Friday, December 10, 1993

How to Buy a Carpet

Written in 1993 for Forbes-FYI magazine

Let other men waste their time on local tradesmen. Whenever I find myself in need of a rug I go directly to Istanbul—common ground of East and West, and still the biggest bazaar on earth—where, dusty with the trodden gold of its former incarnations as Byzantium and Constantinople, I thread the devious lanes, jostling bridges, floating domes, and hypodermic minarets of this chaotic, immortal, schizophrenic city, one foot in Asia, one in Europe, twenty-six centuries old. Into its own covered and arched and mushroom-domed bazaar. I wind my way, through the glittering labyrinth of silks, goldsmiths, jewel merchants, marionettists, sandal-dealers, copper-and-brassmen, via honeycombed paths of haggling over half a million Oriental carpets until, mystery of mysteries, I come to the shop of a man I trust, Hasan Semerci, for I have a strict personal rule: given the choice, I buy my rugs from a Turkish gentleman who did his higher studies in English literature at Edinburgh University.

The problem is not my concentration, the problem is not that dancing-girl, the problem is that it is sometimes difficult to think of only one thing for very long in such a place. Say I am happily installed at the Pera Palace, like so many before me—Mata Hari, Garbo, the Shah, Agatha Christie (the hotel was built in 1892 to serve passengers on the Orient Express) or that German spy named Cicero who served as the British ambassador’s valet and had nothing, nothing at all, to do with the bomb that blew away the lobby. You see? I have forgotten my rugs, distracted by the view.

Perhaps the greatest man-made view in the world, even through the grimy window of a taksi maneuvering the thronged Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, its waters sprinkled with fishing dories. A city in three parts: the belle-époque heights of Pera behind, and ancient imperial Stamboul ahead, with its hodgepodge skyline of jam-jar mosques, its cafes of brooding men, its infinite markets. Both are in Thrace, also called Europe, but across the mile-wide watery Bosphorus, the strait which splits every local soul, lies Asia. Soon one wonders if two continents are enough for this place.

It contains enough history to give anywhere else indigestion. No other city dominated the Western world and mind for as long; no other city has such marvelous commotion. It began as Byzantium, for a thousand years, and as the Roman Empire’s focus shifted east, the city grew. In 330 A.D., after the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he made Byzantium the Empire’s capital and renamed it. Constantinople’s language was Greek, its law still Roman, and its culture the Orthodox Church, and from it the Byzantine Empire flowered. Rival Christians of the Fourth Crusade swept in from Venice in 1204, and did all they could to destroy or steal nine centuries of civilization in the name of their Catholic god.

The Byzantines hung on in disarray until the city fell to Moslem Turks in 1453, conquering for Allah, and thus Constantinople’s second empire, the Ottoman, was born. It lasted through palace intrigues and sultans by turns enlightened or decadent until the early years of this century, when the brilliant soldier Atatürk resurrected Turkey (1923) from the Ottoman ashes. He Westernized the written language, secularized most aspects of daily life—off with the fez and the veil—and moved the capital to Ankara. Atatürk died in 1938, but in many ways it might as well have been last week.

Nothing clears the mind of noble thoughts like commerce, so I went to buy a carpet in the Grand or Covered Bazaar, called by my former colleague Mark Twain “a monstrous hive of little shops... full of life and stir and business, dirt, beggars. . ” These days the bazaar’s 5,000 shops make it the largest covered market in the world; I always head straight for a select, enclosed souk-within-the-souk, known as the Old Bazaar since it dates back to Byzantine rather than merely Ottoman times. Within ten meters a few of its hundred-odd shops offered old diving helmets and Rolleicord cameras, tribal jewelry, a porcelain set showing Atatürk, hubble-bubbles and oil lamps, engraved cigarette holders, 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints, antique toy soldiers, Ottoman tobacco boxes, Meerschaum pipes, Greek ikons, Tsarist snuff boxes, silver pocket-watches from conductors on the Orient Express, and miniatures of Islamic demons and lovers painted on three-hundred-year-old pages of the Koran to convince the gullible tourist that the paintings are equally aged.

Fortunately the Old Bazaar has four well-marked doors as compass points, so I easily found old friends—I should demand baksheesh for these recommendations. For fine timepieces and exotic jewelry, try Kapris, near door #4; just outside, for embroidery and ceramics, Ziya Ayzac’s shop. Inside again, between doors #2 and #4, Murat Bilir’s shop for antique copper and brass, and for jewelry, Zeki Dilmer. These are men you can trust, who’ll probably refuse to bargain, as will my friends at the best all-round antique shop, Sofa, just outside the Grand Bazaar at 42 Nuruosmaniye Çaddesi. (In the main bazaar, when bickering over, say, a leather jacket, bargain very hard but stay friendly, and don’t be afraid to walk away.)

To find Hasan the carpet-dealer, walk into the Old Bazaar, then walk out door #3. You are now back in the main bazaar. At the first cross-lane, turn right and enter the last shop on the right before the next cross-lane. (Adnan & Hasan, 90-92 Halicilar Çarşısi, meaning Carpet-Merchants’ Market). Hasan is the tall, dark-mustached one, with a gentle face. This fits 43% of the bazaar’s 300 rug dealers, of course, but you’ll know you’re in the right place because that shop is two cozy rooms piled with carpets and kilims. (A kilim is woven, and flat; a carpet is knotted and has pile.)

While trying not to glance at a remarkable kilim on one wall, I got Hasan to tell his life story over a thimbleful of apple tea.

“My intention wasn’t to become a carpet-dealer; my interest was linguistics. When I was eighteen, in 1968, there weren’t many English speakers here. During high school vacations I started in the Old Bazaar, working for an elderly gentleman—one shop sold rugs, the other sold copper and brassware. I attended Istanbul University in English language and literature, then went to Edinburgh University on scholarship for my post-graduate studies. I came back and taught English, and one day, while visiting my old boss in the bazaar, I saw that his employees were getting paid sixteen times as much as I was as a language professor. So I began managing his shops. Then I met Adnan, whose carpet shop this was. He’s retired in London now.

“I go on a week’s buying trip about every six weeks. Despite the colorful stories rug dealers tell, we don’t go from village to village and house to house. I have local contacts in various areas who know exactly what pleases me, that I want only old carpets and kilims. For new ones I go directly to the looms. I keep about 2,000 pieces in the shop. In style, they’re floral to geometric; brand-new to old and antique, though the latter are really difficult to get. Most are forty to seventy years old—semi-antique, say. It’s a good period. They have a nice, natural ‘old’ patina, but their conditions are still good, with few repairs as opposed to heavy restoration. And they still have several decades’ life in them.”

My eyes were fixed on a tightly woven kilim hung on one wall; Hasan said it was from near Lake Van in eastern Turkey, about 5 x 8, recent, wool on cotton, an unusual floral design borrowed from the Kurdish part of Iran—as tribal rugs, most kilims have geometric designs. This one had reds, deep and pale blues, and dashes of white in elaborate flaring flowers—the effect was of hundreds of abstract peacock feathers, curving diagonally. Hasan priced the rug at $630, and promised to hold it a few days while I decided.

In Stamboul whenever I cannot make up my mind where to go I visit Aya Sofia—along with the Taj Mahal, the only building whose foundations were designed not to hold it up but to keep it from floating away. Begun by the emperor Justinian in 532, it was for almost a thousand years the largest enclosed space in the world, and for centuries the Byzantine rulers were crowned within. After the Ottoman conquest minarets were added, and it functioned as a mosque until Ataturk made it a museum in 1935. In recent years the upper gallery has been opened, with its 12th-century mosaics (including a somber, aristocratic Jesus) and at last one can get close enough to see the glowing golden Virgin and child on high, and feel suspended in the interior sky of that miraculous dome.

Within a moment’s walk, across the park where the Hippodrome was in Roman times, rises the six-minareted Blue Mosque, one of the most sumptuous in Islam, so-called for its blue tiles and stained-glass, as if the devout are praying in a huge kaleidoscope. Topkapi is also nearby, the Ottoman sultans’ palace whose museum includes an important Ming ceramics collection, harem rooms which demand much imagination, a large footprint of the prophet Mohammed, a gem-encrusted doll-house, and the famous jeweled dagger (though there’s always a bit of tittle-tattle that the real gems are in a vault).

I never pass up, however, the Underground Cistern, just across the street from Aya Sofia and also built by Justinian. The banal entry and stairway down give no clue to the vastness that awaits: a subterranean palace of 336 marble columns, each thirty feet high, with detailed Corinthian capitals, supporting an arched ceiling in twelve rows as well as the road and modern city above. Fourteen centuries ago it was built as the grandest of countless underground reservoirs, filled via aqueducts from forests twelve miles away, and used through Ottoman times. At the rear, in liquid light, two massive carved Medusas regard their reflections in the shallows.

Back in the Covered Bazaar the next day I asked Hasan what advice he gives innocents to the art of carpet-buying in Istanbul.

“First, I tell people not to be concerned if a carpet is vegetable dyes or artificial. Because no matter what a dealer tells you, 80% of our rugs’ dyes are man-made, and have been since the 1850s—so who are you going to kid? I’ve found that if you tell people this from the start they trust you. Yes, vegetable dyes are better, but there are other qualities to consider. One can get misled here as well. For example, herekes are the ‘finest’ carpets in terms of knots per inch—but this doesn’t mean ‘best’. There’s always the question of condition—if a carpet gets treated as a doormat it gets worn out. I often show people a ‘fake antique’ carpet, treated with acid to make it look a century old; then I show them the same carpet straight off the loom, and they can’t believe it. The trick here is to look into the carpet’s pile to make sure the color is monochrome down to the knot. With old and antique rugs a similar fading occurs, but it’s not so dramatic.”

“What are the mistakes people make?” I asked. “How can they avoid getting ripped off?”

“It helps if they do some reading before coming to Istanbul, to avoid losing time. Then they’re aware what questions to ask—where a carpet or kilim is from, how old, material, dyes, whether the design is traditional or made up, condition. Sometimes a rug is unique, and you can’t find another like it. A semi-antique kilim is like a faulty stamp. A new one might be better woven, with all vegetable dyes—which are being brought back—but the older ones have a style that comes not only from a sense of their rarity but of ‘being meant.’ But say people are interested in a new hereke. After three shops, they’ll get an idea of the proper price, depending on whether it’s wool on cotton, or silk on silk, which is expensive. People simply mustn’t be afraid to compare.”

My problem, of course, was that my kilim looked incomparable, no matter what others Hasan and his partner Erol showed me.

The Spice Market (Misr Çarşısi) just down a straggling, steep congested hillside of shops, is simple relative to the Covered Bazaar. Built for Egyptian spice merchants in 1660 to raise money for the huge mosque beside it, the high-vaulted stone hall still holds bulging sacks of rich condiments, perfuming the air with the flavors of India, China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Arabia alongside cures for rheumatism, hemorrhoids, baldness, poverty, infidelity. In the good old days you could purchase opium and hashish as easily as tortoise eggs and dragon’s blood. Today the bazaar has become more comprehensive, with butchers’ and tailors’ shops among the spices, and on one flank outside is a fruit, vegetable, and fish market, on the other a shady park and the Flower and Bird Market. My favorite character there is an eyepatched old man in a sportsman’s cap and black raincoat, standing by a large set of scales. His assistant is a white rabbit who wrinkles his nose and plucks a minutely folded fortune from a rack. My paper future read:

The owner of the intention, you will be in the clarity and comfort. Your desire becomes real in the near future. You will be successful and finish in the work that you are trying to do.

My task, though, was to decide about that rare kilim. Pass me both odalisques, I hate to decide. I decided to have lunch above the Spice Market, at Pandeli’s. This blue-tiled establishment, run for decades by a Greek father and son, long ago stopped having to open for anything other than lunch, and though it has gotten by on its reputation for years, it is still a bit of semi-antique (as opposed to old or ancient) Istanbul that survives mostly intact, with hearty soups and superb stuffed vine-leaves, called dolma.

A couple of years ago the proddings of scholarship sent me investigating if one might still find first-rate belly-dancers here, and fond memories (Youth! Zeynep! Istanbul! The moon!) led me back across the Golden Horn to Pera and down its main avenue, Istiklal Çaddesi, modelled on the Champs Elysees of a bygone age— past 18th- and 19th-century embassies, art deco theaters that are now moldering cinemas, into the magnificent rococo Flower Passage (Çiçek Pasajı) which despite the city’s efforts to clean it up, is dusty and shadow-lovely once again. From it you enter the long, cool, canopied elbow of the Balık Çarşısi, the city’s best fish and produce market (with by far the best prices for Russian and Iranian caviar). Underground, oddly, are two floors of secondhand book-shops, full of what diplomats in many languages left behind.

I had an early dinner in a favorite restaurant, the Haçi Baba, off Taksim Square, with (of course) several entrances. The easiest to find is a narrow doorway across the street from the old French Consulate and a few steps down Istiklal Çaddesi. In winter it doesn’t seem so remarkable, but during the city’s six months of fine weather you can eat on a calm terrace above a garden, a minute from the enormous square’s roar, and feel yourself an Istanbuli.

I still couldn’t make up my mind about that kilim. I thought: Since a man thinks better in the bath, won’t he think better about rugs in a Turkish bath? Just off Istiklal, not far from the Italian (then the Venetian) embassy where Casanova spent the summer of 1744 without a single conquest, I turned up a lane to the Galatasaray Hamami, built in 1481, just prior to the golden age of both Ottoman architecture and the Turkish bath. In those days a man entering the women’s hamam (or vice-versa) was killed; a law of separation is still followed. The public bath as a tradition here dates back to Byzantine times, though Ottoman ones were usually part of a mosque.

