April 15, 2011

Ben Johnson Day


Ben Johnson Day
by Ricky Ginsburg

In Jamaica, the Thursday before payday is known as "Ben Johnson Day". On that day, most wallets contain nothing but faded photos and throughout the tropical island paradise, bellies are grumbling in disgust. Despite the anguish of knowing they'll be going to bed hungry that night, everyone dreams softly, as there is victory in the new sunrise and feasting to come on Friday, once paychecks are converted to cash.

Why my great-grandfather, Benjamin Xavier Johnson, was given the dubious honor of having the worst day of the week named for him has everything to do with why I'm stuck twenty feet up this coconut tree with an angry pit bull at the base. But it's best that I tell his story first. Mrs. Miller, who owns both the tree and the dog, must have taken her hearing aid out and I fear it may be a while before it will be safe to come down.

* * *

Great-grandfather Johnson was born on Christmas Eve, 1876 - a Thursday - the first boy to grace the nursery in the new hospital in Kingston, opened to great fanfare earlier that day. A normal birth by all accounts: ten fingers, ten toes, and a wail that shook the bones of every cadaver in the morgue, four floors below. Yet it was his deep emerald-colored eyes that were the talk of the hospital for weeks, long past the day and a half he spent there. Every nurse in the hospital, every doctor, intern, janitor, and clerk managed to find time to look in on my great-grandfather before he went home. Legend has it that when the lights in the nursery were turned off, you could see a dull green glow, as though two fireflies were hovering over his face. However, the coin sat resting on its edge - half the folks who saw him said the fires of Hell burned within and the other half said it was the weirdest thing they'd ever seen, but what a cute baby, indeed!

The earliest photograph of great-grandfather, taken when he was a young teen around 1890, show him on the porch of the house where he lived his entire life. He's seated with his mother and two older brothers who, as the family bible so deftly describes, "Set out to sea in de eye of God's anger with nary but a keg of rum and nevah return." I had assumed at first glance that the photo must have been taken by his father, but later learned that no one knew the true identity of the male side of the equation.

Growing up in Jamaica without a proper role model and losing half his family before he was fifteen left my great-grandfather more scarred than a sugar cane field after the harvest. But he never let the pain show, at least not in public. There were joyous spirits that moved Ben Johnson and imbued him with the soul of the court jester. However, great-grandfather's sense of humor was the same as the fruit of the Ackee tree - sweet on the outside yet dark and venomous at its core.

It was nothing but wicked fun that inspired Ben Johnson to loosen the bolts of a wagon wheel and place bets with his friends to see how far the cart would travel before spilling its cargo when the wheel slipped off. He'd slink into the water from his boat when other fisherman were distracted and tie their lines together underwater. Once a half-dozen nets were linked, Ben would rope them to his gunwale and row back toward shore. Of course, he wouldn't get far before he had to cut them free, but the howling laugh that exploded from his mouth, watching the men untangle the nets, could be heard for miles across the open sea. If it really was the devil looking out through great-grandfather's eyes, he had a helluva sense of humor.

* * *

However, even Satan slips on a banana peel now and then.

* * *

My great-grandfather had been hauled in to visit with the local Magistrate so often that he'd had the time to carve his name into a chair in the courthouse - first, middle, and last. The same courthouse where he met and married great-grandmother, all in one day - a Thursday.

Ben was arrested for stealing a case of rum from a warehouse on the pier where he worked, loading and unloading merchant vessels. In truth, so the family bible reveals, "Was from a pile of ten cases that the white foreman stole. Him see da witness and give a bribe." Of course, when the inventory was counted and the actual shrinkage made known to the dock master, everyone assumed Ben had already consumed or sold the other nine.

Nonetheless, great-grandfather was promptly transported to his reserved seat at the courthouse and charged with the theft. As this was a more heinous offense than letting a goat loose in the Myrtle Bank Hotel or stuffing dead tree frogs in the holes at the new golf course where they wouldn't let him caddy, Ben Johnson faced serious prison time if convicted. As fortune would have it, devilish intervention for the naysayers, there were witnesses to the bribe that the foreman had overlooked. Two sailors from the HMS Dingworthy, one white - the ship's chaplain - and the other black - the ship's cook - were looking down on both the bribe and the subsequent arrest the next day. The sailors followed the police wagon to the courthouse and convinced the constable holding great-grandfather of the mistake that had been made.

