BY STEVE SLAVIN
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books.
Five volumes of his short stories have been published over the last seven years, but he expects that the pace will slow.
When someone tells you, “This is a true story,” you’d probably be right to assume that they’re lying through their teeth. So, I won’t blame you if you don’t believe a word of what you’re about to read…
In 1971, I made arrangements with the International Planned Parenthood Association to spend three months in Barbados, where I would study the work of the Barbados Family Planning Association. Barbados stood out among all the Caribbean nations in reducing its birth rate in recent years, and their great success appeared to be an excellent topic for my doctoral dissertation at New York University.
Like many American graduate students, I had shoulder length hair and a full beard. I often wore “conquistador shirts” with puffy sleeves, open to the navel, and a silver chain around my neck, anchored by an intricate silver peace medallion shaped like an upside-down letter “Y.”
Back then, passengers taking international flights out of Newark Airport often lined up on the tarmac before boarding. It was about seven on a beautiful May morning, with the sun well above the horizon. I was in a great mood, thinking that in another year or two, I would have “Doctor” placed before my name.
There was a very serious looking man in a business suit, carefully examining everyone in the line. When someone looked at least a little bit “off” to him, he would nod, and the person would step out of the line. Before his eyes fell on me, I stepped out of line on my own.
The man broke into a big grin, barely able to restrain himself from laughing. I was grinning too. We had had a complete meeting of the minds. After asking me a few perfunctory questions, he directed me to get back in line, calling after me, “Good luck with your research!”
I took this to be a very good omen. Having been up most of the night, I managed to catch a few hours of sleep on the flight. After changing planes in Puerto Rico, I finally arrived in Barbados in the early evening.
I spent my first night in a hotel -- a luxury no impoverished graduate student could afford for very long. The next day, I made my way to the headquarters of the Barbados Family Planning Association, located in the heart of Bridgetown, the nation’s capital.
Lionel Gilkes, the manager, warmly welcomed me, pronouncing that all of the BFPA’s data was at my disposal. Just across the way, some Canadian demographers, with newly minted PhDs, were at work on a cushy research project financed by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Lionel approached one of the young Bajan clerical workers and asked her if she would like to look at his “banana.”
She smilingly replied that she had no interest in tiny plantains. I had quickly gained an insight to the Island’s culture: Its social currency was dirty jokes. Suffice it to say that I had arrived well equipped.
Lionel was friendly with a major contributor to the BFPA, who rented me a small apartment for a very affordable rent. It was in Christ Church, just a four-mile bike ride from Bridgetown’s downtown.
I moved in that afternoon, and then went swimming at Accra Beach, which was within easy walking distance. A very friendly Australian expatriate, Bob, the proprietor of Bob’s Beach Shak, sold me a ten-year-old English racer for about twenty-five dollars, and I was now in business.
The title of my dissertation, although rather pretentious sounding, provides a good indication of the work I had cut out for myself: An Evaluation of the Economic Cost and Effectiveness of the Barbados Family Planning Association.
I got a tremendous head start by turning up every morning at the BFPA Headquarters and poring over their data. But I also needed data from half a dozen government departments, mainly from their annual reports. Mercifully, most were twenty or thirty pages of statistical tables, which only bureaucrats and impoverished doctoral students could appreciate.
The only problem was that some of the departments had fallen about seven years behind, so in 1971, the year of my visit, they would show me annual reports from around 1964. Very strange.
Still, most of the department heads, or their seconds-in-command, promised to provide me with more recent reports fresh off the press. I could pick these up before I went back to New York.
Another peculiar thing I noticed was that the Island’s television programming also seemed strangely out of date. At the time, there was just one TV channel serving the Island and, as I biked by homes, I often heard reruns of “I Love Lucy,” and “The Honeymooners.” I realized that anyone who wanted to catch up on fifties TV should move to Barbados.
Barbados is very small country, about fourteen miles wide at its widest point and twenty-one miles long. When I had been there for a few weeks, I arranged an interview with the Commissioner of Welfare, Clyde Gollup. He held two other government titles – which I can no longer recall – so we arranged to spend some of our time driving from one place to another.
