The first few days of becoming a vagrant, you get sick. The rain spits on you with contempt. The sun beats down on you like a stick on a dog’s back. Every Man Jack you beg for money is a model of rectitude. I remember lying down on the cold pavement against the Tr easury Building, wheezing and coughing. Nobody stopped for me. Three petite girls obviously nurses by their uniforms passed me like I was invisible. Men dressed to impress had no time to look at me. Like everybody was late for some appointment. I was like a part of the wall. Nobody saw me. One man wrinkled his nose, like he was afraid he catch something.
The second day of being sick I thought I was going to die. One man actually stooped down and dropped a dollar next to me. He didn’t touch me. He made an extra effort not to do so. Without moving any other part of my body, my fingers scurried like a crab and grasped it.
By the third day, I started to feel better. By evening, I got up and walked up Edward Street. I had no destination in mind. No goal. It was like walking through a foggy dream. But I had a driving force. Hunger. It is strange when you want something intensely and can’t get it. Dustbins in Port of Spain were always overflowing with garbage but tonight, every one of them was clean. The few that looked promising had only paper. Should I eat paper? Paper never killed anyone. Unless I choked on it.
A car horn blared behind me.
“Get the hell off the street!” The car went around me still blaring his horn as if that would make me jump up to the pavement. You need energy to jump. I was starving.
A man’s home is his castle. The streets were my home. The driver of that car should have asked me for permission before driving on my roads.
This lifestyle is not a choice. No one ever chooses to be a vagrant. A beggar, maybe. Now, that’s a career choice. But a vagrant? Hell, no. That is a result of the government closing down state-owned enterprises instead of restructuring, the banks stealing from your savings account under the guise of transactional fees and the creation of second-rate tertiary-education schools that hand out degrees to undeserving students who eventually take your job. My path was either vagrancy, banditry or suicide. I guess vagrancy was not the worst road to take.
I moved off Edward Street. Walking in the dead of night with only the illumination of a street light I felt like a villain in one of those Netflix horror movies. Yes, I did not grow up poverty-stricken. I went to a prestige school, UWI, graduated, worked and failed in life. I was an addict to my paycheck, living month to month. Afraid to take risks, afraid to buy a house, a new car. I ended up with only enough money to live for a month. You know what it is to exist only to pay rent, grocery, bills and gas for your car? And don’t talk about if the car break down or you or your wife get sick. Money gone before the second week of the month. Apparently, we living to work, not working to live.
Vagrancy was the “Alcoholics Anonymous” for the monthly salary addict. No more work and no more paycheck. The downside was that by the time you get to this cure, you have no one left to care for. My wife left me. My parents were dead. It was just me, the night, the street lamps, my so-called instincts and that dog! That pothound who was following me as if I would lead him to a secret stash of hot, delicious food.
He did not budge. He looked at me as if I was trying to make friends.
“Mash!” I shouted louder. I stamped my foot.
That made him move.
He disappeared around the corner.
For years I couldn’t take control of anything and to see this dog actually listen to me; I laughed. For the life of me, I laughed.
The night was uneventful. When did I fall asleep? I can’t remember. All I know is that I woke up on the side of a building with that pothound sitting opposite me. I would have –“mashed”- him again but my growling belly sidetracked me. My head fell back on my bicep. I was devoid of ideas on what to do next. Physical degeneration, mental stagnation, spiritual incomprehension. I felt like a stick fighter in the gayelle ready to fight to survive for somebody else’s pleasure. Except it was a different type of fight. Miss one salary and crapaud smoke yuh pipe. And is not the politicians to blame alone but the banks. Everything runs through them. To make it easy, use LINX. Use credit card. Use online banking and pay all your bills. But what they don’t tell us is seventy-five cents for every time we swipe our card, four dollars when we use LINX, a charge for late payment on credit card, a charge for not paying off credit card, a charge for letting your account go dormant, a charge for reactivating the account, charge, charge, charge. Just now they will charge us to stand in line by the Teller because they fed up tell us to use the ATM for simple transactions, which in itself has its own charges. Not to mention we get no kind of interest added to any of our accounts even though they make huge profits at year-end. And now, I sleeping next to a pothound dog who not smelling as bad as me.
The pothound panted hard. His bones bulged against his body instead of muscles. A veterinary student could have studied his ribs and skeleton without dissecting him.
He did not listen.
He knew I was too weak to do anything.
I forced myself to stand up.
