“Bottom Yard”

When I was a child, I loved to go with Grandma on that once a year trip to Bottom Yard.  The goal was to collect the rent from the families who leased small parcels of land from her.  But really, the fun was in discovering parts of the property that I hardly ever saw or knew existed, and to get the breadfruit, coconut, pear, sour orange and sweetsop from the trees that were scattered around.   Some families made a big, even dramatic, effort to gather up whatever produce was available, as if to cover up the fact that they hadn’t bothered to share one iota of anything for the rest of the year.  But such is life.

Indeed, I find that the best time of the day to walk through Bottom Yard is when the cool breezes come in the late afternoon.

I would walk past Mas’ Squaddy’s shop on the left, continue on down the hill past Miss Myrie’s shop, and only then cross the street and make a sharp right in through the gate and make my way through the property and towards the shortcut that would bring me to the library/grocery store/youth group at church/visit Mrs. Jones/Granville All-Age School/ballground.

Shortcut draw blood, long road draw sweat; this echoed in my head each time that I walked hurriedly through, a murmured good evening here and there, careful not to seem too nosy – don’t want to fa’as in the tenants’ business lest they think I was sent to carry news.  Some of them recognize me as Miss Mida’s granddaughter and would call out or would whisper this to others sitting around them.  I always felt a little bit uneasy with that status, for it is a status.  The adults I passed didn’t look at me directly, eyes averted, as if they thought that I was really spying on them, although pretending not to be.

I realize that my grandmother was very intentional about my visits to Bottom Yard.  I was directed towards and allowed to interact with particular families, including the children.  They were about my age, sometimes older, and I could reasonably say that I grew up with them.   They belonged to families that seemed to have been around as long as my family had been in the community.  Some were more like my extended family than anything else.  There was Miss May and her daughter Annette; Miss Alma and her children; Icy, her children and her sisters and their children; Miss Cynthia, her husband and her children; Miss Pearl and her daughter Michelle; Miss Ivy and her daughter Paulette; George and Pauline  and their daughter Taneesha (her twin, Ayeesha died soon after birth).

As I grew older, I sometimes dreaded going to collect rent.  When I was younger, it was fun; I got to write out the receipt and hand it to people.  I felt important.  I learned that lessees had higher status than renters; they had built their own homes, and saw the tenants as little more than squatters and riffraff.  I was careful never to conflate the two groups.   But as I got older, we – or more frequently, I – would return home with less and less money each time.   I hated hearing the stories, most of which were true, about child payments not received, jobs lost or never gotten, wages not received, monies owed, stolen, needing to buy gas, take a child to the doctor etc.  I did not like the feeling of having to pretend that I didn’t see how people would try to hide their shame and tell me “tell Miss Mida mi wi come check her later.” ; “tell yuh granny seh mi wi pass her later.”

I also became increasingly uncomfortable with going to my friends’ homes.  I started to realize that Jackie and Annette saw me as above them, even as I was searching for friends who I could genuinely say were very much like me: studious, introverted, not at all athletic, and who didn’t mind staying home and sitting on the verandah talking until all hours of the night, instead of roaming the streets or going to dances.   The social distance between them and myself grew more visible to me and I did not know what to do about it.  Yes, their families were always courteous, loving, treating me like their own child, but also taking special attention to remind me and others that, in fact, I wasn’t like them.   I remember sitting on a rock outside of Miss Alma’s gate and watching the boys run after each other and fling stones after the lizards and birds.  It was only a matter of time before Miss Alma would yell: “Clive! Peter! Oonu nuh fling nothing over yah so – tik’yah you nuh lik Miss Mida grampickney – a w’at a woud’a problems inna dis ya yard tidday! A fi har property, so try yuh best nuh mek nutt’n happen to har when she come yah!”   I decided to move, but she insisted that I sit there.  To me, I was in their way and it was nothing to move.  To her, it was my property, and thus, their play was to be organized around me.   It didn’t take long for me to actively try to avoid situations like this.

I started to see how my friendships with these persons were increasingly compromised by my being seen as “propertied”, and in a real sense, living off the hard work of these and other families who were barely getting by.  In truth, the rent money was not steady, and could not be counted on in a pinch. My grandmother did depend on the rent, but couldn’t really live off it.  By the time I was in third form, my grandmother gave up trying to collect rent monies when I needed new books or supplies for school, and increasingly relied on my mother sending money, or on the savings we had squirreled away since my mother didn’t send money very often.   Whatever monies came in was important for my grandmother since she had no income to speak of: a pension that was collected from the post office biweekly and which never seemed to increase over time, supplemented by occasional monies from my aunt, uncle and extended family, as well as sales from produce from our yard.   Her sense of autonomy was severely compromised by this lack of income.  But, she remained very lenient and giving towards people in the community.  When the umpteenth person came by on a Friday evening to tell her that they didn’t have the money to pay, depending on the story they offered, she often offered them a meal from whatever we had.  She would direct them to go to the side door while she called out to Fine, or Erika later, to tell her to “kindly share out likkle bikkle inna one plate fi dis genkelman!”