Now, you would think any smart eighteen-year-old who gets that kind of a break is going get in the wind. Well, that was not Ben Johnson's style.

* * *

The courthouse was jammed with a collection of torn shirts, ragged pants with ropes for belts, and bare feet mixed in with long-tailed suits, powdered wigs, and fine leather boots. The prisoners - all black - were mostly men and boys, but there were a few women there, as well.

Great-grandfather slid his chair to the back corner of the stifling hot courtroom, directly in line with an open window and its humid breeze. The Magistrate, whose name escapes me, was hearing the case of a girl, who looked to be close to great-grandfather in age. Even from the back of a crowded courtroom, he could see she had the face of angel when she turned and looked anxiously around.

Ben closed his whittling knife and hushed a couple of small boys shoving each other off a single seat next to him.

Her name was Natasha and she stood accused of stealing vegetables from a local market.

"You were captured holding a bushel basket full of produce," the Magistrate read from the docket, "leaving the market without paying." He looked down at the girl and scowled. "Stealing a man's livelihood is a serious crime. What do you have to say for yourself?"

The girl's eyes drifted to the floor and she whispered a few indistinguishable words. The Magistrate leaned toward her and asked, "What did you say?"

"I didn't… I don't… I…"

Ben Johnson stood up and waved his hand. "My lord, Mistah Magistrate, sah, my wife did not pay because I have de money." And with that, great-grandfather walked to the front of the courtroom, put his arm around the girl's waist, and looked up at the judge. "She forgot to take it wit her when she go to de market." Reaching into his pocket, great-grandfather pulled out a couple of crumpled bills and handed them to the constable standing next to the bench.

A deep furrow formed above the Magistrate's bushy eyebrows. "Benjamin, you're married?"

"Yes, sah." Ben turned toward the girl and grinned. "Recently."

The Magistrate took the cash from the officer and counted the bills. Stuffing the money into a pocket of his robe, he slammed his gavel on the block and declared, "Case dismissed."

Great-grandfather and the girl walked hand-in-hand from the courtroom without a word.

* * *

The next entry in the family bible says they were married by the Justice of the Peace before sundown that day, but it fails to mention what happened between the trip from and then back to the courthouse. I could speculate, but suffice it to say if it didn't happen, you wouldn't be reading this today.

* * *

So, here's Ben Johnson, newly married to a wife who brings beauty, obviously some skill in the bedroom, and the clothes on her back. There's no mention of great-grandmother's heritage, something I can only assume she probably thought best to forget, but her being as destitute as a discarded newborn is clearly mentioned in the good book. Ben now has to support her, his mother, and himself on the same meager salary. A weaker man might have run and hid in the hills. However, great-grandfather put his feet to the cobblestones, working as many long hours as possible, sometimes sleeping for only an hour, just before dawn, on the crates at the pier.

And then along comes fortune, again, looking Ben right in the green glassies, and dumps Mister Thomas Spencer, on expedition from Yorkshire, England, right into my great-grandfather's lap. For those of you unfamiliar with Mister Spencer, he and a chap named Marks, had recently opened a chain of clothing stores that would one day span the globe. Mister Spencer had spent the last three weeks in Jamaica and was rushing to board his ship for the voyage home.

Crossing the quay, he spotted great-grandfather and walked over to him, a banknote in one hand.

"Excuse me, but I'm interested in purchasing some of that wonderful coffee you grow here." Mister Spencer handed the money to Ben.

"Well, sah, you come to de right place." Great-grandfather smiled at the man, unfolding the bill and smoothing out the edges. "I am de farmer." He waved his hands over the burlap sacks, piled on both sides of where he stood.

"All of this produce is yours?" Holding his chin with one hand, Thomas Spencer pointed at one of the piles with the other. "How much for that entire load?"