The idea is to go in for a few hours, bathe, soap, sweat, get massaged, sweat some more, get your skin rubbed off, soap, sweat, etc. By comparison a sauna seems terribly claustrophobic. You sit or lie in huge, marble-columned and domed halls, ethereally lit; every now and then a gentleman in a spotless towel drenches you in return for a tip at the end of the experience. Assuming you can get over the novelty, it’s easy to see how the hamam became a cure for ills physical and spiritual. Afterward you relax by a fountain, sip coffee like quicksand, and feel you’ve achieved a great deal.

My great deal involved Hasan, and my kilim in a tight bundle.

With familiar pleasures it is good to save the best for last, so on my last afternoon I headed to Eminonu, near the Spice Market, and boarded a ferryboat to Asia, mere minutes and fifty cents away. The feribot was a spacious white double-decker with a busy snack bar and white-jacketed waiters making the rounds with tea. There is always something festive about these ferryboats, which carry thousands of commuters every day, keeping the city’s soul afloat.

We passed Sirkeçi Station, where the Orient Express would arrive from Paris and ongoing passengers would cross the street to board a vessel like my own; the porters must’ve made out like bandits. We passed the austere walls of Topkapi—grey, many-spired, with dozens of baby domes and towers, surveying all—and Seraglio Point, where unfortunate harem-girls were drowned in weighted sacks like cats. The fantastic domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia loomed above trees and ancient walls.

In minutes we had crossed the Bosphorus towards the Sea of Marmara, with enormous freighters like ghosts at anchor. Now we were passing Haydarpasa on the other side, with a Victorian train station in brown stone right by the water—from here the Orient Express sent branch lines to Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran, and points east. It was presumably the only train route in the world where to continue you had to change continents by twenty-minute ferryboat.

At Kadikoy we all piled out onto the dock. I found a coffee shop and settled down to watch the fishing-boats and Russian oil tankers plying the Bosphorus. Thirty years ago my father, a journalist, had swum across as a gag—his sense of achievement dimmed by meeting an elderly gent who swam from Europe to Asia every day because lunch was cheaper on this side. I’d been trying to recall a song he heard a Hungarian pianist perform here during the war, in the Park Hotel—now demolished, then a hangout for spies, refugees, informers, black marketeers, military men and ambassadors of all loyalties. Written by an OSS agent, it ran:

I’m involved in a dangerous game,
Every other day I change my name,
The face is different but the body’s the same --
Boo-boo, baby! I’m a spy!


It is easier to imagine yourself a spy than a sultan, easier to imagine yourself a carpet-dealer than a fortune-teller, easy anyway to imagine yourself another life in Istanbul. If aliens ever arrive from outer space looking for a world capital, they should start here. One coffee and one dancing-girl, please, medium-sweet.


[To wash a kilim: ten minutes with Woolite in the bathtub, then spin cycle in the washing machine. Dry it on the floor for a day.]

Tuesday, December 7, 1993

Letter from America

Written in 1993 for Pan magazine (Northern Cyprus)

A great surprise for Americans who travel is to realize that much of the rest of the world sees the United States not as George Washington’s peaceful, “shining city on a hill” but as a place where acts of senseless, murderous violence are committed daily by urban schoolchildren. One recent earthquake in the sleeping American consciousness has been a sense that the rest of the world might be right.

Consider a few eloquent statistics. In 1991, over 12,000 Americans were killed with handguns. (In Great Britain that year, only 55 people died the same way.) By the following year, the U.S. figure had risen by 33%—in 1992, 16,000 Americans were killed with firearms. This works out to about 40 deaths a day. Americans may worship the automobile, but there are more gun shops than gas stations in the United States.

I always wonder what Cypriots (on both sides) must think when they hear such figures. Everyone on this island has been affected by violence for three generations now; most men are required to do some military service, and know how to use a gun; yet guns aren’t allowed except for hunting purposes. You must think us all mad, over in the United States.

Few societies as violent as America have such an enormous capacity for self-deception. (Colombians, for example, do not proclaim to the rest of the world that they live in a model society.) It is ironic at best that President Clinton has recently been very hard-pressed to explain the deaths of seventeen U.S. soldiers in combat in Somalia—while that many citizens are murdered in Washington every two weeks.

Less and less, though, are such deaths taken for granted. The media is full of complex explanations: it’s television’s fault; it’s the fault of parents; it’s the fault of the schools. (A recent study reveals, by the way, that about 40% of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate—can’t even read a railway timetable.) Can it be everybody’s fault? Hollywood’s? Whose?

For many decades the conservative right has argued that the fault lay in lax, liberal punishment for murderers; fry a few more criminals on Death Row (the argument ran), publicize the fact that the Death Penalty is here to stay, then sit back and watch the crime rate drop. But the statistics are eloquent: ever since the Supreme Court restored capital punishment, there has been an astonishing rise in the murder rates. Whose fault?

It’s partly the fault of the Constitution, which—as every schoolchild knows—guarantees each American “the right to bear arms.” Taken out of context, this sounds a lot like James Bond’s license to kill; in fact the actual phrase goes on to talk about an armed militia (as many readers will recall, there was a revolutionary war with Britain going on at the time). More importantly, the gentlemen who wrote the laws simply couldn’t have forseen that their five-word phrase would be used one day to justify AK-47s and .44 Magnums on the streets of New Amsterdam.

So the Constitution is our 18th century culprit. Our modern one is the National Rifle Association, which sounds like a gun club for weekend duck-hunters but is in fact a tremendously powerful lobbying institution. Until quite recently few political candidates dared to antagonize them; Reagan and Bush and Perot shamelessly cultivated the NRA’s support, in outright defiance of policemen across the country pleading for tougher gun laws. But in November’s state and local elections nationwide, for the first time some candidates actually won by standing up to the gun lobby. As Attorney General Janet Reno put it, “If only this nation would rise up and tell the NRA to get lost.”

And though it seems almost heresy in a society which worships violent entertainment, Congress has at last passed the Brady Bill, named after President Reagan’s former press secretary—paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet that went astray thirteen years ago. The bill seems almost timid in its demands: a five-day waiting period and a background check before someone can buy a gun. The NRA has screamed for years that such a bill would reduce their personal freedom, and Congressmen, scared of losing both NRA votes and massive financial support, have mostly lined up to kowtow.

President Reagan, who survived the assassination attempt uncrippled, was guilty of the most vulgar, vote-seeking charade of all: opposing his crippled press secretary’s crusade for strict gun control for “ideological reasons.” (Reagan’s favorite schtick was to address an NRA crowd as “Fellow members . . . ” Lousy actor, shameless politician.)

A quick glance at NRA literature confirms that their masturbatory fantasy is a) for years they have protected the rest of us from Soviet invasions, and b) to protect yourself in a criminal society you’d better be much more armed than the enemy. (Another recent study shows beyond any doubt that a gun at home is far more likely to cause the death of a household member than ever be used in self-defense.) But these NRA folks—and many weekend duck-hunters are not members—are people with an acute need for enemies. Now they have a successful one: the Brady Bill.

