I have become convinced that the Jamaican stop light is in many ways a microcosm of the Jamaican society. Now that the Olympics euphoria is waning (and please don't label me a doomsayer, I am a realist), as a nation in crisis we need to come to terms with our major faults, one of which is indiscipline emboldened by a high level of intolerance.
Breaking the stop light is a major national pastime. It is the macho thing to do: “Get out of the way, you wimp!” Amber means accelerate with much gusto. And if red is on and the way is clear, why wait? Statistically, it should be interesting to know how many mishaps occur at stop lights. Numerous, no doubt.
Then there are the morons who at the very moment that the light changes to green they honk their horns in a most aggressive manner. And if you hesitate after such an unexpected cacophony, the impatient driver behind you manages to edge past you, all the while hurling at you some choice “bad words” as well as telling you that you are an idiot. I well recall this elderly woman driver who inadvertently crashed into the back of the vehicle in front of her after a truck driver behind her blared his horn so menacingly after the lights changed to green sending her into a state of panic.
In the meantime, my heart-stopping experiences at stop lights in Montego Bay have sufficiently convinced me that we need to introduce jaywalking legislation in this country. Most pedestrians disobey the stop-light signals totally, just sauntering across the road and daring the unsuspecting motorist to “lick me nuh, if you think you bad”! I well recall driving through a green light when this pregnant young woman with a baby on her arm just lumbered seemingly aimlessly into the street. When I tooted my horn, she simply stared at me defiantly and went on her merry way as I braked frantically.
Incidentally, the National Works Agency needs to revisit some of the traffic-light arrangements in Montego Bay, as in some cases the sequences are detrimental to both pedestrians and motorists. There is one particular intersection at Church and St James streets where the light signalling pedestrians to cross comes on at the same time when motorists are given the green light! If this is not a recipe for tragedy, you tell me! And this scenario has been there for a long time. The end result is that pedestrians and motorists continue to compete with each other. Luckily, there have been no fatalities so far, but if this situation is allowed to continue, then as my late mother would say ominously, “Any number can play.”
Stop lights are the favourite haunts for newspaper vendors as well as various other purveyors of goods (and even services) who sell “from a pin to an anchor”. There are also the beggars who have been on the increase, not to mention the mentally insane, some of whom can be most hostile. The most frequent stop-light hustler, however, is the perennial windscreen wiper. These are unemployed or out-of-school young men who seek to make a living by wiping windshields. Some of them are very courteous and will back off if the motorist indicates that he or she is not interested in having his or her windshield cleaned. But there are the aggressive ones who wipe your windshield whether you like it or not, then demand to be paid. And if they are not rewarded, you are likely to be subject to verbal abuse and even threat of physical harm. Usually, it is the drug addicts who become most offensive and dangerous.
One of the most shocking experiences I had was when I paused at a stop-light intersection several months ago on my way from Kingston to Montego Bay. A boy who looked about 10 to 12 years old approached my vehicle and told me that he was very hungry and asked if I could give him some money to buy food. I did not have any coins or available cash to give him, so I said to him very politely and sincerely, “I am so sorry, son, but I can't help you.”
His immediate response was “Go s..k you mumma!” I was so shocked I could not move off when the light turned green. An irate and impatient motorist behind me honked his horn and ordered me to “take my what's it warra-it out of the way”. Even while I concurred, I was still befuddled as to why that boy had been so rude and out of order. At one stage I even wondered if because I spoke in perfect English he might have thought that I was insulting him. From then on, whenever I encounter such a crisis, I make sure to respond in the language of the streets, “Bwoy, you want see me nuh have nutten pan me enuh, so jus’ cool.” And the answer usually is, “Awright, pops (or dads), everyting cool.”
But I will never forget the angry face of that boy because it reminds me rather forcefully that there are so many like him who are hungry, most times fatherless, living a life without hope and direction. Yes, the same nation that has nurtured a Usain Bolt has also spawned such an individual who might well be destined to become a conman and a gunman.
My latest stop-light shocker came recently when another boy who looked about 14 years old knocked on my car window well after midnight. Hesitatingly, I lowered the window and he quickly said to me, “Sir, you want a nice young girl to go home with you?” pointing to a little miss huddled in a dark corner, “Anything you want,” he shouted as I sped off in shock and awe.
Jamaica is at a crossroads. At 50, it is time for “on your marks, get set” but are we ready to go to the finishing line of socio-economic progress? Olympic medals alone will not do it.
Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica.