Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It’s the doubles man children all over again

For the uninitiated, "doubles" is not just a tennis game. It is also the name of a Caribbean (Trini) snack that easily becomes a meal. Two fried patties sandwich a large spoonful of curried chick peas dotted with your choice of tamarind sauce, coconut strands, pieces of shado beni (cilantro), and/or slight pepper, among a smorgasbord of other condiments. Yummmmmm.

Developed by the descendants of East Indian indentured laborers, and infused with Afro-Caribbean flavors, doubles is probably the most popular form of street food sold any where in the Caribbean. But it is a Trini staple.

Vendors who sell doubles are called doubles-men. This is actually a misnomer as the product represents the early morning labor of scores of unpaid women. It is the women who do the cooking, but mainly the men who become the public face of vending, and of course controllers of the resulting financial success. There’s sexism in the doubles world as there is everywhere else.

Doubles vendors can be found at most main street corners. The better ones do not need to advertise — success spreads rapidly by word of mouth. I can’t really begin to capture how incredibly popular doubles are on the island. A few weeks ago a Trini friend sent me the following piece of Carnival and political commentary that perfectly captures the insane popularity of this very common street food. The occasion was an expensive all-inclusive Carnival fete with the hoi polloi of society — and someone forgot to bring a doubles-man. I’ll quote it verbatim:

“Party-goers at the NGC all-inclusive fete at the Trinidad Country Club a few weekends ago paid a high price, but were not completely satisfied. They lamented, with more grief than shock, that there was no doubles man. Yes, the people wanted doubles. Ladies and gentlemen, this is where our country has reached. There is so much affluence, so much disposable income, so much wealth-induced lunacy, that we, Trinidadians and Tobagonians, are finally and officially and proudly okay with paying up to over $1,000 to eat doubles—looking forward to it, too, and disappointed when it’s not there.”

Doubles as a treat has become so incredibly popular that, after years and years of thrift and sacrifice, many vendors eventually manage to garner incredible wealth. One hears stories about doubles vendors who die and leave millions. And of course the true mark of success is the ease with which many have become the target of kidnapping attempts.

Most doubles vendors grew up in poverty. Most sacrificed, literally working their fingers to the bone so that their children could have better lives. And so many of the children of doubles vendors often grew up in great wealth. Many quickly acquired visible signs of affluence. Fancy cars. Prada handbags. Gucci shoes. The children of doubles vendors consumed at a pace that made their hard-working parents’ eyes spin. Shopping trips to Miami became de jour. And even if they often returned with clothes that were way too hot for the island weather, who cared as long as it was purchased with a black Amex?

But the worldwide economy in on the decline and the price of doubles keeps increasing. Even the children of doubles vendors have had to make sacrifices. Less shopping has become the order of the day. Less spending so that there might be something left over for tomorrow. And it’s no longer easy to make money selling doubles because American fast food is now competing in the same market.

I thought of this as I saw the cover of the latest Newsweek magazine. It features a picture of Uncle Sam pointing to the reader and blaring: “I Want You to start spending!”

And this of course is part of the problem. Americans have stopped spending and have started saving. We’ve re-discovered the kind of thrift that our grandparents and parents took for granted during their lean years. But having been deprived, these parents encouraged their children to consume. We’ve built an economy based on the massive consumption of things that we do not need. It’s good to become aware of this. But that awareness is bad for the economy.

So here’s the conundrum. In order to fix the problem, we have to keep doing more of the things that helped to cause it in the first place. We have to keep buying and spending so that our children will not inherit a massive burden of debt. It’s a vicious circle.

And somewhere there are doubles vendors who probably wish that they had not allowed their years of sacrifice to be so misspent. Who wish they had taught their children that saving is always OK, and that it is possible to create a good enough economy based on purchasing what you need instead of a bloated system based on narcissistic wants. But the horse is already out of the barn.

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