It had been a year and a half since the passing of my girlfriend’s Mother. Her Mother, Minerva Johnson Reis, was born, raised, and educated in Accra Ghana, West Africa, and in her later years she would often speak and reminisce about Ghana, the ocean, her neighborhood, and family. Shola, my girlfriend, and her sister, Lola, always dreamed about buying a house for their Mother and having her return to Ghana, but health and time won the race, so it was their collective mission along with their Father, John Reis to bring their Mother’s ashes back to Ghana where she would rest in peace next to her Father at the same cemetery. The idea of having her buried in Houston Texas, her American home for the past 35 years was a non starter. It took herculean efforts to arrange this ceremony through distant family member’s Shola and her sister may have met briefly in passing at one time, or not at all. The four of us and Lola’s close friend, Deanna, made the journey to Ghana, for two weeks. None of us had ever been to the African Continent, with the exception of Shola and Lola’s Father, John. We didn’t know what to expect and Shola and Lola’s nerves were on edge because they were never certain if anyone of their family members had followed through with their concerns and arrangements, like where we would be staying as one example. The whole process at times, felt like a crap shoot. But Shola, Lola, and their Father were determined to return their Mother to her home. Our flight to Ghana from JFK was ten hours, and a very smooth flight. I sat by the window, and I was excited to see the landscape of a continent I’d never experienced before as we made our final approach. I’d read a few things about Ghana and Accra Ghana briefly on the internet and watched a few YouTube videos. I knew from Shola, engaging with her Mother, and from people I know who spent time in Ghana that Ghanaian’s are extremely trusting and friendly by nature, and emphasize education on their children, which became plainly evident during our stay. Ghana is a country about the size of Michigan with nearly three times the population at 24 million. It is situated on the West coast of Africa where the African coastline distinctively elbows in Eastward. The coastline of Ghana runs East West and it took me time to get my bearings straight. Ghana is sandwiched in between The Ivory Coast on its western border and Togo on its eastern border. Accra, its capital, and most populated city, is situated right on the coast. Whenever I’m on an ocean I tend to think I’m facing either East or West, but on the Ghanaian coast, one is facing south to what is called the Gulf of Guinea, which is an indentation Eastward of the Atlantic Ocean. Two minutes after walking on the Tarmac we were greeted by a tropical downpour which lasted about 10 minutes. The air had a sweetness to it, slightly humid along with with a good breeze. We made it through customs and soon we were injected into urban city life in Ghana. We had stacked our luggage on various luggage carts and proceeded to the exit. As we walked down the long terrazzo ramp towards the exit and parking lot, I was greeted by what I thought was a baggage handler. He had a beautiful African smile; he shook my hand and softly said “Welcome to Ghana.” He then proceeded to handle my cart. I was instantly taken by his soft voice and gentle way. We all had made it right next to the exit where Shola’s Aunt, Auntie Naomi, was expecting us. Before I could say hello to her, I suddenly had 5 kind soft spoken smiling baggage handlers welcoming us to Ghana. They were gathering around me like pigeons. Being seasoned in NYC, I now realized these fine fellows all wanted to handle our luggage and all of them wanted some money. My instincts kicked in and I knew this bartering would be a constant. (Admittedly, I actually watched someone talk about it on YouTube). I set my budget at 5 CD’s = $2.00 U.S (Ghanian Dollars pronounced >see dee’s ) for everyone of these episodes I may encounter. I had done calculations on the plane and 5 CD’s had the same purchasing power as $5.00 U.S so it was quite simple. Five bucks or Ghanaian CD’s was a decent tip and once your money was converted, it was a simple process free of guilt such as; ‘Is this too little or too much?’ Auntie Naomi had a home in San Francisco, but spent 6 months of the year in Ghana, were she planned to live permanently now that she was retired. Naomi was now fending off all the gentlemen suitors of our luggage as we made it out to the parking lot. Without the guidance of Auntie Naomi during our visit, we would have been at a loss with everything and everyone. She made it easy and we were incredibly lucky and grateful for this. We made it to the cars that were awaiting our collective transportation over to the family house. At this point, trying to take in the visual aspects of a new land became secondary to ridding ourselves of the swarm of baggage paparazzi that had formed around us. Not one of them is there to steal anything, they wouldn’t consider it, and this struck me as somewhat unique. They just wanted a buck or two to get by, and they were as persistent as hell, but also polite as hell, which made it all that harder to tell them, “Look, I don’t need ten guys to handle this, no..no thanks, sorry, no , please!” Shola’s Father and I gave them some money and we all climbed in our overstuffed SUV’s. Shola’s full name is Olushola ( oh loushola) and her sister Lola’s full name is Ololade ( oh loladay ) these are Nigerian names as John , their Father, is Nigerian. I mention this because, I found the Ghanaians have a wide array of names, some truly African, like Kuame and Naomi. Others names more symbolic , like Prosper, ( Our Driver ) or Pearl, ( Our Housekeeper where we stayed) and other names which reflect America in the 1950’s at a malt shop or a team of construction workers from the Union local 20 like , Duke, Eddie, or Ray. Shola, Lola, myself, and Naomi hopped into Cousin Eddie’s SUV. John and Deanna road along in Cousin Duke’s Truck with extended cab. I finally had time to observe our surroundings. Obviously we were in a developing country and things weren’t manicured or polished like they were in the states, but this didn’t faze me, in some ways it reminded me of certain areas of Rome. The airport and surrounding area had people walking on foot everywhere, which I thought was natural since we were by the airport, but I later realized this was a densely populated place where many people got around on foot. I was admiring the many African women I saw caring something atop their head to sell to the people in cars. Their backs straight with beautiful arched backs and square shoulders, their gates relaxed while carrying large baskets on their heads that held what I deemed on average to be 20 lbs or more and 16” in diameter. Aided by their natural skill and technique, these baskets never slipping from the spiral tourniquet that is placed atop their head for cushioning which simultaneously creates a foundation for the basket to remain somewhat plumb at all times. Cousin Eddie, our host driver, reached over to turn on the radio. I was somewhat excited at this moment. Here I was, in Ghana Africa for the first time, and I was ready to listen to some Ghanaian music with its hip rhythms and melodies, but Eddie happened to be a country music lover, but more specifically, he was an aficionado of old time cowboy music. I was taking in my virgin African imagery of multi colored shirts , dresses, not one person looking like me, street vendors on every road, every 8 feet, and experiencing it along with a musical score of dear Cousin Eddie singing along to the cowboy styling’s of Jim Reeves and Slim Whitman that were part of his driving collection. If this were an opening scene to a movie, the Cohen brother’s or Tarantino couldn’t have written a better introduction. I looked over at Shola and her sister, smiling, musing and said, “So this is how you roll Ghanaian style, with some good ole righteous cowboy music.” This gave them a laugh. “You like country music Eddie?” I asked, He proudly looked over his shoulder back in my direction and gave that confident nod with grin. It was slow, relaxed, and deliberate. A nod that said, “Yeah man, this is how I roll, not bad huh?” I continued, “And you know all the lyrics to these tunes?” He again replied with his signature nod to which I returned a smile and said “Well all right.” We realized a week later that Eddies love of country music came from the time Minerva was a child. Cowboy movies were the things being played on T.V or the movies in the 1950’s and so it was no coincidence where this cowboy musicology came from. As an American it was surreal to experience this upon setting foot in Africa. It would be similar hitching a ride in West Texas and the driver was wearing a large Stetson, snake skin cowboy boots and is singing along to Jay Z. Leaving the vicinity of the airport took about 45 minutes. There was a long line of cars to the one rotary, which morphs into a free for all before entering the highway. The highway, is a two lane same direction mode of transportation with another two lanes in the opposing direction. At best, one can proceed at 50 Mps. Along both sides of the highway in either direction there is, and I kid