“The Golden Age of Georgetown Characters: 1930-1960” + video

“The Golden Age of Georgetown Characters: 1930-1960″: 1930-1960” (see video below)

By Bernard Heydorn

The Caribbean is known not only for its sunny climate, but also its street people: Colourful characters who paraded daily through town and country, providing spontaneous street theatre.

Whether driven to the streets by mental, emotional or social derailment, or “dropping out and turning on” by free choice, they remain indelible in memory, symbolic of the life and times. Like the politicians of the day, street characters had the ability to attract attention.

In Georgetown, Guyana, names like Bertie Vaughn, Law And Order, Cato, Pussy In The Moonlight, Pele, Mad John, Saul, Walker The British, Cow Manure, Oscar The Paper Man, Tunus, Daddy Ben, Mary Bruk Iron, Bicycle Jack, and others, were standouts during that golden age of theatre of the absurd (1930 – -1960), providing year round side shows, a character for every reason and season.

It is interesting to note that many of these characters found a place to rest at night, be it the Palms, Dharm Shala, a Mental Home, a back room, or underneath a shop bridge. However, back then, as now, their illnesses, be they mental or physical, their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, were crying out for healing hands.    

Mad John was a man who walked up and down Regent Street in Georgetown, beating up on himself, complaining, “a woman tek all meh money!” Mad John seemed to possess a split personality which I shall call “He” and “Himself” for clarity sake.

Now, “He” and “Himself” were always fighting each other but never producing a clear winner. One day “He” would be on top and “Himself” would retreat from the blows; and on another day, the tide would turn and “Himself” would be top dog.

The state of affairs continued for a while until one morning, “Himself” caught “He” half-asleep on Camp Street by the Blue Light Store, and like a dog chasing its own tail, gave chase and delivered a solid knockout punch! From that day on, people said that Mad John never slept properly, being constantly on guard against another sneak attack by the other side of himself.

Christmas in Georgetown was noted as much for ‘Cow Manure’ as for its ginger beer. ‘Cow Manure’ was an East Indian man who sold cow manure as a fertiliser, from a basket on his head, and who was perpetually drunk. He belted out his favourite Christmas Carol, “While shepherds wash their flocks and socks at night, all seated on the ground” to all and sundry, slurring the words and composing his own, as he walked the streets.

Another well known character was ‘Saul’. A man for all seasons, he dressed for every occasion, depicting the daily news. His outfits and placards gave a running commentary to the events of the day, for if a condemned murderer was being hung at the jail on Camp Street, Saul was the first to show and tell. Saul was also the first to coin the saying, “Why get sober if you have to get drunk all over again?” During a cricket test match, Saul ran around the ground at Bourda, dressed as a cricketer with paper gloves and cardboard pads, bringing the game to a halt and getting more attention than the Governor!

Another Bourda character was ‘Daddy Ben’, who the M.C.C. press called ‘Daddy Bell’. ‘Daddy Ben’ had a permanent bird ticket up a tall tree at Bourda, on the eastern side of the ground by the Georgetown Football Club during a Test Match. From that vantage point, whenever he got bored or he wanted a wicket to fall, he would ring a big bell loudly, and sure enough, wickets would start to tumble, to the amusement of the crowd and the amazement of the players.

Oscar’, the blind paper man, walked up and down the streets of Georgetown before dawn and cock crow, shouting the headlines and selling newspapers, “Argasy! Agasy!” Although he was blind, he know his coins well and anyone who tried to cheat him would be cussed out.

Horse racing at Durban Park would not be complete without the appearance of ‘Pele’, an East Indian man who walked around, dressed up in a suit, smoking two cigarettes at the same time! He gave a running commentary on the races and every other subject imaginable. He was also a passionate suitor, for if he liked a young lady, he would find out where she lived and go and sing loudly outside her bedroom window, from midnight to dawn!

‘Pussy In The Moonlight’, alias ‘Pussy Foot’, was a bearded Portuguese man who wore a jacket and plaid shorts. He sold sweepstake tickets in between drinks, and was reputed to live in Albouystown with many children, some of whom walked around with him. School children were sometimes cruel to Pussy Foot, taunting him with a verse, “Pussy in the moonlight, pussy in the dew, pussy never come home till half past four”.

