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Brand new year, walked through door of Barbados branch of big box retailer and walked back in time to same old-same old—but I mean really old version of same old. Remember old joke of pilot announcement to passengers on plane to apartheid South Africa: “We are about to land in Johannesburg; please set your watches back 300 years.” Walked out of modern liberal democracy of car park and into sugar plantation that still defines everyday Bajan commercial life, half-expected see James Drax, major 17th Century pioneer sugar plantation by time we left, or escaped.
Went to big box retailer for furniture for part of porch at home where interview people for newspapers. Must separate work from family; wish Barbados could separate present from past. Every day, smallest, most mundane exercise—like buying porch furniture set—gets mired in history, very soul gets bogged down by chains of time.
Chose patio set according to budget: nicer set cost three times more. Asked three different employees of big box plantation if in stock. Three reassurances yes. At cashier, discover “membership card” (realise, later, really “plantation brand”) expired. Skip over to “Customer Service” (realise, very fast, really “Customer Abuse”). Renewal refused. But renew it here three times over last six years! New rule—probably just invented by surly customer service abuser prefer look Facebook than do job—can’t renew Trinidad card in Barbados.
Back to cashier to abandon purchase but nice stranger, lady waiting patiently behind us, offer swipe her card allow transaction. Smiles all ‘round, lady plantation brand swiped, my credit card swiped, patio set paid for. Plantation take everything you have from you.
But you just try collect from plantation, system geared against, not for, you. Cardboard box arrive, plantation guard tick bill, allow us outside—where wife notice is not small set, but big one, three times price. Go back in. (If knew then, what found out in next hour, would have just taken expensive set and said, “Firetruck plantation!”)
Next half hour, the whole family helping plantation clerk search for mythical patio set. Like Santa Claus or Muslim secularity: more believed in than seen. Hunger biting, midday work appointment approaching—buying patio set for, so interviewee could sit—and patio set not there. Big box retailer don’t know patio furniture a-- from elbow. After 40 minutes, tell wife, firetruck it, will stand up to talk to guy, just get firetruck out of here.
Cashier refuse swipe money back on credit card. Purchase made on membership card of lady behind us in line. Go find other lady, bring her back, swipe her plantation card, then get your money back. “But you can’t deliver what we paid for!” I say. Cashier interrupt daydream to point out supervisor. Trot off obediently.
Supervisor—really “overseer”—make it plain she there for plantation. Put nose in air. Offer meet us “halfway” and allow us pay for Bajan membership instead of renew Trini membership and then might consider give us back money. Tsk, tsk, wag finger, you don’t understand how system works. (Trouble is, I do, just too well: most important function of system is not facilitate commerce but ensure bad Negroes get punished!)
No need me understand your system, you just need to acknowledge you took money from me and can’t deliver product. Keep money is stealing. Very simple. Overseer, very proud fancy glasses, turn nose up farther. Watching ceiling now. Peremptorily walk off without a word. Probably looking for whip. Talking animatedly on phone. Return. Call me, “Sir” but make sound like, “N-word”. Say manager coming talk me. (Meaning: manager bringing whip.)
Manager—sorely missing horse—walk right past me, nose in air. After demonstrating authority by strolling up and down, ignoring bad Negro, condescend enquire why dirty customer so bold as come to front door.
Manager don’t care if big box retailer have competition five minutes’ away, most important thing is show who in charge. Could get promotion from big box retailer manager to West Indies Cricket Board CEO. Really intervening only to prevent rebellion that could threaten overseer, who far more important to plantation than mere customer.
Manager also surprised find out can’t renew Trini membership card in Barbados. “Must be a new rule!” Point out nobody, including her, use words, “I’m sorry” to me yet, a solid hour into this whipping. Think she would see chance to make amends but she see only another chance to administer licks. “But we haven’t finished our discourse yet!” Very sweetly. “You haven’t given me a chance to say sorry!” “You mean it’s my fault you didn’t say sorry? You’ve been talking to me for 15 minutes about your policies when all I want is my cash.”
Manager on horse higher than overseer until finally dawn on her that, even in Barbados, retailer really can’t take money and give customer nothing at all; no matter how bad a Negro customer might be. Finally start backpedalling—an hour after ordeal began. Promise locate patio furniture and deliver free by way of apology. Smiling until lipstick smearing earlobes.
Understand her well. Want to whip her savagely myself. Is what we do in West Indies: exchange whip occasionally, but keep up punishment without interruption. The beatings will continue until morale improves.
In the end, all can do is not play along, not wipe feet at bottom of steps and tug forelock and shed tears of gratitude for untold generosity of a whole yam. Leave plantation without losing a limb or money but knowing is illusion to think any dignity salvageable from this firetrucking shipwreck.
Happy New Year, indeed, but not in deeds. Rest of world celebrating the year 16; we stuck in that century.
n BC Pires understands that, 150 years-plus after Emancipation, the most important duty on the plantation remains one of rebellion.
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