Remembering the rumshops of yesteryear
By Godfrey Chin
December 17, 2006
This 'Nostalgia Buff' was recently flattered when a top Guyanese artist, Stanley Greaves, now resident in Barbados, solicited help to list the names of rumshops back home.
Hell. This was as Herculean a task as asking a marriage counsellor who had never been married for advice on marital predicaments! As a teetotaller, never attracted to the vices of drinking, smoking, and wenching, rumshops were as foreign as the weekly confessional boxes to us, young Guyanese, growing up to be big man and woman yesteryear.
Warning: If any of you question my foregoing Christianity and call me a liar - a curse of sobriety on you.
My father's last advice still stands true: "Ya can't finish rum nor women, and if the Lawd wanted you to smoke he would have given ya a chimney, like fish got gill!" My Ol' Man was a wise owl who made me promise after nearly drowning in the South Road Canal never to go back into the water until I learnt to swim! If he was alive today, he would be rolling in his grave at my cookshop-fly adventures.
But cookshop-fly to the rescue. I shared CA Yansen's list of rumshops from his booklet Random Remarks on Creolese. 'Yango,' as he was nicknamed, was a popular teacher at Queen's College from 1949 to 1979. He was previously Principal of Modern High School.
The rumshop names were so colourful and romantic, I have to write a nostalgia at least to preserve for prosperity these institutions.
Our rumshop names evoked memories of the swashbuckling sagas of pirates and buccaneers. Captains Morgan, Leach, Blackbeard, Long John Silver, Lafitte; Port Royal, Tortuga; skull and crossbones, lost maps, buried treasure and rum smuggling; walking the plank, flintlock duels, drawn sabres, foils and cutlass clashes, that spawned the literary classics, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Westward Ho and The Master of Ballantrae.
During my visit back home October 2006, I walked the length of Regent St from Vlissengen Road westward with my digital camera, hoping to catch pictures of Georgetown to answer 'Where have all the Flowers gone? for my overseas diaspora.
Findings: I couldn't find any of the eight rumshops I knew were there on Regent Street - Hell, I lived at 115 Regent St, Lacytown and also opposite 134 Regent St, Cummingsburg, during the early forties.
Along Regent St, there used to be a rumshop at the following corners: Botanic Gardens at Oronoque, another? at Albert St, then Polar Bear at Light St, British Warrior at Cummings St, Free & Easy at Alexander St, Sweepstake Bar at Camp St, Black Lion at Wellington, and Standard at Hincks St. No wonder the western song 'Don't sell Daddy any more whisky' was a hit in my time.
Couldn't find El Globo, which was located four buildings from Amridathra House going east from Oronoque to New Garden northern side - but that used to be a bar.
Now notice that all eight rumshops were at prime locations at a corner. Actually only three rumshops in Georgetown were not at street corners - Railway Bar, Carmichael St; King Of The Forest, Water St; The Dolphin, Holmes St.
But rumshops at corner locations were good for the city as you couldn't get lost in the town, with directions counting from the corner rumshops. Ya ever had 'just down dey' directions from a country man? Ya walk till 'nara' come!
Now to describe a typical rumshop for the young ones. Typical rumshops were similar to the saloons in Movie Westerns. Three-quarter mini-skirt doors; a long counter with shelves of glasses and booze arrayed most times around a mirror. An ever-present stale liquor smell; a constant beelike, but louder, hum of voices all speaking at the same time; boastings, tall tales, pity-pity poor-boy tales, gripes and complaints, political nylon, slurs and off-key happy singing - everyman jack kinda hard of hearing.
The urinals were a disaster triage; the floor usually flooded from targets missed; the walls autographed with illegible vulgarisms; the facility itself with vertical rustic iron stain drips, where every relief experience was good practice for deep-sea diving. Ideal survival mode was hold your breath and close your eyes until... but that was risky, and the consequences could be disastrous!
There were privacy compartments along the wall in the rumshop to reduce sharing, where every customer was your friend, family, joiner/carpenter, the minute you opened a large half, quart or eight! Some facilities with centre tables with seating, would more qualify as bars - appropriate in Western movies for bar-room brawls, quick-draw duels and ambushes.
Most rumshops had their own brands - under-the-counter brews, secret blends of proprieters, family secrets handed down and as closely guarded as Angostura Bitters of Trinidad. Popular blends with the connoisseur rum bogeys were Blue Label from Houston's, Robb and Camp Streets; the Black Label from Russian Bear, Water and Schumaker Streets; and of course DIH Xtra-Mature blends. In the late forties, a promising blend was Demerara White Rum from the White Star Bar, Light and Fifth Streets.