The price of Blue Mountain coffee was no secret to the men who loaded it or any other product on the pier. Ben did the math quickly in his head, holding his breath just long enough to avoid laughing. "Dat's a whole bundle of cash, mon."

"How much?"

"Well…," great-grandfather looked around the pier and nodded. "It was sold already, but you wanna make me better offer, we can talk."

* * *


* * *

Again, not everything that happened was documented in writing, but I can tell you for certain, that a fat wad of cash changed hands. However, I don't know if the coffee ever got delivered to the right ship, or if Mister Thomas chalked it up as just another cost of doing business, but Ben Johnson suddenly had more money than some of the white folk living in Kingston.

What to do with all that cash? Put it in a safe place was great-grandfather's first thought, but where? There were doors and windows on his mother's house where he lived, but no one owned a lock. The bank where he cashed his paycheck each Friday had a large vault, but how would he explain all that money if someone asked? And what about his new wife? Ben and Natasha had only been married a few weeks; could he trust her?

Apparently not, as the last of the money, found the day after he died, had a note tied to the sack, which asked that it all be given to his wife if he was dead.

My great-grandfather hid the money in the hills outside of Kingston. His bank - a watertight sack he took from a warehouse on the pier - paid no interest and never came under the scrutiny of the local tax collector. But it provided ready cash, taken in small, unremarkable chunks, as needed.

Ben Johnson bought his wife a new stove and his mother, now permanently confined to bed, a new mattress. For himself, great-grandfather purchased a pair of fine leather workman's boots and wore them sometimes even when he slept. In the bars by the quay, he was always the first to pick up the tab or to buy a stranger a cold beer. When the butcher gave him a choice of meats, Ben never failed to select the best of the lot.

Slowly, discreetly, my great-grandfather made his life better in a place where just a single generation before he would have been born a slave. His own handwriting in the family bible says, "De money like manure, don't do no good til it spread around."

* * *

Unfortunately, money has a voice of its own and in short order, news of Ben Johnson's generosity covered the landscape from Harbour Street to Crossroads. Friends he never knew he had would offer to help him lift a heavy crate at the pier and then wait for a tip. One guy, who worked at the far end of the quay, walked over and gave Ben the right hand from a pair of gloves he was wearing. The neighbor who shared only the bananas with brown spots gave Natasha half a stalk of fresh green ones.

Great-grandfather offered no explanation to anyone, including his wife. He broke down the large bills Mister Spencer had given him at a counting house by Victoria Garden, waiting until a few minutes before lunchtime and using the same teller; one he'd slipped a bottle of rum to on his first visit. In this way he could dole out banknotes in the smallest denominations, keeping as many of his new friends happy as possible.

Ever now and again, Ben would give one of the original large notes to a total stranger, just to see the man struggle with the money when he went to use it. Few black-owned businesses did a volume of sales that gave them enough on-hand cash to make change. And watching the skittishness the stranger danced with as he would peer into the white-owned shops, gave enough joy to great-grandfather that he kept a running tally of the most number of tries it would take before success. The highest number, seventeen if I recall correctly, read, "Him trow de money on de ground an start walkin away. Then turn back and pick it up. Fancy clothes store next to de hotel give him change. Good ting him pick it up."

* * *

As word of Ben Johnson's mysterious cash supply spread, he found it hard to work. His co-workers at the dock would point him out to strangers and the next thing Ben knew, there was a crowd of people surrounding him, all with their hands out.

Neighbors would bang on the door of his house at dinnertime, asking for help with paying down a debt or lending them some money to put food on their table. On his way to work, six days a week, children would march behind him, waiting for some loose bills to fall from my great-grandfather's pocket. Storekeepers who knew him refused to give him change when he bought something, asking why he needed money back when he had so much to give away. Even stray dogs lay down in his path, rolling onto their backs and thinking perhaps they too were included in Ben's largesse.

Several times he was accosted at night on his way home by robbers trying to both pry what cash was left at the end of the day and where the balance of the stash was hidden. But great-grandfather could do much more than whittle with his knife and several would-be bandits bore scars carved by his hands. Add to that the sheer strength in his arms from years of lifting heavy cargo and tossing massive rope lines around; Ben Johnson had little to fear from most men his size.