you not, a person, parked car, small little 10 square foot store front complete with corrugated shed roof, or human every eight feet to ten square feet and all of this imagery at 40-50 mps. while listing to Slim and Jim along with Cousin Eddie’s accompaniment. I was in disbelief by the density of people, cars, shops, and, etc.. It’s a small highway that on either side looks like Canal St. in NYC on a busy day, without the tall buildings or paved streets intersecting, and it’s endless. Not to mention that while driving in fits and starts there are people crossing these highways on foot with a multitude of items on their head with the impeccable timing, spatial sensibilities, and calmness that becomes vaudevillian and Chaplinesque. There is no shouting cursing at pedestrians or vise versa. I’m thinking to myself, ‘if I were a Formula One owner, I’d come here and scout for future drivers to train and coach.’ These drivers can weave and negotiate a square millimeter better than anyone I’ve seen.’ I’m also thinking, ‘Oh this must be the crowded section along the highway and when we exit we’ll get into the quieter neighborhoods.’ After 40 minutes we exit an off ramp, but it wasn’t quiet and sparse. There were small, mainly dirt roads inter-dispersed with some common paved extremely rough boulevards. Again, an object every 8 feet with small concrete houses with the little 10sq ft. shops on every road, lining every area of travel, along with people walking, some chickens crossing the little roads, and an occasional goat. Most houses are one story, every road barely the width for two cars, no street signs anywhere. I know this sounds funny, but I’ve been lost more times than I can count, and from that experience, I’ve developed a great sense of direction. I can usually tell through land marks, sun location and etc, where I started out and what my current location is in relationship to my starting point. In Accra, I had no directional sense of anything long after we were settled in. One must have a driver to get around because if you gave directions it would go something like this; “Drive about 2 miles down this road, which may take 40 minutes, along with the thousands of people and shops you see along the road side , you will see a man grilling goat meat over a steel container on the corner which is right across the road from the billboard sign that says, “Bob Smith’s Ministries Jesus our Holly Father Extravaganza Dec 14th” which is right next to the little shop making the cement blocks. At that point, take a right onto the dirt road and drive past another thousand people you see selling things until the bend in the road where the “Our Lady of Grace Church” is . The church looks like a house but you’ll see some kids playing soccer in the vacant lot next door. Take a left there and you’ll drive past a back yard that has about six chickens and drive past the next eight shops that are all selling hair products, eggs, Guinness, plantains and yams. Take a left at the shack that says Electrical Engineer and the house you’re staying in, is right next door!’ Accra goes on for miles this way. It is very similar to L.A. in its sprawl, mountainous hills and valleys without the 14 five lane freeways, nicely paved boulevards and streets, and no signage with exception to the two freeways I witnessed during our stay. Once you’re off a freeway, it’s one gigantic maze of humanity and dirt roads. During our stay, we had a driver named Prosper, who knew how to get around everywhere. It was mind boggling and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. To learn all the boroughs in NYC reasonably well takes a few years, and one is aided by signage, maps or GPS. It can be incredibly complicated, but it can be done. How our driver, Prosper, learned Accra and area beyond is a mystery! Maps GPS and the like will get you nowhere. We were all puzzled how anyone acquires this ability and how long it takes to implant navigation in one’s head. People walk long distances on foot. Taxi cabs and van rides are abundant. Everything and everyone is a series of short distances connected. Goods and service are delivered on a micro level in most instances. A taxi for 25 cents will take you down the road a mile, where you make pick up another one to go another short distance. There are buses which are the size of large cargo vans driving on most main roads. People hop on these much like trolley cars. Then there are people transporting things on foot. These people acted like highly organized ants going about their business in a methodical way, inch by inch, foot by foot, and mile by mile. It was one huge megalopolis of a village!
