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THE COFFEE - AN ERA UNWIRED by Frank Sears

posted 4 Feb 2021, 14:44 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 4 Feb 2021, 18:11 ]
This retrospective on The Coffee was prompted by the death of Milton "Wire" Austin. I knew Milton, a prior neighbour when I was a toddler in a 'barrack yard' on the Coffee (behind Rivoli cinema which was previously a transport hub with horse and carriage). 

He, being the eldest of his siblings, symbolised how culture could and did shape our world since we were among creative people who were into pan, mas, dance and who were self-appointed guardians. This is the late 40s: world war 2 had just ended, euphoria in the air, ration card, Redufusion radio and fresh, mouth watering bakery bread. 

Little did we realise we were in the crucible of our town affectionately called Sando. I give a nod of respect to a citizen who will meet our ancestors such as dentist Clyde Cooper; bandleader Henley Cooper son of the pharmacist; masmen like the Wilkes brothers and Stokely Jack; 'Artist" the camera man and more.  All of us touched by Teacher Bailey's school. 

No wonder Free French, Sando Organettes, Lil Caribs, Antillean All Stars evolved into Fonclaire and Skiffle Bunch. My ode to Wire would be Guinness Cavaliers bomb 'Is Paris burning' around 1966 (or thereabouts) leaving the Coffee 'naked' when they pass and of course, 'Pan by Storm', after which, on being placed second by half a point, i refused to go to another Panorama final.

THE COFFEE – CIRCA 1950


This is a tale of a place starting from the viewpoint of a seven-year-old boy, embellished by others of similar age and better memory. It’s about a street, not even the entire street, which was a cradle for wide-eyed children; an oasis for the aspiring country folk, a melting pot of people seeking to simply establish themselves in life.

THE STREET ITSELF

Even though Coffee Street was part of the main thoroughfare to the commercial centre of San Fernando, it was a continuation of two roads - Royal Road and Navet Road, both of which allowed entry into the town from the east, not forgetting Bertrand Street, emptying itself close to the starting point of the Coffee.

As a young adult, Bertrand Street would bring a smile to my countenance especially whenever I met Rodney Wilkes in person. Seeing him close up, I would shake the hand of this electrician by trade who 
brought fame and glory to Trinidad and Tobago as an Olympic medallist (if memory serves me right) in the featherweight weight-lifting division. He would demurely accept my verbal praise because, I suspect, recognition was not the norm. Now, for what it’s worth, the street sign says Bertrand Street- in honour of Rodney Wilkes.
The Coffee circled the southern face of San Fernando Hill and ended at Library Corner; so named because it was, and still is, the hub for pedestrians, motorized traffic, vendors, rum shops, tout bagai, since seven roads then, now eight, coming (or going) to the cardinal points of a compass.

The eighth road, now dignified by a street sign named Ken ‘Professor’ Philmore Street, added or determined by present day politicians ironically expose those who decided its fate. This piece of road, which can only hold one vehicle at a time, merges upper High Street onto Harris Promenade. It is a right hand corner whose only resident was a red QE (Elizabeth Reign) standing post box.

Some of us while reminiscing, figured out the answers to relevant questions such as why the name - Coffee Street - or why the street is where it is. Sugar cane was the main crop as evidenced by a number of sprawling estates; so Coffee Street was the dividing line with coffee trees planted at a higher elevation. After all, imported tea had its clientele based on cost, so local coffee, cocoa and bush tea had working class popularity.

THE CRADLE

Truth be told, my cradle of existence was boxed in from Maryatt Street in the east to Johnstone Street in the west and Carib Street one block north of the Coffee. It was roughly half of the entire street length but, in hindsight, it felt like a potpourri of sounds, smells, shops, schools music, cinema (known in those days as theatre, pronounced teartar) people - characters included - activities galore.

Why was it like this? A collective with a distinct rhythm which manifested itself in carnival, steel bands, dance groups, even I dare say, in the laid-back, easy going but intense approach to culture for instance.

I want to posit two reasons for this milieu. I have learnt it is virtually a historical fact that second cities tend to be the capitals of culture in their respective countries and secondly, immigrants in a foreign place gravitate towards their culture to keep the links alive. In the 50.s, that burst of energy after world-war 2 took flight, I hereby state with no empirical evidence, only personal experience, that Milton ‘Wire” Austin was a product of this crucible.

GROUND ZERO


As Trinis would say let me begin from the start. In the geographical middle of Coffee Street there was a horse and buggy transport hub before the war which was transformed into Rivoli cinema (now housing a church) owned, I believe, by the Roodal family with big Fred, the ticket collector for entry to the front section, known colloquially as Pit. The fare was a set of British newsreels and some black and white films. The other form of entertainment/communication was Rediffusion with its triangular shaped box speaker with two channels.

From the street, there was a passageway at the side of the picture house leading to some steps that would take anybody to Ground Zero directly behind the cinema. Nothing fancy, just a barrack yard with two double apartment ‘tenement’ flats bracketing the yard.

To put the Coffee in context, this street had a laundry – now it’s an empty lot next door to Standards - Humming Bird roti shop with its light blue facade run by the Karamath family noted for the attractive sisters who tended to customers where Cooper Street butted the Coffee; Sumadh motor-car parts store; a church, rum shops; ‘Chinee’ shops; parlours or cafes; various vendors selling coconuts, pudding, souse, cigarettes, et al.

There were eight streets flowing off its south side and five on its north side which confirms its organic status.

