Monday, January 22, 2007

A Change is in the Air

And no, that doesn't mean I've switched to painting plants.

I came back like gangbusters after my holiday break, churning out 5 new portraits and stories that first week, but I hit a bump in the road again last week with family commitments. I got back to my studio this weekend and I now have many more Jamaican portraits in progress, a series of subway portraits in the works and plans with a collaborator to add some original music tracks to the images I post.

So, please bear with me.

I expect I will be reducing my output to 2-3 paintings per week, rather than one each week day, but the the results will be more satisfying, I hope. I'll be back with a new portrait very shortly.

Always a good idea to sign up for a subscription to the blog -- this means you will receive an email only whene there is NEW material on the blog, with a link to the page. You won't miss a thing!

As they say in Jamaica, soon come , likkle more, walk good or my favorite, "lend me a nanny,

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

We Took Granny Meg to Jamaica

Well, she wasn't a grandmother at the time, only a prospective mother-in-law. And ever since she's returned, she's spotting Jamaicans everywhere. She's become a veritable "bredren magnet." To hear her tell it, Connecticut has become "Little Kingston." It's rather sweet, actually.

From the work crew who waterproofed her basement to the gentlemen who replaced the gutters on her roof, she always spots a Jamaican in the bunch. And pops the question: "Are YOU from Jamaica?" she'll ask. And then she's off, talking about her son-in-law and her beautiful granddaughters and her own visits to the island. They, in turn, are typically dumbstruck, but delighted to hear her story.

There is occasionally, however, that one Lost-in-Translation moment.

Granny Meg owns a small summer home on the coast of Maine, a cozy cottage nestled in a pine grove, just a stone's throw from the ocean. Popham Beach has been our summer getaway since the early 1960s and it hasn't changed much over the past 40 years. Hell, it hasn't changed much since the turn of the century.

There is one paved road into town which dissolves into a dusty dirt road as it approaches the coastline and winds through the pine trees. There is one restaurant, Spinney's Seafood, one general store, Percy's, which now also serves fried clams and burgers; and one post office, one library, and that's about it. Oh, and the remnants of Fort Popham, at the mouth of the Kennebec, where the river spills into the Atlantic Ocean.

The beach is huge, one leg of it hugs the roiling Kennebec River, and then makes a 90 degree turn at The Point, where it then receives the waves of the Atlantic. My husband calls it an "original beach." Often strewn with driftwood, it is huge, typically quite empty, and offers spectacular views across the bay and to outlying islands. The water is a deep dark blue, like the darkest blue crayon in the coloring box.

And in the 40-odd years we've vacationed at Popham Beach, I have never seen a black person. Not ever.

But Granny Meg IS the bredren magnet. And when she stepped out of Spinney's one crisp fall day, she was only somewhat surprised to spot two large black men, both sporting huge, red-gold-&-green knitted tams, standing in front of Percy's General Store. They were eating ice cream cones and taking in the view.

Now, Granny Meg is a tiny woman. She used to be  5'6" but is now about 5'4" and weighs only about 95 pounds. She keeps her white hair cut short, has icy-blue eyes, and always walks with a quick, determined gait. Spry is the word that comes to mind. And when she spotted what she knew to be the tell-tale sign of a potential Jamaican, the tam bulging with dreadlocks, and in his majesty's color palette, she made a beeline for the two men.

"One was old, grey and grizzled," recalled Granny Meg, adding "but the other was quite good looking!" As she approached the two she waved and said, "Good Morning!" I imagine the two dreads glanced over their shoulder to see who this little sparrow of a woman might be talking to. Finding themselves standing all alone in front of Percy's, they realized this almost-ancient-tiny white lady was speaking to them.

"Marnin'," one of them answered. They continued to lick their blueberry ice cream cones, inspecting her with suspicious curiosity.

"Are you two Ra-stahs?" she asked, pronouncing it much like you would say ratchet, or raspberry, a loong drawn out raaaa-sta. They blinked, staring at her, dumbstruck.

"Yah mon, how you know wi a rasta?" the older one asked.

"Well, I could tell by your hats, of course," smiled Granny Meg. I'm certain the bredren were not particularly pleased to be recognized as rastafari simply by their choice of headgear, rather than, for example, their intrinsic oneness with the Most-High.

"My son-in-law is a rasta from Jamaica," she continued, "He and my daughter and their beautiful little girls live in New York City."

"New York City is a very bad place," the younger one said, still not quite believing they were even having this conversation.

"Why are you here in Popham?" asked Granny Meg.

