Kingston, near the harbour, had a real split personality disorder. By day, happy, happy sing, song all the damn day long: tourists, flowers, fresh fruit carts, street musicians getting down with neither Rude Boy nor Rasta man reggae…just the hits, soul and R&B, Jamaican style…will make a few dollar off them tourists for some rum. That’s where I was headed, same as yesterday, my first day out of my strange, voluntary incarceration. I had found some musicians that didn’t mind if I played along on my harps…
You see, the day I went to meet with the Superintendent of Jamaican Immigration, who was mostly concerned with people who wanted to get off the island, not get in—the appointment arranged by the assistant to the American Ambassador—I had taken my harps with me for some reason. Now, I didn’t know at the time that he would arrange for me to stay at the British Seaman’s Hall. Or recommend, given the trouble I had with Onny in the recent past, that I head straight over there. Or, that he would have a car take me to their door. Or, he could summon the police and send them across the island to retrieve my expired ticket on Air Jamaica, from Onny’s one room house, and order them to honor the ticket, at their convenience, and fly me back to Miami.
None if this was familiar to me…or that I would get only one meal per day at the Hall, and have to fend for myself for any other morsels for the rest of the day. But part of me must have foreseen, because I had grabbed my two harps and shoved them down in my back pocket that day. So, I had them when I crash landed at Hotel British Seaman…vacancies for days.
Yesterday, when I turned to leave, I scooped them up off the built-in desktop—the only possessions I had besides a wallet with a wrong picture ID, that said I was Johnny…Funny, but I was starting to resemble his darker complexion everyday…like a weird California License picture of Dorian Gray, or something.
I grabbed up those lonely, beat up, dented, discolored-from-the-oxidation-of-saliva but still playable Hohner Marine Band harps, and wandered out the door into the morning sunlight.
At the time, I was halfway decent on harp. I had taken guitar lessons as an early adolescent, cancelled due to parental alcoholism, mental illness and other problems as natural to my family as snow at the north Pole. My best friend in High School had schooled me well on the instrument. He played guitar and piano, understood music theory, could figure out the chords to any song just by giving a good listen, and desperately wanted a soloing instrument to accompany his chords.
Enter El Harmonica Man. With my fat lips, excellent wind from running track, and ability to suck and blow hard, not to mention my natural ear developed from a few years in the choir back when I was a soprano, lalalalalalala, I was a mouth organ whiz from the beginning. By the tenth grade, I was the front man soloist for the bands he formed, playing almost all British hits: Animals, Yardbirds, Cream, Beatles, Kinks, etc…We played parties for free, or for pot and girls, but never had any paying gigs. Who cares. I was a kid. We had several different bands sophomore and junior year, with a variety of names. My favorite was, Asphalt Mother. We rehearsed, literally, in his garage…he would back the Mercury out so we could go in and play…loudly, badly, bravely.
But this day, my second full day out of the Seaman way station, I was headed back to see if that group was playing. They had a guitar, alto sax and singer. The guitarist, who had to carry all the chords, bottom, rhythm and everything else, was delighted with me because I could just blow rhythm chords throughout, thus help out the bottom, as well as solo.
I made almost five bucks my first day, yesterday, which was a fortune to me. First off, the Jamaican dollar, which was originally pegged as one to one with the Pound, was worth about a buck twenty three US, back then. And a dollar in ’73 was worth about five dollars or more in today’s currency. So, think of it as over twenty-five dollars, to someone who had been broke for weeks, for about ninety minutes of easy blowing. I could even play the ska or reggae rhythms, as needed, or regular blues—that was actually my specialty—so, they loved me even more. And, as a white American, I made them into an instant novelty act that could appeal more to the mostly white tourists, who chipped in about eighty percent of their tips. It was good times, brother.
Fuck all you all. I’m a street musician in Kingston. You dig. Playing for my supper… I gots me an A harp, for playing in E, and a D harp, for playing in A…Hell yeah, I could use a G harp to play in C, but I am about two thirds of the way home…
My new friend, Stanley—I swear, every other guy was named Stanley in Kingston back then—saw me blowing harp and decided he could use me for his act. He needed someone to round up little tokens of appreciation, as he called it, when he would dive off the pier, into the murky waters, and retrieve some small, shiny object that someone had thrown in for him to go after. It was a good act…and I gave it a sense of legitimacy. He was not very liberal in sharing his take, which was more modest than what a group of serious street musicians could make, but what did I care. I had already made and exceeded my mark, so I was just along for the good time Carney fun, you dig.
I mean, what else was I going to do? Go back to the Seaman’s Hotel and watch paint dry?
Hell no. These were my last days down here. I was finally free of her. Immigration could come for me any day.
So after we blew through the lunch crowd, I would take my earnings over to this lunch counter dive that Stanley had taken me to, just yesterday. Like many businesses down there, they closed up tight at just the smell of darkness, as the harbour district transformed itself, like a vampire, into its other personality by night.
At this lunch counter dive, you could load up on red beans and rice with a tall glass of fresh breadfruit juice for seventy-nine cents…Now when I say red beans and rice, that sounds sort of blasé. Of course, it was anything but.
Sometimes Stanley and I would go grab some Red Stripes, about twenty-five cents apiece, or some rum and cokes, about fifty to seventy five cents…There were always beautiful Jamaican girls checking me out, that I would not have noticed, as accustomed as I was to being Onny’s property, had Stanley not pointed it out.
High School girls, roaming around after school, as Kingston near the harbour was innocent fun by day. Adjacent to the financial district, run by Scottish bankers back then, there was also a respectable noon day office crew.
Of course, I had no place to take the beautiful high school girls, as no guests were permitted at the Seaman’s Hotel…and they couldn’t exactly take me home to mom and dad’s place, so…I did make out with one, after the three of us shared a spliff one day—only seventy-five cents, and good to wipe the minds of three, or get stoned all day long.
We sipped Cokes, kissed with lips more than tongues, which was fine with me, and laughed till our sides hurt, all good medicine after what I had just been through…Finally, a little bit of heaven.
She was mixed, with straight hair and nose, as Jamaicans liked to call it, freckles and green eyes like an exotic cat, with skin a caramel candy color. She said she was seventeen. I was twenty. Perfect. I can’t remember her name, but I do remember I had to tear myself away to get back to the Hall before curfew. I had to run the whole way that day. Easy to do, high as I was on her.
Fuck all you all. I’m a street musician, a lover, a Carney whore, staying for free, the whole place just for me, down at the British Seaman’s Hall.
And I didn’t even mind their breakfasts anymore…when lunch and dinner were waiting just outside the door. Each day took me by the hand and shouted, Hey! You ready?! Well then let’s go?!
Amen, my bothers and sisters. Amen to that.