It seems incredible in retrospect that the bill, which the President signed into law on November 30, could’ve met resistance for so long. Several states (California, Virginia, Maryland, and Florida) which already have computerized "background checks" or waiting-periods—meaning you can’t walk in off the street to a gun shop and walk out with a gun—have in the last five years blocked about 50,000 firearm purchases by people who at the time were forbidden from buying them as a result of prior felonies, certain misdemeanors, or mental incompetence.

No one has argued that there isn’t still a very grave problem in the huge number of guns already on the street. The real problem, everyone agrees, goes much deeper. American popular culture has for a long time revered guns and revered power as a symbol of freedom and the ability to stand up to authority, from the mid-19th century nickel-novels about Daniel Boone to the screen violence of the John Ford western to today’s high-tech Schwarzenegger and Stallone bloodbaths. But so what? Japanese samurai movies and comic books are even bloodier still, and have deeper roots in a longer tradition of violence and art, yet you rarely see Tokyo housewives arming themselves with automatic weapons.

No, tempting as Hollywood looks as a culprit, I suspect it simply follows, not leads—Rambo is more violent than Red River was because it has to be, to satisfy its market audience.

My small theory is this: that a yen for violence both real and imaginary grows alongside a frustrated need for power, and the United States has for two decades now watched its role in the world shrink, economically and militarily. Sure, every American knows we’re the last superpower, but what does a victory in the Gulf War matter when we see TV images of petty Somali warlords bringing down U.S. helicopters? Or when we’re told we’re in a Depression because Chinese and Mexicans can make better sneakers and brooms? Increasingly, Americans are aware that the rest of the world doesn’t pay us as much attention, as much love, as much respect as it used to, and never will again—a terrifying idea.

This is virtually a global version of what’s happened to the abandoned poor in America’s large cities—several blocks from the White House you can find some of the nation’s worst areas, so close to the center of power it’s almost poetic. These people, rendered powerless by a system that hasn’t yet found a solution to their problems, react not with sorrow but with anger, and have chosen to achieve power the easiest way: with intramural violence, directed largely at each other.

The United States is becoming an increasingly Balkanized country—and we all know how the Balkans return and return to old ways and accustomed bloodshed. The saddest question is not just if those problems can be solved, but if a society can ever retreat from a climate of violence that has come to seem normal . . . like another day’s bad weather.

Monday, December 6, 1993

Havana Journal

Written in 1993 for Forbes-FYI magazine

Friday:

Here’s a popular Cuban joke. A mother asks, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Her son answers, "A tourist."

Here’s another, concerning Pepito, an archetypal Havana boy. Fidel sends Pepito to the U.S. to report on the situation. He comes back and says, "Miami was remarkable, Fidel. Just like life here in Cuba. If you don’t have dollars, you can’t buy anything."

Having missed Berlin, having missed Moscow, I was determined to see Havana while it was still under Fidel—before it became both "legal" and chic for Americans to go. I was damned if I was going to wait for Washington to okay it; besides, no visitor’s ever been prosecuted. The secret is to go first to Mexico or Nassau, Jamaica or Canada. So I went via (pick one of the above).


Havana, with its long shoreline curving into an enormous harbor, is a revelation. The vast Old City, in terrible condition, is still exquisite, all columns and arches and balconies, baroque and lavish in its contours. No city in the Americas can equal its grandeur; I would put it, even in decay and disrepair, beside Paris as one of the most beautiful in the world, the ultimate triumph of architecture over politics.

My hotel, the Inglaterra, by the Parque Central and the elaborate icing of the Teatro Nacional, was built circa 1880: colonial lobby, rattan chairs, flowering tiles. Expecting the worst—I’ve come armored with soap and candles—I’m surprised to find my room equipped with a new a/c, telephone, and shiny bathroom with toilet paper, which few Cubans have had for years. A large Soviet TV is showing the National League playoffs live.

Walking the Prado I find the coffee-scented Centro Andaluz (1919). A few men in rocking chairs smoke fragrant cigars and ponder the warm afternoon light filtering through shutters. At tables in back, overweight old men in long many-pocketed shirts are playing dominos quietly. Rattle and click of the tiles.

Outside, hundreds stand in the soft dusk waiting hours for crowded red buses to take them home. Dollars-only taxis are the sole vehicles moving. As I admire a blue ’53 Dodge, a young man chortles, "That was brought over by Christopher Columbus."


To the Tropicana, while most of Havana endures its nightly four-hour power cut. My taxi hurries through darkened neighborhoods, a sad city of ghosts wandering on lampless, gearless bicycles.

"Ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros, welcome to the most fabulous nightclub in the world!" In a clearing of long tables and immense trees, on catwalks high up in the forest, it’s suddenly the 1950s again: swirls of light, pulsating staircases, imperious girls in sumptuous capes and spangled bikinis, backed by a hot big band with a shouting horn section. Long-legged, marauding Venuses, six feet tall, parade miles of fishnet mulatto flesh; black giantesses drip pearls, in garter belts and thigh-high boots, with lit-up chandeliers on their heads. The male crooners in white and gold suits are a soothing respite from the female onslaught, though the show is surprisingly proper.

At one a.m., when the Tropicana becomes an all-night disco, I find myself by a striking young woman with streaked brown hair. In a short, stylish dark dress, she’s standing, not suggestively dancing like the obviously available women. She guesses I’m a periodista, perhaps because every other foreigner in Havana these days seems a journalist. She’s twenty-five, a lab technician. Maria has only derisive remarks about the black girls in skin-tight spandex, bumping and grinding for foreign men. "Putas negras."

She introduces me to friends: Eduardo, an usher for the show, and Lydia, a pretty blonde law student. It seems possible that Eduardo’s offering me both Maria and Lydia, though no one’s dignity has yet been broken by the mention of money. They speak surprisingly frankly. They know, from Radio Martí, about the two Cuban air force pilots who defected in MIGs. They’re pretty free with criticism of Fidel. They never say his name, but pull on imaginary beards. A century from now, perhaps, the gesture will survive as signifying some huge difficulty one cannot identify.

Saturday:

Stories of deprivation here seem almost apocryphal. No cats because people are eating them; for that matter, few dogs either. And almost nothing to buy: never have I seen so few shops on such busy streets. (In the old days the Woolworth’s had a counter stacked with voodoo charms.) Shoes are for sale for, say, six months’ wages. Old pharmacies are apothecary museums, the shelves with only a few many-hued bottles. People buy their daily bread roll at a counter below arched windows and washing-festooned balconies, beneath plants in clay pots and women gossiping.

Always there are glorious glimpses into tiled hallways, up marble staircases. On O’Reilly Street a marmoreal building has National City Bank of New York engraved above stone columns; a small sign on the glass front door says: Banco Nacional de Cuba. Gleaming, immobile old Plymouths and Chevys, starved for fuel.