Clyde was a very pleasant and easygoing man, and as we drove along in his open-air land rover, he was constantly waving to people he knew. Then, by way of explanation, he confided, “We live in a very small country.”
When we arrived at our destination, a child daycare center, we were greeted by two older women, and the four of us sat down at a card table outside the center. Clyde was there to accept a donation of toys from one of the center’s benefactors.
I had mentioned to Clyde that one of the jobs I held soon after college was with the New York City Department of Welfare. With very little training and no previous experience, newly minted “Social Investigators” visited the homes of welfare recipients, largely to ensure that their basic needs were being met and that they were paying their rent and utility bills.
To pass the time, I readily indulged in one of the country’s favorite social activities, telling my companions a series of dirty jokes. Soon we were all laughing uproariously. Meanwhile, a photographer was roving around taking pictures. The next day, two of her photos were displayed on the first page of The Advocate, the island’s four-page daily newspaper.
The caption below one photo was, “Welfare Commissioner Clyde Gollup receives toys for daycare center from (donor’s name).” The other photo caught me with my arms thrust into the air, laughing with my three companions, two of whom were identified as Assistant Commissioners of Welfare.
But more than that photo, what really caught my attention was the banner headline across the top of the page, “Welfare Expert Visits Island.” My first thought was of what my supervisor at the Welfare Department, Mrs. Cunningham, would have thought of the headline.
Perhaps, because Barbados was a very small country, the editors of The Advocate might have coined the motto, “All the news that could fit on four pages.” That would appear to be the only way to explain how an exchange of “Letters to the Editor” merited first-page banner headlines.
The summer of 1971 was quite memorable because of the release of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, a U.S. Defense Department official. An internally prepared a top-secret study of the history of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, this 7,000-page document was not just made public but was printed by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
A guy named Barret kicked off our debate with a long letter to the editor, attacking Ellsberg for revealing a top-secret document. The next day the great debate spilled over to the first page with my reply, which defended Ellsberg’s actions.
Back and forth we went for about a week. I can’t remember which of us quit first, but for the rest of my stay on the Island, The Advocate would remain silent on this issue. I’d like to think that just like the Lincoln-Douglas debates stand out in American history, the Island’s future historians will similarly recall the Barret-Slavin debates.
Within a few weeks after arriving, I had learned that Bajans considered themselves the most British of all the citizens in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Even more than the Jamaicans and the Guyanese – citizens of the former British Guyana – they revered their connection to the former Motherland. Indeed, Barbados certainly had its share of nobility, such as Sir Frank Knight and Lady Adams. Lionel Gilkes often proudly proclaimed he was a “Britisher.”
One day I insisted that I too had a touch of nobility.
“And what is that my friend?”
“My full name and title is Steve Slavin, OBE.” The Order of the British Empire is relatively low honor given to individuals not holding hereditary peerages.”
Lionel burst out laughing, and called then called over Mr. Gittens, a retired government official who had been pensioned off with what appeared to be a make-work clerical job.
“Did you hear that, Mr. Gittens?”
“Hear what?” he asked, cupping his ear.
“Our friend says that he is an OBE.”
The two of them enjoyed a good laugh over this. Then Mr. Gittens decided to lower the boom.
“Steve,” I may be just an old fool, but even I know they don’t give OBEs to people from Brooklyn.”
After Lionel finally stopped laughing, he invited me to join him and his good friend Zach in a nearby rum shop. Zach was a newspaper reporter from Guyana, and I was curious to get his take on Barbados.
An hour later, Zach and Lionel had more than a dozen empty beer bottles lined up in front of them, while I had three or four empty bottles of nonalcoholic ginger beer.
When I asked Josh about the stories he was working on, he explained that it was hard to keep track of all of them.
“How many stories are you working on.”
“I can’t believe that you can possibly be working on so many stories simultaneously.”
“That is an excellent observation. Perhaps the actual number is twenty-two.” I wondered if one of them was the Barrett-Slavin debate.
