A tribute to newspaper vendors of Guyana yesteryear
By Godfrey Chin - Nostalgia 336
December 10, 2006
Today, 800 miles from my homeland, up here in Orlando, Florida, I receive the daily local news on line, simultaneously as the mudlanders, welcoming the dawn, get their dailies, delivered to home or office, or picked up from the 'gas station' or street corner vendor.
On Sunday Oct 1, 2006 the Stabroek News featured a tribute to the oldest current newspaper vendor, Ismay Young - 85 years old, hawking her 'wares' daily, at 53 Russell St. The promise of 'tributes to past prominent vendors' thrilled me to the extent that I record for posterity the role of newspaper vendors in Guyana, yesteryear.
Today the Disney-owned Television Giant boasts 'most people get their news from ABC'. Yesteryear in Guyana, where television came 'nationally' in the mid eighties -the nation's dailies were the prime means of mass communication to the people!
Newspapers were the catalyst that fanned the embers of news and daily happenings, as we attained independence and republican status. They influenced our politics - enhanced our culture, glorified our sports, influenced our day to day purchases - empowered the way we lived!. But all the written editorials, news flashes, type setting and printing the sheets, would be ineffectual - but for the legion of our newspaper vendors.
Newspapers have a 'shelf life' of twenty-four hours. It's proof is in the reading....and it is this 'legion of vendors, young and old, families depending on sales commission distributing our dailies, that this nostalgia eulogises.
Benjamin Franklin actually wrote his own copy, set type, printed the sheets, and then went into the streets to hawk his news. Around 1890, over 30,000 newsboys, (orphans, homeless street urchins, bread-winners) sold newspapers on the city streets of America for their 'bread and butter' survival. In 1899 they organised a strike against two newspaper giants, Joseph Pulziter's Evening World and William Randolph Hearst's Evening Journal. Their effort to secure an increase in commission led to a popular 1992 Disney movie, The Newsies.
This cook-shop-fly at eleven was a newsboy selling the news organ of Robert Hart, then an aspiring politician, who issued a periodical from Camp Street, obliquely opposite Christ Church School. My commission - a penny a copy!
In 1963, the 'ink in my blood' boiled as Asst Circulation Manager, Guyana Graphic, Lama Ave, then owned by Thompson Enterprises of the UK. The goal of the dynamic team of Bob Grandsoult, General Manager - Montague Smith, Editor - Ricardo Smith Advertising - and Mr Leila, Production, was to 'double circulation which 'maxed on the ABC circulation meter, to 25000 daily, and 40000 on Sunday.
The daily journey of each day's daily and the Sunday edition, from 'hot off' the Press to the 'read all about it' heralds to John Public via the 'vendors' was an adventure to match Lewis and Clarke.
The daily deadline target was 'the press must roll at 9 pm, with first copy on the street from 10:30 pm'. The legion of vendors waiting for their copies hot off the press, then fanned out across the city, with the newspapers literally 'in your face', as patrons exited the cinemas and parties. Reading the day's daily before bedtime was the norm.
By 1 am the bright yellow Graphic newspaper van would be loaded, to drop off bundles to designated agents in all the villages from Kitty to Rosignol, and catch 'the first launch at 5:30 am from Blairmont to New Amsterdam. Passengers on the first Berbice ferry crossing at 6 am were reading the dailies.
By 8 am, bundles for the Corentyne Coast had reached Agent Jumai at Springlands, and the dailies were being read on the 10 am ferry launch to Nickerie!
Westward, the dailies were at Vreed-en-hoop by the first Makouria ferry crossing at 6 am. The news was at Parika by 8 am, for the Bartica Steamer, sailing round the coast from the T&HD stelling, behind the Municipal Abattoir, every other day, to pick up the assigned bundles for distribution in Bartica by 3 pm.
Manbodh with his speed boat delivered copies from Parika to Suddie by 9 am to reach Charity by 10 am. From Ogle airport, the dailies reached the hinterland with every available flight.
But the vendors were the true heroes. Rain was a disaster, with a deluge of inconveniences. The too often breakdowns of coastal transportation were only 'late delays'. The news, like the famous Pony Express, had to get through.
Home and office deliveries were rolled in pre-addressed labels, for a team of schoolboys to deliver to the various city wards on their way to school. Of course by 9 am there were 'nuff' complaints for non-delivery, and rather than 'fend and prove', another copy was despatched.
The incidents could script a 'movie', and I do remember 'threatening a neighbour ' to order his own copy, rather than get up early to 'huff' the copy from next door!
One day a hockey rival fished his badly thrown newspaper out of the trench in front of his Bel Air home, and placed it on my desk, sarcastically asking me to read it.
The gathering of the vendors nightly at the despatch window was an enriching experience. Entire families anxious, pleading to be first to receive copies, urchins doing a 'graveyard shift,' hustling sales at midnight, yet in school the next day, Saturday night, they camped from 7 pm with every imaginable container to lug the 36 plus page issue. Noisy, playing games as they waited - counting change, and planning sales strategy to cover the city, with the precision of a Normandy invasion.
It was the same at the despatch door of the other dailies, as well as the organs of the main political parties such as The Sun, New Nation, and Mirror.
My award for 'MVNV' - Most Valuable Newspaper Vendor, goes to 'Blind Oscar' - at the Bourda Market Entrance, Regent and Orange Walk, a fixture every day for a score of years around 1955. Always neatly dressed, he belied his handicap with a warm, pleasant greeting for customers whom he recognised from the sound of their voices. Three dailies in his left land, he fulfilled orders better than the vending machine, that came years later.
Coins in those days were cents - penny - six cents - bit - shilling and florin - yet the change he dispensed with his deft fingers was always accurate. Counterfeit coins or paper currency never slipped past his sixth sense!
I never knew his real name - failed in my youthful exuberance to take the time to enquire who were his family, where he lived, who brought him to stake out his site where customers eagerly sought him out daily.
Oscar was the 'epitome' of the small man striving to be a big man! A shining example for those needing to beat the odds, to step up from the depths of poverty, persevering and surmounting handicaps.
Hilary De Cambra, who lives now in Canada, remembers Oscar when he made deliveries house to house, in the Cummingsburg/ Alberttown/ Queenstown areas, in spite of his 'handicap'.... He wrote:
"I always respected 'Blind Oscar, for the job he did delivering the daily newspapers. In the best or worst weather, come rain, come shine, Oscar never faltered. His diligence helped tremendously to get the printed word to the public, traversing the city, with the help of only a blind man's cane. What better example is there of the power of the human spirit in the humblest of men! He never complained about his handicap, showed character and spirit, exemplified decency, greeting every unseen customer with a "Good morning, how are you today?"
His perseverance matches the boldness of Cuffy - the patience and steadfastness of Gandhi.
This, my humble nostalgia, gives tribute to all our local vendors - markets to street corners - plying the pavements - earning a penny here and a penny there - proud yet humble - contributing in no small way to making my Guyana - an Eldorado.
Little things mean a lot!