Caribbean immigrants connect through dominoes

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Game is at the heart of Caribbean immigrants’ tight-knit support group, Emily Foxhall reports for The Houston Chronicle.

Caribbean-style music pounded through the speakers. Lyons sang giddily along. The four men watched the turns closely, noticing who put which piece where.

It was a night like any other at the Houston Missouri City Domino Club. Dozens of men from Jamaica and other West Indies islands gather in the house off Texas Parkway four days a week to play the game that ties them to their roots.

It is part of a culture that binds them, a culture they don’t want to lose.

Many members have lived for decades in Houston, a place with a familiar climate, ample opportunity and one of the most diverse immigrant populations in the nation.

They earn their livings as plumbers, mechanics and in other professions, allowing them to give back to their native communities.

Still, moving far away can be lonely, said Paul Johnson, 57, the group’s vice president, who arrived from Jamaica in 1988. Theirs is not among the biggest immigrant populations. And there arises a desire to connect with people who understand each other.

“It’s important to maintain some of your culture from back home,” Johnson said.

Sometimes, that means listening to reggae music or eating curried goat. Other times, it comes from playing the same games. Cricket, usually, for the youth. For those growing older? The mental sport of dominoes.

Around 8:30 p.m. Friday, the games were just beginning. They often continue into the early morning.

Lyons and his partner sought to conquer six games in a row, in a form of the game called “Six Love.” They kept score by placing round chips in a corner of the table.

If a streak ends, they start over. If a team wins six, players’ names are entered into “The Domino Chronicle,” a book labeled with ornate, gold lettering. Such a win brings bragging rights. (Despite the taunting, they don’t play for money.)

Moving counterclockwise to the next player, Lyons’ opponent tossed out his play. His partner, seated across from him, slid his domino gently across. Beer and miniature wine bottles sat at their feet. Two Jamaican flags, and an American one, hung from the ceiling.

Slam. Lyons’ second opponent threw his domino down, hitting it down with a thud of his hand.

“When you get happy, you slam it down,” Lyons explains.

A second game raged on with the same slams, laughter and shouts. A player stood up to throw his domino down more loudly.

People kept arriving. Some sat in the plastic chairs to play. Others contented themselves with watching. They flung words in English and their native language, Patois.

Lyons kept the taunts coming.

“Money in the bank,” he said.

“Put your best foot forward,” he jabbed.

“What a disaster,” he mocked.

Most games lasted minutes. They could be done before the turns finished, the contenders having already figured out who was inevitably going to play the last of his dominoes.

Sharing camaraderie

Dominoes is a game, of course, many learn to play as kids.

Les Weir, president of the club, remembered the men who sat on the “barbecue,” or porch, of his father’s Jamaican bar, playing dominoes and drinking white rum until midnight. They taught him their tricks.

Now, they’ve re-created such a space.

“The most important thing is the camaraderie we share,” said Weir, 60, who lives in Missouri City. “We just hang out, and we basically feel like home.”

The group began informally more than 25 years ago with gatherings in homes. They rotated from place to place until Cosma Dennis, 67, also a Missouri City resident, created a space in his house where they could gather.

A team in Dallas caught wind of the group. They invited the Houstonians, as well as a team from Kansas City, to come play a tournament.

The ragtag Houston team emerged victorious, an accomplishment that spurred them to think their club could be something bigger, Dennis said.

But it wasn’t until they gathered for the birthday of Cedric Buchanan that the friends decided, officially, to form a club.

Per tradition, they honored Buchanan’s birthday by pinning money onto his shirt with a safety pin. As the story goes, the bills totaled more than $400 at the end of the night.

Buchanan, 66, who lives in Stafford and runs a plumbing company, declared his birthday money should be used to start a club.

Helping those in need

That was 2009. A small home that Buchanan owned in Missouri City on Texas Parkway became their headquarters, used for meetings and domino practice. Buchanan loaned the space temporarily. They put together bylaws. They began charging monthly dues.

They’ve been in that space ever since – always saving money and keeping an eye out for a place to make their home.

This week, a Fort Bend County judge is expected to sign the deed of their new property, a 10-minute drive away.

The land, on Blueridge Road, includes a storage facility no longer needed by the parks department. The minimum bid was $72,000, and the club was the only group to make an offer.

Owning their own place will be significant for the local Caribbean community, Johnson and other club leaders believe. They plan to refurbish it themselves.

“We want to leave it for our heritage to continue,” Weir said.

The building, like the current one, will be used not only for practice but also for celebrating occasions like retirements, anniversaries and christenings.

Behind the game, after all, are relationships members say have helped many in times of need. When Dennis’ father-in-law passed away, the club gave $1,500. When Johnson’s brother died, the club bought his ticket back home. They’ve helped students pay tuition, contributed to a cancer patient’s medical bills and paid to get air conditioning back up and running when someone couldn’t afford it.

They are proud to participate in the American spirit of giving, Dennis says.

Balloons still hung Friday on the ceiling from a recent graduation party. That night, they celebrated member Henley Wood’s 61st birthday.

His wife, Fay, 61, dished out potato salad, cole slaw, sausage and jerk chicken. After dinner, members shared well-wishes for Henley.

They sang “Happy Birthday” in a number of renditions. A stack of money hung from the pin on his shirt.

As the Woods sliced the cake, another domino game got underway.

Watercolor by Derek Walcott.

 

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