Hailing from Jamaica, Norris Gordon served for eight years in the Jamaica Defence Force before moving to New York City in the late 1980s. Since his
arrival in the United States, he has worked at a variety of construction jobs, and for some ten years ran his own construction company. In 2016, Gordon joined the Westbeth staff. Outside of work, Gordon played on cricket teams for many years, both in Jamaica and
New York. He has two grown daughters and four
Terry Stoller spoke with Norris Gordon in June 2017 about migrating to the U.S., his service in the Jamaican army, his work experiences in New York, his cricket teams, and his immediate and extended family.
Terry Stoller: I was told you were born in Jamaica. When did you come to the United States?
I migrated in 1988.
Jamaica had been a British colony. Did you have an opportunity to go to the U.K. instead?
I could have, but I chose to come to the United States. I had friends here. I have family in the U.K., but they’re cousins that I’m not too friendly with.
Did you go to England to check it out?
Yes, I’ve been to England. I went in 1985 for a month. Actually, I went in a different capacity then. I was in the army. I served eight years in the military back home. There was an exchange of military personnel between the U.K. and Jamaica. So I ended up going to England for one month, and the British soldiers came to Jamaica for that same month.
What did you do in the army?
I was an infantry person. It’s similar to being in the army here—as opposed to a specialized field.
Were you stationed in Jamaica the whole time, or did you travel with the army?
I was mostly stationed in Jamaica, but when the needs arose—for instance, after the U.S. invaded Grenada in 1983, we were called upon to be a peacekeeping force in Grenada. So I spent two months there, went home, spent a month home, went to England for a month, went back home, spent another month home, and then went back to Grenada for another two months. So that year, I was back and forth.
Were Jamaica and the U.K. supporting the U.S.?
No, it wasn’t Jamaica and the U.K. It was the Caribbean forces: Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica. When the U.S. army invaded, they did that mostly on their own. But once the actual assault was over, they needed people to mop up, go behind and do whatever you’ve got to do.
What was that like?
You do what you have to do to survive—put it that way.
Did you see the aftermath of the violence?
No, after the assault, everything was more or less peaceful. I remember that what happened was that most of the people in the government were against the prime minister, Maurice Bishop. His was a Socialist government. Bishop wasn’t supposed to be a friend of the U.S., but I guess he realized that probably wasn’t the best route to take because people in Grenada were suffering—so he switched course, and he came to the U.S. and met with officials in Washington. And people in the government decided when he was out of the country to have a coup, and they took over. So when he came back, they arrested Bishop and killed him and four other people. That was the reason the invasion happened. When the U.S. came, they knew who to look for. So all the people who were involved in the coup were arrested.
When you went to England with the army, what did you do there?
We spent most of the time on the shooting ranges that they have; they have different ranges. Most of our days were spent doing the same kind of stuff that we did in Jamaica. Because Jamaica had been a British colony, the whole military structure was similar to the U.K. We used the same kind of weapons, the same tactics when it came to war.
What made you leave the service after eight years?
It had gotten maybe monotonous to me. Three years prior to me leaving, in 1985, I got married. And my first daughter was born in 1987. So the financial situation determined that I should move on.
And you could spend more time with your family.
Actually, what it did then was separate me from my family. I came here first—was here for a while before my family got the opportunity to come to the U.S. It took me a while to get my green card. As a result of that, every opportunity I got I used to go back home.
You started doing that in 1988.
Then my family came in ’91.
You chose to come here because you had friends.
Plus it’s closer to home. It’s a longer ride from the U.K. to Jamaica. And I had ex-servicemen I knew who were here. Two of my good friends were here in Brooklyn, and when I came that’s who I hooked up with and started working with in construction as a laborer. That’s how I started. I did that for a while, but then I determined that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. So I started hanging Sheetrock, and from that I learned carpentry. I did that up until 1999 with one company. And then I moved on to working for another company up until 2003, when I started my own construction company. I did that up until 2012 or 2013. During that period, I was working for three contractors that specialized in building Dunkin’ Donuts stores. I was the subcontractor that does construction, the framing, the Sheetrock. Then things got slow. The insurance was expensive, and if you’re not getting jobs to cover the expenses, it becomes costly. So I returned to working for other companies and did that until I applied to come here.
How did you hear about Westbeth?
I heard about Westbeth from a buddy of mine. Shortly after he came here, he started working for Phipps, for the parent company. I was always telling him that I needed a permanent job rather than being in construction. He told me I should apply, and when this position came up, I did an interview with Todd and Victor; then I came back and did one with Todd, Victor, Matthew, and Steve—and I’m here. That was last year. I started in June 2016.
