A TAPESTRY OF VAGRANCY: on madness, creativity and freedom

I remember in senior year of college in Miami I had a friend who visited his then girlfriend in Trinidad. Upon his return he reported “full of stray dogs.” Mind you during this time I had not returned to Trinidad for years, and had quite forgotten about stray dogs and stray humans. So of course I went on the defensive – “there are SO many things to see and do in Trinidad,” I reprimanded, “how could you complain about stray dogs?!” We left it at that.

Fast forward six years after this conversation – I decide to return home. And upon my first revisit to Port-of-Spain, after the tour, doubles, pineapple chow, and general melee, I noticed (to myself)…wow, there ARE a lot of stray dogs, and a lot of stray humans too. And because I was so previously bored with myself and my left-behind comfort zone, this wild living, where dogs ran in wolf-like packs and vagrants ruled the parks actually excited me….for the first three months.

For this musing, the vagrants take center stage. One of my friends from a very clean, orderly part of the US asked me “what is a vagrant”? The good ole Oxford Dictionary states – “vagrant: a wanderer, idle rover, vagabond, idle disreputable person.” In the general scheme of things this meaning could entail a homeless person, who has normal faculties and abnormal circumstances, or someone who is not quite there in the membrane and has no significant relations to lock him in a room. For Trinidadian vagrants, the word idle is correct. The words “stark raving mad” were left out.

I’m going to speak of Port-of-Spain’s vagrants. The capital is again being picked on as it is where I have made most of my adult observations in Trinidad. There are some vagrants who have enough faculties to beg; the example I gave before about “Fats” the very fat vagrant down Independence Square who hangs outside the food court and demands your lunch falls under the “faculties” category. And then there are those who I believe can see in four or five dimensions – and not in a “Light” way.

What has happened is the non rehabilitated “mentally challenged” individuals previously nestled in the insane asylum in our St. Anns hills, came tumbling down to the Port-of-Spain valley, escaping when they can to add color to an already colorful capital. No matter how many times the government, the asylum officials, and even family members try to get them inside, they get out. And by doing so, they give us stories to tell.

My special vagrant haunts lower Maraval, my favorite sub-urban area in Trinidad. He’s very thin, and the last time I saw him, he was wearing a micro mini gold sparkly dress, holding an umbrella, rain or sun. Before this he wore a bright pink robe. And he babbles, smiling furiously to himself – it sounds something like “eh bleh bleh bleh, eh bleh bleh bleh.” But he could talk – crafty one. One fine Sunday I stopped at a doubles (street food) vendor, and who comes up babbling? Goldy. As soon as he reaches the stall though, he says with a poker face and crystal clear voice “can I have one please.” Some guy shooed him and then he continued up the road, babbling furiously.

I remember one day while taking a stroll in Independence Square another vagrant was having a loud conversation with two spaces of air, turning side to side. I decided to listen in from a safe distance. Apparently it was his non-existent mother and some other relative and it was an argument about…shoes I believe. Man, you leave home to be a vagrant and still these people can get your goat! And then there is “Jesus.” I’m not sure if he’s a vagrant or some mad fanatic or both, but there is this man who jogs 3+ miles around the Queens Park Savannah, barefoot, in a loin cloth looking short pants, who has groomed himself to look exactly like…well…the popular depiction of the crucified Lord. Very creepy.

There are so many more many stories. True stories about love (nah, lust) between a vagrant and a respectable banker during one Carnival season, those about vagrant intimate relations actually blossoming in the streets of San Fernando, many about attacks from vagrants with passing through the cities’ streets. In Trinidad, there are even mistaken identity vagrants. One day I sat ‘round the Savannah with a friend eating snow cone (sweet shaved ice), observing people. From a distance we see this thin, withered looking man, in beat up sandals, washed out brown denim shorts and polo. And I say “oh, look at this vagrant,” and my friend says “but this vagrant has an IPod,” and we exclaim “this vagrant is not a vagrant!”

Trinidad is a land of freedom and creativity, displayed in both our sane law abiding citizens and in our outlaw strays. Actually, while there are many vagrants who became thus due to family problems and drug abuse, there is a surprisingly large number who went off from being way too genius. Creativity gone wrong, really. Any Trini could tell you the story of the brightest student in high school or university who went mad after exams, and is now walking the streets ranting equations. And anyone who has undergone the Old School education system in Trinidad would empathize – pushed to the limit. And some never come back. There are actually stories of super brilliant students truly becoming possessed by the characters they studied…and I believe it.