"Wi come fi look 'pon de sea," answered the elder, which made perfect sense. There couldn't be a sea more different from the caribbean than the rich dark waters of the Atlantic off the coast of Maine.

"Well, do you live and work here in Maine?" asked Granny Meg, delighted to have made two more new Jamaican friends.

"Yah mon, we work wid de opper," said the younger man.

Well, now it was Granny Meg's turn to be dumbstruck.

"The opera?" she repeated. Or, at least, thought she repeated. "Well, hmmm, do you both sing?"

The bredren paused for a moment, exchanging glances. One of them shrugged, and said, "yah mon, sometime we sing."

Granny Meg was intrigued but perplexed. She'd frankly never heard of an opera company in Maine, let alone one that might have singing roles for Jamaican dreadlocks.

"Well, uhh, what else do you do with the opera?" she asked.

The elder looked at her and spoke slowly, as if to someone who might not be altogether right in the head and said, "When di opper ripe, we pick dem offa da tree."

Granny Meg, you are priceless..............

Friday, January 12, 2007

Clash of the Not-So-Very Titans

I've always had a soft spot for Flash. We've had our squabbles, our out-right wars, but in the end we know that we're stuck with one anudda. He's my brother-in-law. And after 15 years I think we've finally settled in to an easy, warm friendship.

And Flash has also become a steady fixture at our cottage when we spend time in Jamaica. Much to Rudy's dismay.

Although Flash lives in the family yard in Sav La Mar, he is often stationed on Negril beach, "a werk 'im a werk". Lord knows where he sleeps at night. All I know is that when I get up early in the morning to make myself some coffee, Flash is already out on our verandah, heating up a pot of water for morning tea or cleaning callaloo for our breakfast. Rudy, on the other hand, will still be asleep on a beach chair that he'd drawn up in the shade, still wearing his shoes.

They each adore Peter, the definite alpha male of the larger community of bredren. They are his foot soldjahs and, I think, silently vie for top lieutenant status. Ok, well maybe just reaching the rank of Corporal is the most they can hope for. In typical yardie fashion, each receives a verbal bashing at full volume for the slightest infraction -- not setting the fire right, not cleaning the pots thoroughly, not sweeping the verandah first thing -- the list is endless, perfection is always beyond their grasp, at least in the eyes of their commander.

Yet they each know they will be well cared for under the commander's watch -- food in their belly, the occasional fresh shirt, jeans or new shiny boots hurled at them when they least expect it or the invitation to hop in The Unit for a drive to 'town. Life is fresh and exciting when we come to visit and they don't want to miss a moment.

But they still have to "werk."

One morning, a fellow guest at the Whistling Bird was up at the bar getting coffee. Rudy overheard her complain of an itchy skin condition, whether it was from sun or bug bites, I can't quite recall. Seeing an opportunity to assist AND earn, Rudy offered to make her up a special Natural Salve to cure her ills. She gratefully accepted. Rudy hustled back to our cottage and asked Flash if he knew how to whip up some special Aloe and what-have-you concoction for the specified ailment.

Flash, after all was the real country man who knew the how-to's of bush medicine, and Rudy, well, Rudy was more of the advance man, as it were. Flash offered his own suggestions and went about collecting the appropriate bush with which to make the medicine. He whipped up the salve, in a gooey aloe base, poured it into a jar and gave it to Rudy. Flash went back to working on our breakfast while Rudy casually strolled back up to the beach front.

You can see where this is heading.

Rudy helped the woman apply "his" miracle medicine. It provided much relief and the woman graciously offered Rudy 500 jays, a little less than ten bucks. A werk 'im a werk, every dollah helps.

And Flash felt the same way. Flash is no fool, it didn't take him long to figure out that Rudy was sure to come into some cash for the miracle medicine and he wanted his cut. That's when the fireworks began. A cut of ten dollars may not seem like much to you or me, but to the hardscrabble hustle on Negril beach, that is apparently something worth fighting for.

The shouting and the cursing escalated, the "bumbaclaats" lobbed back and forth, followed by threats, insults, the usual. The melee traveled out to the beach front of the property and, unfortunately, dear Jim, the owner of the Whistling Bird, finally had to step in. He's always been gracious about accommodating the cluster of bredren that typically spend time on our doorstep throughout our stay. They, in turn try not to step on any toes or hassle the guests.

Except for that day.

