The Creole culture in Belize City when I was growing up was heavily influenced by alcohol. I come from families which included many seafaring males, and it was felt that rum helped to warm one up when one was wet and cold on the sea. Rum was, therefore, not only legal: it was considered practically medicinal.
One of the great rites of passage for young Belizean males was their first drunken spree, and it usually occurred at Christmas time when a youth would be visiting from house to house with his friends and contemporaries. It was an important aspect of growing up in Belize for a young man to learn how to drink liquor and control himself. You were supposed to learn how to enjoy yourself as much as you could without making a fool of yourself or becoming a major bother to other people.
When I was 7 years old our family moved from Church Street to West Canal Street, near its corner with Regent Street West, near Bolton Bridge. Across Bolton Bridge, at the corner of Regent Street West and East Canal, was a white, two-storey wooden building with pink (or red) window blinds. This was one of the offices owned by the man Ben Stuart, a very prominent mahogany contractor. His white Jaguar automobile was often parked in front of the building, I remember that, and the trucks that hauled mahogany (they called them “camions”) were busy in the street around that building.
Looking back, I can’t figure out how I have absolutely no idea of what Mr. Stuart looked like. In our yard on Church Street (halfway between Albert Street and East Canal) where I had lived until 1954, across the fence looking south, we could see the family home of the senior John Swift, who used to train horses for Ben Stuart. (The Swift children we knew included Frankie and the younger George.) I remember that once or twice I was able to see the impressive Stuart horses in their stables. These stables ran from west to east, from East Canal Street to where the Swift family home was.
Ben Stuart was a very big man in British Honduras, and he was colorful. I’ve heard several stories about his braggadoccio, if I may use that word. The man Ray Lightburn would often remind me of the name of his favorite Ben Stuart horse – “Bring di money.” Chef Ramon liked that message, and it wasn’t such a bad message at that.
Bob Turton’s main office was right across Haulover Creek from Bolton Bridge, and Turton’s office and all the houses he owned had yellow window blinds to indicate their ownership. Mr. Turton was also a mahogany contractor, but he was also into chicle and later import commission, and I am sure he had more money than the great Ben. (When I checked this with my dad, he said, “Much more money.”) But Bob Turton was not flashy, and he never fooled around with horses or sports. Ben Stuart was flashy and loved horses and the club life, so he must have been my kind of man. I wish I knew more about him.
In any case, it seems to me that Ben Stuart moved from that office across Bolton Bridge from us soon after we came to West Canal. And his building fell into the hands of an entrepreneur we knew as “Rick’s” (Rick Castillo), and the downstairs flat became Rick’s Bar, while the upstairs was Rick’s Club. I could never figure out the difference between the two. The jukeboxes in the club and in the bar sometimes would be playing the same Jim Reeves or Buck Owens or Patti Page or Marty Robbins songs, and the patrons in both establishments were drinking alcohol. After I returned from college in 1968, I figured that maybe some weed smoking went on upstairs, as opposed to downstairs. I can’t say for sure.
Anyway, growing up across from these houses of fun and enjoyment, we children witnessed many unique, exciting episodes, and we had some characters we held in some kind of esteem, even though they must have been criminal types.
There were fast women on the block. Sometimes the hard working men who paddled up from villages along the Sibun or Old River to sell farm produce and didn’t head back home as soon as they had sold and collected, would end up going home broke. They did their business next to Bolton Bridge where the canal met the Haulover Creek. This was too near to the Rick’s excitement. Some of these men from the villages must have peeked into the Rick’s places. There were some sad stories. But, they must have had some fun.
What was really sad to me was watching a certain lady who would come along the canalside to look for her husband on payday. For whatever reason(s), the brother would visit Rick’s (bar or club, it didn’t matter) with his pay instead of going straight home. His wife would stand on the corner by August’s Meat Shop across from Rick’s and try to get him to come out the bar. On several occasions, I watched the exchanges between them. Over the years, I‘ve spent time going over these episodes in my head.
I think the brother probably wanted to enjoy the feeling of money in his pocket in a public place. He wanted to “play big.” He needed that, I guess, in the midst of all life’s stress. Alcohol was already in his brain when his wife managed to get his attention and get him to come out of Rick’s. He would appear abusive in his speech and body language. The rum was doing him bad. This was a humble brother when the rum was not talking to him.
Years later when I read Malcolm X, I learned to understand the things I had seen across the canal as a child and as a youth. There’s some socio-economic history which explains some of the dysfunctions of our people. That history does not excuse us brothers for our misdeeds, but that history explains why we can’t control our manhood sometimes. Under all the downpression of white supremacy, we feel the need to show ourselves. And back then, even as now, it often began, and begins, with alcohol.
Power to the people.