Another Portuguese character was ‘Tunus’, a strong, hard-drinking man whose favourite haunt was the Red Coconut Tree rum shop at Cummings and Second Street. Tunus apparently went to jail for stabbing a policeman, but he was better known for playing a mouth organ with one hand and doing the unmentionable with the other!.

An icon among Guyanese characters would be Bertie Vaughn, a black man. Bertie apparently came from a “good” family, and was himself once a school teacher, and it is said, a candidate for the Guiana Scholarship before “too much studiation sent him off his pins”. From then on, his station in life was to sit on a parapet by the main Post Office, shaving his head and other parts of his anatomy clean, clean, with a broken “grass bottle” in a fashion that would make Gillette both envious and anxious about the competition.

In between picking a sore in his scalp and begging, he also drank iodine, miraculously without poisoning himself, having built up a tolerance over the years. If he begged for a six cents piece and you gave him a bit (an eight cents piece), he would return it saying, “ah want six cents”. At one time he had a Raleigh bicycle, replacing the bell with a horn, saying “school children gun listen to the horn”. Later for no apparent reason, he ran his Raleigh bicycle into the Demerara River.

‘Walker The British’ was a mixed-race (Mulatto) man, who sold sweepstake tickets around Water Street, armed with two bricks. Apparently, he came from an educated family, and then, like Bertie Vaughn, “went ’round duh bend”. He was an ardent supporter of British superiority, shouting “British yuh fool! Highest hair and colour!” People taunted him, calling him “Walker the nigger” and so he retaliated with his two bricks, sometimes drawing blood from his tormentors. He slept at the Palms, letting himself out daily on his rounds.

Another Post office character was ‘Telegraph George’, who used to work at the Post Office as a telegraph messenger before he “went off”. He could then be found, making signs with his fingers, looking at the heavens saying “ah gun talk to God”.

One character I had some fear of as a schoolboy was ‘Cato’, a somewhat deranged black man who wore short pants and rags and often exposed himself to bystanders for money, saying, “Ah want a penny tuh buy a panty fuh me sister”. ‘Cato’ also had a weakness for rubber, devouring pencil erasers and chewing on the rubber seals of bottles. Once on an indecency exposure charge in court, he saw Forbes Burnham and shouted “Uncle Forbes, get up an’ talk fuh me maan. Yuh gun leh dis coolie magistrate do dis tuh meh?” Apparently, this was one of the rare occasions when Burnham was at a loss for words.

And who can ever forget ‘Law And Order’ who staged an execution in his push cart everyday, every hour on the hour. During the executions of his rag doll, he gave an address on the evils of crime and the benefits of the British Empire, of laws and order. He was always sole judge, jury and executioner. Curious crowds always gathered around ‘Law And Order’ at Bourda Market and the Public Buildings where he was a regular show stopper. ‘Law And Order’ and his push cart also marched proudly in the Armistice Day parade on November 11, each year, getting loud applause and holding his own with the veterans of many campaigns.

One of my favourite characters was ‘Bicycle Jack’ a museum on wheels. ‘Bicycle Jack’ rode a bicycle all day long in the Georgetown sun, with every object imaginable attached to the bike – clips, wires, bells, horns, lights, decorations, flags, the most prominent being the Union Jack, homemade toys, and spinning windmills, to name a few. The wheels were also gaily decorated, all in all, a sight to behold. His only problem was when rain fell, when he had to peddle fast to find shelter.

There were other characters too, like ‘Bubble Up’, the white woman with ‘big foot’, who cursed like hell; and ‘Mary Bruck Iron’, a prostitute, who had established a reputation for ‘brucking iron’ in Tiger Bay.

Be it ‘Monkey’, ‘Sharkey’, ‘Live Wire’, ‘Dribbly Joe’ or the legendary ‘bag men’ used by parents to develop fear in children, street characters were always around. Some times in retrospect, I wonder if the colonial powers allowed these characters to roam free in order to provide distraction for the local people, while they exploited the country.