And the shouting and yelling and overall carrying on was beyond the pale. When it threatened to turn violent, it frightened the other guests. And remember, this was all about splitting ten dollars. Who deserved it, the hustling salesman, without whom there would not have even been a sale? Or the knowledegable bush doctor, without whom there would not have been a cure? It's not for me to say.

I'd gladly give them each ten bucks to just be quiet and stop them from pummeling one another or drawing blood. But this was Jamaican male turf and I knew better than to stick my nose into the middle of their business.

Thankfully, in every Jamaican tragedy, there often lurks some comedy. A bit of black humor, as I saw it. Jim later told me, after sending both men on their way, unbloodied but with the issue still unresolved, "One was waving a knife, and the other was swinging a plastic soda bottle."

He sighed and shook his head, "It just wasn't a fair fight."

Souljahs in Jah's army, still Privates, first class.

Clash of the Not-So-Very Titans
Ink and watercolor on paper.
Purchase a print of this painting here.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Rude Bwoy

I don't have a good story about Rudy today -- I have a hundred good stories about Rudy. None of which he'd probably like me to share with you.

Our constant companion from the minute we arrive in Negril, Rudy has become like a member of the family, albeit the black sheep. I'm told that Rudy used to dress sharp with "shiney genkle-man shoes an' trousahs well pressed an' neat", but lately Rudy looks like a hundred miles of back-country road.

In the wake of some rather poor "career" choices, the consensus among the bredren is that Rudy is "wert-less" and "his brain bun out". Still, no one gives up on Rudy, hope springs eternal. My husband harangues him and brings him new clothes, insults him and loads his plate with double helpings, bought him a cell phone and makes him do the heavy lifting when we unload our bags.

Sometimes it makes me cringe. When I ask my husband to fetch me a drink from the bar or refill the ice pitcher, he sends Rudy. When the girls agree that jerk chicken is what they'd like for lunch, Rudy makes the trip up the boulevard. And when Peter tells Rudy to fetch him some brown stew chicken from Noah's but Rudy returns with escoveitch fish, guess who gets a slap upside the head and tirade of insults about his mental capacity? But then settles down on the verandah when Peter shares out the food with him.

It's an odd relationship.

"Petah come like mi bredda," says Rudy. "He more like mi family than mi real breddas."

But Peter has brothers. Many, in fact. And tomorrow I'll show you one in particular and share the story of Rudy's clash with Flash.

Rude Bwoy
Ink and watercolor on paper.
Purchase a print of this painting here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Mango Doesn't Fall too Far from the Tree

It wasn't an expensive ring. Not at all. Just right for a ten-year old girl, a small silver band with the carved figure of a turtle at its center. I don't even know if it was real silver.

But that's not the point. The point is it was a gift to my daughter from a classmate. A classmate who was leaving New York City for good, much to her dismay, and gave her two closest friends matching rings for all of them to wear. That's the kind of thing girls do.

My daughter treasured this ring. And she took great care to place it on the bedside table each day when she got ready to take a swim. She wasn't taking any chances of it slipping off her fingers and drifting away in the caribbean sea.

So it was more than disconcerting when she noticed the ring on Natalie's finger.

We'd known Natalie and her little brother Simon for years. Their father, Donald, worked in Negril, and she and Simon were frequent playmates of our girls during our long summer stays. Like many Jamaican families, I'm sure life was a struggle, but their father worked hard and provided for his children.

Still, they were happy to join us for a meal at a beach-side restaurant, Simon was excited to receive a real soccer jersey from the girls' soccer league in NYC, and they both graciously accepted our offers to "take charge of" our beach toys at the end of our summer. We knew the toys might be gone by next year, but that wasn't the point. Why haul them back home to sit in a closet in New York City for nearly a year when these two kids could continue to use them everyday? It was just the right thing to do.

So, you get the picture. We didn't shower these kids with gifts, but we liked them and shared what we could, just like you would with any of your children's playmates.

And when the rain fell, as it often did during midday in the summer,all the kids ran to our cottage to escape and find something else to do to pass the time.We always brought down rainy-day activities just for that purpose - art supplies, dolls, the occasional craft project, that sort of thing. Ours was a good place to hang out when the rain put a halt to swimming.

But when my daughter saw Natalie wearing her ring, it gave her pause. She first made certain that it was indeed her own ring (it was) and she asked Natalie to please remove it and put it back on the table. Natalie obliged, just saying that she thought it was pretty and wanted to see how it looked on her own finger.

