“You see that guy there?”
The radiator technician leaned towards me as he spoke in a loud whisper while pointing to the back of a tall, hulking fellow who had just paid him. The latter man’s brisk strides seemed to swallow up the concrete as he headed for the gate.
Still, I was only half-interested. I doubted very much that it was even remotely relevant to my life.
I was in Central Trinidad near Cunupia, which was about 40 minutes’ drive from my Arima home. But, with the pumpkin patches, sugar cane fields and infrequent, lazy drone of passing vehicles, it seemed much further away than that.
“I will tell you this,” he continued, “I never know Africans who could unite like that man and his family.”
He had my attention now.
I stopped breathing and my eyes might have betrayed my confused state. In the 17 years since I completed my A’ Levels, I spent all but a few months as a practising journalist. I have interviewed victims, thugs, drug addicts, grieving families, conmen, murder accused as well as sporting icons, ‘wannabes’ and ‘never-weres’; but I rarely heard anything that surprised me as much.
The technician, a gentleman of East Indian descent who claimed to be in his 70s, didn’t seem to spot any change in my body language; or the fact that the sole member of his audience was also of African descent.
He carried on as casually as if he were discussing the weather.
“What am I doing here?” I thought.
Desperate times demand an equivalent response; I had pushed my second-hand vehicle to the limit over the past two years and gave precious little attention back as I pursued my goal of starting—or restarting, if one can recall the short-lived TnT Times—an online newspaper. But a few mishaps provoked me to pay closer attention to my frustrated mechanic.
I needed to either get a new radiator or risk destroying my engine. Luckily, there was a place where I could get a good radiator for a fraction of the cost that I would pay at a dealership.
A meandering drive for a bargain took me into a part of Trinidad that seemed nearer to VS Naipaul’s imagination than anything you would see on the busier East-West corridor. And it brought me into close quarters with an ageing fellow who did not put a high premium on his thoughts.
His radiator shop fitted snugly inside and around his two-storey residence. The house itself was similar to the stilted abodes of yesteryear, which was a boxed dwelling area raised on tall bannisters. But this entire building was concrete, unlike many of those old homes, while the light, cheery colours soothed.
There was room for two cars between the paved earth and the second floor. Alongside his house, there was space for four more vehicles at a push and, at the end, was a tool shed as big as an apartment. At the front corner of his yard was a shop that would be flattered by the term “mini-mart” but ensured that cold drinks and snacks were at a handy distance.
Everything was spotless; everything seemed to cater for his customers. But what did he think of that “African” patron?
The hulking fellow, he explained, had more than a half dozen siblings and they lost their father when the majority of the clan were still teenagers. Together, they went into the car business. To watch them work in unison, the technician explained, was a thing of wonderment.
“So they are good?” I asked, weakly.
I was breathing again; and trying to push the conversation as far as possible from its arguably dubious beginning.
“The best,” he replied.
A young employee was hard at work on my road-weary SUV. Apart from the radiator, I asked whether they might also change my thermostat and thermovalve. The young man and old boss looked at the parts as if they had come from another planet. I knew no more than they did—which is a generous self-critique—so I called my mechanic to talk them through it.
My heart sank when the shop owner explained that my mechanic would have to do it himself. I knew that meant another two week wait at best.
I was taken aback when his employee offered to at least install the thermostat for me.
“An employee offering to do more than his boss asks of him,” I thought. “I really must be far from home.”
An hour later, the young worker, who is also of East Indian descent, called me over again with an infectious grin on his face. He had located my old thermovalve and could replace that too. There was no extra charge.
I offered him a beer. He suggested bottled water.
“I can get you a beer,” I said, “or a soft drink or anything.”
“I already had a Coke for the day,” said the young man. “I will take the water.”
I retreated to the relative cool of the boss’ office. That too seemed spotless and efficient.
He was delighted that I approved of his employee’s work ethic and was quickly chatting again.
The Ford Focus was a bad vehicle for repair work, he said; he once had to take the entire front off one to change the radiator. Did I know the different type of radiators that he built and what they cost at the dealership? I do now.
One dealership, which he named, chanced across his handwork and asked him to supply the establishment in bulk. The dealership’s manager tried to bring his price down.
“The manager said: ‘but I’m asking you for 50’,” he said. “I told him that: ‘I didn’t care if you want 150; it is the same price’.”
He supposedly promised to call back the dealership but changed his mind.
“Do you know what they will charge people after they buy them from me for $2,100?” he asked.
He insisted that I guess a figure. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t even close.
“Six thousand dollars!” he exclaimed, as animated as he would be that afternoon. “Those people are too wicked. I never called him back.”
It turned out that the technician had seen much further afield than Arima—which, I should add, is hardly a bustling city itself. As a young man, he claimed to have moved to London in the 60’s and he remained there until he was 43. He had a car, house and as good a life as an immigrant could enjoy.
“I sold my house for around 15,000 pounds,” he said. “Do you know what I heard it sold for recently?”
He let the question hang in the air but, thankfully, did not demand an estimate on this occasion.
“Two hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds!”
He explained that he still collected a pension from the British government and did not need to work. But he enjoyed it.
Retirement is an issue that I gave much thought to of late. My grandmother, the principal and co-founder of the now defunct Elizabeth’s College, Tobago, was ravaged by Alzheimer’s within two years of her retreat from active duty. I since vowed to never stop working.
I found myself sharing this story with an elderly stranger in rural Trinidad.
He nodded with a knowledgeable air.
“What do you think would happen if you left that vehicle parked up for six months?” he asked. “You wouldn’t believe the number of things that would go wrong with it.”
That evening, as I sped through the cane fields towards the highway, I thought about my afternoon’s conversations.
Should I have pressed him to divulge his innermost thoughts on Africans? Do people of a certain age think differently about race? Or was it due to his surroundings? Were there similar anachronisms regarding race and business elsewhere in rural Trinidad or in similar locations around the planet?
Does political correctness stifle? Is open discourse the better alternative to banned words? Is my generation too uptight and does our fervour for tolerance itself lead to a form of intolerance?
And what about the honest industry of his shop and the professional pride of his sole employee that seemed out of sync with the majority of business places that I patronise?
As my thoughts drowned out the blaring music on my drive home, I fell in love with my country all over again.
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