About an hour ago or so, I saw four officers of Jamaica’s Constabulary Force poised with weapons in hand. Three of these officers held semi-automatic rifles, while the fourth maintained his handgun in its holster. Their police vehicles were parked and all four wore helmets and bulletproof vests. They were prepared to profile. Evenly flanking Mona Road, the officers positioned themselves about 200 meters before the University of the West Indies’ main gate. They were stationed there because Mona Road is the fastest way into and out of August Town, a community where gunfire is becoming more frequent and more deadly. As traffic bottle-necked past the officers, I couldn’t help but wonder how many 100s of shots had been fired to warrant this police presence, how many 100s more will be killed before it ends, and did $100 cost another man his life.
When a man is killed over $100 — as happened on February 8, 2018 — it makes you reflect. It has been a reflective few weeks.
I remember a few months ago taking a taxi and when I arrived at my destination and paid my fare, the taxi man checked his pockets and apologized, saying: “Sorry, take my number, I will have to owe you $100.” A few weeks ago I remember making a market purchase and the vendor took my money, then said “Sorry, baby,” as she rifled through her purse, “I don’t have $100 right now. If you circle back, I should.” In each of these instances, I wondered if these service providers would have accepted my apologies if I were $100 short when payment was due.
Then I had the following encounter towards the end of February. I brought several empty water bottles to be filled at a water facility and, after he placed the bottles on to the counter, the clerk informed the cashier that I had 7 bottles. The cashier input the amount then the clerk apologized and said “It’s not 7 she have. It’s 6.” The other clerks pounced: “Yuh cyaa count!” The cashier kissed teeth, rolled eyes, and yelled at the miscounting clerk, “Ah your pay dis aggo come outta! How yuh cyaa count so!? Yuh mussi eeedyat!” The other clerks and the cashier continued in this way as the miscounting clerk could only hang his head, load the 6 filled bottles on the trolley, and wait for the word assault to stop. He pushed the trolley toward the register and the cashier, still disgusted by the young man’s counting error, turned her attention to me and asked with a head nod, “Him can owe you $100?” Not yet giving over any money, I looked around at the other clerks who were still hurling insults at their miscounting colleague and I answered the cashier with a question: “Can’t you just input 6 bottles instead of 7?” Her answer flew out of her mouth and slapped me in the face brazenly, “No. Ah him make the mistake. Him will pay.” I pressed her: “But, really, you can just delete 6 and press 7. Anyone could make a mistake.” But the cashier was firm in her response: “No. The register don’t work like that. Him can owe you $100.” I looked at her, frustrated, and decided that there was no value to gain in fighting her or her register. I thought about the young man and the various other vendors who “owed” me money and in an attempt at restitution, I asked her: “Can I just get a credit and not pay for a bottle next time?” The annoyed cashier yielded to my request, only after checking my ID and writing up a semi-formal I.O.U. that she said could only be honored if I brought back the flimsy receipt paper. I agreed and hoped this would calm the situation. The insults toward the miscounting clerk had slowed, but did not come to a cease fire.
As I share this encounter, I recognize that that young clerk may never hear the end of his mistake. He may have gained an unwanted nickname and maybe he is regularly chided for counting like Macaroni drives. (If you are unfamiliar with the viral Macaroni videos, click here for an example. But, before you LOL too much, click here to read about the daily torment “Macaroni” and his children are facing for his driving mistake.) And, all jokes aside, the miscounting water store clerk caught a lucky break compared to France Nooks, the 25-year-old man who was stabbed to death by a taxi driver over a $100 fare on February 8, 2018. And, in another kind of way, the tormenting co-workers and I were also lucky, if lucky is the right word. We are lucky that the miscounting clerk was not vengeful. He certainly could have proven his counting abilities with 100 bullets or 100 stabs aimed at everyone who bruised his ego.
Every time I hear the number 100 I think of the stabbing, while my dancehall memory recalls Aidonia’s sexually problematic lyrics on “100 Stab.”
I suppose it was never about $100, though. It was about disrespect and desperation. The money, no doubt, is symbolic of a frustrated man’s need for respect in the face of unforgiving economic realities. No man’s life should end on account of $100. But for the taxi-man with a knife or the badman with a gun, $100 and a body in a bag can purchase temporary self-worth in an unfeeling, unyielding world. And this is the reality that many face in stressed communities throughout Jamaica and throughout the world.
August Town, the community that skirts the University of the West Indies, is under this kind of economic pressure. August Town emerged from a year of zero murders in 2016, to a violent 2017 and an already bullet-riddled 2018. And in the communities that flank the tourist sector of Montego Bay, the same kind of reprisal and gang violence has been desensitizing residents and destroying families for a few years now. A Zone of Special Operations had to be enforced to quell violence and help restore order in Jamaica’s second city of MoBay. Will August Town see the same kind of national, military response? This morning’s show of force on Mona Road suggests that the answer is yes, and for good reason. Children at August Town Primary School should not have to be disrupted from their lessons to shelter in place. Students and staff at UWI should not have to study, teach, or train in fear. August Town’s men should not have to avoid the corner bar and church sisters should not have to forgo evening worship for fear of being an unfortunate bystander in the night.
So, to the few vendors who owe me money, keep it. Keep the money and invest it back into our communities because I know we can do better than this. And to those of us who take joy in laughing at a man’s miscount or mistake, mind you push someone to their breaking point. A hungry man is an angry man. And a ridiculed man can become a killer. As a nation we are only as strong as our most desperately vulnerable citizens and right now, Jamaica, we all need to value life more than we value making, spending, or defending $100.