I never asked Bertram what his real or full name was, but when I got the news Saturday morning that my favorite newspaper vendor had died, my heart simply dropped – meaning, it skipped a beat.
The bearer of this bad news — fellow VOICE columnist Carlton Ishmael — knew Bertram was the only vendor I sourced all my newspapers from on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.
Perched ever-comfortably every ‘newspaper day’ in his wheelchair outside the entrance to Massey’s Waterfront outlet, he’d have his parcels of all four-weekend papers (VOICE, Star, Mirror and One Caribbean) wrapped and encircled in elastic bands with names appended, monthly clients (like me) simply picking-up our handed parcels on arrival and either engaging him in a brief chat, or simply collecting and moving on — like clockwork.
An organized vendor, he kept notes and names with numbers and figures – and also operated a free service protecting private parcels for close clients going off on other errands.
But don’t just think he only sat in that chair and wheeled himself between the Waterfront and the William Peter Boulevard, where he also operated another outsourced vending outlet on both days, doubling the growing family’s daily income twice per week.
Bertram was definitely much more than he seemed – and was certainly much a newshound as spreader of the written word.
He could tell you the story behind or between the lines of every headline in each paper; he’d tell you who could tell you what you didn’t believe that he just told you, and he’d call the talk shows incognito to offer his valuable ‘two cents’ on everything from how ‘taxpayers money is not being spent well’ to how ‘Government policies don’t consider people like me until election is coming, or until we go and represent ourselves in the government offices.’
I remember him complaining some time ago – just after his last (or latest) baby was born – that ‘Government [is] still not giving enough assistance for children of people like me…’ and that ‘Old, old people at their home had to wait months to get their monthly money…’ after the COVID outbreak took hold here.
I’d travel for days, weeks or months and (sure like night follows day), I will have all my newspapers stacked in order of date ready for pick-up – with my bill — the day after I’d call to say I’m back…’
Our first encounter after any long period away – like after the two months I spent with my wife in Hospital in Cuba in 2017 and another three months later that year into 2018 in another hospital by myself – would always be a long one, as he brought me ‘up to date’ with ‘what you missed behind your back…’
Bertram also had ‘the sauce’ on everyone and everything – from who did what to whom but denied it, to who saw but cannot say, for what reason.
When the government removed the Value Added Tax (VAT) on newsprint, the new father sarcastically but quietly sneered: ‘Dey move VAT for Rick, Gordon, Guy Mayers and Dabreo, but not on pampers for people like me…’
And we’d almost cry every last Saturday before Christmas when The Crusader – once the island’s top selling weekend newspaper — would make its once-a-year appearance filled with ads…
And whenever Dabreo’s One Caribbean was ‘late’ on a Saturday, faithful Bertram would assure me: ‘I will get it on Monday and have it for you on Wednesday.’
Selling newspapers is both an art and a labour of love – and Bertram treated his trade as both.
Each vendor has his or her particular characteristic(s): Ma’am who sold outside the original Stardust building on Micoud Street was the quiet Virgin Mary opposite of Miss Amy outside the M&C Building on the Boulevard, or her no-less-rowdy daughter (who I also call ‘Amy’) who inherited her mother’s tray and now operates on the other side of the road outside Clarke & Co.
But none was like Henry Pwa, who sold ONLY the Crusader on Saturdays outside the Government Printery on Jeremie Street (Opposite the then Valmont’s Bookshop), a fearless disciple of George Odlum who wouldn’t knowingly sell a copy to ‘a UWP’ — but would throw a copy into then Premier John Compton’s van whenever he drove by and ‘molested’ Henry by calling him by his uncomplimentary nickname.
With the advent of online journalism and newspapers developing online editions, the natural expectation is that newspaper vendors will soon become an extinct species.
But not Betrtam — who told me: ‘Don’t mind them. If dey don’t print the paper, how dey go make money on ads? Dey must print de paper to sell de ads – and I go always be dere to sell it for dem…’
COVID wasn’t even a word here yet when we had that talk about the possible disappearance of the newspaper like we know it and my forced double quarantine for six months after my May 2020 vehicular accident for that long limited the frequency of our regular weekly contact and my usual joking inquiry as to ‘You still paying VAT on Pampers?’
I couldn’t tell and never inquired (as I don’t really care to know) whether Bertram’s permanent underlying condition (or any other) contributed to his taking an earlier one-way-ticket than expected for the long and permanent holiday trip, on the slowest steamboat along the River of No Return, to The Great Beyond that no one’s ever cared to return from.
I had warned him that for my 65th birthday later this year I would have challenged him to a wheelchair race around the Derek Walcott Square to raise funds for those he called ‘People like me!’ and I do regret that Fate intervened to ice the hot race.
But I do know that I started missing my friend from the day Carl sent me the copy of the Facebook entry announcing his untimely ‘too soon’ departure.
And not me alone…