A ration shop, gloomy and empty, is dispensing plantains—"one bunch per customer," is scrawled on a chalkboard. Dutifully checked off from the ration book everyone carries. An old man explains the present schedule: four eggs a month, perhaps a chicken, a bottle of rum. No milk for adults. Rice, beans. No beef, ever.

On Obispo, in the Ambos Mundos Hotel I go up in a cage elevator, along white corridors, past 1930s ironwork furniture, to Room 511, Hemingway’s room for years. "As he left it," according to a twittering Carmen who accompanies me. A fake kitsch marlin head stares from one wall. For Whom the Bell Tolls in Spanish is on the dresser; he wrote much of it in this room. An expansive view of the city, plenty of sunlight. Carmen points out the low carved bed, probably Hemingway’s, and an ancient black typewriter that’s probably not, since it’d be worth as much as the hotel.

The Cinema Cervantes is showing Little Shop of Horrors.

In a wing of the Habana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton) where tourist shops once flourished, there are now "easy shopping" dollar stores, where Cubans with legalized hard currency can buy Guy Laroche and Yves St. Laurent and the rest. Across the street a dollars bookstore sells yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais, and the Herald Tribune. And Spanish paperbacks, Asimov to Vidal, a literary selection. Graham Greene’s Batista-era Our Man In Havana is mysteriously banned, as is any serious criticism of the Cuban Revolution, and notably the novels of the exile G. Cabrera Infante, that portray with Joycean wordplay and Dickensian detail the magic and fervor of an un-castrated Havana.

Fidel’s strong literacy campaign resulted in a nation of people who could all read what little they were permitted. Now that some restrictions have been lifted (writers once persecuted and now dead are safely praised) the problem is how few people can afford books. It’s become difficult to get a copy of the daily official newspaper, and there’s been no Havana phone book since 1979. Unfortunately, many copies got used as toilet paper.

I find Maria’s apartment nearby without too much trouble. She is slowly paying off 34,000 pesos to a lawyer for the tiny flat, a bracket-shaped box carved out of a larger apartment next door. The bed folds into the wall; there’s a tiny kitchen and bathroom, a fridge, an ancient water heater that doesn’t work, one chair, an immense Soviet TV which nearly everyone has. She earns 320 pesos a month, under $5 and sinking. So the flat will cost Maria a decade’s salary. She says she’s lucky to have it.

Maria adds, "We haven’t had cooking oil, shampoo, soap, or detergent for months. The power’s off four, six hours a day. The water too." She smiles. "I lost twenty pounds when I moved to Havana."

She shows me her little red Communist Party book (she’s obliged to be a member) listing her monthly contribution: four pesos. It’s on the honor system; I point out that she hasn’t contributed since April. She promptly signs it five times.

She also shows me her master’s thesis, 200 bound pages of complex biological text and graphs. I leave her a little money, several candles and mosquito coils, and six bars of soap.

A trio sings at lunch in the bar of La Bodeguita del Medio (a half-century of patrons’ signatures on the venerable walls). The drummer is a local Queequeg, his dark bald skull dense with geometric tattoos, a feathered earring dangling. He clasps my hand and presses it to his brow. Over the bar, a framed note:

My mojito in La Bodeguita / My daiquiri in El Floridita
Ernest Hemingway

Cuba for Hem was fishing, drinking, and whoring, and he cared little about the island’s refined or folk art, much less his fellow writers here—greats like Alejo Carpentier, Jos Lezama Lima, Virgilio Pinera. Nor is there any sign he favored the revolution, though the government has made him a Cuban hero. His villa-estate near Havana, the popular Finca Vigia, mostly as he left it, is closed these days for restoration.

Ava Gardner used to swim naked in the pool.

Fragrance of the streets: mingled scents of boiling sugar, urine, coffee, a vanilla breeze, and dusty tedium of afternoon.

This city like a hot, fierce tropical dream of Spain. The women’s lazy, flaunting walk. Skin like different kinds of honey.

In the modern city the strangest building is undoubtedly the U.S. Interests Section, seaside on the Malecon like a giant, run-down a/c unit. From a facing billboard a cartoon Uncle Sam growls ("Grrr!") across the water at an island guerrilla who proclaims: "Imperialist gentlemen! We have absolutely no fear of you!"

I ask a young man who drives an illegal taxi if there’s much resentment still for those Cubans who’d gone to Miami. "They did the right thing," he says. "Good for them. I would have, too."

A couple of blocks away, in the Partagas cigar factory, Canadians and Europeans line up to buy box after bargain box of Cochibas, Monte Cristos, holy smokes. In the inner sanctum, a man reads aloud (newspaper in the morning, novel in the afternoon) to while away the hours for the patient rollers of tobacco leaves.


An evening daiquiri at the Floridita, the bar that invented it: ice, lemon juice, sugar, a little maraschino liqueur, and a light Cuban rum. A bar of carved mahogany with gold columns flank a painting of 18th century Havana. White stools, red half-moon tables; an art deco feel and Cuba’s strongest air conditioning; an ugly bust of Hemingway. The secret to a daiquiri, the waiter explains, is the ice: "Must be absolutely frapp

I ask a fellow outside what he thinks of the $6 Floridita daiquiri. He shrugs. "This makes people very angry. I can’t go out and get a drink, because all the best places are only for tourists or tourist money. So I feel degraded in my own country."

Anyone reading up on Cuba is deluged with statistics. I’ve been keeping my own. Greene wrote that Havana "turned out human beauty on a conveyor-belt"; I’ve decided that every second woman is pretty, every third woman is gorgeous, every fourth woman is available, already even approaching you. In this the Revolution failed, for the idea was to eliminate the exploitation of women. It’s more than machismo, or an impossible economic situation; the erotic impulse here is simply as overwhelming as the architecture.

Not surprisingly, men come to Cuba to find beautiful wives. A successful, dapper Mexican businessman has been trying for months to get his eighteen-year-old wife out. "You can’t imagine how complicated it is marrying a Cuban girl. To call her you have to buy her a cellular phone. Then you end up providing money for the entire family to buy groceries on the black market. Plus, these people have no Catholicism anymore. Instead they have this weird Santeria business. Cuban voodoo. My wife actually thinks I have a dead man inside me just because some Santeria priestess told her so. And of course you must pay the government so your wife can leave. They make you suffer. First it’s $1,000 for her passport. Then it’s ‘Oh, there’s one more thing, it might take a month or two. Maybe we can speed up the process, but that’ll cost another $400.’ They always come up with something. If they only said at the start, ‘Give us $3,000 and she can leave tomorrow morning,’ it would be more humane. Still, it’s worth it. I figure, by helping a beautiful girl leave Cuba I’m guaranteed an entry into Heaven."

Sunday:

The 18th-century Plaza de Cathedral is compact, magnificent; by the time I arrive mass is already over, but many are still within, like the young teak-colored man in his best clothes intoning a prayer softly to himself. In the plaza an orchestra begins to play program music. Artists in the narrow streets sell paintings: Chagall, West Africa, and Picasso, in mambo tones.