There were a few other names also, “Spungdown.” A short stocky and elderly black man worked with a Lykin Funeral Home. He bathed the dead and informed families when their loved ones died, particularly from the Public Hospital. It was known that he carried a dead man on his cycle from Vreeden Hoop to Georgetown. He made it appeared as if the man was drunk, slapping the man several times and talking to him on the way to G/T.

The other was “Bastiannie.” A short Indian man worked with Bastinannie Funeral Home in Albertown. He also bathe the dead and slept in coffins at the parlor. It was said the people would be scared to death, when they went to the Parlor to make funeral arrangements, he would be seen coming out of a coffin as if he was dead.

“Bertie Sammon.” A short and stocky strong handy man from the Village. A bit retarded, but he had his own kind of sense. He ran errands for people in the neighborhood, and lived around John and Durban Street Lodge. He had an infectious laugh, which you can hear him blocks away, when the night is still, even as you stood in Hadfield Street. After the end of each race day at Durban Park, he would go into the Stands to search every draw to for money hopefully left by ticket sellers or anyone dropping a shilling. He had a big appetite. He would eat 12 tennis rolls, many large cups of mauby or swank and anything in sight. He loved going to Indian weddings in the Village, where he would eat several plates of food (rice and doll). and wash down with more food, when he is in the mood. He was the Gallon of the area.

The next person was Jamesie Moore. A one time Amateur Boxer. He become mentally disturbed, due to some woman. He ran around the D’urban Park, each day Shadow Boxing, always training for a fight that never came off. He liked drawing a horse on a piece of paper that he said must be printed into his own currency. He brought the paper to the Argosy News Paper Company in Belair Park each day to be printed. He ran errands, and also lived near John and Durban Streets in Lodge. He sang to the top of his voice, when he sat on St Sidwells school steps. I believed he was a member of the Choir, years before he became ill. It is sad that some of our best brains ended up that way.

Mental Health is big social problem which needs to be addressed. We took the problem as entertainment and an individual problem.

— Post #1285 – April 12, 2012

This video added April 15, 2015.

Crazy – He MaDD – official music video Soca 2012 – Trinidad

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Comments

  • ndtewarie  On 04/12/2012 at 11:46 am

    Yes I also remember some folks from my village with names like JUNJU BOY, FUNKIE,KADWA, QUECKEY, PUSHAM & HIS BROTHER PULLAM, KAK, BUDABOY, LULL, AUNTIE PUNTANIE, TRIGGA, TIE TIE, SOOJAY, LIP, AND UNCLE KAKAHOLIAN.