“Don’t follow me, you hear!”
I walked off. Lo and behold, he followed me.
“I have nothing for you! Don’t follow me!”
He did not listen.
If he want to follow, let him. He would either starve to death or leave me when he realize that I can’t help myself, let alone, him.
My belly begged for some attention. Hunger pangs weighed down my consciousness.
I was not a violent person I had to remind myself but the streets were testing me.
I screamed. People moved away from me. Even the pothound watched me as if I was a puzzle to figure out.
Two young women were walking towards me but they were looking into one of their phones.
The one with the phone had a huge handbag. I could only pray it had money to buy some food. I looked around. There were people walking the street. One scream from her and I’d be caught. But why steal from this woman? Wasn’t she a month to month survivor like me? Or was she a banker living on the fringes of our desperation?
While looking around, my eyes fell on the pothound, still trailing and begging me for help. Those damn, innocent eyes.
The women passed me. I did nothing.
I watched them turn up their noses.
My hunger pangs reminded me that they were still there, like baby birds in a nest screaming for regurgitated food. A man ahead of me bit into a wrapped roti. Its aroma exploded into the air as he took that first bite. Without thinking, I grabbed it out of his hands and ran. I turned off into a side road.
I was still visible to the world but all anyone knew on this street was that a mad vagrant was running. I backed up against the iron fence of Woodford Square and slid down onto my butt. I chewed and swallowed the roti. Heaven settled in my belly. I took another bite, and another, spilling dhal grains around me. The pothound tried to get a piece of the roti from my hand but I pushed him away. He yelped. Not because I hurt him but out of shock: why would his partner in hunger not share his food? Would the dog share it if he found it first? He settled to lick the dhal grains on the pavement around my lap.
I watched him grovel as he searched for more tiny grains, smaller than rice, not barely enough for his brain to register that he was eating. I knew his hunger, like mine, threw him into abject misery. I gobbled up most of the roti before I remembered that I was not an unkind man. The hunger pangs that pulled my consciousness down were gone.
“Hey?” I whispered. He looked up at me and I fed him the last bit. He took it from my grasp and stepped away so that I would not reach out to take it back.
He was not satisfied. He licked his lips and watched me with his head tilted, hoping I would have more.
I was lucky the man did not chase me. He would have caught me but then… and I laughed when I thought it… who would grab food away from a vagrant’s dirty hands?
Was this my life now?
He pushed his head into my hands. Instinctively, I knew to pat him.
“Nice fella. We’ll get something more to eat. Somehow.”
I looked up and saw myself staring at the Red House, the seat of power. The heroes of the civil resistance that saw the Red House burn in the Water Riots were all dead. I detested violence. The burning of the Red House I don’t think was planned and I would never have supported it but the resistance to the increasing of the water rates was beyond necessary.
“Hey, you. If Selwyn catch you, is dead you dead!”
I looked up at a female vagrant watching down at me. Grotesque were the erupting mounds on her face her matted hair failed to hide. She stood as if one leg was shorter than the other yet there was a mark of confidence in her stance, as if it set her apart from all other vagrants. She smelled so bad that even pothound shied away from her.
“Who?” she mocked. “Selwyn! He owns these streets, you know? What? You think you could just plant yourself anywhere you feel?”
I did not answer. Unless she had food to share, she was not worth my time. Her sharp eyes and pouting lips could have made her attractive if the mounds on her face were not demanding so much attention.
“So where I could go?”
She studied me.
“And your little friend too?”
“He always hungry.”
“Come with me.”
She pushed on not waiting for me to stand up. I had to force my weary body to stand. I followed her and Pothound followed me. We passed back on the street where I stole the roti. The man was still there, tapping his shoes and noting the time on his wrist watch. When we passed in front of him and our eyes locked, he gasped. Only when I was a few steps away from him, did I hear him exclaim, “The damn police taking so long to come!”
We walked in and out of the traffic and into a carpark. We disappeared into a hole at the back of it that led to a bushy, stony plot of land no one would know was in the middle of the city. We continued on deeper onto a track until the fierce sun was blocked out by an old concrete roof that cantilevered over the entrance of a two hundred year old crumbling architectural ruins. At the entrance, two fellas were transacting business.
“Selwyn here?” she asked one of the men.
“He coming back just now.”