The glorious Casa de la Obrapia (stone arches, a fading yellow courtyard) has two rooms dedicated to Alejo Carpentier. They have his desk from Paris, his raincoat, his books, photos of him and his wife, photocopies of several manuscript pages. They also have, in its own room, his blue Volkswagen Bug, brought from France with license plates intact, and the car papers, framed.

After several magnificent museums devoted to the splendors of colonial-era Havana, a glimpse into the Museo de la Revolucion—formerly the Presidential Palace. The Granma (the boat that beached Fidel & Co. in the Historic Landing) can be seen outside in a glass showroom. Upstairs, a wax model of "El Che," as 20th Century Fox called him, strides heroically through the jungle. Past him are too many rooms of knives, guns, ammo, blood-soaked uniforms, radios, photos of Fidel, his dinner menus, even the typewriter to which his famous "History Will Absolve Me" was dictated. History may look kindly upon years of improved social conditions, but it doesn’t forgive eight-hour speeches.

Much-needed fresh air along the Malecon, the broad arcing boulevard by the sea, famous for plainclothes cops, a view of El Morro fortress and amorous couples at all hours. ("The shortest line between two points is the curve of the Malecon."—G. Cabrera Infante.) A few men swim or fish from rocks below the sea-wall. Boys play baseball on a small stretch of grass. A long honor-guard of glorious buildings whose lower floors are all abandoned, the paint eroded by thirty-five years of sea-spray and neglect.

Here’s a final Cuban joke: What are the three greatest triumphs of the Revolution? Easy! Education, medicine, sports.

What are the three greatest disasters? Breakfast, lunch, dinner.


After sugar, tourism is the island’s largest source of hard currency. Many hotels have been renovated, like the Sevilla (much of Greene’s novel takes place in its bar) or the Nacional, sixty years old this year, which once boasted a grand casino and was the finest, largest hotel in the Caribbean. Past the royal palms the cannons still confront the Gulf of Mexico, a fountain plays, and the gardens are full of South American, European and Japanese businessmen, many steps ahead of all the hypothetical Americans who aren’t allowed by their own government to visit or invest.

Now that I’ve actually visited, talk in the U.S. press about "Fidel’s Last Days" (logic: first Eastern Europe, now Cuba) seems preposterous. Havana may percolate with dismay and fatigue, but hardly revolutionary discontent. After all, over half Cuba’s 10.4 millions are children of this once extremely popular revolution.

As a rare American, I’ve felt welcome. Though few Cubans I speak to put the blame for living conditions on U.S. shoulders, the economic blockade is still highly unpopular. Why should proud people in a country you’re doing your best to strangle want to do the bidding of the strangler? The best move politically for the U.S. would be to airdrop, say, 100,000 tubes of toothpaste into Cuba, cushioned in toilet paper. It would be a friendly gesture.

Esther worked in tourism; before, she was a university professor for five years. At thirty she’s refined, with a halo of dark hair and a lively, quick beauty. I neglect to tell her I’m a journalist. She agrees to lunch to practice her errorless and unbelievably accentless English, for she’s never been abroad.

Esther, her husband, and her son and daughter, share the old family apartment with her parents, her brother, and her sister. "We have no hope for our own home," she says, "no hope at all." She speaks with humor, an amused acceptance of the cards life has dealt. I find it hard to reconcile her amazing English with her literary tastes (Stephen King and Harold Robbins). It doesn’t seem to bother her that I’m spending a month’s wages on her meal: a dismal salad, beef in spicy tomato sauce, coffee like jet fuel. She earns 148 pesos a month ($2 now), plus about $20 in tips from tourists. As a professor there’d been no hope of hard currency.

I ask her if she’d leave if she could. "Two years ago we had a chance to go to Canada, if we really tried," she says. "And then perhaps to America. But the crime in the States worries us. And for the moment this still feels like our home. So we stay."

As we walk she speaks of how the dollar economy is about to swallow the peso economy—in six months, she predicts, there’ll only be hard currency. No one can imagine what happens then. How can it be, I ask, that Cuba can’t feed itself? And yet, though not an ideologue, she’s still in favor of the Revolution, and believes Fidel has good intentions but is surrounded by people who achieved their positions through politics, not expertise.

I give her a roll of toilet paper from the hotel, Friday’s International Herald Tribune, six bars of soap, $5 for her children—this takes a bit of arguing—and my copy of Our Man In Havana.

Over half a million tourists come to Cuba annually—more than twice as many as in the best years before Castro. The irony cannot be lost on Fidel that tourists and foreign currency are brought in by colonial-era Havana and the emblems of pre-Castro Cuba: the beaches, the women, the daiquiris, a vague scent of something illicit. With casinos the circle would be complete.

Before leaving Miami, I’d asked a Cuban friend what I could bring back from Havana for her. She reflected a moment, then smiled sadly. "The air, darling," she said. "Only the air."

Thursday, December 2, 1993

Cat Island

Published in March/April 1994 by Caribbean Travel & Life magazine (I believe it was written in 1987)

Because I spent childhood summers in the Bahamas, I took it for granted whenever I mentioned the Out Islands that people knew I must mean not Nassau or Freeport, but less-frequented harbors.

“Like Bimini,” a friend suggested.

“You mean the Abacos,” offered a travel agent.

“Here’s one nobody knows,” said an editor. “Eleuthera.”

Not those, either. The Bahamas—a bare dozen inhabited isles on the American doorstep—lie an hour or two out of Miami and sometimes fifty years away. The northern Out Islands, with their hotels like country clubs, their Hemingway stories and fishing-buddy bars, their fashion shoots and no surprises, are so familiar that they have obscured the southern Out Islands where, for me, the everlasting Bahamian soul still resides.

These are flat islands, drifting down from Nassau toward Cuba and the fringes of the Caribbean—final landfalls yet to be discovered by the corkscrew of tourism: Inagua, Mayaguana, Rum Cay, San Salvador, Long Island, Cat Island.

Their largely black populations are scattered through remote villages risen amid the ruins of plantations; life is “farmin’ and fishenin,’” deeply religious and deeply scandalous. The roads are bad, the Nassau politicians have forgotten these islands exist, and the weekly schedule is ruled by the twin events of church and mail boat. There are no banks, no lawyers, no traffic lights, no traffic. The beaches are untouristed, immaculate, finely-grated. You must go all the way to Central America to feel as distant from home.

A small plane is the ideal way to discover them. In a cobalt sea indistinguishable from the sky, brown jigsaws appear, lassoed with white ropes of sand. Cat Island comes up after Eleuthera as an irregular green carpet forty-five miles long, apparently empty, with innumerable coves of pale beach and not a single hotel like a giant air-conditioner to mar the greenness. A house here and there, an offshore islet or fisherman’s skiff; interior lakes and creeks; you descend past undulations, even hills, unusual for the Bahamas. Then a bay with a sailboat at rest, a long crescent of beach, perhaps a few cottages among scrubby trees. . . .

