Meet Me At The Office

Visiting any place in the Caribbean, Simon Lee’s first stop is the local rumshop — and not just for the drinks

Illustration by Jason Jarvis

First-time visitors to the Caribbean may be unaware
that the most important institution in the islands is neither the parliament
nor the school, neither church, temple, mosque, nor fast food outlet, but
the rumshop.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, I’d better explain. Unlike bars or
pubs with their air-conditioning, fancy cocktails, and prices to match, the
rumshop is a place of few pretensions and endless possibilities.

Originally, this quintessential Caribbean institution supplied sugar plantation
workers with their basic needs: rice, provisions, saltfish, candles, kerosene
— and rum, the fuel which kept them swinging their cutlasses in the blazing
canefields all day, soothed aching muscles and souls at sunset, and soaked
up their meagre wages.

If you look carefully, you’ll still find these old-style rumshops, with
shiny wooden counters, rice-bags bulging on the floor, shelves stacked with
dry goods and tins, and a clientele inclusive enough to perplex or delight
the most conscientious sociologist.

Here you’ll find everyone from cabinet minister and police superintendent
to calypsonian, stevedore, and market vendor. While impassioned card or
domino players slam the tables, you might eavesdrop on an acute analysis
of island politics, worldwide terrorism, or an ongoing cricket match, or
join a discussion on the finer points of currying duck.

If you need anything (a goat, divorce lawyer, new carburettor, six men
to build a house, some more to pull your car out of a ditch), someone in
the rumshop will have it — or they’ll know someone else who does. The “someone”
will probably be their auntie’s friend’s nephew’s daughter-in-law’s cousin,
or some more distant pumpkin-vine relative or acquaintance. In this

Creole
kind of interactive transaction, not only do you get what you want, but
you also meet half the island in the process.

Need some insider trading info? A scoop on the latest corruption scandal?
The names of the West Indies opening batsmen in 1984? The complete lyrics
for Sparrow’s monarch-winning calypso in 1957? A folk cure for migraine?
The winning mark in the Chinese numbers game? All of this and more is yours
for the price of a rumshop drink.

I discovered my passion for rumshops (seats of learning, refuge, entertainment, popular and folk culture, oral history, debate, diversion, and digression) shortly after arriving in Trinidad. Wilting at the end of my first day at the school I’d come to teach in, I presented my thirst at the grandly named Federal Snackette on the seething Eastern Main Road in Tunapuna.

The name itself was a lesson in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean,
commemorating the short-lived Federation of the West Indies (1958–61), and
it seemed a safe spot, across the road from both the police and fire stations.

It was my first visit, so nobody knew me. Or so I thought, as I collected
my beastly cold beer and sat at a table to gape at the main-road street
life. Before the bottle left my lips, Mr Mahabir, the proprietor, a short
but wrestling-build-broad East Indian in his 60s, shuffled over to tell
me a colleague was waiting for me behind the screen at my back.

I thought he’d made a mistake, and said so, but at Bir’s gentle insistence
I poked my head round the screen to find Errol Sitahal, one of Trinidad’s
finest actors, who was a senior member of the English department I’d just
joined.

I didn’t leave the Federal until early next morning. By the end of my first
rumshop session, I’d listened to Errol declaiming tragic Shakespearian soliloquies,
accompanied by a wandering violinist; heard a Midnight Robber practising
his carnival speech; been introduced to the local police chief, sundry firemen,
farmers, civil servants, badjohns, and smartmen; and acquired a mentor in
all things Trini — no less than the venerable Bir, the Federal’s commander
and rear high admiral (as long as his Madam wasn’t around).

The Federal became both my liming spot (as in chilling out, relaxing),
and my evening school. I’d sit for hours getting my ears round the intricacies
of Trinidad Creole. I had a live database of Trini and Caribbean history
and culture right at my elbow, along with visiting professors. One night
Sam Selvon, the writer who brought the cadences of Caribbean speech to an
international audience in his brilliant book The Lonely Londoners,
joined our table for a classic lime.

My Federal experiences stood me in good stead when I began to travel and
write about the other islands. Wherever I landed, whatever the story, I’d
head for a rumshop — not just for the drinks, but to feel the pulse of the
island. Scotts in Gros Islet, St Lucia; Kennedy’s in St John’s, Antigua;
along with nameless rumshops in Dominica’s Carib territory; these are only
a few of my Caribbean locals. But I’d always come back to Trinidad and the
Federal Snackette.

One day a friend from Europe called. He’d just landed, would I meet with
him? No problem.

“Meet me at the office,” I told him, and gave him directions to the Federal.