Zone Policeman 88
By Harry A. Franck
“The boss” and I initiated the Canal Zone Census that very night. Legally it was to begin with the dawning of February, but there were many labor camps in our district and the hours bordering on midnight the only sure time to “catch ’em in.” Up in House 47 I gathered together the legion paraphernalia of this new occupation,—some two hundred red cards a foot long and half as wide, a surveyor’s field notebook for the preservation of miscellaneous information, tags for the tagging of canvassed buildings, tacks for the tacking of the same, the necessary tack-hammer, the medium soft black pencil, above all the awesome legal “Commission,” impressively signed and sealed, wherein none other than our weighty nation’s chief himself did expressly authorize me to search out, enter, and question ad libitum. All this swung over a shoulder in a white canvas sack, that carried memory back through the long years to my newsboy days, I descended to the town.
“The boss” was ready. It was nearly eleven when we crossed the silent P. R. R. tracks and, plunging away into the night past great heaps of abandoned locomotives huddled dim and uncertain in the thin moonlight like ghosts of the French fiasco, dashed into a camp of the laborer’s village of Cunette, pitched on the very edge of the now black and silent void of the canal. Eighteen thick-necked negroes in undershirts and trousers gazed up white-eyed from a suspended card game at the long camp table. But we had no time for explanations.
“Name?” I shouted at the coal-hued Hercules nearest at hand.
“David Providence,” he bleated in trembling voice, and the great Zone questionnaire was on.
We had enrolled the group before a son of wisdom among them surmised that we were not, after all, plain-clothes men in quest of criminals; and his announcement brought visible relief. Twice as many blacks were sprawled in the two rows of double-sided, three-story bunks,—mere strips of canvas on gas-pipes that could be hung up like swinging shelves when not in use. Mere noise did not even disturb their dreams. We roused them by pencil-jabs in the ribs, and they started up with savage, animal-like grunts and murderous glares which instantly subsided to sheepish grins and voiceless astonishment at sight of a white face bending over them. Now and again open-mouthed guffaws of laughter greeted the mumbled admission of some powerful buck that he could not read, or did not know his age. But there was nothing even faintly resembling insolence, for these were all British West Indians without a corrupting “States nigger” among them. A half-hour after our arrival we had tagged the barracks and dived into the next camp, blacker and sleepier and more populous than the first. It was February morning before I climbed the steps of silent 47 and stepped under the shower-bath that is always preliminary, on the Zone, to a night’s repose.
A dream of earthquake, holocaust, and general destruction developed gradually into full consciousness at four-thirty. House 47 was in riotous uproar. No, neither conflagration nor foreign invasion was pending; it was merely the houseful of engineers in their customary daily struggle to catch the labor-train and be away to work by daylight. When the hour’s rampage had subsided I rose to switch off the light and turned in again.
The rays of the impetuous Panama sun were spattering from them when I passed again the jumbled rows of invalided locomotives and machinery, reddish with rust and bound, like Gulliver, by green jungle strands and tropical creepers. By day the arch-roofed labor-camps were silent and empty, but for a lonely janitor languidly mopping a floor. Before the buildings a black gang was dipping the canvas and gas-pipe bunks one by one into a great kettle of scalding water. But there are also “married quarters” at Cunette. A row of six government houses tops the ridge, with six families in each house, and—no, I dare not risk nomination to an ever expanding though unpopular club by stating how many in a family. I will venture merely to assert that when noon-time came I was not well started on the second house, yet carried away more than sixty filled-out cards.
More than two days that single row of houses endured, varied by nights spent with “the boss” in the labor-camps of Lirio, Culebra way. Then one morning I tramped far out the highway to the old Scotchman’s farm-house that bounds Empire on the north and began the long intricate journey through the private-owned town itself. It was like attending a congress of the nations, a museum exhibition of all the shapes and hues in which the human vegetable grows. Tenements and wobbly-kneed shanties swarming with exhibits monopolized the landscape; strange the room that did not yield up at least a man and woman and three or four children. Day after blazing day I sat on rickety chairs, wash-tubs, ironing-boards, veranda railings, climbing creaking stairways, now and again descending a treacherous one in unintentional haste and ungraceful posture, burrowing into blind but inhabited cubby-holes, hunting out squatters’ nests of tin cans and dry-goods boxes hidden away behind the legitimate buildings, shouting questions into dilapidated ear-drums, delving into the past of every human being who fell in my way. West Indian negroes easily kept the lead of all other nationalities combined; negroes blacker than the obsidian cutlery of the Aztecs, blonde negroes with yellow hair and blue eyes whose race was betrayed only by eyelids and the dead whiteness of skin, and whom one could not set down as such after enrolling swarthy Spaniards as “white” without a smile.
