Friday 3 February 2012

A tour of Port of Spain in Mahalle's invisible car

 "Mahalle, you change your car?" asked Spit in the Sea; he was looking for a drop to Cocorite. Mahalle ignored him as he brought his car's invisible windscreen up to an impossible shine, stepped back and attempted to catch a glimpse of himself reflected in the imaginary bonnet.
This was an altogether ludicrous period in Port of Spain's history. Spoiler the calypsonian had just sung a hit about an accident in the colonial hospital, where by a cat's brain had inadvertently been put into his sister's head and vice versa, resulting in:
"And the cat who ha she brain,
he cozy on the bed
bussing kiss on top ah she husband head."
But today Mahalle was not bothering with Spit in the Sea's flattery, he knew that all Spit wanted was to pose off in the back seat and make old style in his car.
"Watch the door!" snapped Mahalle as the coconut man backed his donkey and cart into a spot just outside Vasco de Gamma Bar, on the corner of Piccadilly Street and Old St. Joseph Road, and with the proper hand signals and his car in first gear, off he went, never noticing that Spit had got in behind.
They drew little attention as they made their way traveling west on Marine Square. Passersby saw an elderly Indian man with a lunatic glare in his eye and a red-skinned nut case walking quickly behind him. Spit in the Sea had only one thought in his mind, "Ah wonder if he really going Cocorite."
The city of Port of Spain in the 1940s was getting a face lift along the lines of the Slum Clearance Bill of 1935; many parts of town had been declared unfit. Mahalle had heard only this morning that all the barracks on Francis Street in Corbeaux Town were being replaced by up-to-date bungalows. The Guardian's special correspondent went on to say:
"Other sections of the city, Prince Street, Charlotte Street, Henry Street, upper St. Vincent Street and in the Besson Street area in particular some ugliness still remains, but lines of squalid barracks have slowly given way to beautiful model houses."
As he approached Abercromby Street Mahalle signaled that he was slowing down so as to allow Col. Mavrogordato to cross to the Union Club. Spit, in the back seat, instead of paying attention to the driver, bumped right into Mahalle, almost causing him to collide with the Commissioner of Police. With that Mahalle jumped out of his invisible, opened the back door and threw Spit out.
"What the hell you doing in my blankity-blank car?!! Get out you smelly rodent!" (etc. etc.)
All this naturally caught the eye of the commissioner, who stood for a moment to see the two old vagrants fighting on the sidewalk, feeling vaguely reminded of a snake charmer and a carpet vendor he had once observed in Cairo, Egypt. Shaking his head, he turned towards the club's elegant staircase in search of a mid-morning gin and tonic.
Not only was the housing in the city changing in this early wartime period, transportation was also on the move as there were now more than 1,000 cars on the streets of Port of Spain (not counting Mahalle's). Horse-drawn vehicles and donkey carts still outnumbered motor vehicles. Some old-time calypsoes remind us of them:
"Ah went dong donkey city to circumsise meh donkey,
ah bounce up two female donkeys carrying with a mule,
and the mule said to the donkey, 'Sagaboy don't caca behind me, donkey,
whoa don't tear up my junior commando.."
The city council still charged fees for the pasturage of animals at the Mucarapo pasture, the only one left belonging to the government. There had been pastures at Woodbrook, Belmont and St. Clair. The Queen's Park Savannah was also used for pasturing. In fact the government kept a bull tethered there and, for a shilling paid to the city council, you could bring your heifer to the government's bull.
In the meantime, Mahalle had been able to push Spit in the Sea out of his car and had driven off at full speed, swinging north into Abercromby Street and almost 'licking down' Mary Jackass. Mary, an old white woman, always in a big hurry and perpetually tormented by school boys, had one large tooth left and with this she fired a bite at Mahalle causing a scratch on his upholstery. With that, Mahalle tried to bounce her down, but she managed to escape by running into the square, a crowd of school boys chasing behind her.
Mahalle crossed Marine Square north and gingerly brought his car to a stop outside the Hotel de Paris. In those days, Port of Spain boasted several fine hotels. The Ice House Hotel faced the Hotel de Paris on Abercromby Street, the Standard Hotel was at Henry Street, the St. Miranda at the corner of Henry and Queen Street and the Carlisle at the corner of Queen and St. Vincent Street.
"Taxi Sir? Taxi Miss?" called Mahalle with an ingratiating smile, subserviently bowing and scraping to a tall, English-looking gentleman and the pretty lady in a green and white polka dot dress.
"Taxi, take a tour, see the sights!"
