The man who was to become my landlord showed me the yellow room in August Town just a couple of weeks before the first semester of my second year began. The day was extremely hot. I recall appreciating the cool of the house, a cool I thought might have been coming from an air conditioner. Perhaps I even commented on it as I followed him down a dark, narrow passageway to the room that was for rent. If I did say something, he didn’t respond; he spoke only after I was inside the room, and again when we returned to the veranda where I had met him, and on both occasions his voice had the clipped reticence of someone who preferred, perhaps demanded, to be left alone. He opened the door to the room and stood aside to let me in.
No more than ten by ten feet of wall-to-wall concrete, it was a sealed-off, windowless closet—one so small it didn’t have a closet of its own. Pushed into the corner facing the door was a low bed with a stripped twin-size mattress. Above the bed burned a single naked bulb. I walked in and pressed my hand down on the mattress. No spring. I pressed again, and that was when the man spoke from the threshold, to say that the bed came with the room, and, he added, pointing with lips pursed to the small table at its foot, “That too.” There was no other furniture, nothing on which to sit besides the bed, nowhere to store anything but under the bed. The only other thing in the room, to the left of the door, was a picture in a frame. I decided to save looking at it until the room was mine; maybe the frame was this anchorite’s secret window offering a miniature prospect of heaven. I could see myself pretending it was. The man cleared his throat. The tour was over.
I followed him back out to the veranda and the fresh air. I had noticed the faint smell of Dettol or some other cleaning agent—so different from the room’s frowsy scent—emanating from elsewhere in the house, which made me wonder about the other tenants. Where were they now?
The man wore a heavy red windbreaker, odd though not completely unusual for the scorching Kingston heat, and aviator-style sunglasses, even inside the house. He never removed them, not then, when I forked over the first month’s rent and security deposit, nor the other times, after I had moved in, when I found him seated on the veranda’s battered floral sofa—his business perch, for it was there that I would pay the rent at the start of each month. I would have assumed he was blind had he not seemed to return such an implacable, stony stare.
I signed the lease, a smudged brown piece of paper that looked like a Jamaican birth certificate of my parents’ generation. He handed me a ring with three keys: one to the padlock on the veranda grille, one to the front door, and another, the smallest, to my room. It was a veritable Raskolnikov’s garret, but I felt lucky. I had a room of my own.
I’d spent the previous year hauling my large army-green duffel bag from house to house across the city. Kingston—squalid, full of distemper—seemed worlds apart from my coastal hometown of Port Antonio, to which I returned every weekend I could, a journey of three hours by bus. I realized quickly just how small Kingston was. Places bumped up against one another, the lines that separated the haves from the have-nots so thin you’d think the disparity was a natural feature of the landscape.
My classmates at the University of the West Indies, Mona, came from all over the Caribbean, but most of the people I got to know were born Kingstonian. Quite a few of them lived uptown, in houses with maids and gardeners, in neighborhoods with names like Cherry Gardens, Mona Heights, and Norbrook. Their parents invariably worked in the “private sector”—doing what, I never understood. It was at their homes that I did my laundry, took hot showers—a novelty to me—and ate good meals, taking breaks from my studies to watch films in the “TV room.”
Some of us off-campus students had become close during the two-week live-in orientation, a sort of sleepover cadet camp: we woke at five every morning to do exercise drills led by the dorm wardens while we sang ribald songs. There were light hazing rituals—carrying a backpack full of rocks around while mooing like a cow, or eating six whole Scotch bonnet peppers, fiery hot, without water. The only time we left the campus as a group was for a seven- or eight-hour hike up the Blue Mountain Peak. We headed out to the foothills in the late afternoon and reached the summit, where we set up camp, in the pitch-black night. We woke at daybreak, seized by amazement when the sun flamed over the sea and moved slowly toward the valley.