Sure, ok. And they continued to play in the cottage until the rain passed. When the sun finally returned, they ran for the beach and jumped back into the sea for a swim. My daughter noticed that Natalie again had possession of her ring. This time it was threaded through the shoulder strap of her bathing suit, bobbing in the water as she swam. Alarmed, my daughter asked Natalie to please give her the ring back. Surprised, as if she'd forgotten she'd even picked up the ring, nevermind taken such pains to thread it through her suit strap, Natalie again obliged, returning the ring. My daughter brought it back up to our cottage for safe keeping and shared with me her concern about Natalie's obvious attraction for it.

It wasn't until the end of the day, when it was time for Natalie and Simon to go home, that the ring finally made it's last appearance. Or, better said, disappearance. Natalie had gone to our cottage to change out of her swimsuit. Alone. My husband let her in, she retreated to the girls' bedroom to change, and quickly ran out, making hasty "good-byes". It wasn't until she and Simon had gone home with their father that we learned the ring had apparently gone with her.

Crestfallen, my daughter recounted to her dad the events of the day, and her certainty that Natalie had finally successfully absconded with her precious momento.

"Hmm, a one likkle teef, eeenh?" mused my husband."Mi talk to her fadda tomorrow." The question was, just what would he say to Donald in the morning? We agreed that the best thing to do was not to accuse Natalie of outright theft. The following morning, my husband spoke with Donald and said only that Natalie had "forgotten" to return a ring that she'd been "permitted" to try on that day and could he please get it back from her?

"Donald a gwan a BEAT 'im, if 'im teenk she one teef," chuckled my husband. Many Jamaican children are raised with an iron fist, physical punishment can be swift and brutal. My husband thought Donald would certainly beat the daylights out of Natalie if he thought she'd stolen something. Best to imply that it was simply an oversight and let Natalie explain herself to her father.

Later that evening, Donald sought out my husband and spoke quietly to him. Yes, he said, Natalie did have the ring. So far so good.

Then Donald smiled and whispered, "So, mi bredda, give me five U.S. dollahs an' you can haff back da ring."

My husband just looked at him. He paused and shook his head.

"Fuh get it, mon," he told Donald. "Keep it." He turned and walked away.

The girls don't play with Natalie and Simon any more..................

The Mango Doesn't Fall Too Far From the Tree
Ink and Watercolor on paper
Purchase a print of this painting here.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Shades of Grey

"Mi cyan't find mi sista cell phone. A wheh it deh?"

We were driving back to Negril after spending the day in Sav La Mar. I had no idea where the cell phone could be. I had no use for it myself. This was the first year cell phones began to pop up all over Jamaica and I hadn't quite gotten used to the idea that you could actually reach someone without resorting to the rural grapevine. Which was, incidentally, a remarkably reliable method of contacting folks.

Frighteningly reliable, now that I think about it.

But cell phones had arrived. We'd actually brought this particular cell phone down for Felicia just so that we could stay in touch with the family directly, rather than depend upon the sole neighbor who owned an actual land-line phone. A cell phone became THE prized luxury accessory of the season, better than a gold chain. Even if you had no battery charger to keep it functioning, hell, even if it had no battery aTALL, wearing a cell phone prominently clipped to your pants waist was even better than a new pair of Clarks.

And ours was missing.

"I dunno," I said, "are you sure you left it in the car?"

"Yeah, mi leff it dehsoh," my husband said, pointing to the well behind the gearshift box, between the seats. "An mi mine tell me," he said, tapping his finger against his temple, "NAH let Sticks inn a mi cyarr -- { sound of kissing teeth} - but mi let him a move it, mi let him put di cyarr inna de shade," {more kissing of teeth} "mon, mi know 'im a tek mi phone outta mi cyar."

"Sticks? But I thought he's one of your friends? He wouldn't take your phone." I was a little puzzled by this conclusion.

"Yeah, mon, mi know Sticks lahng time, he a grow up amongst we, mi know him since we a likkle yewt. And he's a teef. He always been one likkle teef."

We drove silently for a few minutes.

"Mi guess he the man who tek the cigarette lightah fram the cyar, too." We'd noticed that the car's cigarette lighter was gone after our last trip to the country. " Mi nah know what he cyan do wid dat lightah, it cyan't werk pon it's own, not widout de cyar," he chuckled.

"Well," I said, "perhaps he'll steal a car to go with it." I rolled my eyes.

I was still trying to digest the fact that my husband was so matter-of-factly accepting the notion that his friend stole from him. It annoyed him, but didn't seem to surprise nor upset him much.

