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Where good folks meet

By Terry Joseph
November 19, 2004

Long before "Lorraine", Explainer's take on Carnival-related tabanca, the Mighty Sparrow diagnosed an identical condition as caused by yearning for loose women and liquor in the seminal "Wahbeen and Grog", best remembered by the line: "Charlotte Street, where all good folks meet."

Separated by two decades, both calypsoes cite Charlotte Street as a Port of Spain icon. For Sparrow, in addition to "wahbeen" and grog, "man beating pan" was on his mind. Explainer's verisimilitude identifies the steel orchestra to which Sparrow merely alluded, chanting its name throughout the final band-chorus of "Lorraine".

The steelband is, of course, Trinidad All Stars, for decades a Charlotte Street staple, long before Renegades took up residence, its Carnival Tuesday sailor band patronised by a mix of regulars and upscale types. Originally Rue Sainte Anne, Port of Spain's longest street was, in an out of the festive season, a meeting place for the best of folks, dating back to the 19th Century when it hosted the Governor's House and Town Hall.

On assuming governorship in 1897, Thomas Picton, wishing to protect the area's integrity, sent a clear message to bandits considering Charlotte Street easy pickings. He erected a gallows outside his official residence at the Marine Square (now Brian Lara Promenade) crossing; a significantly stronger statement than recent responses from the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association (DOMA) or the Port of Spain Corporation.

Whether the frequency with which Picton's gallows was activated or rarity of service indicates lasting value as a deterrent is not being debated here but for more than 170 years after its installation, Charlotte Street was anything but a hostile environment, although isolated mid-20th Century incidents like the shooting of "Li'l Drums" at Boysie Singh's Dorset Club and scandals arising from dalliances at The Garden of Eden or Ooh-La-La sporadically tainted its generally flattering descriptions.

After all, north of Park Street was Holy Name Convent, the Colonial Hospital, St Ann's Church of Scotland, the Fui Toong On Association and Royal and Pyramid theatres, the latter setting aside every Thursday to show Chinese-language movies, pandering to the heritage of inmates at a retirement home obliquely across the street, the elderly there needing no sub-titles.

A Chinese steelband started at Kuo Ming Tang Association on Charlotte Street, when its proprietor misconstrued "ping-pong" as table tennis, authorising Hamil Achim to recruit a "team" called Zone Stars which, it turned out, not only played ping-pong but doo-doop and iron as well. Ready to testify to these truths, Rosary Boys RC School still stands at the defining Park Street corner that once saw many a tramcar and trolleybus roll by.

South of the border, Charlotte Street was, from 1914, home to the Co-operative ("Penny") Bank, bargain outlets like the Matthieu family's Red Store, John O & Albert Thomas, the Stollmeyer's coffee, citrus and copra retail, Duverney's drugstore and the Laventille, San Juan, Belmont and Gonzales taxi stands; a city hub where good folks met for both functional purposes and a little ole-talk.

Every block had a Chinese restaurant. On the very strip currently viewed as perilous, Miss Vero handled cash without bodyguards at Ling Nam, next door to Chung Shan Association. The Prince Street intersection housed Tai San Yuen and at Queen Street, upstairs Lue Shue Grocery, was Nanking. The Central Market's fresh meat division opened onto Charlotte Street and further up were landmarks like Bonterre's Shoe Shop, Gilda's Café, Zachary Barber Saloon and Nagib Elias-for all kinds of leather, hardware, iron, cement, et cetera.

In short, Charlotte Street was historically hospitable to entire families.

At Carnival time, just south of Duke Street, Trinidad All Stars would quietly rehearse in the Maple Leaf Club garret, secretly honing its "bomb" tunes, preparing for Jouvert morning musical confrontation with Woodbrook-based Invaders Steel Orchestra and later, Forsyth Highlanders.

Now, this is not exactly ancient history. Trinidad All Stars moved from Maple Leaf Club in 1971, suggesting that as recently as two generations ago, it must have been still safe to walk Charlotte Street even at night as, with no hope of hearing notes being played by fingertips two floors above, good folks still met for speculative chat on the sidewalk below.

For this famous street to have degenerated to the point where the City Corporation is putting out pitifully apologetic press advertisements, cautioning pedestrians to remove jewelry and hide cash when walking there and DOMA calling for police posts at every corner is not so much acknowledgement of slippage or capitulation to banditry as it is an indictment against those who were supposed to be looking out for us and Charlotte Street all the while; ensuring it remained a place where good folks meet.

But then the brazen bandits who today prey on shoppers must be pretty adept at what they do, given the frequency with which these artful dodgers mystify law enforcement and, more astonishingly, escape by the same route each time.

This means they must be really good too, folks, which is probably why police only now seem prepared to meet them on Charlotte Street.

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