KINGSTON, JAMAICA -- The work schedule at Alpha Boys’ School ran weekdays from 7:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the evening. The school served the workers lunch and dinner, if we so desired. With yams, boiled banana, festival (a slightly sweet bread) and breadfruit in addition to various jerk and curry dishes and the mangoes literally dropping from the trees overhead, I partook of the free food frequently.
I worked long and hard and finally hammered out a manual on computerizing data from past student files. I whipped all the files in my office into alphabetical order, managing to pull out a small stack of files pertaining to some of the greatest musicians ever to walk the earth: Rico Rodriguez, Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace, Lester Sterling and more.
Near the end of my stay in Kingston I developed an allergic reaction to an antibiotic I’d started taking back in Milwaukee for a tooth infection. The heat and constant mosquito bites may have contributed to the aches, pains, dizziness and severe skin rash that erupted at the end of my stay.
A visit to a free clinic associated with Alpha was met with prompt attention from a dedicated but inexperienced staff. The facilities were far from sterile. The nurse who took down my intake information appeared to be about 14, and the inside waiting room, occupied mostly by children, was filled with the static-distressed sound of an ultraviolent TV movie. Maybe because I arrived with some Alpha students, the clinic doctor misdiagnosed my rash as scabies. He prescribed some ointment that aggravated the itching and ugliness of the rash. I made a point of wearing a long-sleeved jacket to the airport.
Speaking of the sartorial, most Kingstonians have lost their flair for rocking flashy, colorful, highly personalized outfits like the skin-tight trousers, velour shirts, shades and Stetsons of old. Most of the men wear what we used to call play clothes: T-shirts, sneakers and shorts, often bootleg knockoffs with big corporate logos.
“They look like Americans,” a workmate back home remarked upon viewing my photos of the crowds on Orange Street and, sadly, she’s right. Certain women like Audrey Reid and a few of my Alpha workmates showed creativity and artistry in their frilly ensembles and curled coiffures, but they were rare creatures in Kingston.
Just as I took ill, a sweet older couple I had befriended during the long delay on the way down from Chicago took me out to the heavily guarded Hilton Inn’s karaoke night uptown in New Kingston. The emcee for the evening put on her most flamboyant Lady Saw voice for the guests, yelling out, “Rewind!” and “Pull it up, selecta!”, despite the absence of any Jamaican music from the night’s proceedings.
A pair of little girls sang something about having an expensive car, a hapless woman butchered the already egregious “Unbreak My Heart,” someone else mangled the already odious “Irreplaceable,” a dude in stone-washed denim channeled Keith Urban. The tourist trip in Jamaica is an irritating, unpleasant experience almost completely devoid of human culture. While looking up from my deck chair at the stars, I spotted the nearby Pegasus Hotel, where Strummer and Jones wrote (The Clash's) “Safe European Home.” I begged my friends to take me home.
For my last night in town, the Village Café on Barbican Road in the Liguanea neighborhood northeast of downtown gave me a solo singing and guitaring gig on a bill with four or five Jamaican heavy metal bands. The audience was young, attentive and extremely appreciative of my short, sharp set. The first band up featured a vocalist who sounded like a cross between Bounty Killer and the Cookie Monster. The audience screamed with approval.
With few prospering industries and heavy dependence on the dreary tourist scene, an unconscionably high number of Jamaicans live in utter destitution. Riding through so much zinc fence territory all through town, peering through so many iron-bar windows, and meeting so many citizens imprisoned in their own town by poverty and violence, you realize that Michael Rose was probably understating the case when he sang so many years ago, “They make Jah children eat from the rubbish pile.” Since the bloody elections of 1980, when hundreds were killed in sectarian battle, voter turnout in Jamaica has decreased from 87 percent to 57 percent.
The Alpha boys made it impossible to stay pessimistic about the future of Jamaica. With almost no material possessions, they have built lives for themselves by learning educational, social, and vocational skills. None of them seemed ashamed of their grade level, no matter how low in comparison to their age, and they are proud of their musical culture. Mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dancehall -- they embrace it, they sing it, they learn to play it. Several boys actively sought me out for help in learning to read. The band boys were especially invigorating company, and they were the hardest to tell goodbye, especially when they gave me a going-away bag with some band shirts and a set of pens personally engraved by some of the woodworking students.
In those last few days in sweet, bitter Jamaica, you can tell from photographs that I am exhausted. While I finished up my clerical work in my office at Alpha, one of my workmates asked me, “You know what you need, Eric?”
I said, What?