Once a ponytail time

Michael “ESK” Escalante says,
Michael “ESK” Escalante says, "Escalante is my name but it's not really my real name." Photo by Mark Lyndersay


My name is Michael “ESK” Escalante and, in 1995, I went up against Republic Bank and beat them to keep my ponytail as a bank teller.

I come from everywhere in Trinidad. Born in Park Nursing Home, now St Clair Medical Centre.

First five years I lived in Caroni. I moved from there to Ste Madeleine. Cedar Hill. Todd’s Road. Philippine. Stone Street. Dundonald Hill. Maraval.

The only place I ent live yet is Toco, Tobago and the Deep South. I’m a Trinidadian.

Get it correct. My nickname is pronounced Ess-Kay, like the letters S and K put together, not Esky.

When my father worked Caroni, they sent a wedding invitation to “Mr S K.” I inherited that nickname from my father.

I make a mistake and named my four-year-old daughter Elizabeth Yolande Escalante. For her to start writing that name go be real pressure! By the time she finished writing out her name in school, class done! As opposed to somebody named Tricia Lee.

I know how to handle death, to an extent.

My younger brother died when I was three. My father died when I was 19. And I lost a child, Judah, at nine months in the womb before, with a different woman.

My daughter is like a divine intervention. Because her mother, Neela Sooklal, had also had miscarriages. My scenario with Neela, I cannot remember the name of it, is one of those that you can’t pronounce, but pregnancy was a one-in-four million chance.

I believe in a spiritual being. But not God.

Heaven and Hell, yeah, it have to have something like that. Because you have good and bad, yin and yang.

But I never really delved further into that.

Escalante is my name but it's not really my real name.

Gary Griffith is my cousin. His grandfather and my grandfather were brothers.

My grandfather changed his name in the 1940s and nobody in the Escalante family spoke about the Griffith side until I prodded my uncles when I was in my 30s.

The story my father gave me when I was 12 was, my grandfather served in World War I with his brother, 1914-18, and then went to the US, all the time sending money back to Trinidad.

When they came back to Trinidad, my grandfather asked his mother for some of the money he had been sending back, but she had used it to raise the other five kids.

My grandfather got vexed with the family and changed his name to Escalante, in honour of a man who saved his life in WWI.

My uncles left St Mary’s College on Friday as a Griffith and came back to school on Monday as an Escalante.

A man told me about being in class at CIC and the teacher taking roll calling out, “Kenneth Griffith, Kenneth Griffith” – and my uncle ent answering. The teacher pelt the blackboard duster at Uncle Kenny and he catch it and pelt it back at the teacher and said, “My name is Escalante!” And got suspended for two weeks.

I'm not a conventional Trinidad white boy. I get along well with everybody.

That went with my upbringing at possibly the best school in Trinidad, Naparima College.

Very rarely am I called “white boy” any more.

Being small, I had to defend myself with words. That played off heavily for me in Naps. Up to this day, men still remember me being a s----talker.

I only spent one year in form six at Naps. My old man pulled me out.

It worked out well because he died the following year, ’85. I was already working a year in the bank.

Looking back, in hindsight, if he had died and I was in upper sixth, I wouldn’ta had no idea what to do, no income coming in, no idea how to carry myself. I wasn’t exposed to the real world yet.

After my father told me to cut my hair in 1982, I
cut my hair again.

I was into rock music – Led Zeppelin, AC/DC – and long hair was cool.

I take my sweat in a little ground at Westmoorings I was a founding member of a team called the Rehab. Not far from the other ground they call the Detox.

I know all the back of Belmont, East Dry River. I know all the badjohn like Blood and them, used to be in Renegades panyard. I coulda walk down George Street normal-normal. Everybody know me between Belmont and Park Street.

For years, I drove from La Romaine with car windows open and the breeze dry my hair. It fall down in place, I start working.

Nobody said a thing for five years about my hair.

In those days, you had to ride out of Trinidad only with travellers’ cheques. And you can't ask the President to come to the bank!