They lived chiefly in windowless, six-by-eight rooms, always a cheap, dirty calico curtain dividing the three-foot parlor in front from the five-foot bedroom behind, the former cluttered with a van-load of useless junk, dirty blankets, decrepit furniture, glittering gewgaws, a black baby squirming naked in a basket of rags with an Episcopal prayerbook under its pillow—relic of the old demon-scaring superstitions of Voodoo worship. Every inch of the walls was “decorated,” after the artistic temperament of the race, with pages of illustrated magazines or newspapers, half-tones of all things conceivable with no small amount of text in sundry languages, many a page purely of advertising matter, the muscular, imbruted likeness of a certain black champion rarely missing, frequently with a Bible laid reverently beneath it. Outside, before each room, a tin fireplace for cooking precariously bestrided the veranda rail.
Often a tumble-down hovel where three would seem a crowd yielded up more than a dozen inmates, many of whom, being at work, must be looked for later—the “back-calls” that is the bete-noire of the census enumerator. West Indians, however, are for the most part well acquainted with the affairs of friends and room-mates, and enrolment of the absent was often possible. Occasionally I ran into a den of impertinence that must be frowned down, notably a notorious swarming tenement over a lumber-yard. But on the whole the courtesy of British West Indians, even among themselves, was noteworthy. Of the two great divisions among them, Barbadians seemed more well-mannered than Jamaicans—or was it merely more subtle hypocrisy? Among them all the most unspoiled children of nature appeared to be those from the little island of Nevis.
“You ain’t no American?”
“Yes, ah is.”
“Why, you de bery furst American ah eber see dat was perlite.”
Which spoke badly indeed for the others, that not being one of the virtues I strive particularly to cultivate.
But “perlite” or not, there can be no question of the astounding stupidity of the West Indian rank and file, a stupidity amusing if you are in an amusable mood, unendurable if you neglect to pack your patience among your bag of supplies in the morning. Tropical patience, too, is at best a frail child. The dry-season sun rarely even veiled his face, and there were those among the enumerators who complained of the taxing labor of all-day marching up and down streets and stairs and Zone hills beneath it; but to me, fresh from tramping over the mountains of Central America with twenty pounds on my shoulders, this was mere pastime. Heat had no terrors for the enumerated, however. Often in the hottest hour of the day I came upon negroes sleeping in tightly closed rooms, the sweat running off them in streams, yet apparently vastly enjoying the situation.
Sunday came and I chose to continue, though virtually all the Zone was on holiday and even “the boss,” after what I found later to be his invariable custom, had broken away from his card-littered dwelling-place on Saturday evening and hurried away to Panama, drawn thither and held till Monday morning—by some irresistible attraction. Sunday turns holiday completely on the Zone, even to hours of trains and hotels. The frequent passengers were packed from southern white end to northern black end with all nations in gladsome garb, bound Panamaward to see the lottery drawing and buy a ticket for the following Sunday, across the Isthmus to breezy Colon, or to one of a hundred varying spots and pastimes. Others in khaki breeches fresh from the government laundry in Cristobal and the ubiquitous leather leggings of the “Zoner” were off to ride out the day in the jungles; still others set resolutely forth afoot into tropical paths; a dozen or so, gleaned one by one from all the towns along the line were even on their way to church. Yet with all this scattering there still remained a respectable percentage lounging on the screened verandas in pajamas and kimonas, “Old Timers” of four or five or even six years’ standing who were convinced they had seen and heard, and smelt and tasted all that the Zone or tropical lands have to offer.
Well on in the morning there was a general gathering of all the ditch-digging clans of Empire and vicinity in a broad field close under the eaves of the town, and soon there came drifting across to me at my labor, hoarse, frenzied screams; sounding strangely incongruous beneath the swaying palm-trees;
“Come on! Get down with his arm! Aaaaahrrr!”
