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RAYMOND by Peter Dean Rickards

 

Even today, I believe Raymond’s intentions had been good. It wasn’t that he was a bad person or a bona fide con artist; he was just trying to get by in a place where ‘getting by’ often meant juggling jobs and inventing schemes to supplement one’s income.

Like many unwary Jamaicans who took one of those five flights a day to places like Miami and Toronto in the mid-1970s, Raymond earned extra money selling things like Tupperware, vacuum cleaners and even underwear. He was pretty good at it too and always seemed to have a better car and more expendable income than my overworked parents.

Like many unwary Jamaicans who took one of those five flights a day to places like Miami and Toronto in the mid-1970s, Raymond earned extra money selling things like Tupperware, vacuum cleaners and even underwear. He was pretty good at it too and always seemed to have a better car and more expendable income than my overworked parents.

For years, my parents resisted Raymond’s get-rich schemes. As far as they were concerned, Raymond sold ‘junk’ that people didn’t need, an unacceptable notion for a person like my father who still hadn’t fully adjusted to a peculiar North American culture where excess and junk had an established place and purpose.

To my father, there was no logic in converting our rented split-level into a ‘flippin’ flea market’. So what if Raymond sold sufficient Tupperware to send his rotten kids to Disneyworld every summer, it still wasn’t worth the trouble. Besides, my father had schemes of his own.


One of these schemes came to him after a series of ‘home invasions’ were reported in the local newspapers. According to the Hamilton Spectator, a youth gang was roaming the mean streets of Burlington, Ontario and preying upon old people by knocking on their doors and pretending to be Jehovah Witnesses. When the unwitting old person opened his door, he was greeted by masked Canadian youths who threatened them with Rambo knives and hockey sticks while other members of the gang rummaged through the victims house, making off with liquor and cartons of cigarettes, and in one case, a valuable cat.

Amid all the heightened chatter about ‘Canada getting bad’, my father struck upon a grand plan: ‘Give the people what they need!’

The next day my father came home with a bag of brass peepholes that he had bought from the local Kmart. He must have had fifty of them. In his hand he held a brown envelope stuffed with photocopies of the Spectator article with the bits about ‘opening the door to unknown persons’ and getting beaten with hockey sticks highlighted in yellow marker.

At the bottom of each page he wrote the words:

‘CRIME IS ON THE RISE. PROTECT YOUR LOVED ONES. INSTALL A PEEPHOLE.’

Now, even though I had become somewhat wary of my father’s snap ideas, like the time he insisted on making my little sister’s Halloween costume out of a cardboard box (she was supposed to be ‘dice’), I had to admit this seemed foolproof.

Clearly, here was a man who was thinking ahead, and yet, the plan backfired.
After all, even if peepholes were cheap, sensible and based on good old-fashioned fear, we had overlooked the deal-breaking reality that our salesman was still a 6-foot tall black man with a strange accent, bad shoes and a dodgy-looking drill.

A few weeks later, Raymond showed up again with another scheme. Still dejected from the peephole flop my father showed rare interest in Raymond’s suggestion that he purchase a coffee machine.

“Everyone was doing it,” promised Raymond and since he was the local agent for the company that manufactured BOTH the machines and the stuff that went in it, my father would be privy to a bargain.

At first my mother was suspicious arguing Raymond’s ‘deal’ was actually a second-hand Mr. Coffee that didn’t even accept the new dollar coins. She also wasn’t very trustful of Raymond or his wife Cherry who wore bright red lipstick – a certain sign the woman was losing her mind.

“See the lipstick?” she whispered to my father as Cherry started arranging Mr. Coffee brochures on our dining table, “she’s crazy Pete, she’s crazy!”

But Raymond had done his homework, and even though the deposit to get our new second hand Mr. Coffee machine meant having to endure a few more cutbacks – such as no lights before 10pm and sending the dog away and so on – my parents bought the machine.

As for me, I was optimistic until I took one of the Mr. Coffee brochures to school. As my contribution to show-and-tell I proudly produced the brochure and reading word-for-word from it explained how Mr. Coffee was going to make my family filthy rich. But then, James Ciccolini put up his hand and said the machines didn’t accept the new dollar coins, which is why his dad was selling half a warehouse of them to “stupid West Indian immigrants and Pakis”.

Sure enough, I started to notice worry on the faces of my parents each time they’d return from checking the machine at the Chrysler plant’s cafeteria. The primitive machine was hopelessly defective and made coffee that the Chrysler workers said tasted like “a mouthful of dirty pennies”. And so it was kicked, beaten and spat on until it was finally pushed into a corner of the cafeteria where it died of neglect.

And yet Raymond had guaranteed the machine would pay for itself within three weeks. My parents phoned him repeatedly, but no Raymond. He was long gone, and when my little sister joked he’d probably “bought a bunch of Playboys mum and dad’s money”, my father threatened to send us to the Children’s Aid Society where nuns would try to molest us.


Like many Jamaican immigrants of the time, there was nothing to do but learn from the mistakes and work harder to make up for the losses. Indeed, it wasn’t long before Jamaicans in Toronto became famous for their ability to juggle multiple jobs while somehow raising young families and as in the case of my father, expanding their qualifications.

And yet for every Jamaican who made it, there was another who didn’t. Such was the case of poor Raymond who as we learned a few years later, had died in a fire, alone and penniless after falling asleep with a cigarette in his hand. Far from Jamaica and the politics and the crime… just trying to get by.