There was an imposing hog-plum tree which was the meeting spot to see and take part in outdoor activities. There was an open fire continuously stoked to turn oil, biscuit (all kind of) drums into musical instruments and so Lil Caribs was born and soon Henderson Cooper, son of the pharmacist whose establishment faced Cipero Street, brought out a mas-band. The same fire for the pan was used to melt lead into sling-shot bullets for the chirping birds on the plum tree. Another group would be turning truck batteries into aquariums for canal fish by replacing a side of the battery with plexi-glass and decorated with some coloured marbles.

Most actions seemed to be seasonal, like flying cheeky chong, common or mad-bull kites; making scooters with ball bearings as wheels; a little ‘goes in/goes out’ wind-ball cricket with a coconut bat; or barefoot football or three-hole marble pitching. Don’t show you vex (or else is licks) when your mother want you to go in the shop with the ration card: a ration card that is neatly pressed with a hot iron-heater to make the pin holes disappear before you reach by ‘Chin’, the shop- keeper, which allow you to get more goods than the card allows.

Then the season of all seasons – Carnival – comes around. Some of us who were fed by the Coterie would get to play in the annual Coterie Children Mas. In those days the Coterie was on the corner of Coffee Street and La Coulėe Street – a link road to the Power Station on Carib Street.


When you come out of this area carnival was serious business. Case in point was when Stokely Jack ‘break down’ a side of his board house to bring out his fancy Indian costume and leave it on the side of the road (Carib Street) near the Carib House for competition later. Well bacchanal erupted when an inebriated driver bounced the hat, as large, elaborate costumes depicting native American Indians were called since they were carried by the masquerader on his head. The ‘cut-tail’ (assault) he got, you would think the alcohol of choice he consumed would evaporate, and it did.

But the Coffee was not only about the children. In the yard there was Clyde Cooper, the neighbourhood dentist. Now deceased, burly, six foot plus, Clyde was like a mentor, protector of the youth in the area having a few of his own himself. I, for one, cannot call him a quack, because I knew outstanding citizens of the society, including my mother, who swear by his handiwork which I think relied on his natural strength to pull out any long suffering tooth.

Somewhere in time, another artisan showed up fleetingly in one of the apartments and that was Artist, the camera-man, so-called because of this gadget strapped around his neck. Next door, behind Guide’s funeral home in Crosby Lane was Dutchy, father of the De Vlugt brothers, who made up the Dutchy Brothers Orchestra, at one time the most popular dance bands in the country.
Talking about Dutchy reminds me of a current phenomenon at the time. During this period, either during or after the war ceased, as it has been for two hundred years, Trinidad was a magnet for other nearby Caribbean islanders to find jobs either on the Base at Chaguaramas or the oil industry. I personally knew of at least three men who ‘jumped ship’. I am not saying they did it illegally, but Dutchy came from Dutch Guiana (now Suriname); my father and a close friend came from British Guiana (now Guyana) while, of course, others from Grenada and Barbados made their way further south in the oil industry or onto the hills of Laventille.

Like in any society, people have to organize around food, shelter, jobs, education facilities for the children and when time or resources permit, culture, entertainment and basic rituals of life such as births, weddings and death. So, next door to Guide’s funeral home, where Skiffle Steel Orchestra is now resident, there was a bakery with hops on banana leaf, aroma to match and long lines to collect. There was an ice-factory where Food Basket grocery now is, with Siberian type winter-jacketed men doing good business since ice-boxes at home needed regular stocks especially on Sundays.

The primary school of choice was Teacher Bailey School behind Tookie’s Bar. This Bar was opposite Guides on the Coffee, therefore Teacher Bailey was off the main street at the corner of what is now called Dickson Street and Belgrove Lane (formerly Henry Street). This is where Milton ‘Wire’ Austin had a role to play. Being older than me, his siblings and others, his task was to escort us to Teacher Bailey’s school while he went on to the government primary school on Rushworth Street and pick us up after school in the afternoon.

Next door to Tookie’s Bar was a ‘Friendly Society’ and you could get a ration card in this two-storey building. Aah the vagaries of memory! I cannot recall what was on the site where Belgrove’s Funeral Home is at present.

If one kept going west on the Coffee, one would meet Rogers hardware and Sam Craft who used to make caps although I am not sure about hats which I suspect had to be obtained somewhere else. If and when you needed to upgrade your coal-pot, one could enter Mr Taitt’s store at the corner of Johnstone Street and the Coffee to buy a galvanized oven or bird cage. I am not sure who used to make a Safe which would not be complete until you put sausage tins under the legs filled with water to prevent ants from invading your treasured food or, for that matter a necessary ice-box.


Going east, one would know about the coal depot on Upper Hillside Street or Mr Beckles’ store with the latest innovation
for sale – Singer sewing machines, and the now disappeared steps from the Coffee to Lower Marryat street now called Cooper Street. It was a decade or two which ushered in steel bands, pockmarking not only the Coffee, but the town itself: Silvertones, Free French, Sando Organettes, Antillean All Stars, Maestros, Gondoliers, Cavaliers, Rogues Regiment, West Stars, Fonclaire and others. 


Having exhausted my soliloquy, a rhetorical question belies my experience. Is it any surprise that the best known, earliest organized Trinis in the United States diaspora, based in New York, called themselves the ‘Coffee Boys’ or, American panist Andy Narell, with the University of North Texas College of Music composed a 16 minute Ode to Coffee Street in 1998. 

Let me put it bluntly. As a tropical country we experience dry and wet seasons annually, but with my school-boy recollection, the two seasons on the Coffee were carnival and preparing for carnival seasons.

San Fernando evolved as a town on the west coast of Trinidad in the southern half of the island and became the second largest commercial town when oil was discovered further south.

Carib House on Upper Hillside has to be the oldest building in San Fernando still standing.
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