But my time was well chosen. In the Spanish camps above the canal, still and silent with Sunday, men at no other time to be run to earth were entrapped in their bunks, under their dwelling-places in the shade, shaving, exchanging hair-cuts, washing workaday clothes, reminiscing over far-off homes and pre-migratory days, or merely loafing. The same cheery, friendly, quick-witted fellows they were as in their native land, even the few Italians and rare Portuguese scattered among them inoculated with their cheerfulness.
Came sudden changes to camps of Martiniques, a sort of wild, untamed creature, who spoke a distressing imitation of French which even he did not for a moment claim to be such, but frankly dubbed patois. Restless-eyed black men who answered to their names only at the question “Cummun t’appelle?” and give their age only to those who open wide their mouths and cry, “Caje-vous?” Then on again to the no less strange, sing-song “English” of Jamaica, the whining tones of those whose island trees the conquesting Spaniards found bearded—”barbados”—now and again a more or less dark Costa Rican, Guatemalteco, Venezuelan, stray islanders from St. Vincent, Trinidad, or Guadalupe, individuals defying classification. But the chief reward for denying myself a holiday were the “back-calls” in the town itself which I was able to check out of my field-book. Many a long-sought negro I roused from his holiday siesta, dashing past the tawdry calico curtains to pound him awake—mere auricular demonstration having only the effect of lulling him into deeper child-like slumber. The surest and often only effective means was to tickle the slumberer gently on the soles of the bare feet with some airy, delicate instrument such as my tack-hammer, or a convenient broom-handle or flat-iron. Frequently I came upon young negro men of the age and type that in white skins would have been loafing on pool-room corners, reading to themselves in loud and solemn voices from the Bible, with a far-away look in their eyes; always I was surrounded by a never-broken babble of voices, for the West Indian negro can let his face run unceasingly all the day through, and the night, though he have never a word to say.
Thus my “enumerated” tags spread further and wider over the city of Empire. I reached in due time the hodge-podge shops and stores of Railroad Avenue. Chinamen began to drift into the rolls, there appeared such names as Carmen Wah Chang, cooks and waitresses living in darksome back cupboards must be unearthed, negro shoemakers were caught at their stands on the sidewalks, shiny-haired bartenders gave up their biographies in nasal monosyllables amid the slop of “suds” and the scrape of celluloid froth-eradicators. Rare was the land that had not sent representatives to this great dirt-shoveling congress. A Syrian merchant gasped for breath and fell over his counter in delight to find that I, too, had been in his native Zakleh, five Punjabis all but died of pleasure when I mispronounced three words of their tongue. Occasionally there came startling contrast as I burst unexpectedly into the ancestral home of some educated native family that had withstood all the tides of time and change and still lived in the beloved “Emperador” of their forefathers. Anger was usually near the surface at my intrusion, but they quickly changed to their ingrown politeness and chatty sociability when addressed in their own tongue and treated in their own extravagant gestures. It was almost sure to return again, however, at the question whether they were Panamanians. Distinctly not! They were Colombians! There is no such country as Panama.
Thus the enrolling of the faithful continued. Chinese laundrymen divulged the secrets of their mysterious past between spurts of water at steaming shirt-bosoms; Chinese merchants, of whom there are hordes on the Zone, cueless, dressed and betailored till you must look at them twice to tell them from “gold” employees, the flag of the new republic flapping above their doors, the new president in their lapels, left off selling crucifixes and breastpin medallions of Christ to negro women, to answer my questions. One evening I stumbled into a nest of eleven Bengali peddlers with the bare floor of their single room as bed, table, and chairs; in one corner, surmounted by their little embroidered skull-caps, were stacked the bundles with which they pester Zone housewives, and in another their god wrapped in a dirty rag against profaning eyes.
Many days had passed before I landed the first Zone resident I could not enroll unassisted. He was a heathen Chinee newly arrived, who spoke neither Spanish nor English. It was “Chinese Charlie” who helped me out. “Chinese Charlie” was a resident of the Zone before the days of de Lesseps and at our first meeting had insisted on being enrolled under that pseudonym, alleging it his real name. Upstairs above his store all was sepulchral silence when I mounted to investigate—and I came quickly and quietly down again; for the door had opened on the gaudy Oriental splendor of a joss-house where dwelt only grinning wooden idols not counted as Zone residents by the materialistic census officials. On the Isthmus as elsewhere “John” is a law-abiding citizen—within limits; never obsequious, nearly always friendly, ready to answer questions quite cheerily so long as he considers the matter any of your business, but closing infinitely tighter than the maltreated bivalve when he fancies you are prying too far.
