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
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
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
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
“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
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