This is why no two development plans are the same. An urban planner who is not culturally aware may assume that Port-of-Spain’s vagrants are homeless. Thus the answer would be to remove them from the city and shelter them – this solves the problem. Or it may be said that drug use runs rampant among vagrants and a drug rehab program will solve the problem. Various governments have tried both ways, and these programs work. But there is something underlying that is yet to be unearthed – and I think it’s the problem of creativity gone wrong. Suppressed creativity, forced creativity, to the point that now all these people want is the ultimate freedom – to roam and babble as they please. Quite frankly it may be more fun to talk on an imaginary cell phone and direct traffic with a wall-fan blade (like the vagrant in the city of Arima) than it is to be stuck in Monday morning traffic on the way to a boring job.

Since the V Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad in April ’09, our stray friends, human and canine alike have since decreased. I’m glad for the city. But I’m grateful to the mad, free ones for the stories.

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Comment by Astrid Franchiska Kowlessar on September 28, 2009 at 3:31am
Thanks Huon - it really is a very multifaceted issue isn't it? I wonder, are there any case studies on vagrancy in other regions of the world that were once emerging now considered very developed - for instance in Asia or say Eastern Europe (certain countries) after the fall of the Soviet Union?
Comment by Huon Wardle on September 25, 2009 at 10:49am
Chrystal, I agree with Astrid; to make any difference to this would involve getting to know in depth how people understand 'home' and 'sanity' and 'vagrancy' in this setting. If we listen carefully to what people say we may end up with very different ways to approach these issues and perhaps improve them. For example, in so many cases Caribbean households are supported by migrants abroad who remit money; so that, in effect, family does not correspond to 'home' understood as 'household' - the physical place where you live. The more you understand about these questions - which involve the economics of the household unit and the much more dispersed extended family, and also the way people imagine relationships -the more the task becomes less a matter of saying 'let us try to put these people into houses' and becomes more of a question 'is there any way of improving the quality of people's lives given the relationships that support them and the ways they understand and imagine their situation?' And remember, you are not dealing with a homogenous grouping; many may have been excluded from households or family relationships, others like Ras Dizzy are philosophically and aesthetically opposed to living in one place, so you have to uncover the linking factors.
Comment by Astrid Franchiska Kowlessar on September 24, 2009 at 10:14pm
Hi Chrystal,

It really is a mindset change more than anything - how do they get to that level of social displacement and definitely psychological insanity is the question. I've lived in places were homeless persons were just that - homeless, hobos, sane people who had no where to live. Trinidad has mad people. How to rehabilitate mad people, where St Ann's asylum isn't curbing the problem?

Thanks for the post,

Comment by chrystal bute on September 22, 2009 at 5:41pm
I am from Trinidad and at present is doing a research on vagrancy. My heart really goes out to some of the homeless and I really home that government, NGO's as well as well wishers can help curb the number of street dwellers in POS as well as other parts of the country.
Comment by Huon Wardle on August 24, 2009 at 11:06am
Thanks Astrid, Keith. I suppose we need to think first in depth what it is the vagabond/crazy genius indexes. Certainly in the West Indies, what is strking is that distinctive quality, gestus if you will: the vagabond is rocked from every side, he (usually he, not always) has power over almost nothing, but at the same time stands uncoerced and certainly in his inward being seems uncoerceable. Historically, the vagabond transgresses the principle of forced labour, that the worker may not move as he wishes outside the estate and defies property rights in a region where most people were themselves at one time property. For many, latterday visa restrictions and 'praedial larceny' laws extend the past into the present and folk respect the vagabond for his unrestricted roving and his apparent innocence concerning who owns what. Religiously, the crazy genius is recognised - both in the ridicule directed at him and the element of awe - as somehow in close communion with multiplex divinities of West Indian life, also as an exemplar of the strand of asceticism present in all the religious forms that arrived in the archipelago. Perhaps centrally, the crazy genius celebrates the potent individualism of Caribbean life which is such necessary feature of a social life shaped by transmigration and the need to give wherever one is a personal shape and rhythm. I am always struck by the youths who stride down the street singing loudly; filling the space with their own noise.