I learned very quickly, mostly through the body language, the silences, that sometimes it is hard enough for adults to say that they don’t have what they need and can’t meet their obligations.  They don’t need a large audience, and certainly not a child, to fuel the loss of dignity they are experiencing.   Besides, anything with money is “big people bizniz” and so children were not always welcome to witness the discussion.   I would often excuse myself as they came through the gate, and then take up my position on the settee in the living room next to the window, eavesdropping.  Sometimes I found myself in the position of knowing additional information that either supported or might undermine the tale being told on the verandah.  I never shared this information with my grandmother.   In my mind, that would be serious betrayal of people’s privacy and I really wanted people to trust me.  I was very invested in being seen as an ally, and not as how they expected me to be: disrespectful and condescending, thinking little of them because they didn’t have the means to do more for themselves and their families.  Plus, Grandma would surely know that I was always paying attention, even when I claimed not to be.

As her eyes followed the person walking out the front gate and closing the gate behind them, I would quietly move and stand by the doorway, my own eyes following them out to the street.

Grandma would often turn to me wid a sad face and say, “them life really hard, fi true; them just nuh have it – as she turned both palms over in a gesture of helplessness –  wha me gwen do?  You just haffi wait and pray and hope dem can dig demself outta di hole.  Go fi mi Bible and come read a psalms fi me.

And she would sing a song softly under her breath – Blessed assurance, jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine. Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior, all the day long. This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long.

As the years moved on, we collected less and less rent from the people who lived in Bottom Yard.  I wrote fewer and fewer receipts, even from the relative security of the verandah.

“Yuh nuh have no one room you a rent Miss Mida?  Me a look fi a likkle one room fi kotch?”  The frequency of this question coming from passersby and directed to my grandmother while she was seated in her usual spot on the verandah, began to bother me after a while.  It seemed that more and more people were transient; looking for a place to “kotch”, the sense of desperation was evident on their faces and especially when she responded with a shake of her head.  But what could I do? I couldn’t think of anything at the time.

The number of tenants in Bottom Yard dwindled after a while. Some of the buildings became uninhabitable and had to be torn down.  Sanitation increasingly became a problem as the property was not well-maintained (lack of money).  Pit toilets that needed cleaning; water from the public bathhouses that would run into lessees’ yards resulting in complaints and endless arguments.

More and more people were squeezing into the remaining one- and two-room buildings; my grandmother protested this situation, albeit half-heartedly.  She would always end with, “but wha’ di use a run dem out? dem nuh have no’ whe’h else fi go”  and kiss her teeth in disgust at the situation.

I noticed that , more and more new people seemed to be coming into the community from places I had never heard of.   After a while, I recognized few of the tenants.  For the first time, I realized that I didn’t know who lived in Bottom Yard, and who didn’t.  Walking through there to get to the shortcut became less exciting and felt more like I was trespassing.  I walked the long way a lot more.   My friends moved out.  Miss Pearl and Michelle moved up the street to live next door to us.   Miss May and Annette moved down the road to lease a piece of land and to build a house near Bottom Road.  Miss Alma moved with her husband and daughter to live on a piece of land owned by her mother-in-law (much drama around that).  She left the house in Bottom Yard to the sons.

I stopped visiting the house at that point.   Mostly young men had begun to congregate there, and I was deathly afraid of being sexually assaulted.  This was a common experience for girls and one that I was determined to avoid.  If I feared anything in those days, it was being raped.  A couple boys who lived in the immediate area had already hinted to me  that they couldn’t wait “fi ketch mi an’ hol’ mi dung” if they ever had the opportunity, and I wasn’t about to give them a chance to follow through.   If I ever needed anything – some ackee or coconut to be picked, the eldest son was a tailor and made or mended my clothes etc. – I would stand by the gate and call, and one of the sons would come out.   Indeed, it got to be that when they saw me approaching the gate, they would come to find out what I wanted.   The same thing had begun to happen when I visited Annette’s house.   Her brothers would not let me in if she was not there.   If she was at home with her brothers and their friends, she would come out to the gate to get me and lead me into the house.   On some occasions, she would come out and indicate to me that it was better that we went for a walk, or that she came to my house rather than stay at hers.   I would hear the laughter and noise coming behind her and I understood.  Apart from the common understanding that no “decent” girl was found in the company of random boys, the boys also knew there were multiple risks and implications for themselves as well, and tried to protect me in their own way.  Two were banned from the house when they were overheard making sexual remarks about me.  Miss Alma and the youngest son, who was a playmate, disclosed this me soon after.   Even if there was also the regular caution “nuh trouble Miss Mida grampickney! – as if there would be worse consequences than if they had “interfered” with other girls – it was clear that these man-boys were more willing to push the boundaries that determined who they could play with – sexually and otherwise.

The caution was also very effective in the sense that it reminded me that someone was looking out for me.   But it also made me very aware of what could happen when I was not in sight of adults who knew my family.  And as the community changed, I started to pay more attention to who was around me at all times, altering my routes and limiting where I would go, and with whom.   This sense of encroaching danger against my person prevented me from taking chances that might have been fun, but could also cost me my life.

March 17, 2005


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