Travel is as much an experience of time as space; thus all places can be assigned a date. Cat Island’s might be 1949, or even—it sometimes seems—1889. (The island, shaped like a pirate’s boot, is named for a second-rate crony of Blackbeard’s, Captain Catt, who gave his other name to Arthur’s Town.) Only recently has reliable electricity reached many of the island’s “settlements”; most still rely on well-water. The principal road is paved in places, primeval the rest of the time, and some of the island’s 2,000 inhabitants have never been from one end to the other, much less the hundred-twenty miles to criminal, lascivious, evil Nassau.

Half-tumbled stone walls crop the landscape, and occasionally the bones of great houses from the days of cotton or pineapple plantations. Everywhere, still, are small “slave cottages”—stone ruins, some with goats tethered and even kept up with blue or yellow wooden doors, others with jungles of trees growing within their abandoned bodies. There is one relaxed resort, on one of the loveliest beaches in the Bahamas.

It was at the dock of Smith Bay settlement, nine years ago, that I got off a broken-down mail-boat on a hot day and, looking for a swim, found my way along a potholed road to Fernandez Bay.

I was expecting an empty beach, not a series of stone-and-wood cottages carefully hidden amid casuarinas. The sugary beach was deserted—it was midsummer—but on subsequent visits I realized that every cottage might be inhabited and you could still enjoy the illusion of having it to yourself. I was welcomed by Frances Armbrister, an elegant, alert blonde woman who sent me swimming, made me lunch, and explained herself.

“How long have I been here? Why, since 1780. My late husband’s family, I should say. They were Loyalists, fleeing the Carolinas, like a lot of the white people who settled the islands, and had sisal plantations all over the island, for making rope.”

An ex-Hollywood starlet (“Not exactly”), Mrs. A. had married Cyril Armbrister—a British radio and theater producer—and in 1938 came out on the mail-boat to look at his long-neglected family properties. “There were no cars then, no roads, and a white missionary with a horse and wagon who’d achieved only five converts in ten years. To live here was really roughing it.” She fell in love with the island, and though based in New York and California, she and her husband returned from time to time. On his death about thirty years ago, she and her son Tony had the idea of developing this land which had been in the family for nearly two centuries.

I asked Mrs. A. about Cat’s reputation for obeah—Bahamians’ voodoo, which isn’t seen as contradictory toward their religious zeal. You often see bottles wedged into tree branches, with personal items inside (dirt, hair, fingernails) to protect the property.

Mrs. A. laughed. “Oh, obeah’s here, all right. According to locals, on Cat Island no one ever dies of natural causes. They believe people die because somebody puts ‘a vitch’—a witch—on them. Even if you say, ‘But so-and-so died of cancer’ they’ll tell you, ‘No, no, somebody put a vitch on them to give them the cancer.’ Why, I had a cook named Mildred for years and years whom everyone was afraid of because they said she could work obeah better than anyone on the island. Of course, whenever I asked, she said, ‘I ain’t know nothin’ about that.’”

The unreliable decrepit mail-boat I first arrived on, the Willaurie, has sunk in Nassau Harbor, replaced by the newer Sea Hauler, a high-prowed black vessel with a mustard-colored crane for moving heavy cargo. One recent afternoon I tore myself away from the beach at Fernandez Bay and bicycled the mile north to Smith Bay to watch the mail-boat unload its standard weekly cargo, everything from propane tanks and Kalik beer to a generator, a truck, wood planks, paper cups, sacks of cement, cinder blocks, rice. The boat had arrived around four a.m. after a twelve-hour journey over from Nassau; it would leave that night for Great Exuma.

Allan Russell, the boat’s owner and a Cat Islander, explained that he was paid a subsidy by the government to bring the mail every week. After unloading in Exuma, the mail-boat would return in two days to pack fruit and vegetables (Cat is one of the most agricultural Bahamian islands) for the Nassau market.

Smith Bay is a settlement where land's never bought or sold, but inherited, or claimed—if you were born here you may simply take any parcel of unbuilt land for your own. It came about, like most settlements, from liberated slaves working on land after the plantation owner died or left, and the result several generations later was title deeds with dozens of names attached and a legal situation of Byzantine complexity.

Just up from the Smith Bay dock was Hazel Brown’s Seaside Bar—whose stucco, dayglo lime-green walls have echoed for fourteen years with “some of the most serious dominos in the Bahamas,” acording to one toothy veteran. This may not sound like much, but in the Out Islands dominos is taken very seriously—sometimes passing through the little villages the only sound you hear aside from the strumming cicadas and the rustle of the sea is a loud thwack! of ivory tiles slammed down, shaking the others already in place on a wood table quartered by beer bottles.

Hazel, sixty-six, tells her life concisely: “Four boys, no girls, and no expectations for more. Already four grandchildren. My father drown when I was young—he gone fishenin’ in his smack boat, a storm caught him. Afterwards, we farm. No choice.”

She still farms, a squat, energetic woman with hair in tight rows, armed with ready talk. “I’m going to have sweet peppers, cucumber, cabbage, tomatoes coming up by Christmas,” she says. “Right now all I got ready is watermelons. You know why I don’t have more?”

“Let me see, Hazel. The young people don’t like to work.”

“Thank you,” she said. “You know what that means?”

“Not so much money, not so much business, not much dominos.”

“Thank you.”

Across the road, past her dog regarding us across folded paws, a small ancient stone kitchen stood separate from her new white house. “That was my mother’s kitchen,” she said. “You see those old stones in that long grass? Them was the foundations of her house.”

This farming of ancestral land for generations is common on Cat; indeed, the island seems a reservoir of traditions that have died or are disappearing throughout most of the Bahamas. Another is the humped sand-and-limestone outdoor ovens for baking bread or Johnny cake—a design brought, I assume, directly from Africa—rare in other Out Islands but seen every few houses here.

To travel the rough principal road gives you a good idea of Cat’s history. The settlements and landmarks (or sea-marks) carry melodious names: Alligator Point, Zanicle, Industrious Hill, Barrataria, Freetown, Hawks Nest, Moss Town, Red Pond, Winding Bay, Devil’s Point, Gaters, Labour-In-Vain. Every other cove seems to contain a private stretch of silken beach, and with proper transport you could cross to the island’s Atlantic Coast—say, to Fine Bay—and have miles of solitary sand. Or, for that matter, at Fernandez Bay you could walk twenty yards along a path and have two little beaches, that the Armbristers call Skinny Dip, all to yourself.

The island was in a state of excitement since the recently crowned Miss Bahamas, a Cat Island girl, was due back for several days’ celebrations and a Columbus Day party. I asked a fellow what might happen if this local girl ended up as Miss Universe.

“Then we goin’ to have every bachelor in de woild beatin’ a path here, layin’ by the roadside hopin’ to meet a Cat Island gal. Stompin’ his feet to attract attention. Could be a problem, eh?”

The island has a strange Columbus connection, which I set down because it seems to have been bypassed during the 1992 uproar. The argument is that Columbus’ first landfall in the New World was not San Salvador—known as Watling’s Island until 1926—nor Samana Cay (favorite of the National Geographic’s computer simulations)—but rather Cat Island.