She passed them as if they were nothing and did not care for their responses. The men watched me but did not say or do anything. I knew they were sizing me up. The architectural ruin stretched for quite a way, providing shelter for at least fifty homeless people. Inside was like a bustling market with people transacting business, bartering, fighting, and arguing. She took us deep inside to her area where she pulled aside a blanket which hung on a clothesline and acted as a door. She sat on her bed and wiped away the sweat from her brow. Pothound was not the only animal in there but surprisingly they did not fight each other. It was the humans you had to watch out for.
“I have bread in that bag there.”
“Thank you,” I said as I went for it.
“Hey, hey, hey! What the hell you think this is? A free for all? You think you could just waltz into my house and take what you want? What you giving me for the bread?” I did not notice that she was shouting for an audience. I was just taken aback at how I allowed myself to be blindsided by this cunning woman.
“What you giving me for the bread?”
I was confused. “But I don’t have no money.”
“Nobody in here have money!”
I watched Pothound.
“I don’t want your stinking dog. We have enough in here already. Give me that!”
I followed her gaze to my wedding ring. I forgot I had it.
I shook my head, no. It was the only relic of my past.
“You want the bread, give me the damn ring.” I finally realized that from the city she was never scoping me out but the ring.
“Come Pothound, let we go.”
A man stood in our way as I turned to leave.
“Selwyn, this man thought he could get something for nothing!”
“Is that right?”
Soulless were his eyes and grave his countenance. The man was tall, strong and strapping. His six-pack glistened with sweat and he looked as if he could pick me up with one hand.
“I ask you a question!”
“No,” I answered. Pothound was silent but his ears were perked up and his tail erected upward.
“You saying Matilda lying?”
“Matty, where you find he from?”
“Abercromby Street, midsection.”
His eyes turned red like a demon. “You was in my spot?”
“I tell him. But he new. I never see he before.”
Selwyn watched me over. Like a principal glaring at a primary school child just before he whipped him for indiscipline.
“I’ll leave, okay.”
As I tried to walk around him, he slapped his hand onto my chest. He stopped me cold and I coughed. The sound of the slap on my chest reverberated throughout the place and all fell silent.
“Give she that ring.”
“But I don’t want any bread.”
“You not getting no bread!”
I could smell the fear inside the building. Partitions separated by sheets, rat-eaten mattresses strewn side by side, each vagrant claiming his own space. In the far corner, I saw a pregnant vagrant sitting on her mattress, holding the sheet aside to see the commotion.
I remembered when my wife bought me this ring. Even though she remarried, I still was not ready to part with it. I pushed past Selwyn. Big mistake. With my back turned to him, he pushed me to the ground. He jumped on top of me. Maybe it was the shock of it all but I could not wrestle him off. He grabbed my arm with Matilda urging him on. I clenched my fist but he lashed my hand to the ground. The overbearing pain forced me to open it. He grabbed the ring on my finger and I screamed as the ring cut into my skin when he pulled it off me. My other arm useless lay under me.
He handed Matilda the ring. She gasped with glee and put it on.
Selwyn got off of me. I slowly stood up. At the far corner, my eyes fell on a list of rules. Selwyn’s Utopia, it was named. This is Selwyn’s place. He is the boss. Only the strongest will survive. You don’t bring in food or money, you don’t eat. Any disagreements will be settled by Selwyn. All who stay here must pay a tax.
Selwyn was an educated man, I concluded. A failure, just like me.
“Now, get out of town.” He stepped aside. Pothound skipped at the chance of being released and I followed him out. The silence as everyone watched me leave was overbearing and toxic.
I stayed in Port of Spain and noticed for the first time the organizational structure of the vagrants. Each one worked a different street. Some played mad to solicit sympathy and food, some begged to collect money and none of them ever encroached on each other’s territory. When I saw Matilda, I realized that I had no place there. I left Port of Spain and did not stop until I reached Barataria.
That night, all I could do was gaze at my bruised, unhealed, infected ring finger. Memories of the shame entered unbidden in my mind. I seethed with rage. I wanted revenge.
Pothound barked. He wanted attention. I patted his head.
“You know, when I was History teacher, I used to work in Barataria. I remember I would park next to a gas station and I would see this man walk pass me with a briefcase in the morning and in the evening when I was going home he would pass by my car again, walking in the opposite direction. I didn’t know where he was working. And every day I would see this man and every day he would look shabbier and shabbier until one day, I realized that he was always wearing the same clothes. That was when I realized that he was homeless. He was pretending to go to work. And I told myself that I would never allow myself to get like him. Look at me now. What does make some men get through and others fail? Eh, Pothound?”
