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Remembering 'Reds'

It is ironic how I happened to meet the man we affectionately called "Reds." When I first met him, an image of the "Banana Man" came into mind. I am referring to the famous West Indian Poem, "The Banana Man." In the poem, an insensitive tourist approached a man selling bananas in a market place one day, and accused him of being a worthless man because of the way he looked. The poem is a classic in the sense that it justified the proverb; never judge a book by its cover.
The poem highlighted the encounter when the tourist said to the man, "Boy, get an occupation and be of some value to your nation." The banana man looked at the tourist who had cast up his eyes and turned up his nose. The banana man said defiantly, "Look at my old clothes browned with stain and soaked right through with the Portland rain. I have ten acres of land, five she goats and a big black ram. By God and this big right hand, you must recognize a Banana man!"
Well, I remembered a tall brown-skin man with gold-framed bifocal glasses. He had a deep baritone voice and was quick with gab. He was well versed in the politics of the day, and when his thick Trinidadian accent confronted you, an echo resonated in the back of your mind. It this context, you definitely had to recognize a self-made man—a traditional banana man! Because "Reds" exhumed such personality, there was no doubt that he was indeed a hard working man, but at the same time, a man who also enjoyed the spice of life with gusto.
When I first met him, I was a student at the College of the Virgin Islands living on the Thomas campus. At the time I had a Chase Manhattan Bank check for $25 given to me by the college for being the winner of its First Annual Black History Month Poetry Contest. My winning poem was entitled, "Black Woman."
I received the check late on a Friday afternoon. Now, living on campus in St. Thomas, I usually took weekend trips back home to visit my parents in St. Croix. These trips were easy via Antilles Airboat – usually on stand-by. At that time, students from the college could travel on a one-way ticket for only eleven dollars. I was so excited to have won the contest, feeling now I was a recognized poet, I wanted to show my parents the check and also make a photocopy of it for perpetuity.
I couldn't cash the check at a bank because the next day was Saturday and in those days banks did not open on a Saturday as some do today. Now, I had no idea about another place where I could have gotten my check cashed. I was disappointed realizing I would have no money to spend for the weekend. It was a tradition of mine, whenever I came back to St. Croix; I would find my "hungry self" in Bazsen Triangle at Golden Cow. It was my opinion that there was no other place in the entire Virgin Islands where you could get the best vanilla milk shake, the juiciest hamburger and the most delicious French fries for little or nothing. I was also looking forward for my favorite gooseberry ice cream from Mr. Armstrong in Sunny Isle. I was desperate. I needed my check cashed like yesterday. Where was I going to get it cash on a day like Saturday? I was a winner. I was certified a poet in college! I needed to celebrate with food!
There is a saying that a fool and his money are soon parted. Therefore, I wasn't going to lose this precious check by doing something stupid. Now, at this time I was living in Harvey Housing Project. It was a housing community built to accommodate those individuals and their families who were employees of Harvey Aluminum Plant. In retrospect, the housing community was (is) located in Estate Profit; the area locally called "Machuchal." It was – and still is – a multi-cultural area of Puerto Ricans along with those individuals who had emigrated from the islands.
In those days most of the "mom and pop" shops were locally owned and most where owned by long-term Puerto Rican families – today most of them have disappeared. Nevertheless, in my state of desperation, I walked around the neighborhood asking where I could get my check cashed. It so happened that I met a Trinidadian man who worked at the plant and knew "Reds." I asked him to direct me. He did. I found a small shop located almost at the end of the main road which is now a cross road to the Melvin Evans Highway and the ending of Queen Mary Highway going down to St. Croix Central High School. When I entered the shop I was skeptical in that I felt I might not get my check cashed. I had forgotten my I.D card.
The man called "Reds" was seated on a stool behind a cluttered counter of candies, papers and other unidentified objects. The shop was really a little convenient store. It looked as if you could have gotten anything you wanted—from baby food to Lifeboy soap. Inside the shop reminded me of a low-lighted overstuffed living room. As I walked up to the counter with my $25 check in my hand, Reds looked at me with a face carved from granite. He was frighteningly serious and there were reasons printed in his eyes magnified somewhat by his glasses. I was a little bit intimidated, but I was determined to get my $25 check cashed.
After saying "good afternoon," I handed Reds my check. He looked at the check for a while. He checked the back of the check, looked at me and then asked whose check it was. I said it was mine. He asked why I didn't sign it. He handed it back to me. I asked for a pen. He handed me the pen and I signed the check. He took it from me and studied the signature then asked for my I.D card. This was where my heart dropped to the floor. I wasn't going to get my check cashed! I politely explained to him the story behind the check. He looked at the check once more and read out the name— Winston Nugent. He smiled, which kind of puzzled me. Why was he smiling? That smile I kept in my wallet from that day on. Reds smiled because he recognized a similarity between us. You see, Reds saw that my first name was WINSTON just as his first name was WINSTON.
Winston "Reds" Francis cashed my $25 check all in one dollar bills. He looked at me and asked what was I studying in college. I told with some pride, PSYCHOLOGY. He said, "Oh, you want to be one a them smart fellows?" I said, "Not really." He then asked me if I know who was Shakespeare. I said, "Yes." He said Shakespeare was a poet just like me who died without a penny in his pocket and therefore what I should do was to study something that would make me man enough to take care of my family. He said that was a man's responsibility, to work and take care of his own family. He said to me that I should look at him. He explained how when he came to the Virgin Islands he had to start from scratch and how it was very hard to provide for his family until the day he decided he wasn't going to make any progress if he continued working for somebody else. He asked me if I wasn't going to buy anything from the shop? I said, "Sure!!" I bought a tangerine Brow soda—the real Brow soda.
The last time I saw "Reds" he was at a gas station filling up his boat. I had forgotten he was a popular fisherman in St. Croix. However, he wasn't going fishing; he was honoring his youngest daughter with a boat ride to Buck Island, something he often did as a leisure activity to get away from the trials and tribulations of his check cashing business. He loved the sea. He was a fisherman by heart. I think he should be buried at sea, just like they had buried the proud "Banana Man" on top of a hill overlooking his banana grove.
Editors note:We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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