Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I Heard It Through The SeaGrape Vine

"Yuh lookin fi Peter, right?"

I stopped dead in my tracks and stared at him. His face looked familiar but how could it be, really? I'd been to Jamaica just once before, a month earlier, and didn't recall meeting him. He was tall and thickly built, his skin an inky black, and his sun-bleached dreads gathered high up at the back of his head. I had no idea who he was. But he knew me.

I nodded, yes, I was hoping to find Peter.

"Yuh jess miss him, gwan and check pon di beach, check fi him at Club Kokua."

I stared at him. He smiled slowly and said, "Yuh nah remembah mi?" Nope. But there was something kind and gentle in his face, I knew he was just trying to help me out. I thanked him, and walked out of Xtabi on the cliffs, and hailed a taxi back to the beach. I was mystified.

I'd spent only one week in Jamaica on my first visit and let Peter know I was coming back, we planned to link up. I wasn't sure where I would be staying and so counted on the small-town nature of Negril to make sure our paths crossed. These were the days before every Negrilian carried a cell phone in their pocket, these were the days when nobody needed a phone to get a message out or to find a friend. And these were the days when everybody knew everybody's business -- or at least thought they did.

It was many years later, after Peter and I were married, our eldest daughter was two years old and we were expecting our second child, that I re-told this story to Cleveland. We'd become good friends over the years and he always spent time with us when we returned to the island. He smiled and nodded, yes, he remembered seeing me step onto the terrace at Xtabi and searching the crowd. He remembered me and knew Peter was looking for me, too.

That day was one of many that made me realize what a small town Negril could be and how closely people pay attention to who you are and how you move and how very tough it can be to slink below the radar.

Cleveland motioned me to follow him as he stepped off the verandah, away from the crowd that always gathered at our cottage. He walked slowly across the grass and stopped, pulling his wallet out from his back pocket. He pulled two, slightly worn color photographs from deep within it's folds and handed them to me. One was of a dark-haired, smiling girl with coffe-color skin. She looked to be about 4 or 5, and the other was a very young baby, clearly the other's sister, with a shock of black hair on a tiny wizened face.

"These are my dawtas," smiled Cleveland. I was stunned.

"What?? I had NO idea you had kids, Cleveland. They are beautiful. Peter never told me you had kids."

Cleveland kissed his teeth -- "He nu know 'bout dem." Stunned again. Peter, one of his closest friends, didn't know Cleveland had kids? How could that be?

"Their mom live in the States, mi know her lang time, he know she. But mi no tell everybody 'bout mi bizness." He then permitted me to share the pictures with everyone else and happily soaked up the delighted responses and smiles they elicited from the group.

So, I wondered, why tell me? And why now? He'd sure manged to guard that secret for a long time and from a lot of people. The SeaGrapevine never picked up that scrap of news.

I think because we were so happily returning to Jamaica with our daughter, who brought such joy and laughter wherever we went, and with a second child on the way, it gave Cleveland pause.

He'd mastered the art of subverting Negril's CIA-like informers, the SeagGrapevine that carried everybody's stories up and down the beach. But at what cost? Thankfully, he'd paid the price long enough and finally found the pleasure of sharing his secrets.

Well, maybe at least one of them.........

I Heard It Through The Sea Grape Vine
Ink and watercolor on paper
Print available here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Alphonso and the Coconut

She was a little firecracker, that Maxine, ready to party before the plane even touched down in Mobay. She left her husband at home in their small midwestern town, said Jamaica just wasn't his thing, he wouldn't be comfortable.

And she did behave herself.

She had a husky voice for such a petite woman, a testament to too many smokes. And a laugh that burst out of her like it was shot from a cannon. I enjoyed her company during the day, sharing cocktails in the afternoon, but I always begged exhaustion when she tried to coax me out after dark. The beach night scene just doesn't appeal to me. I'd rather sit on the verandah with a book, listening to the gleep gleep of the tree frogs and dodging the smoke of the "destroyer" I had to place at my feet. Party on.

One afternoon, Maxine was sitting out at the beach front of the Whistling Bird, chatting with Alphonso. Well, actually, Maxine was doing most of the chatting. Alphonso was quietly nodding and handing her pieces of his jewelery for her to examine. Alphonso is an elder dread and a master craftsman. He works primarily in tortoise shell and black coral, but also often adds in pieces of silver, gold and occasionally slivers of bright scarlet or turquoise corals.

Earrings and bangles, pendants and combs, guitar picks and rings, his inventory is always changing. The work is exquisitely crafted by hand. He carries them all wrapped up in a bright white towel, tucked into his backpack. He won't sell his wares to just anyone, the vibe has to be right, he doesn't walk the beach and unroll the towel at every place he visits. His work is a part of him, he once told me, his art is his life. He'd rather not sell a piece than let the wrong person haggle him down to a price that disrespects his craft and his sensibility.

He'd rather go hungry.

By the time I reached the table and sat down, Maxine was wearing a pair of tortoise shell hoop hearings, a thick black coral bangle bracelet on her left hand, a slender tortoise shell bangle on her right, and the showstopper around her neck -- a luscious globe of lignum vitae, or ironwood, carved into the shape of a voluptuous coconut and wrapped with a tortoise shell coil at the crown, threaded through a black leather thong. Lignum vitae is such a slow-growing, hard and dense wood it will sink in water. I don't know how Alphonso managed to carve it into such a beautifully curved orb.