* * *

Regardless of the robbers, beggars, and strays, it was becoming harder for great-grandfather to sneak up to hills and retrieve money when he needed it. People would camp out around his house, waiting for him to leave. It got so bad that Ben would go only when it was pouring rain. (Which, of course, is a fairly regular event on this island.) Once, the family bible notes, "I go up dem hills in rain so strong dat it keep washin me back down ten step for every one I take to go up."

The worst of it was, Ben began to notice everyone but himself working less, spending his money, and enjoying life far more than he. They slept while he spent restless nights wondering if the stash was secure, if bandits were going to come through the windows, or if some constable was waiting to lean on him at the appropriate moment for a bit of added income.

So he stayed away from the money. Forced himself and his family to live on the salary he earned at the docks and to discourage the beggars, always walked with his pockets turned out. But it was too late. His tastes had changed, his diet that was once happy with stew bones now required tenderloin. Natasha, sixth months pregnant with my grandfather, wanted to move to a larger house. Even his mother complained that the new mattress had developed some hard spots.

Ben Johnson had no choice, he resumed his trips to the hills, but only once a week - very late on Wednesday night. Why that particular night, you ask? By 1900, crime in Jamaica, especially that committed by youth gangs, was on the rise. The regional Magistrate (whose name I still can't remember) had imposed a midweek curfew to try to get the situation under control. My great-grandfather took advantage of the nearly empty streets to make his trek safely up to the hills.

Thus, by Thursday afternoon, Ben's outturned pockets were now shoved back in and filled with small bills, as they had been for many months before. And while strangers no longer came around, begging for a handout, Ben Johnson would still be the first man to pull a few banknotes from his pocket and pass them around to his co-workers at the pier. Hardworking men who by Thursday afternoon had no money of their own to make it through the night to payday. Broke from keeping their families alive, hungry mouths fed, and crying babies silent, it was Ben's charity that gave them all pleasant dreams on that one dreadful night they all suffered in common.

Six days a week, great-grandfather woke up in the morning and flapped out his pockets, but one day each week, everyone knew they'd be tucked in. And so it was that Thursday, in Kingston, Jamaica, became known as Ben Johnson's Day around the docks, a day when either a very lucky man passed out money from some mysterious pot of gold or a green-eyed devil paid his due. And as the name spread around the island, everyone adopted it in the hope that a Ben Johnson would arise in their town and cover the wretched day with paper sunshine.

Over the years, almost everyone has forgotten who my great-grandfather was or what he did for his friends, but his name will always be tagged to the Thursday before payday and Jamaicans everywhere in the world will own calendars that show the fifth day of the week as Ben Johnson Day.

* * *

Mrs. Miller just ran out of her house and is calling her pit bull to let me come down from this coconut tree. What was I doing to get into this predicament? It's a shortcut to get to the bank. Today is Thursday and I was on my way to cash a check to tide me over until payday. Her dog is always chained, leaving a clear path across her lawn, but someone unhooked the chain from the dog's collar. Someone with devilish green eyes, I'll bet.

* * *

Ricky Ginsburg is one of those writers who sees a flock of birds heading south for the winter and wonders what they talk about on their journey. His portfolio consists of over 200 short stories, half of which have found their way into various magazines, both paper and electronic, and four novels, as yet unpublished. While much of his writing has elements of magical realism and humor, he also has a serious side, but keeps it in a small plexiglass box under his desk.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories? I could say they just pop up in my head, but I doubt anyone would believe me. Really, they just pop up in my head.

What inspires you to write and keep writing? The belief that I will one day be famous again.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story? A basis in fact.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre? A need to believe that the past wasn't all it was cracked up to be and that a good writer can change history to suit his or her needs.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers? Write as much as you can before you become history.


Karl Washwick said...

A really good story

TheAinzlee said...

Loved the story! Will definitely read more of them....

Lincoln Oliver said...

You are an awesome writer and you made the story very vivid...I'd love to see more of your work

Stansteadgirl1 said...

Having heard the expression Ben Johnson day and now read a very well written story I shall look into the author more. Keep up the good work