Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Charlotte Street

Walking in downtown Port of Spain is always a walk down Memory Lane. I think I was ten or 12 when I was allowed to visit the bookstore on Frederick Street by myself. The book department of Stephens and Todd was presided over by a small busy man, Lionel St Aubyn. He was always trying to be helpful, but I didn't really know what books I liked yet so the little time I had in his shop was spent browsing. I remember being hooked on some adventure stories by Hammond Innes and I would pore over the different titles before selecting the one for that month. Then I would wait for my Dad in front the store at the pre-arranged time.

Earlier on, when I was five or six, Daddy would sometimes take me and Helen to town with him, to pick up goods. That would have been Charlotte Street. He would leave us in the car with strict instructions not to open the doors. And in this particular memory, we were so hot. Maybe we didn't dare open the windows, but that's not true either because I also remember conversations with curious passersby.

What's your name?
Pudden an tail (because of course we were not to tell anyone our names.)
Where's your Daddy?
He coming back now now (so no one would think we were alone for a long time.)

And the terror because we were sure someone would open the door and come in the car.
And the sweat because we were so hot, maybe from tumbling from the front to the back and climbing back.
And the relief when Daddy did come back and start the car, and we could move and feel the wind in our faces.

At Christmas time, we window shopped, in the late evening after shops closed, when you could park on lower Frederick Street and walk up and down the block admiring the windows of Woolworth, Glendinnings and Stephens and Todd. Special gifts were bought from Excellent Trading higher up on Frederick Street near Park: I remember a jewellery box built like a mini chalet for Helen.

My appreciation for Charlotte Street came later, when as a young adult I would go to the Chinese grocery, with my mother or fatheer, or alone, entranced by cargoes that crossed the seas: preserved fruit in a variety of flavours, swet, salty, sour, peppery, orange-peel, liquorice, sticky; tea called gunpowder; and the things in tins, sweet lychees, abalone, sour pickles, lotus roots, bamboo shoots; black mushrooms and dried fungus called wood ears; dried fish belly that puffed up in the oven; magic mung beans that sprouted in a tin covered by a wet rag; and lapcheong fatty and fragrant sausages steamed on white rice.
Wing Sing, my favourite Chinese shop on Charlotte Street

We never imagined the actual fruit, but delighted in the tastes that made our mouths pucker and our eyes and noses wrinkle.

More recently, Charlotte Street has meant treading the maze of people and cars from east Port-of-Spain. But today, I was pleasantly surprised at the relative order imposed on the maze. The street vendors occupy tents; their wares - produce or panties, slippers or seasonings -  carefully displayed on tables. The vendors pay monthly fees to rent their spaces and tents. It's Port -of-Spain's idea of an open air market, and seems to be working: first by allowing people to vend; secondly, providing an income to the City Corporation; and finally imposing a system and order on an otherwise unruly set of circumstances.

So I stopped to take a photo of the basin of chows: pineapple, mango, pommecythere and plum.
You taking picture and you not even buying?
How much is your mango chow? Give me a bag with green and some ripe.
Twelve dollars (as she proceeds to spike the slices of fruit with  salt, green shadon beni sauce, red pepper sauce).
So where you from?
Born right here in Trinidad, and you?
I from St Vincent; been here long long time.
How long? How old are you?
Her laugh is hard and hearty because I caught her.

As she salted and seasoned mango and pommecythere for me, others were gathering around.
How much for the plums?
Give me a bag of pineapple.
Bags of pineapple, mango, pommecythere, salted and seasoned on the spot for you.

The chow lady from St Vincent

Plums waiting to be "chowed"

Everybody on Charlotte Street is busy: either selling; buying; or scripping (a word we used when we were just browsing). Somewhere in all that commerce and picong, I feel the soul of Trinidad stirring, struggling to stay alive.

Here are some photos from the Charlotte Street vendors market today.

Tents along the roadside on Charlotte Street: vendors may now "rent" space and shelter from the POS Corporation to sell in specific designated areas.

Peppers, hot (above) or sweet

Tonka beans

Soursop from another island

The orange peeler

Avocadoes at centre stage