It made me drool.

I always tried to purchase something of Alphonso's each summer and I was envious of Maxine getting to that piece first. But it looked perfect on her. The creamy caramel color of the wood, its slightly oval shape, nestled in Maxine's cleavage - it oozed femininity, fertility.

Alphonso stepped away from the table, letting Maxine just sit with a mirror and admire herself with his wares. Alphonso never gives anyone the hard sell. It is almost as if he'd prefer you didn't buy anything, as if he's reluctantly parting with his children. Maxine whispered to me that she really wanted to buy them all, but he was asking for about $500 for the lot -- the earrings, the two bangles, and the coconut pendant. She ticked off the individual prices he'd quoted, which came to slightly higher than that amount. He was willing to trim the total since she'd buy all four items.

Maxine winced. "Do you think he'll knock off another fifty bucks?", she whispered. Alphonso stood well away from us, gazing up the beach.

"I dunno," I said, "that's a pretty good price," knowing how Alphonso felt about hagglers. "Maxine, he does have a whole buncha kids," I said. "If you can afford it, I wouldn't try to get him to go even lower." She looked back in the mirror, softly caressing the coconut.

"Couldn't you just DIE for this piece?" she asked, her eyes widening.

"Yeah," I sighed. "It's just beautiful. You gotta buy it, Max." Maxine called Alphonso over to the table. He slowly ambled over to where we were sitting.

"Wha' chew think, Maxine?" he said, softly.

"I just LOVE them ALL," she gushed. "I'm just not sure."

Now Alphonso may have scruples but he's also a wise businessman, he's practiced in the art of the soft sell.

"You don't have to decide right now," he told her. And he started to pack up the rest of his pieces. "Wear them for a bit. I'll check back with you tomorrow." Smart move. He let her keep all the pieces, no money exchanged hands, and he offered to meet her there again the next day when she could purchase what she chose or return them all.

Maxine was delighted. She had accessories for her evening ahead. Alphonso knew that after "owning" those pieces for 24 hours, Maxine would be less likely to give them up. But, he later told me, he never considers a sale a sale until he's got cash in his hand. It's always a gamble.

I didn't see Maxine that night or the next day. I caught up with Alphonso at the Whistling Bird bar the next evening.

"Hey," I said, "did you see Maxine today? Did she come through for you?" He gave me one of those quick chin-up gestures, and looked at me sideways. "She give them all back to me," he smiled, "said she couldn't come up with that much cash, she only have credit cyard. She nuh buy nuttin. So it go."

"Wait a minute," I said, "she could always get a cash advance on her credit card, or use the ATM over by the Hi-Lo. And I KNOW she could afford it." He shrugged.

"She's just not the right person for my pieces, that's all."

Damn straight, I thought.

"Hey, 'phonso, lemme see that carved coconut pendant." He smiled. He opened up his back pack, and unfurled the white towel, letting all of his pieces spill out onto the table top in front of me. He plucked the pendant from the center of the mass of tangled pieces and handed it to me.

"How much you want for this one, 'phonso?"

"One-seventy-five," he said, and he started to explain how he caved the lignum vitae and how he softened the tortoise shell into a coil.

I stopped him, shaking my head. "Two hundred," I said, "and not a penny less."

He nodded slowly and smiled. "I guess dat's the piece for you."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cold Drinks

Well, maybe not today..............You can always tell when a Jamaican shop is open for business -- windows and doors will be flung wide open, letting the breeze "cool i' dung". But if the shop is buttoned up like a church lady on Sunday morning, you best keep moving on down the road.

Cold Drinks
Ink and watercolor on paper
Purchase a print?  Info here.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sun Rise One Stop

See what I mean? That empty Heineken bottle rolling around under the passenger seat signals it's time to pull over. And just around the corner, the next one-stop appears as if summoned by  "deh powahs."

I'll pass on those dusty Tings lined up outside, even if they ARE in the shade. I'm from "farrin", so I need something out of the cooler, please. I'll take a bag of those Excelsior Water Crackers, hard as rocks, but tasty. The King grabs a Supligen and a "wizla" and we hit the road again..............

Sun Rise One Stop
Ink and watercolor on paper 

Purchase a print here. 

Friday, March 02, 2007

Bakka Yahd

One hot guinness or two cold red stripe, mebbe a bun an' cheese with a fresh coconut jelly. Get one frozen box drink for the pickney or maybe a Kola Champagne. 

If rum's your thing but you cyant afford an entire bokkle of J & B, just bring your own small empty pint and pay for a refill. 

Buy just one or two rolling papers, because who can afford to buy a whole pack?

And you're back on the road, sure to come across another one-stop around the next corner when your provisions run low.

Driving through the rural countryside of Jamaica always makes me think this is what middle America must have been like in the 1930s. One day these independent shops will be gone and Burger King and KFC will dot the landscape, just as they've taken over the streets of 'town and Mobay. Catch 'em while you can............

Bakka Yahd
Ink and watercolor on paper 
Purchase a print here.