In time I reached the Commissary—the government department store—and enrolled it from cash-desk to cold-storage; Empire hotel, from steward to scullions, filed by me whispering autobiography; the police station on its knoll fell like the rest. I went to jail—and set down a large score of black men and a pair of European whites, back from a day’s sweaty labor of road building, who lived now in unaccustomed cleanliness in the heart of the lower story of a fresh wooden building with light iron bars, easy to break out of were it not that policemen, white and black, sleep on all sides of them. Crowded old Empire not only faces her streets but even her back yards are filled with shacks and inhabited boxes to be hunted out. On the hem of her tattered outskirts and the jungle edges I ran into heaps of old abandoned junk,—locomotives, cars, dredges, boilers (some with the letters “U. S.” painted upon them, which sight gave some three-day investigator material to charge the I. C. C. with untold waste); all now soon to be removed by a Chicago wrecking company.
Then all the town must be done again—”back calls.” By this time so wide and varied was my acquaintance in Empire that wenches withdrew a dripping hand from their tubs to wave at me with a sympathetic giggle, and piccaninnies ran out to meet me as I returned in quest of one missing inmate in a house of fifty. For the few laborers still uncaught I took to coming after dark. But West Indians rarely own lamps, not even the brass tax-numbers above the doors were visible, and as for a negro in the dark—
Absurd rumors had begun early to circulate among the darker brethren. In all negrodom the conviction became general that this individual detailed catechising and house-branding was really a government scheme to get lists of persons due for deportation, either for lack of work as the canal neared completion or for looseness of marital relations. Hardly a tenement did I enter but laughing voices bandied back and forth and there echoed and reechoed through the building such remarks as:
“Well, dey gon’ sen’ us home, Penelope,” or “Yo an’ Percival better hurry up an’ git married, Ambrosia.”
Several dusky females regularly ran away whenever I approached; one at least I came a-seeking in vain nine times, and found her the tenth behind a garbage barrel. Many fancied the secret marks on the “enumerated” tag—date, and initials of the enumerator—were intimately concerned with their fate. So strong is the fear of the law imbued by the Zone Police that they dared not tear down the dreaded placard, but would sometimes sit staring at it for hours striving to penetrate its secret or exorcise away its power of evil, and now and then some bolder spirit ventured out—at midnight—with a pencil and put tails and extra flourishes on the penciled letters in the hope of disguising them against the fatal day.
Except for the chaos of nationalities and types on the Zone, enumerating would have become more than monotonous. But the enumerated took care to break the monotony. There was the wealth of nomenclature for instance. What more striking than a shining-black waiter strutting proudly about under the name of Levi McCarthy? There was no necessity of asking Beresford Plantaganet if he were a British subject. Naturally the mother of Hazarmaneth Cumberbath Smith, baptized that very week, had to claw out the family Bible from among the bed-clothes and look up the name on the fly-leaf.
To the enumerator, who must set down concise and exact answers to each of his questions, fifty or sixty daily scenes and replies something like these were delightful;
Enumerator (sitting down on the edge of a barrel): “How many living in this room?”
Explosive laughter from the buxom, jet-black woman addressed.
Enumerator (on a venture): “What’s the man’s name?”
“He name ‘Rasmus Iggleston.”
“What’s his metal-check number?”
“Lard, mahster, ah don’ know he check number.”
“Haven’t you a commissary-book with it in?”
“Lard no, mah love, commissary-book him feeneesh already befo’ las’ week.”
“Is he a Jamaican?”
“No, him a Mont-rat, mahster.” (Monsterratian.)
“What color is he?”
“Te! He! Wha’ fo’ yo as’ all dem questions, mahster?”
“Oh, him jes’ a pitch darker’n me.”
“How old is he?”
(Loud laughter) “Law’, ah don’ know how ol’ him are!”
“Well, about how old?”
“Oh, him a ripe man, mah love, him a prime man.”
