of Jamaica, from New York, Miami, London, Vancouver. They speak in the accents of the Oxford-educated, the Kingston Street, in patois so thick and rapid that I can barely follow it, the bossy drawl of the well-to-do Kingston lady, in Bible-infused Rastaese. Jamaica might be in dire straits politically, socially and economically, but oh lord what a paradise it is for a person who loves the English language.

The show is now called Perkins Online. It is on here every weekday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Washington DC time. My current editing gig is very dull work that nonetheless requires alertness. It's production editing academic journal articles on subjects like pavement and road improvement financing. I do it in a cubicle that runs low on oxygen about every 90 minutes. What now keeps me awake is Motty Perkins, four and a half thank you Jesus hours of Jamaican news and Jamaican voices. We tend to think, you know, that our memories of childhood are somehow colored with nostalgia and fantasy. I'd be the first person to admit that they are. We get used to finding as adults that things are not as big or bright or impressive as they seemed to our childish selves, visionary gleam, the glory and the dream etc. Mr. Perkins is holding up surprisingly well; he's better than my memory!


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