In the meanwhile, Lionel had been greeting every woman entering the rum shop – young or old – with the same question: “Can you tell me the definition of a ‘yarfoe?’” Invariably they would smile or even laugh, but no one took the bait.
After a while, Zach noticed my confused look and explained that a yarfoe was a rooster who serviced the hens. He laughed when he saw my “Ah hah!” expression, as it finally dawned upon me what Lionel was up to.
Finally, one young woman came into the shop, and Lionel asked her the question. She was smiling, and as patted him on the shoulder, she said that he was indeed a yarfoe. But sadly, he had gotten so old that he could not remember that he was.
Lionel stumbled to his feet, bowed to the young woman, and said, “Thank you! You have given me the best answer I have gotten all evening.”
I was very pleased with my visit so far, but I began to worry about getting up-to- date annual reports from the Department of Statistics and other government departments. The only organization that had had completely up-to-the- minute data was the Barbados Family Planning Association. That data was crucial to my dissertation, because I would be attempting to measure the effect of that organization on reducing the Island’s birth rate.
About ten days before I returned to New York, I made the rounds of the government departments that had promised me updated annual reports. The Minister of the Department of Statistics handed me a manila envelope, as did the Ministers of three other agencies.
When I got back to my apartment, I opened each envelope. And sure enough, each department had, as promised, provided me updated annual reports. In fact, I may have been holding the largest stash of 1965 annual reports on the entire island.
Every Saturday afternoon, I walked to Accra Beach and hung out with a bunch of other expatriates and some Bajans as well. Having been on the Island for three months, I was almost a regular at these gatherings. Toward the end of my stay, a woman who worked at the University of the West Industries invited to me to a lecture by the Barbados Ambassador to the Organization of American States.
It was scheduled the next Friday at eight p.m. and would be followed by a reception. I well knew by now that Friday night was the night that many people liked to drink.
I had not brought an extensive wardrobe from New York, but I did wear my favorite conquistador shirt. I hadn’t trimmed my hair or beard in at least six months, so I looked even more exotic than I had when I arrived on the Island.
I arrived halfway through the lecture, thoroughly drenched by an extremely heavy downpour. My friend got me a few towels, and by the time the reception began, the rum and beer were flowing freely. Because I had a relatively long bike ride home, I settled for ginger beer.
Finally, close to midnight, I coasted down the steep hill from the campus to the deserted two-lane highway, which I hoped would take me back to Bridgetown. The highway was unlit, and my bike light flashed no more than fifteen feet in front of me.
What if I had turned off the hill and had gone in the wrong direction? It was still drizzling, and I grew increasingly worried about ending up in the sugar cane fields.
But then, I began seeing an increasing number of lights. The rain was finally letting up. That had to be Bridgetown up ahead, so I knew I would get home in one piece.
After riding that distance, I noticed that my shirt, which was a bit too tight, had unbuttoned, and my peace medallion was in prominent display. I rode along, arms extended outward, with my palms up to feel the cool mist hanging in the air. I was in a great mood, very pleased with everything I had managed to accomplish on my dissertation research, while thoroughly enjoying myself on the Island.
Now I just needed to get my bearings and find the highway leading out to Christ Church. As I slowly rode through the streets of Bridgetown, I passed through one that looked very familiar.
It was the infamous Baxter’s Lane, lined with honkytonks, rum shops and bars. Hundreds of people, apparently quite inebriated, were hanging around on the sidewalks and out in the street. The only traffic was me on my bike.
I was still riding with no hands. My arms were still extended outward with my palms up, as I continued feeling the mist. Feeling a bit more adventurous, I even began to tilt my face upward, so that I could better embrace the mist.
And then, something very strange began to happen. People started pointing at me. Several people were making the sign of the cross. Some of them actually got down on their knees. All these poor souls were having this weird religious experience.
Suddenly, something behind me flashed so brightly that I could see my shadow on the pavement. Then, suddenly, I had vision. It was the front page of tomorrow’s Advocate.
There was a huge photograph of a man with long hair and a full beard. He was riding down Baxter’s Lane, his face tilted upward, arms stretched out to the side, his palms turned upward. The banner headline was just three words long: “Savior Visits Island.”