“Is he older than you?”
“Oh, yes, him older ‘n me.”
“And how old are you?”
“Te! He! ‘Deed ah don’ know how ol’ ah is; ah gone los’ mah age paper.”
“Is he married?”
(Quickly and with very grave face) “Oh, yes indeed, mahster, Ah his sure ‘nough wife.”
“Can he read?”
(Hesitatingly) “Er—a leetle, sir, not too much, sir.” (Which generally means he can spell out a few words of one syllable and make some sort of mark representing his name.)
“What kind of work does he do?”
(Haughtily) “Him employed by de I. C. C.”
“Yes, naturally. But what kind of work does he do. Is he a laborer?”
(Quickly and very impressively) “Laborer! Oh, no, mah sweet mahster, he jes’ shovel away de dirt befo’ de steam shovel.”
“All right. That ‘ll do for ‘Rasmus. Now your name?”
“Mah name Mistress Jane Iggleston.”
“How long have you lived on the Canal Zone?”
“Oh, not too long, mah love.”
“Since when have you lived in this house?”
“Oh, we don’ come to dis house too long, sah.”
“Can you read and write?”
“No, ah don’ stay in Jamaica. Ah come to Panama when ah small.”
“Do you do any work besides your own housework?”
(Evasively) “Work? If ah does any work? No, not any.”
Enumerator looks hard from her to washtub.
“Ah—er—oh, ah washes a couple o’ gentlemen’s clot’es.”
“Very good. Now then, how many children?”
“We don’ git no children, sah.”
“What! How did that happen?”
Loud, house-shaking laughter.
Enumerator (looking at watch and finding it 12:10): “Well, good afternoon.”
“Good evenin’, sah. Thank you, sah. Te! He!”
Variations on the above might fill many pages:
“How old are you?”
Self-appointed interpreter of the same shade; “He as’ how old is yo?”
“How old I are? Ah don rightly know mah age, mahster, mah mother never tol’ me.”
St. Lucian woman, evidently about forty-five, after deep thought, plainly anxious to be as truthful as possible: “Er—ah’s twenty, sir.”
“Oh, you’re older than that. About sixty, say?”
“‘Bout dat, sah.”
“Are you married?”
(Pushing the children out of the way.) “N-not as yet, mah sweet mahster, bu-but—but we go ‘n’ be soon, sah.”
To a Barbadian woman of forty: “Just you and your daughter live here?”
“Dat’s all, sir.”
“Doesn’t your husband live here?”
“Oh, ah don’t never marry as yet, sah.”
Anent the old saying about the partnership of life and hope.
To a Dominican woman of fifty-two, toothless and pitted with small-pox: “Are you married?”
(With simpering smile) “Not as yet, mah sweet mahster.”
To a Jamaican youth;
“How many people live in this room?”
“Three persons live here, sir.”
“I stand grammatically corrected. When did you move here?”
“We remove here in April.”
“Again I apologize for my mere American grammar. Now, Henry, what is your room-mate’s name?”
“Well, we calls him Ethel, but I don’t know his right title. Peradventure he will not work this evening [afternoon] and you can ask him from himself.”
“Do his parents live on the Zone?”
“Oh, yes, sah, he has one father and one mother.”
An answer: “Why HIMSELF [emphatic subject pronoun among Barbadians] didn’t know if he’d get a job.”
To a six-foot black giant working as night-hostler of steam-shovels:
“Well, Josiah, I suppose you’re a Jamaican?”
“Oh, yes, boss, ah work in Kingston ten years as a bar-maid.”
“No, boss, ah’s not ‘xactly married. Ah’s livin’ with a person.”
A colored family:
Sarah Green, very black, has a child named Edward White, and is now living with Henry Brown, a light yellow negro.
West Indian wit:
A shop-sign in Empire: “Don’t ask for credit. He is gone on vacation since January 1, 1912.”
Laughter and carefree countenances are legion in the West Indian ranks, children seem never to be punished, and to all appearances man and wife live commonly in peace and harmony. Dr. O—— tells the following story, however:
In his rounds he came upon a negro beating his wife and had him placed under arrest. The negro: “Why, boss, can’t a man chastize his wife when she desarves and needs it?”
Dr. O——: “Not on the Canal Zone. It’s against the law.”