So they sent me to President’s House. An ex-Naps man, President Hassanali, sees my school ring. And he says, “Would you like to have tea with us?” Mrs Hassanali gave me a tour. My foot sinking in the carpet.

“Oho! So this is why people’s go to university and get doctorate and thing!”

From the verandah overlooking the Savannah, I saw a half-acre immaculate lawn of manicured grass to the side.

Check me: “Hmmmm. Good place to sweat, boy!”

Michael “ESK” Escalante: "In 1995, I went up against Republic Bank and beat them to keep my ponytail as a bank teller." Photo by Mark Lyndersay

The bank’s industrial relations officer told my branch manager I had to cut my hair.

The bank’s handbook said hair had to be neat and tidy, nothing about length, and my hair was neat, slick-backed, gelled. They used to call it the Steven Seagal look.

I say to myself, “The last man to tell me to cut my hair was my father. And my father is deceased!”

I told Mr Kong I wasn’t going to cut it.

Up to this day I still get heckled as being the man who went to court over a ponytail and end up with a shaved head.

My hair was receding. You want me to keep three strands of hair on my head to prove I was that guy?

In February ’95, I had no wife, no girl, nothing to make me say I would suffer if I lost my work.

The initial letter of February 15, I was suspended for two weeks pending further disciplinary action if my hair was not cut.

Frank Barsotti, chairman of the board at the time, had a ponytail. Toey du Coudray, senior management, had a ponytail. The bank made both of them cut their hair. I dead serious.

Well, I don’t know if the bank
made them do it, but they both did.

I bounce up Mr Barsotti in the grocery a time and I watch the back of his head and say, “I sorry, eh!”

The Sunday before I started court, I made page three of the Express. I was supposed to be on the front page.

But they had kill a notorious bandit called Lizard and he get page one.

On page three, you see, “Suspended for a ponytail” and a picture of me. So we start.

The bank’s industrial relations officer would walk past me every day in court and not acknowledge my presence. Pass me like a bus.

When Trevor Gomez came in, he always said, “Morning ESK.” Not even “Michael.”

I won my case on the technicality that they took five years to tell me about my ponytail. But if my case happened anywhere else in the world, I wouldn't be talking in Newsday now. Because I would be on the French Riviera spending my money. For defamatory and all kind of s---.

People tell me they lecture about me in the Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business at Mt Hope. The first industrial relations test piece they have in a book there is Escalante v Republic Bank, 1995.

A chubby woman Rasta working at TSTT West Mall, where I used to pay my phone bill, said, “You know, you did a lot for us. Because of your case, TSTT never came after any of us who have dreadlocks.”

The bank fired me two years after my case and I couldn’t get a job after that.

We settled out of court, not really what I should have got, but in good faith.

People told me, “We cannot hire you, you’re a high-profile individual.” I was branded a rebel by corporate Trinidad.

I will always be indebted to Walt Lovelace, one of my best friends, because he put me in to do music videos with him. One of the first videos I ever did was Jointpop, After 1/2 Past Nine.

I ended up working behind the camera on Westwood Park and actually acted in the show, as the bad guy.

But things got bad in the industry.

After a day-work with them in October 1999, I ended up working in an air freight company in Miami.

Came back to Trinidad that year and I’m still in freight.

The best part of my whole court experience was winning. Because if I had lost, I probably would have resigned rather than cut my hair. Or I would've had very great resentment for my employer.

Mind you, I still bank with Republic. Everything I have is with them.

I still cool with everybody in there.

What is a Trini? A Trini is somebody like me. Who just cool.

A lot of people in Trinidad have a different persona. From everybody else in the world. That’s why I get along so well with so many of them.

Trinidad and Tobago is where I born and grow up. Even though I have a US passport, I choose to stay here. Because I like Trinidad.

Maybe a little less now, because you can’t drink and drive and you have a speed limit…

Read the full version of this feature on Friday evening at www.BCPires.com


"Once a ponytail time"

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