"But we just spent the better part of the day with Sticks", I said. "We fed him and the other guys, and we all sat on the verandah eating a meal together, and now you're telling me he's a thief? But he's your friend? He's a thief AND he's your friend?"

Although my husband knew better than to call me "one eeediot", he shot me a look that said essentially the same thing.

"Mon, sometimes you look like yuh jess nah know wha-gwan," my husband said -- {more kissing of teeth, which is the equivalent of a new yorker rolling her eyes}.

I had to admit that, frankly, he was right. When in Jamaica, I just never really DID understand what was going on, particularly when it came to the rather fluid boundaries of friendship.

"Next time, jess nah let Sticks inna de house, seen?". Next time? So we were still friends with Sticks, but with necessary precautions. Alright.

Sometimes I just wished the good guys would wear white hats and the bad guys would wear black, just like in those old politically-incorrect westerns. That's me all over, I'm afraid. I've been told I tend to see things in strictly black and white terms, but Jamaica, contrary to it's turquoise waters and emerald hills, is really just a whole heapah shades of grey.

Shades of Grey
Ink and watercolor on paper.
Purchase a print of this painting here.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Menage a trois

Let me introduce you to Mr. I Love Your Skin Color. Or, well, Junior.

"Yuh know, mi nevah like di skin of a black ooman. Mi always like the nice creamy, soft skin of a white lady, seen?"

Nancy wasn't buying it.

She liked Junior, she'd been seeing him over several months during frequent trips to the island. A woman of a certain age, Nancy was smart, wisecracking, and came from a cold, woodsy rural town of the northeast. And her skin WAS the color of porcelain, and so was her extensively bleached hair. She chain smoked, observed the runnings of Negril beach from behind large thick-lensed glasses, and had an unexpected sophistication lurking beneath a casually disheveled appearance.

I liked her instantly.

She shared this rather disturbing "compliment" with me shortly after we first met. I liked Junior, I still do. I didn't know him well but he was hard not to like. He had an easy smile, was quite pleasant, and always seemed to be on the move, working and hustling, in a good way. And he was kind to Nancy.

But that remark gave us both the creeps.

She was having a good time, but was decidedly skeptical about the long-term prospects of Mr. I-Love-White-Skin. She'd learned of a Baby Mudda inna the bush, who was presumably Not An Issue, or so she was told. But still, her gut told her perhaps there was something, or some one, else which just might be an issue. She just couldn't put her finger on it.

So she took some investigative action.

It was several months after our return to the states before she gave me an update. She'd done some snooping around Junior's belongings and found the quintessential black book. It was the size of about 4 postage stamps, crammed full of scribbled numbers and names.The most recent entry was a name and phone number of a woman from a mid-western American city. So, Nancy says, I called "the numbah." She started to chuckle.

Seems the numbah belonged to a black American woman, whom I'll call Marie. She had also been a frequent visitor to Jamaica and they began to discover how much they had in common. Seems Marie had heard a variation on the I-love-your-skin theme but with the obvious twist -- "Mi jess cyan tek the white lady skin, mi always luuuuv the nice brown skin of a righteous black ooman," he'd told her.

So at least Junior doesn't discriminate after all.

But it was probably that false expression of desire that angered them more than a straightforward case of infidelity. They were grown women, they knew that international dating was not a sure thing and their expectations were not ridiculously high. And so rather than see themselves as enemies fighting over a man, they bonded as sisters in a sham, pissed off at the false profession of love. Cheatin' vs. lyin', well maybe it was a distinction without a difference. Still.

They made a plan.

Now mind you this was in the days before cell phones, but just at the dawn of such wonderful features as call waiting, star 69 and the all-time favorite: 3-way calling. Nevertheless, if you wanted to reach someone in Jamaica who didn't have a phone, which was just about everybody you were likely to meet, you either had to wait for them to phone you from the Call Box down the lane, or you could call a third party who had a phone and they would get the word out that you were trying to reach someone. So Marie put a call out to Jamaica that Junior must give her a call back. Word soon reached him and he dutifully called Marie at the designated time.

After the initial pleasantries, the how-are-you-darlin's, the mi-miss-you-so-much and the mi-cyan't-wait-fi-see-you, Marie told Junior she had someone with her who wanted to speak to him. A few clicks and a beep or two and Nancy was also on the line. And as far as Junior could tell, it sounded as if they were not only both in the same state, but both in the same house, sharing the same phone.

Ahh, the telephonic threesome. It's a beautiful thing.

Menage a Trois
Ink and watercolor on paper.
Purchase a print of this painting here.