Occasionally I get the carpenter who is politely obstinate, lacking carpenterly respect for me as I walk onto the jobsite with my crisp white shirt, my pre faded jeans, my custom camel skin Doc Martin shoes, all my hair perfectly in place with a slight touch of grey on the sides, my teeth sparkling from the early morning sunlight that pierces through the jobsite windows, whilst a warm vapor of the finest roasted coffee slowly plumes from my mouth. As I speak, I slightly fog my customized Warby Parker tortoise shell sun glasses. I can see and feel that the new carpenter, Rufus Butterbean, assumes I’m a little fancy boy who’s never picked up a tool, viewed human fecal matter in a drywall bucket, picked up a coworkers finger’s from poor table saw techniques, had to politely reason with homeless junkies not to shoot up in the basement of my jobsite because it wasn’t very neighborly, to which they said, “ Man, you’re one cool dude.” and the female of the group offered herself to me as though I were a messiah, but I told her , “ No thanks, I still enjoy my functioning genitals.” and lastly, nearly having a massive coronary while helping fix a roof. I bear all the mental and physical scars from these experiences. The previous day Rufus Butterbean had done exactly what I asked him not to do. He didn’t railroad the 6” horizontal waisncot boards when he came up to the windows. He just started new patterns at each window creating a distinct vertical line in the wainscot at each window. I noticed the improper work and waited just before lunch to bring this to his attention. I asked a couple of the guys, Adolph and Stretch, to give me a hand and we hung Rufus by his tool belt suspenders on the wall between the two windows. We tied his hands to the windows that were now blowing from the gentle New York City breezes nineteen floors up. While he thrashed about, I raised my voice to Robert Duvall Apocalypse Now mode and calmly told him, “Look, just because you’re hanging from your suspenders and your arms are flapping like a rag doll, don’t take this personal. I just want to calmly make a point to please perform the work in the manner that I ask you to perform it. I’m going to take a picture of you now before we crank the speakers up and play the loop of Anthony Perkins screaming “ Mother!” from the movie Psycho. This will give you time to reflect about what you did. We’ll be back after lunch. I’ve been very happy with your work and if your ears aren’t bleeding by the time we get back, and you haven’t soiled yourself, I’d like you to carry on. Look, I’m not one to yell and shout, and if I didn’t like you, I’d just tell you to fuck off and get out of my sight. But because I have deep respect for you, and in particular, your work, it’s necessary for me to give constructive criticism from time to time. And lastly, after I’ve made my point, I let it go. I’m not petty.” I finished the brief photo shoot with my smart phone which I immediately posted to the architects Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter page with a note; “Please get those revisions to me like you promised or your next.” The remaining crew left Rufus dangling comfortably and we all broke for lunch. We had a lengthy lunch. We laughed hard, told tall tales, wiped our mouths with our forearms, cleaned our teeth with matchbook covers, slapped all the waitress on their asses, called them all by their first name, Doll, and made lewd comments while Marty, our loyal laborer, spent most of the time outside smoking enough cigarettes to give his finger tips a golden hue along with the mayonnaise and bread that was lodged in between his teeth. Just as we were about to leave, Donald Trump walked up to us, his combover firmly in place along with his furrowed eyebrows and his classic permanently puckered lips and said, “ Hey, how you sons ah bitches like to work for me?” I gave him my dark and mysterious look and in complete dead pan I said, “Aren’t you ashamed of the way you wear your hair?” There was a long pause of silence before the crew and I broke out in laughter like sweaty whiskey drinking villains in a spaghetti western. Trump turned his head away unable to withstand the site of our wide open mouths laughing while bellowing the putrid odor of heavy garlicky food we had just finished eatiing. Still laughing, we turned our backs, roughed up the maitre d and stuffed some crumpled fifty dollars bills in his suit pocket and threw a few more crumple singles on the floor at his shoes, again laughing like drunkin cowboys as we walked out of Mario Batali’s little punk ass restaurant. We took the subway back to the jobsite which was unpleasant when we were forced to break up a turf war between a mariachi trio and homeless advocate. This was the homeless advocate’s money train. He was yelling at the mariachi players, “ Take your worn out latin polka music to another train man!” which turned the diminutive accordion player into a rage whereby he attempted to stretch his according around the homeless advocates head. Adolph, who’s 6’4”, pulled the accordion player away, his legs kicking in the air and his accordion flailing about while suspended in the air by Adolph. I took the homeless mans sandwiches and tossed them around the train, which created an eating frenzy on the train and gave us the freedom to slip off the train at our stop without incident. Upon arriving to the site, we lifted Rufus down from the wall and continued with our various tasks. Work and laughter carried on through the remainder of the day, Every time I laughed Rufus gave me a somewhat paranoid glance like I was the crazed ex con lunatic Max Cadey, (the character Robert DeNiro played in the movie Cape Fear). I really do like Rufus and hope he sticks around. And I’m sure, the next time I ask him to railroad the 6” tongue and groove wainscot panels around the window lines, he’ll remember fondly. I let Rufus move on to other work to keep his rhythm moving. Later at night I corrected the mess he created and let him know via visual appealing workmanship, I ain’t no fancy boy, and if I need to perform your work, you won’t be around long. It’s the first piece of information I give to anyone who seems a bit cocky, unproductive, or suffers from Super Carpenter Syndrome, a condition that can poison any collective body of trade’s people from working harmoniously.
Craftsmanship and Punishment 12.12.20013
All the best,