  • DMITRI ALLICOCK  On 04/12/2012 at 2:29 pm

    HERBIE, for most Upper Demerara residents was and “is still” a living legend that rivals “LAW AND ORDER” the former king of Guyana’s street people who was known throughout Guyana.
    There were other vagrants like TIGER, which was both father and his daughter, ITUNI DOG, NUMBER FOUR and a few more that provided public theater, free of charge in the days of no television.
    ITUNI DOG was a quick temper psychotic and the most dangerous of all the characters. When teased, he would violently explode, cursing and chasing the thrill seeking children with his cutlass like a maniac on the loose. Ituni Dog was rumored to live at Ituni and had killed a dog in earlier days, hence his name.
    Ituni dog was solitude but functional like most of the area’s entertainers, he was frequently seen weeding trenches or cleaning up yards in the neighborhood. Ituni dog was unkempt and always had on his trademark long black rubber boots, which, thank goodness, impeded his ability to catch any children. His ominous cutlass was wrapped in newspaper and carried in a dirty canvas bag slung over his shoulders.
    TIGER, the father, became a spectacle mainly when he was drunk, which was usually the case. Shiny, flush face and red lips, this small stature man was frequently involved in many altercations, resulting in a distant second place for him.
    He was famous for biting like a tiger when fighting. In 1968, he was admitted to the Mackenzie Hospital ward, where I was a young patient. He was badly beaten and bleeding from head and facial wounds; the nurses had to restrain him as he attacked, kicked his caregivers and violated the hospital sign “QUIET” with a crescendo of screams and foul language.
    The nappy head, very untidy and delusional daughter called TIGER also, roamed primarily Wismar streets stopping at intervals to curse real or imaginaries teaser. When crossing the river in the ferry boat, Tiger had most of the boat to herself as passengers avoid her pungent ammonia fragrant and wrath.
    NUMBER FOUR was a well dressed pleasant alcoholic in a white or blue shirt jack, white floppy hat and 6 or more colorful flags. He sang, danced and had used his flags at rhythmic intervals for liquor. His audience all waited for his climax song which was” number four!” That began with Aunty Mary at the market square- shaking her bam-bam.
    LAW AND ORDER, the very proud World War Two veteran was well described in the article. It was very customary to see this old man who sewed his suit together by hand with needle and thread, dragging his monstrous silver contraption masterpiece on Arvida road at Mackenzie tying up traffic. Law and order held legitimate puppet shows for the Mackenzie Primary School in the mid sixties. He did part time preaching as well and would be seen shouting at women church goers on Sunday, every choice word in the forbidden book and demanded their repentance.
    HERBIE the living legend has been roaming the rum shops and streets of Linden as long as I can remember.
    His favorite spirits is a red wine called Pac-Pac. Usually drunk he would indulged in his second past time chasing young girls around the school yard and elsewhere. I remember headmaster James of the Mackenzie Primary School, beating Herbie with his cane after he was “interfering” with the young school girls. Herbie would run out of the school yard and end of story. We call that behavior something else in other parts of the world.
    Herbie was quite functional when he wasn’t drunk. He made all sorts of wooden furniture and carvings. He would brave the swamps and poisonous reptiles to obtain the right piece to do his masterpiece work which he would later peddle for money to quench his thirst. That was the cycle.
    We would later see Herbie sleeping alongside the gutter or under the steamer stelling. We would watch Herbie asleep on the beach as the tide slowly rose. He would then roll up just enough to avoid being submerged. It was also a belief that Herbie “ate someone’s cat” once that further esteemed him.
    In 2010, the shocking site of Herbie still alive after all these years made me greet and hug him. He is almost totally blind and must be in his nineties by now. Cured by alcohol and baked by the sun, emaciated Herbie looked like the end is close but I wouldn’t bet on it.
    He told me that my father had died and was quite up to date with the happenings. He still has an American accent despite never leaving Guyana. I ran in to him at what was the former Town square and gave him a nice sum of money per his request but was embarrassed as he shouted praise of thanks long after I said goodbye to him.
    The mentally ill or otherwise emotionally troubled individuals’ real world was unforgiving. A lunatic asylum or lock up was about the only help provided when things got out of hand. Guyana’s favorite pastime of alcohol didn’t help much but most characters of yesterdays and today’s street would disagree.

  • Keowla  On 04/13/2012 at 10:58 pm

    As a child growing up in Guyana I too recall so many unfortunate victims of mental health. The worst of the matter was to observe the so called sane people making them objects of their amusement. I’m so happy that my parents thought us well they had instilled in us that we should think about how we would have felt had that person been one of them a sibling or a relative.Wished I could have made a difference but my daughter and I are doing so in our adopted country. She actually did mental heath as part of her studies.

    • Aaron BenNaf  On 04/18/2012 at 8:16 pm

      Thank you for sharing this bit of sentiment as it relates to our earlier life experiences in GEORGETOWN. I recall fascinating characters like WALKER the BRITISH/NIGGER depending on whether you want to arouse his pleasure or incur his ire;he was said to have received shell shock from World War I or II; there was NIPPLE, the Masquerade Band Leader who was a Master Drummer- when he was absent, the music was never as sweet. There was also the COCONUT MAN who had a special way of calling customers that sounded like “wadik coooo-konot”. And on the the sinister side, there was BARNEY – the antiman, and the MIGHTY BRACER – who joined the daily bus crowd to brace down and get off on the women; many a time, he got a beat down with pocketbooks and shoe heels, but never stopped. then there was/is Maxie SARGEANT, the indomitable Street Fighter, who won countless, money-based fist fights or just for reputation; it is known that he would endure immense pressure from men who were sometimes getting the upper hand on him before turning the tide and winning the fistic struggle – a huge street personality. Then there was

      On the gangster side, there was MOK – the first criminal I knew to have been killed (shot down) by the police; he was known to have murdered persons during robberies but was a lonely meticulous man with with a caged-bird in his hand on his new, ticking, shiny, black bicycle with white-walled tires. As a boy, I felt fear when he was close by because of his reputation. And FLAT TOPS (aka TAPS), now deceased who was the biggest known gangster – he took robbery to another level, leading a small team crew on motorcycle and outfoxing the police.