And there does seem something in the brutally human expectations that people often apply to animals in the WI that gives further pause for thought.
Comment by Astrid Franchiska Kowlessar on August 22, 2009 at 4:31am
Sorry Keith, same thing happened to Huon too - I changed the settings so that shouldn't happen again. Yes, it is definitely brutal...some of it like that in Trinidad as well and very culturally telling. Actually though, I prefer the dogs to be wild than to be owned in many cases (in Trinidad!) because of lack of care and a lot of abuse dogs go through. I've had my share of run ins with people, being very vocal.

Thanks for the info.

Comment by Keith Hart on August 21, 2009 at 10:48pm
I wasn't expecting to lose my comment as soon as I submitted it and that is what happens when the owner of a thread chooses to moderate comments. I like to be able to see what I have written in something close to its published form and then amend it. In this case, I think (but can't be sure) that I forgot to say what the second part of the novel was. A holocaust of some indeterminate kind occurs and all the human beings disappear, leaving only the dogs to inhabit the ruins. A civil war breaks out between those who believe doggy society should be based on the same principles as the one they shared with the people and those who believe that a more democratic, egalitarian and free doggy society is possible.
Comment by Keith Hart on August 21, 2009 at 8:51pm
Hi Astrid and Huon, This is a great thread and I could connect with it at several levels around the central theme of vagrancy. The thread I opened up on mavericks in the History of Anthropology Group has that as a motif. But I want to comment here on dogs and humans in the Caribbean.

First a vertical strip cartoon in the Daily Gleaner which captures a brutal thread in Jamaican society: The boss beats up on his worker; the worker beats up on his wife; the wife beats up on the kid; the kid beats up on the dog; the dog beats up on the vagrant.

In the two years I spent there, I was struck by the omnipresence of dogs in Jamaican society, not just or even mainly strays, but the co-existence of dogs and people. I conceived of two possible books about it:L one a documentary, the other science fiction. Niether were written, but I collected quite a lot of material.

The documentary was to be called A Whole Other Story after a footnote in a book on Caribbean demography whose author noted that dogs eat the same things as humans, but to factor in the presence of dogs in the food/population ratio for the islands would be 'a whole other story'. Lots of anecdotal and historical material here, including the Spanish use of dogs as instruments of war against escaped slaves, for instance.

My novel was to be called The Dogs. It had two parts, the first based on existing society, especially in the bourgeois mountains suburbs where I lived. Here brutal hierarchy reigned between people and people, people and dogs, dogs and dogs. (One morning I was woken up by an unusually loud doggy racket, followed by a gunshot, some whimpering and silence. It turned out that a gang of dogs had raped the dog of a Chinese businessman neighbour, the dog's anus was hanging out and the owner shot one of the rapists from his bedroom window. You couldn't make it up. i should say that the dogs were owned not strays, but encouraged to roam in packs at night attacking dark strangers and occasionally each other.
Comment by Astrid Franchiska Kowlessar on August 21, 2009 at 5:04pm

Thank you for this! What do you think his contribution to society in general is? Vagabonds in general - do they lend a certain creativity - or do they represent something we refuse to see in ourselves? Continue sharing!

Astrid F.
Comment by Huon Wardle on August 20, 2009 at 3:10pm
My personal archetype in these matters is Ras Dizzy, a figure well known at the UWI, Jamaica. I have written about him in various places but never at length as I always intended. Ras used to sell pictures to anyone prepared to buy them; they were images of his various alter egos such as ‘Ken Buck’, cowboy or Jacy Ben Johnson, Jockey (pictured).

He also self-published pamphlets from a Rastafarian point of view. The Dizzy modus operandi was to move from one location to another in Kingston painting the walls with his various images and then moving on.

We traveled the buses together and Dizzy recounted entirely bizarre tales of his life as adjutant to Kenyatta (‘Kenyatta say “you take the presidency Ras”, but I tell him say “no, is you fight for it, you must take it”); shootouts with jockeys in Panama and so on. I hope he is still practicing vagabondage somewhere… There are various others such as the inestimable Lee Perry who spring to mind. Richard Price has written a very readable book about a similar type, The Convict and the Colonel, and PJ Wilson’s book Oscar is another.


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