There is a way you enter a room when you learn that the entry is important; when you know that you can’t leave and come back in again; when you want to be respected at first glance; when you want to leave no doubt that to fuck with you is a terrible mistake; when it is clear you are a man with rank. Any old man with enough liquor in his history knows it, even if he doesn’t have it. Old men who’ve worked hard, with their hands, have it even when they don’t know it. If you have a scar or two; if you know the business and working ends of a blade, it is bequeathed to you. Old men also know it when they see it in a youth – when the youth has learned that he is all he has; that be it good joke, fist or heft, he’d better be quick to ante up if he wants in, in this brotherhood of men.
My friends and I had been perfecting this particular brand of swagger from the time we were 13. We didn’t know it was a thing, but we were doing it anyway. We, in QRC, knew who had rank; and rank could be attained in any number of ways – sport, fight, books, jokes, women – all these things could accord a fellow, rank. But only if he knows to play it effortlessly; to move like the facility with ball on foot, or sweet talk faced with a distrustful woman, is native; a non-learned thing. The Lion had that movement. The Lion knew that entrance and as a youth coming into Hereford’s for the last few years; as a youth who knew my place in the company of grown men, I knew how to play it consequential to my years, and I knew how that rank made itself manifest, when I brought the Lion into the bar.
The Lion strode in. When I say strode, I mean not only is there no tentative of step, I mean there is regal in the walk. I mean the man knows his place in the world; knows he must proclaim it but will not flaunt it. I mean it is the walk of a man who knows his suit is impeccable; whose knowledge and rank are affirmed. As a young man in the apprenticeship of entrances, I know not to walk directly behind him; not to kowtow, but to defer. I know to walk askance, and obliquely behind; as if presenting the magistrate. I am, as a frequent patron here, in fact presenting The Roaring Lion at Hereford’s; presenting he who needs no presentation.
The Lion climbed onto the barstool at the corner of the bar; a perch from which one becomes the moderator of all bar discussion. I respectfully take a stool to his right, say a deferential good evening to the gentlemen and the barkeep and The Lion orders a half bottle of Vat 19. We are accorded one can of coke as chaser. The Lion pours us our first drinks; equal parts coke and rum in a water glass. In short order, the half bottle of rum is done.
Here in the United States, I do not drink mixed drinks. I understood early on that the ratio of liquor to chaser deviated seriously from that to which I had become accustomed. I have grown into what we call in the Caribbean a veteran, a man of hard liquor tastes and enough experiences to no longer be young, but not enough to yet be grizzled. That night on the bar stool at Hereford’s, I was in training. I was drinking with a grizzled legend – and I had to keep up, hold my liquor and then drive him home safely and not say anything stupid in the bar or on the way to Mt. Lambert.
The Lion orders a second half bottle of rum. In Trinidad, so much metaphor comes from the rich language associated with cricket. At the highest levels – Test cricket, the game is five days long and it’s a wonderful theatre. We expect our best batsmen to stay in the wicket through adversity, to bat with flair and disdain when the moment calls for it; to leave to applause. And with The Lion’s introduction of this new ball, I am aware this is no one-day innings, I have to settle down and bat. Again, we are accorded a can of coke to go with the half bottle of rum. The drinks are progressively less brown in color and more cocoa, now moving to gold. The Lion is telling stories. We learn that he has a newborn baby girl and there are tales of growing up; folks in the country, and fights he has been in and deaths he has avoided. As an 18 year old, youngest fellow in the bar, my job is to lean in and laugh at the right time, speak only when spoken to and drink in time with my sponsor. Anything less is disrespect, and disrespectfulness is not just the absence of rank. It is negative rank. And then Lion says, Roger boy, three is the luckiest of numbers, and orders a third half bottle.
In an innings of cricket, a batsman finds out a few things about himself. He knows, if he is patient, whether or not the pitch is playing true; whether he can expect surprises in the bounce. If he is an astute student, he knows before he is even called upon t bat, whether or not the wicket is more solicitous of spin or pace. He knows how he must play himself into the rhythm of the pitch, how flight looks against the pavilion’s backdrop, how quick the seamer is moving one way or the next. A batsman also suspects early on if he is out of his depth. If so, he stays patient. He tries to stonewall the bowlers until he can go for his strokes. With the third half bottle, I suspected I was playing out of my class. The Lion was drinking at least three times the number of years I had been alive at that point. One does not ask out of the wicket though. You bat and you concentrate and you make sure you don’t get out. If a field sees you are in trouble, they will crowd the bat, look for you to make a mistake. You have to play the role of confident swashbuckler, even when you have no idea which way the ball will turn. And with that, The Lion says:
- You good?
- I good,
- Pour again, I say
And the bar erupts in laughter. Roaring Lion feigns surprise and the barkeep ensures them;
- that young fella in here all the time you know. He does come and carry his uncle home.
And the veterans and old men nod and the Lion slaps me on the back and just like that, I’m admitted into a fraternity. The old men ask where I live and where I go to school, and when I say I just graduated from QRC, they nod approvingly because to old black men, that still means one of we boys doing something good. And one of the men says okay young Skipper, which means I’m allowed back and every now and then one of the old fellas will call down a drink for me before I pile Uncle Mikey into the car. I am official now, with this nickname, even a throwaway non-specific one. And the Lion says, And the young fella have some throat on him, you know. He could sing. And just like that, I am knighted, right there in the bar on a stool just off the corner – given permission to make my own entrance, to make it sure, smooth, unhurried next time I come to fire a few with the fellas. I get to walk into the wicket with other batsmen who expect me to score, who consider me at least their equal; nothing being quite so respected as a man who can hold his waters.
When we leave and The Roaring Lion and his trophy climb back into my car, we head to Mt. Lambert. It is 4AM or thereabouts and the streets are empty. It is an easy 20minute drive and I feel fine. I drop the Lion off in front a two story off-white house, and he says, you’re a good young fella. You will do well. He strides off, suit still immaculate, hat never having left that spot on his head, tie knotted right at the throat. His walk is straight, belies nothing of the rum we have just killed. He opens his front door, with the same authority, a smooth, captain’s entrance. I watch the legend, the Roaring Lion, vanish into the night.
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