Keith Smith left us in early February. I know that but I still don’t remember the precise date. And one February afternoon this year, a phone call from a former colleague brought back a fond memory of him. A timely one.
“Covid’s over,” she complained, “but I still cyar see you for love nor money.”
One afternoon, Keith and I are standing near the Express Building when a lady with a big afro pulls up in a fancy car. She toots her horn at him. His face lights up as he recognises her.
“Eheh!” he says, “Cyar see yuh at all, gyurl! Not fuh love nor money!”.
“Ehheh?” she asks, chuckling. “Maybe you should try changing the proportions!”
Raucous laughter that ends in a coughing fit. Spit flying everywhere. In Covid time, there would be a mad scramble for hand sanitiser. And frenzied adjustment of masks.
“Keith Smith woulda have a fit,” I explained to Bobby early the morning after the day before when the Express had had yet another transcription masquerading as a sports story. “He used to take a serious interest in what the Sports Desk did.
“He was a editor and a half,” I added in jest. “But at quarter his size, he would still have been larger than life.”
“The Editor I know,” he shot back immediately, “would have to quadruple her journalistic worth to begin to get somewhere near half his value!”
“Wow! I thought you not good at maths!”
Were it not for Keith, I told him not for the first time, I should probably have abandoned journalism early. Right after walking out on the Old Lady of St Vincent Street.
After that year when the Guardian’s after-tax profit was in the region of $7m and there was a tie for Employee of the Year and instead of giving each of the two winners a cheque for $500, the handsome reward the company offered to the person who, in their judgement, had worked hardest in the course of the year or done most to enhance the company’s reputation or whatever the criterion for the award was, those scrooges—who paid themselves $30,000-plus Christmas bonuses, I’m not guessing, my eyes have seen the gory—decreed that the $500 prize money was to be shared equally between the two winners, to each victor the princely sum of $250 each, amen, hallelujah, give praise!
What if there had been a third equally industrious employee that year?
“I need to talk to Keith,” I told Lloyd.
Very early the next day, he called me on my home phone.
“Yuh know where I living. Come and see mih after work sometime.” Click.
I did. Look, ah begin, and ah know it surprise him big time because he eye open wide wide, is you and Lennie Grant who get me interested in dis journalism ting in a serious way in de firse place because if allyuh didn’t write dat ‘We were looking for a better place and thought it passed this way’ story in Tapia, I mighta still be a secondary school teacher all now…
And ah follow it up with the Employee-of-the-Year story, explaining too how the French creole Chairman ah de Board make the Features Editor, ah woman, cry long tears with more than a half-dozen big men who is editors and managers siddong in de room and none ah we ent say boo and how I know I didn’t have the balls but I sure I woulda lorse mih wuk one time if I did only open my mouth to tell that dat big, brave half-white bully way to get off.
Look, I tell him, if you doh take me in the Express, me and mih whole sports desk, I going and wuk PH or drive somebody maxi because it have to have some better way to make a livin than as a house slave on a plantation.
Well do I remember the evening Lloyd telephoned to say to “call Keith. About Emancipation…”
Well do I remember, too, that fateful February morning in 2011 when the news of Keith’s passing broke. It was an ordinary, undistinguished Wednesday. Of course! Has the Bard not told us that when beggars die, there are no comets seen?
Whether you take Shakespeare poetically or literally, Keith qualified. You’d be lucky to get down the corridor past his office unsummoned if you had anything like a snack in your hand. And if you had fruits of any sort, not to mention a zaboca, well, no chance!
But if there were any who resented sharing their fare with this lovable big baby, they kept it very quiet. Besides, you didn’t want any more of whatever it was after he had pulled his fingers out of his mouth to touch it…
Etched in my memory are six words I saw in the paper the Friday of that fateful week.
In my mind’s eye, I saw Afro Lady again, bemoaning her loss and beating her chest and tearing out her hair and crying and pouring her grief and her distress mixed with puzzlement (‘Why, God, why?’) and genuine pain into those six simple words that, taken together, constitute a far more fitting epitaph than the fancy words written by heads of organisations with fancy highfalutin names for a simple down-to-earth man who had devoted his entire adult life to improving the quality of journalists and journalism in the country and whose only public reward had been the Hummingbird Silver Medal the then President of the Republic had hung about his neck a couple short years before his passing but who had never asked for any reward for that life’s work other than that, like David Rudder’s 1989 calypso, it bring solace to and be a song for lonely souls, those six simple, self-pitying words that were both at one and the same time a soul-searching scream and a laconic lament:
“So what will I read now?”
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