The next day, I managed to get a few dollars from passersby and I bought food for us. Time passed and Pothound filled out. Barataria people were generous. Any smart person would say to stay there and keep happy. But not me. I wanted to go back to Port of Spain. The skin on my finger never healed properly. It was a constant reminder of the day when my ring was taken from me. My mind was forever raging on the revenge I wanted to inflict on Selwyn. My temper flared up every time I recalled the incident and now and then I would see a vagrant in Barataria who was there that day when my ring was taken. I could see the recognition and ridicule in their eyes. Even if I wanted to stay in Barataria, something stronger inside me was driving me to return to Port of Spain.
Port of Spain had changed in the two months I was gone. There were more beggars and vendors by the traffic lights. I had changed too. My clothes were ripped and dirty. My face was covered like a lion and Pothound had bitten me so many times that the evidence was tattooed onto my skin. We fought for food, for space, and when Pothound grew hungry he would take his anger out on me.
No one was by the entrance of the two-hundred year old architectural ruins. I walked in. It was deserted. Mattresses overturned, place ransacked. I wondered what happened. I went over to where Matilda was staying and searched her space. No ring.
I lay down on the mattress. The place was not a bad spot. I wish I could have lived in here. Warm. Cozy. A community of which to be a part.
I sat up in fright. A strange vagrant I had never seen before stood there.
I was not getting tricked again. “I could get my own food.”
“You stupid or what?” He threw a cheese pie at me. “A woman buy me a whole box.”
“I could get two?”
He steupsed but then he relented. He threw it at me and I caught it. Just then Pothound appeared. I gave one to him while I held on to the other.
“What you mean, where everyone? The police come and buss up we place looking for Selwyn.”
“Why? Because of drugs! Selwyn running here like he own personal drug den. They come when he murder Sampson on the Promenade.”
“Who’s Sampson? He brother from another mother.”
“So Selwyn in jail?”
“If Selwyn in jail? I don’t think so. He was not here when they come for him.”
“Matilda? She around. She does come here in the nights sometimes.”
“Tonight? Who knows?”
“And nobody see Selwyn since?”
“See Selwyn? People eh want to see he. He take advantage of we for too long. I tell you if I was younger and stronger, I would of kick he from here to Toco.”
“So why nobody come back?”
“Who coming back? Nobody want to come back here. Well, maybe they might eventually come back since we hear Selwyn hiding down South. If you need me, I sleeping down so. Leaf is my name.”
My mind ran back on Matilda and my ring. I would stay until she came back.
That night a few vagrants returned. It surprised me at how many couples and children there were and how intimate two people could become when they felt safe within a shelter.
That first week Matilda did not return. The vagrants who returned, and everyday about two or three would appear, lived in anarchy. I had cardboard and markers brought to me by some of the other occupants in the shelter and I wrote down rules that everyone had to follow: All vagrants are equal. All food brought in is to be placed in the kitchen and shared equally among everyone. Anybody hoarding food would be expelled. Stealing would result in expulsion from shelter. No alcohol allowed in shelter. No drugs allowed in shelter. No prostitution. No fighting. No killing. Leaf admitted that he loved the new rules. The old rules encouraged conflict and bacchanal.
None of the vagrants took umbrage that I wrote down rules or became a self-appointed leader of the place. They wanted a leader.
After the next few nights, two females wanted to fight but because of the no-killing rule they set off their dogs on each other. That put in motion another rule: any animals that fight or kill would be muzzled or expelled from the shelter. And just for good measure I added, No human or animal is to hurt Pothound.
I was so taken up with my new duties as leader that when Matilda showed up at the shelter it was a shock.
“Get off my bed!” she shouted but the audience was not hers to command anymore. She noticed how all the vagrants stopped what they were doing and gathered around me. She even saw the new set of rules posted up on the wall. “Wait, nah! I remember you.” She held up her middle finger, showing me the ring. “You think you is King now? You on top of the world looking down on all of we? This is not your world! When Selwyn come back he go kill you for taking he place.”
I never thought he would come back. I was hoping the police would deal with him.
“Go back to what you were doing,” I told the crowd. Everyone dispersed.
“You want back your bed?” I asked Matilda.
“You damn right.”
“Then give me the ring you wearing.”
“This ring is mine!”