The waterfront of Water St, southward to Lombard St and the La Penitence/James St area was Rum Shop Row, attracting stevedores and out-of-town visitors inebriating in watering holes that kept many households poor!
There was Kingston Spring, at Barrack St; King of the Forest; one at Bentick St; and the Dolphin plus City at Holmes St.
Approaching Stabroek Market there was the Hand-in-Hand at High and Robb; John Bull at Longden and Croal; Red Lion at King and Charlotte; Uncle Sam at Longden and America; and Demerara Ice House at Cornhill and Croal Streets.
I wonder if the city tramcar of the thirties, plying Lombard St stopped to facilitate the customers of Martha Fung Kee Fung at Leopold St; White Coconut at Princes; Jumbie Jack at Broad; and Dictator Bar at James St.
Golden Gate at Schumaker St was as busy as Russian Bear on the same block. Drinkers, who were literally and figuratively 'spongers,' travelled like nomads from rum shop to rum shop - a drink here and a drink there, 'til tipsy!
Thirsty natives would walk miles to the rumshop for a 'tupps'; the problem was getting back after drinks. So every rumshop in close proximity had their clientele. Red Light was at Broad and Ketley; Peacock at Saffon and Sussex.
The rumshops in the La Penitence Market environs must have had happy hour from opening to closing as there was a mall of these watering holes in the area.
Dictator Bar at James and Albouys Streets; Great Eastern at Saffon and Bel Air Canal Dam; another? at James and Hogg Streets; and Vigilant Bar at James and Albert Streets.
Fridays have always been our milestone day of the week, as evinced in the too frequent Black Friday fires that plagued the city, requiring 'search and rescue.' Friday was also payday requiring weekly 'search and retreive' by
wives, girlfriends and child mothers to find breadwinners who had to 'short stop celebrate' on the way home from work, and were smart enough to change venues each week. As my father would say, "A working man couldn't catch a drink in peace!" Cell phones didn't come until the nineties.
Georgetown had many houses of worship, which competed for attendance with houses of liquor in the city wards, such as Bulldog, George and Bent Streets; Green & Gold, Louisa Row and D'Urban Streets; Flying Horse, Leopold and Breda Streets; Indian Bull, Oronoque and Forshaw Streets; Morning Star, East and Murray Streets; Good Hope, Bent and Hardina Streets; Golden Star, Broad and Lyng Streets; Fighting Cock, Brickdam and Chalmers Place.
Banks/DIH introduced their popular local Banks brew in 1955 at twenty-five cents, and thereby changed the trend from hard to lighter liquor - social blends/liqueurs, etc, that attracted the younger generation and Guppies, at last reaching drinking age! The attraction must have been to show off the phalanx of empty Banks on the drinking table. Discos and today's popular sports bars with their wide-screen televisions have been the death knell of our rumshops.
Rumshops in the rural areas still exist and thrive - quenching thirsts and providing oases for the natives to languish, gaff with friends and be on top of the world at the end of the humdrum working day. Every one of us travelling the coast or the hinterland had their own watering hole. Though not a drinker, I remember Sonny Lord's at Suddie and the bars off the stellings at Parika, Charity and Springlands. My favourite at these spots was coconut water and cane juice!
Who can forget the JP Santos Bar in Bartica, which sold their blend Tarzan - rocket fuel with a kick like a mule - where after the first shot it was downhill, everyman jack getting louder, slurring, arguing and fighting, with a Test match headache for five days after.
Rumshops were the catalysts for the rumbustious side of Guyana life. They added to our jollity, our joie de vivre, where we would be drinking rum on Christmas morning! They accounted for the ripe old 'cured' age of our population - rum bogeys never suffered from worms, etc, and were invaluable to the sugar-cane economy of the nation. Rum bogeys answered the call to buy and support local.
Today's Guyana Demerara Rum is the best in the world, winning annual awards at world competitions. I salute here all the rumshops and their patrons whose unstinted loyalty and patronage has put Guyana on the world map. Ya think it easy?
With three major funeral parlours in the city in the old days - Bastiani's, Lyken's and Lee's - I wonder if any of our hard-core drinkers died from liquor mortis and had to be buried in casks! That's the way to go! Cured and distilled to the Pearly Gates.
This nostalgia is dedicated to all my school friends, who started with a quarter and today are quartermasters! Ya think it easy!