      I do not mean any offense to anyone. These are just some of my experiences growing up as a young lad in GT. The conversation goes on.

  • Louise Fisher nee Dowding (born in beautiful Kitty)  On 04/14/2012 at 6:33 am

    I remember a man in the late 40’s early 50’s who would hang around outside the Astor Cinema selling (I think) crab backs, he shouted “Aston and Preston, related to Fortnum and Mason a grand establishment in London the Capital of England. Most people would give him a few cents but I don’t remember anyone ever buying a crab back from him.

  • DE OLIVEIRA, DELPH  On 04/14/2012 at 4:23 pm

    Also, in Kitty Village there was Piss-a-Bed, Bruck-up, Duke-look-legs, black-and-Shine, Pied Piper man with the flute, and others…in Albouystown
    Georgetown in the 20’s was Goring, Bellamy, and others……….these were all Norman Rockwell-like characters…………JD.

  • Louise Fisher nee Dowding (born in beautiful Kitty)  On 12/10/2012 at 12:07 am

    I remember piss a bed, there was also a crippled boy that the other kids looked after, they called him monkey picne and made him carts to push himself along on

  • Louise Fisher nee Dowding  On 12/29/2013 at 4:37 am

    I returned “home” having lived in the UK since I was 13 years old. Guyana was still Guyana,and the people still the same wonderful. helpful in the world. When I returned to England I had the worse attack of homesickness and this after more than 50 years.

  • walter  On 04/16/2015 at 9:03 pm

    I remember as a kid at St James the Less, we planned to take out Walker, close to the Kitty Market. We were well hidden and positioned, started our barrage on him. We missed, he connected on two of us, unfortunately I was one of them, I peeped out, got a shot on the side of my head, swelled up immediately. I lied, said I fell, when I got home.I respected his ability from then on. Good times Good times.

  • carament-dalgetty  On 04/17/2015 at 7:39 am

    I am saying once more after reading this very noteworthy collection of characters: Yuh kyaan leff out “Fogarty Bun Dung”. She used to be right outside Fogarty’s with her worldly possessins tightly stacked around her: Just pass and shout Fogarty Bun Dung and she would let fly all types of descriptions of your mother and which parts of her anatomy you should go wash…..!!!! Glad someone remembered Bracer…He chased me once on the East Bank Road from Bagotstown to Ruimveldt …I saw him and shouted Bracer! Bracer! It was he on his Big Ben with red tires and me on my Hot Rod Constance Spracket with regular handles down turned.
    Of course there was the inimitable “Bundarie”: At that time GT’s most notable gay person. Political correctness was unheard of then so he/she was in essence of the time a auntie-man.
    Then there was the “Cricketer”; famous in Georgetown…stopped traffic with his solo cricket games…he would walk to the mark; wait on the umpire…all the while shining the ball on his ragged pants…run up…deliver and watched sadly as the ball went to the boundary…the next ball would be better spun and upon delivery he would jump min the air shouting the familiar cricket appeal..”UMPIRE!!!!!” Only thing is, we onlookers never saw the ball. Then he would reverse and bat…and you knew when he hit a four or when he was stealing runs because then he communicated with some other batsman that no one ever saw. And he was fair…after a good delivery from his imagined bowler he would look stumped , sad and surprised at being bowled out or even caught. …..AAAAh! Only if we had cell phones with cameras in dem days. This would have been real recorded theater. Hope you remember.

  • walter  On 04/18/2015 at 4:55 pm

    My wife reminded me of another guy/girl lived in Tiger Bay. Stole from her father, he was a good looking guy, when the cinema (pit) was full , for a small piece he would force himself into your desired seat, they leave you sit, he goes and start all over again. Cannot remember his name. Good times Good times.

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