“Wake up, Sir,” the house keeper pushed the door open into the room.
Well, not exactly a room. Eight by eight I guessed, if it was lucky, this was my new pad, paid and provided for by Jamaican Immigration. Actually, the room was a lot more like the narrow berth on a ship.
“Breakfast in one half hour, sir,” she chimed.
Day two, British Seaman’s Hall, Kingston, Jamaica.
I slept on the top half of the bunk bed, thirty-six by seventy-six inches, even though I was the only one in that room. In fact, I was currently the only guest being served by the skeletal staff at the Hall. Made me feel sort of special, or like I had woken up inside the dream of a mad man, and couldn’t get out…till he woke up, thus ending my existence. The ladies room, where I crashed at the hotel above the cowboy bar on Pearl Street—in beautiful downtown Boulder, Colorado, where the wild west collided with hip University culture in a clash of grizzled wills—was practically a penthouse compared to this room.
If it wasn’t for the sliding glass door, covered by casual cotton curtains, that opened out to the patio surrounding the pool, I would not be able to stand it, claustrophobic as I am.
I jumped to the floor like a cat. Pulled on the same clothes as the day before. My first full day here—just yesterday—they gave me a hospital style, blue, pin-striped robe to wear while they washed my only outfit of clothes. The man-maid had looked around for clothes left behind by former guests—real seaman, not pseudo-outlaws waiting to be unofficially deported. Sadly, there were none…small enough to fit me, and my five foot seven, 125 pounds .
Breakfast at eight. Don’t be late, I sang to myself, slipping my feet darkened by their dirty tan into the same sad flip-flops. My Georgia work boots were still back at Onny’s place, where she’s probably working Voodoo with them, by now.
The British Seaman’s Hall offered me room and board at the request, or demand, of the superintendent for Jamaican Immigration, no less. They were a bit light on the board side, as breakfast was the only meal of the day, so…
I shuffled down the long, institutional style hallway—yellowed linoleum looked naked under garish fluorescent light stare—past scores of identical, two-man berths…all empty. No ships in port this week, the heart of February, 1973.
Oh well. I’ve got the whole place to myself! The entire staff waas here just to serve me…at my disposal, my beck and call…King For a Day…
I entered the cavernous dining room and found the same table set as yesterday. My breakfast was already served and waiting under a covered plate, cruise ship style. I lifted up the heavy stainless steel cover to reveal the same morning meal as yesterday: two sunny eggs, over hard, probably basted in the bacon fat of the two, thick and extra crispy strips, two pieces of dry, borderline burnt white toast, one tin-foil wrapped cube of real butter, and one small cup of orange marmalade—symbolizing the fruit portion of the meal, no doubt.
Two staff stood guard—one male, one female. The woman wore a pink frock covered with a white apron, and white gloves sharply contrasting her dark skin. The man-maid simply wore the usual white shirt, black pants, white starched waiter’s waist jacket, and white cotton gloves. I looked at them both.
They looked away. Along with the cook and a custodian, they comprised the entire staff…until a ship reached port, then temporary staffing was called in for the duration of their docking. There was also a manager about somewhere, British, male and white, who I only saw twice—the afternoon I arrived, which was the day before yesterday, and the morning that I left.
By looking over at her, the housekeeper, now waitress, who had roused me from my deep dreams, assumed I wanted something, and came over to my table. The dining room was banquet-sized, and could easily accommodate a sitting of several hundred seaman, so, it was no small distance she swam to reach me.
She raised an eyebrow. “Your coffee is there in the little pot. We assumed you wanted coffee again like yesterday…because you are American.”
“Yes, coffee is fine.”
“Your milk is sweetened condensed, the way the Jamaicans do it, in the little pitcher.”
I decided to make her journey to the far side of the dining room worth her while. “Do you have any fresh milk, half and half, or cream?”
“No sir. We do not keep anything around that would spoil when there are no ships in port. Sorry. Only the sweetened condensed milk.”
“I see,” feigning disappointment, lording it over my staff.
Little Lord is not pleased!
“You said that you drank your coffee that way before, here in Kingston, “ she defended.
“Yes I did,” pausing for effect. “But I did not say I actually liked it that way.”
We hung on the awkward pause like shipwrecked survivors clinging to a shard of driftwood, floating out in the warm Caribbean, praying there’s no sharks circling nearby.
Finally, she said. “Will you be going out today?”
“I believe so, assuming Immigration doesn’t come for me.”
“Well, I don’t think that they will, sir.”
“Not today…As we told you yesterday, once you leave, you are required to stay out for the remainder of the day, until two hours before your curfew—“
“At eight,” I interrupted.
“Yes sir. You must return here between six and eight p.m., not before, and certainly not after.”
“It just seems odd.”
“Having just you, an American, staying here seems strange too.”
She stood up to the Little Lord, just like a Jamaican. Defiant to the core.
“Well, I’m going to take a shower first, wash my hair, maybe shave, then go out for the day…do some sightseeing,” I made a joke.
She didn’t laugh. “Yes sir. I will prepare the items you need and bring them to your room,” returning to the normal and formal tone of servility, but slightly strained.
“Thank you,” pouring the coffee, probably instant, from the stainless steel tea pot into the white, utilitarian mug.
“A Single blade razor, some shave cream, a little bottle of shampoo, a single bar of soap, a wash cloth and a towel, will that be all that you need then, sir.”
“I believe that should about cover it,” stirring in the sweetened condensed milk, an acquired taste for sure, and bringing the concoction, only luke-warm, to my lips. “Thank you,” Little Lord said, dismissing his servant.
She shuffled back to the far side of the hall without saying another word, and rejoined her fellow staff there.
He and I had enjoyed a more cordial relationship yesterday, as I stayed in all day, reading selections from their library, and playing English billiards. He had even taught me how to play their game, with the smaller balls and more narrow pockets, on the ocean-liner sized table…It had rained most of the day yesterday, so staying in had seemed like a good idea. Besides, I was exhausted, and still not 100 percent from the bronchitis I caught in the drafty farmhouse I had stayed in…just last month, in a little farm town called Bellefonte (beautiful fountain), fifteen miles outside of State College, Pa. And then there was the blood poisoning, for which I had crawled to the clinic for a cure, just a little over a week ago.
Not to mention all the other excitement: trips to the American Embassy and Immigration, broken bottle fights in the courtyard, and trying to earn my keep the only way you can as a piece of meat…I could see my right index finger was probably going to heal with a permanent scar. Oh well.
Today I was going out to see the sights—Kingston, near the harbour—just like a regular American tourist. My clothes were clean. My long hair would be washed, and I was going to shave off my scraggly bear, which was bleached a sudden red by the Jamaican sun. That was about the only reason I kept it in the first place, other than a distinct lack of razors wherever I went down here. I liked the recessive genes sneaking out on my face, and the way the reddish beard clashed with the only dark tan I’ve had in my life. It was swashbuckling, alright.
The eggs, now cold, went down hard. I choked on the dry toast, no marmalade, please, and nearly burnt bacon. But I was starved, and breakfast is the most important meal of the day, even if it was a British Breakfast done wrong, or, simply done the Jamaican way…