Negro (in great astonishment): “Is dat so, boss. Den ah’ll never do it again, boss—on de Canal Zone.”
One morning in the heart of Empire a noise not unlike that of a rocky waterfall began to grow upon my ear. Louder and louder it swelled as I worked slowly forward. At last I discovered its source. In a lower room of a tenement an old white-haired Jamaican had fitted up a private school, to which the elite among the darker brethren sent their children, rather than patronize the common public schools Uncle Sam provides free to all Zone residents. The old man sat before some twenty wide-eyed children, one of whom stood slouch-shouldered, book in hand, in the center of the room, and at regular intervals of not more than twenty seconds he shouted high above all other noises of the neighborhood:
“Yo calls dat Eng-leesh! How eber yo gon’ l’arn talk proper lika dat, yo tell me?”
Far back in the interior of an Empire block I came upon an old, old negro woman, parchment-skinned and doddering, living alone in a stoop-shouldered shanty of boxes and tin cans. “Ah don’ know how ol’ ah is, mahster,” was one of her replies, “but ah born six years befo’ de cholera diskivered.”
“When did you come to Panama?”
“Ah don’ know, but it a long time ago.”
“Before the Americans, perhaps?”
“Oh, long befo’! De French ain’t only jes’ begin to dig. Ah’s ashamed to say how long ah been here” (just why was not evident, unless she fancied she should long ago have made her fortune and left). “Is you a American? Well, de Americans sure have done one thing. Dey mak’ dis country civilize. Why, chil’, befo’ dey come we have all de time here revolutions. Ah couldn’t count to how many revolutions we had, an’ ebery time dey steal all what we have. Dey even steal mah clothes. Ah sure glad fo’ one de Americans come.”
It was during my Empire enumerating that I was startled one morning to burst suddenly from the tawdry, junk-jumbled rooms of negroes into a bare-floored, freshly scrubbed room containing some very clean cots, a small table and a hammock, and a general air of frankness and simplicity, with no attempt to disguise the commonplace. At the table sat a Spaniard in worn but newly washed working-clothes, book in hand. I sat down and, falling unconsciously into the “th” pronunciation of the Castilian, began blithely to reel off the questions that had grown so automatic.
“Name?”-;-Federico Malero. “Check Number?”—”Can you read?” “A little.” The barest suggestion of amusement in his voice caused me to look up quickly. “My library,” he said, with the ghost of a weird smile, nodding his head slightly toward an unpainted shelf made of pieces of dynamite boxes, “Mine and my room-mates.” The shelf was filled with four—REAL Barcelona paper editions of Hegel, Fichte, Spencer, Huxley, and a half-dozen others accustomed to sit in the same company, all dog-eared with much reading.
“Some ambitious foreman,” I mused, and went on with my queries:
“Pico y pala,” he answered.
“Pick and shovel!” I exclaimed—”and read those?”
“No importa,” he answered, again with that elusive shadow of a smile, “It doesn’t matter,” and as I rose to leave, “Buenos dias, senor,” and he turned again to his reading.
I plunged into the jumble of negroes next door, putting my questions and setting down the answers without even hearing them, my thoughts still back in the clean, bare room behind, wondering whether I should not have been wiser after all to have ignored the sharp-drawn lines and the prejudices of my fellow-countrymen and joined the pick and shovel Zone world. There might have been pay dirt there. A few months before, I remembered, a Spanish laborer killed in a dynamite explosion in the “cut” had turned out to be one of Spain’s most celebrated lawyers. I recalled that EL UNICO, the anarchist Spanish weekly published in Miraflores contains some crystal-clear thinking set forth in a sharp-cut manner that shows a real inside knowledge of the “job” and the canal workers, however little one may agree with its philosophy and methods.
Then it was due to the law of contrasts, I suppose, that the thought of “Tom,” my room-mate, suddenly flashed upon me; and I discovered myself chuckling at the picture, “Tom, the Rough-neck,” to whom all such as Federico Malero with his pick and shovel were mere “silver men,” on whom “Tom” looked down from his high perch on his steam-shovel as far less worthy of notice than the rock he was clawing out of the hillside. How many a silent chuckle and how many a covert sneer must the Maleros on the Zone indulge in at the pompous airs of some American ostensibly far above them.