What do you think about Westbeth?
I’m very comfortable here. I’m supposed to retire in ten years. I’m 55 now. I think I’ll be here for retirement.
Is Westbeth similar to any place you’ve worked at before?
No. I’ve done construction for companies, like building apartments, building houses. Here you repair—there you replace. In the companies that I worked for, if something is broken, you take it out and put a new one in. Here you try to repair it, but if that doesn’t work, then you replace it. So it’s different.
And it’s a big staff. In your various work experiences, being part of an army team might have been the most similar.
Where each person should more than likely have the other person’s back. Here you’re part of a puzzle. That’s how I look at it. Each piece goes together to make the whole thing work. I need the super; the super needs Victor; we need each other for Westbeth to work.
Were you interested in the arts before you came here?
I listen to music, and I go to shows. There was a time when stuff like what happens on Broadway happened back home. It doesn’t happen on a broad scale because Jamaica is a lot smaller than here. Whenever plays came out, I would make it my duty to go see them. That was my interest, to go watch the play—but not to participate.
Do you miss being part of the army?
To be honest, no. Probably I shouldn’t say no a hundred percent. There are some things that I miss because you had to be physically fit. You had to be in a certain shape. I miss that part of it. I miss the camaraderie. But there are certain aspects of it that I don’t miss.
Is your family happy in Brooklyn?
My wife and I separated about seven years ago. I’ve got two kids. My elder daughter—her husband is in the army here in Fort Drum, upstate New York. They live on the military base. She has four kids, so I’ve got four grandchildren. My younger daughter is in college in Niagara. She’s going to Niagara University. They’re 30 and 20. My daughters’ names are Nicole and Nadia. And my heartbeat are Jaden, Raheem, Janiya (my boo), and Bryant.
Did you find a Jamaican community here?
In 1989, I was living in the Bronx. In 1991, just before my wife came, I moved to Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. We stayed there until 1997 when we bought a house in East New York. I sold that house two years ago and moved to Jersey.
Do you go back to Jamaica often?
I go back as often as I can. I am one of those persons that wherever I am, I try to be as comfortable as possible. I might miss family. My mother has four kids, two boys, two girls. I’m the first boy. I have a sister that’s older than I am. On my dad’s part—he has five girls and three boys. I’m the first boy from my dad, just like I’m the first boy from my mom. But there are two different sets of brothers and sisters. One brother from my dad’s side I’m really close with. And I’m very close with the three siblings on my mother’s side. So there are four siblings that I’m really close to.
Do they all still live in Jamaica?
No, my brother by my mother is in Jamaica. He says he’s comfortable. My two sisters from my mom are in Canada. Everybody from my dad’s side is still in Jamaica. When I go home, I try to see them, but like I said, there is one particular brother that if I don’t see anybody else, I’m going to see him.
What town are you from?
I’m from Spanish Town, St. Catherine, which is the second capital. The original capital is Seville in St. Ann.
What about the climate here? Jamaica’s climate is so different.
It’s different, but what happens is I sweat a lot. So fall, spring, early part of winter, I’m comfortable. And funnily enough, I used to play cricket back home. I played cricket for my high school, for the service. There was an Under-25 Jamaica team that I was part of. I made that team.
Did you try to find a cricket game here?
I played here. Since I’ve been here, I’ve won maybe eleven total championships, but I ended up hurting my back in 2000, and I’ve given it up.
Did your team ever go over to compete in the U.K.?
No. But on Memorial Day weekends, one of the teams I was with here used to go to Canada, and the following years the Canadian team would come to us.
I don’t quite get cricket, although I’ve seen it in the movies and on TV.
If you’re from the Caribbean, you’re familiar with it. There was a time when the only two major sports were cricket and soccer. I played for two teams after I got here. One is Westbury Cricket Club on Long Island, and the other was called Jamaica Social Athletic Club. That was from Brooklyn. Each of the teams that I played for I won at least one championship with. In the whole league, you might have ten clubs. And what happened was, they would choose the best from the clubs to form a league team. So you’d be the cream of the crop. I played for a league team for about eight years, and every year that we played, we won. In the nineties, I represented, maybe two or three years, the Jamaica cricket team in New York. We had a competition among most of the countries in the Caribbean—Barbados, Trinidad, Windward Islands, Leeward Islands, Jamaica, Guyana. There were six teams that played against each other.
Anything else you’d like to say?
No. That’s the synopsis of my life.
Photographs courtesy of Norris Gordon.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Behind the Scenes, Copyright 2017 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council