Downtown Port of Spain was quite fashionable in those days, kept clean, its sidewalks and canals swept daily, with shiny steel tram lines running down their lengths of the streets. Elaborate wrought-iron balconies overhung large showcase windows, displaying the latest arrivals at Miller's, Glendinning's and the Bonanza. There was Canning's, Salvatori and Tetrami. In those days, the bicycle was a popular means of transport. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, when cars parked on the eastern side of the city's streets, bikes lined the left side, and vice versa on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Fed up with the ungrateful tourists, Mahalle was about to enter his car by himself when he spotted Gombot Lili, a greasy-pole climber who used to bathe the dead, just like his father, Gombot Glise, who had been jailed in the previous century for charging the public four cents to look into a large box. The allegation was that one of the men in the box had displayed an indecent spectacle.
"Eh Gombot, you want a drop? Ah goin by the Circular Road, jus 6 cents."
But Gombot was busy. He had a dead to bathe. Mahalle drove north on Abercromby Street and turned right onto Knox Street, which had been named for a Chief Judge of the colony. On the left was the old Garcia building, now the Town Hall. It boasted a fine row of columns supporting a gallery which shaded the side walk, paved with large red flagstones.
The building had been the home of the famous Garcia family. It was a fine old fashioned Spanish house that had a chapel for the family's use. It was said that Don Raymond Garcia, who had come to Trinidad at the start of the 19th century from Caracas, was the illegitimate son of a Spanish infanta and her confessor. Upon discovering her condition, the confessor was executed, the infanta sent to a nunnery. After she had given birth, her son was  dispatched to Venezuela with a teacher, a fortune and a new name. In those days, there were many such stories of how royalty walked the streets of Port of Spain.
Mahalle turned down Frederick Street, past the Grey Friars' Kirk, where the first Portuguese, who had come to the island from Madeira, said their prayers. These Portuguese, originally Catholic, had been converted to a form of Calvinism and as such had been in mortal danger from their fellow catechists, causing their being rescued by the British and brought from their Atlantic island to Trinidad.
Mahalle spotted the city councillor Albert Gomes walking up Frederick Street. "Good morning, Mista Gomes."
"Morning Mahalle. How is everything today? Haven't had a flat I hope," said Gomes, tipping his hat at the fleet-footed Mahalle, who had already begun signalling his intention to turn onto Prince Street. Albert Gomes was, in those days, an up-and-coming politician. On one occasion, the Port of Spain City Council was debating the use of the city's squares for public meetings. Things had come to a head when an associate of Gomes, one Quintin O'Connor, had been refused permission to use Woodford Square for a public meeting. O'Connor was a trade unionist representing the Shopworkers' and Clerks' Union, which was a rival union to Captain Arthur Cipriani's Trinidad Labour Party. Cipriani, the Mayor of Port of Spain, had ruled that it was against the constitution to hold public meetings in public places such as the squares.
Albert Gomes was furious. He bellowed that the Mayor was attempting to silence the opposition.
"Woodford Square belongs to the people, the man in the street. You are making this council a fascist platform!"
Insulted, the Mayor ordered Gomes to take his seat. Gomes refused and the Captain ordered two policemen to put Gomes out of the Council Chamber. Gomes, on seeing the police, lay down flat on the floor, all 280 pounds of him. The rumor that made the rounds was that it took 16 policemen to move Gomes into the corridor!
As Mahalle approached the corner of Prince and Henry Street, he spotted Spit in the Sea waiting for a taxi so he could go to Cocorite to spit in the sea. Fortunately for Mahalle, a little drizzle started and he put on his windshield wipers. As such, he was able to pretend he did not see Spit. Turning left on Park Street, Mahalle could not help but notice a change in the city. There were a lot of sailors and airmen, Red Cross nurses and the Trinidad volunteers about. He was overtaken by a jeep driving at break-neck speed along Park Street: American sailors on a spree. People were glad to see Americans. They brought employment with the camps and bases being opened up. They brought excitement to the girls and spent money on gambling.
"Drinking rum and Coca Cola
go dong Point Cumana,
see mother and daughter
working for the Yankee dollar."
Talk of the devil. "Morning Mr. Boysie!" called Mahalle, slowing down at Pembroke Street corner. He had seen the notorious underworld character Boysie Singh. In those early years of Boysie's career, he controlled gambling in Port of Spain and boy did he have a way with the ladies! Boysie's career, written up years later, would, for a short time, become a bestseller. The gangster waved, "Alright Mahalle." Mahalle smiled. Everybody knew the car. Mahalle couldn't find a park at Green Corner, too many American sailors, so he drove down to Victoria Square, previously Shine's Pasture, which had been made into a public park using the rubble from the burnt out Red House (1903). Parking carefully on Duke Street, Mahalle went into the square to admire the zandolees living there. And you know when he came out he couldn't find the car? You think Spit could drive???

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I thought Mahal was spelled Mahal, the way the Indians spelt it.
Nice way to present the history of PoS.
Two rather tiny things the editor missed. Let you know when I see you.