I became so angry that it took all of my might to control myself. I closed the partition behind her so nobody could see us.
“You really think I came here to rule over vagrants. Give me my ring.” The narrowing of my eyes, the intonations, the slow pace and a low growl were enough to convince her to give it to me.
“Selwyn go mash you up!” And with that, she turned, threw open the partition and left.
I did not leave Port of Spain even though I had the ring. I questioned my motives for the next few nights. I really did not come to establish a community and rule over it but having a place to sleep with a roof over my head was so comforting. Why leave it? Just knowing that I was part of a family that worked together to bring home food was enough to make me stay even if the thought of Selwyn returning was looming in my mind. Pothound was happy and extremely relaxed. For the next few weeks, I organized friendly competitions among us like all-fours, who could make up their bed the fastest, arm wrestling, and the winner got extra food and privileges. However, my personal favourite was teaching them history. Never remain victims of banks, corporations and government. I reminded them of the history we learnt in school – The Water Riots, The Hosay Riots, The Canboulay Riots, and The Labour Riots.
“What happened to our fighting spirit?” I asked my class.
“Because we too accustomed being given everything than fighting for what is ours!”
I looked to the back of the class and everyone turned around. It was Selwyn. He walked over to the rules and pointed at All food brought in is to be placed in the kitchen and shared equally among everyone.
“My way had everyone ready to fight!” Selwyn said.
“Your way had everyone hungry and ready to steal and kill!” I retorted.
“My way kept us strong!”
“No!” I said, knowing that Selwyn could sway the crowd if I remained quiet. “We grow together, we all survive. We take advantage of each other, which you were allowing, and the country is doing now, we create what we have become. Animals on a short leash, fighting to survive.”
Selwyn walked up to me and observed my fingers. I could feel the tension in the air among the crowd.
“Where the ring?”
“I have it.”
“You took it and you not even wearing it?”
“It could only fit on one finger and that finger is damaged.”
“You could of leave it with Mattie.”
“It was not hers to keep.”
He laughed. It reverberated throughout the old ruins. “You give me that ring as your tax for staying here and I’ll let you and your dog leave in one piece.”
I knew I could not beat him if it came down to a physical fight. My mind raced through options and strategies on how to save myself from disgrace. Everyone was waiting for my answer. Whatever I did now could either seal or lose my position as head of this society I tried to create. I believed that both Selwyn and I wanted the same thing – comfort, security, food and shelter – but I wanted to share it with everyone. He wanted it for himself and whoever was strong enough to take his leftovers.
“I not giving you this ring and I not leaving.”
He slapped me across my face. The shock of it made me step back but I did not fall. Despair sprouted from the murmurs of the crowd. I regained my composure and stepped up to him. His smiled faded. He expected me to hit him back but I did not. He punched me again on my other cheek, then jumped up and down jubilantly as if doing a victory dance. I fell down. The pain was excruciating. Whatever this man was eating it was not dustbin food. I forced myself to stand up. With both cheeks red, I faced him. He mocked me by bloating his two cheeks as if we were in primary school.
“Slap me, nah!”
I did not.
He raised his hand to slap me again but was interrupted by a low sound of deep anger. It was Pothound growling.
“Leave him alone, Selwyn! He standing up to you. You can’t beat him!”
Selwyn turned to the crowd. “Who the hell say that?”
At first, no one owned up but then Leaf pushed his way in front of the crowd. “I did. And I don’t want you here! We don’t want you here. The police looking for you and you go get we all in trouble!”
Selwyn walked over to Leaf and pushed him. “You want to test me?”
“I not afraid of you anymore!”
“You standing up to me? You and Big man over there? Who else go stand with you? Nobody. I own here!”
“You don’t own me!”
We all turned to the pregnant vagrant who had watched me from her partition the day they took the ring from me.
Soon, all the vagrants stood up.
I could see the confusion and hesitation in Selwyn’s eyes.
“You pick he over me?”
Everyone shouted and advanced on him as if they were reenacting one of the historical riots.
Concerned for his own welfare, Selwyn pushed his way through the crowd and out of our lives.
Months passed and we never heard from or saw either Selwyn or Matilda until one day Leaf told us that Selwyn was arrested by the police for attacking them with a metal pipe. Matilda’s whereabouts remained a mystery. The society grew as the cost of living increased but Pothound and I lived out our days there with the happiest and most supportive family we ever had.
Image: Rumination of The Red House by KAV GANNESS. 2022.