More than local folklore, this hinges on several arguments. Cat was in fact called San Salvador until the early 1800s. Columbus describes “a harbor in which you can float all the ships in Christendom” which neither the present San Sal nor Samana Cay possess (the latter has, instead, a deadly lee shore with bad anchorage). But The Bight, just south of Fernandez Bay, is one of the largest bays in the Bahamas.

Third, Cat has the highest point in the islands and many bluffs, easily visible from the sea. The glass globes that regularly float in from Portugal attest to the centrality of its location in the currents. I mention all this not to take sides, but to start disputes.

Walking down toward The Bight one day I ran into Rebecca Dawkins, “age seventy-’tree,” on a back path. She told me she “platted’ straw for a living and sent it to her daughter in Nassau, who in turn sold it to the straw-market women. Rebecca’s straw bag was full of vegetables she’d just collected, because she still managed to do a little farming. Where was she coming from? I asked.

“I stop by my husband’s grave, you know. Just back at the cemetery near the school. I try to stop there nearly every day. He die about . . . ” Her face furrowed. “I guess, two years ago.”

On these obscure islands the most happenstance conversation seems to reveal an entire life.

I loved to bicycle through New Bight when the day’s heat had passed and people were ambling by the road or sitting outside their houses, the old ladies waving and saying, “All right, sir,” with that unfailing politeness and almost worldly grace every stranger encounters in the black Out Islands. Dusk became my favorite time of day: a soft fade of pastel light rubbed across the sea, and an absolute stillness as the world holds steady before the night descends with tropical suddenness. And some sunsets seemed painted by Maxfield Parrish, the west blazing away unashamedly.

Saturday night is the least lonely night of the week in New Bight. The Sailing Club—a breezy one-room bar set among trees by a beach and an enormous bay—attracts one? two? hundred jumping Cat Islanders till three in the morning, in a pandemonium where a visitor feels utterly welcome.

You can spot the same eccentrics masked in their Sunday best the next morning, for this is a devout society—people may have dozens of children, never marry, and never miss a church service. Nor should a visitor, if only for the chance to join locals for the most important part of their week. Passive and exhausted after a wild Saturday night, in ill-fitting suits and ruffled dresses they sit warbling the hymns, or fanning themselves as a reverend intones, “A few more years will come—a few more seasons will roll—before we join our loved ones in the tomb—”

“Amen!”

“—And those that have gone drifting, dear Lord, I pray that you bring them back and let your mercy come down—”

“Amen!”

“Because I know you’re here for a blessing—you want to hear your soul food live today, not on the radio—and so we offer these blessings upon you as you go from strength to strength. . . . ”

The summit of Cat’s religious and architectural life is the Hermitage, a one-man monastery built in 1941 by Father Jerome Hawes, a British architect turned Anglican missionary turned Catholic priest turned Franciscan monk, who designed churches all over Australia and the Caribbean and came back to the Bahamas, aged sixty-two, after a heart attack. His Hermitage was singlehandedly built by him on Comer Hill, at 206 feet the highest point in the Bahamas; he renamed it Mt. Alvernia after the hill in Tuscany where St. Francis received the wounds of the Cross. Hawes spent his last two decades sailing all over the islands saying Mass—his other two masterpieces are an almost art deco church in Clarence Town (on nearby Long Island), and the beautiful St. Augustine Abbey in Fox Hill, Nassau, built in the California mission style. He died in 1959.

I have been back several times over the last decade to the Hermitage, and each visit moved me more: the sense of an old man, white-bearded, building a last home that encompasses all he has learned, spiritually and architecturally, with also the best view on Cat: the broad Atlantic to one side, a calm Caribbean down a green slope to the other. Into his Hermitage, which at first seems a 12th century Italian abbey in miniature, Hawes wove a seamless confluence of architectural styles—Byzantine domes, Gothic colonnaded walk, minaret-like bell tower, medieval windows and arches, rounded lines and sharp corners with hints of North Africa and Mediterranean Crusader castles—all built to the scale of a single man.

It is a remarkable achievement, built with medieval methods, using only native rock and mortar. It seems to flower from the grey rock on which it sits, a handmade shrine poised above the fourteen stages of the Cross and an open tomb where Hawes himself was laid to rest. His sundial is still here; in the bell tower there still remains his scrawled note to ring before climbing up; his broken wooden chair and cot; his writing-desk, fireplace, chapel with cross intact and a single pew, his little sheltered interior staircases; his water pump. The Armbristers send several men up a few times a year to cut back the shrubbery and look after the place, which has remained mostly unoccupied since Hawes’ death.

At Fernandez Bay one evening, after hearing the story of Father Jerome from Mrs. A., sitting at the thatched outside bar I fell into conversation with Tony Armbrister and his wife Pam about their life on Cat.

Pam first came to the island when she was twenty and she and Tony were dating. “I remember getting out of the plane the first time, fifteen years ago. It was a lot more rustic and remote, because our rentals were solely on word of mouth—mainly people coming down in their own planes. We had a teeny little generator and dinner was by candlelight. Tony had originally built the houses—there are ten now—to sell, and we just fell into renting out the cottages as we renovated them.”

“It was Pam’s tenacity,” said Tony, “that kept us going. I started in about ’66 or ’67; the last house I built was in ‘86. I grew up in Santa Monica and was in college, then I came down here for the summer at nineteen and just ended up staying. My mother and I lived down in New Bight, because there was nothing here at Fernandez Bay. I suppose I was the mechanic of the place, but it was my mother’s vision. The houses are all stone, which the locals are experienced with. Back in the late ’60s a boat ran aground on the other side of the island with 300,000 board feet of mahogany and teak. Once it broke up, all the wood washed ashore. I used to bring it back with a four-wheel drive vehicle. All our countertops are made from the mahogany and a lot of our dining tables are teak.”

“In those days,” said Pam, “there was no electricity anywhere on Cat. No phone till ’87 or ’88. It’s still extremely limited. And no scheduled Bahamsair service—even now, there’s nothing you can depend on. Tony flies most of our guests in from Nassau with his own plane.”

Tony is convinced the future of the Bahamas lies in the old-world Out Islands and their small resorts. “Nassau and Freeport are ruined, they’re only for package tourists and cruise ships. So the Out Islands are finally getting the recognition they deserve. And with luck people will discover the southern islands.”

I asked him, finally, about the so-called treasure chest—guests coming back year after year make a straight belign for it.

“The chest was dug up in one of our old family plantation ruins. We don’t know its background before that. It’s never been opened. It’s iron, about two by two by three. The family house was occupied in the late 1700s or early 1800s by William Armbrister, my great grandfather. My grandfather, who was also a merchant in Nassau, was here a lot. He had a hemp factory, that turned sisal into rope, and he had a narrow-gauge railroad that ran around the island to pick up the sisal. Presumably the chest goes back to his period, or earlier. It weighs about two hundred pounds. A guest from California found out that its value simply as an antique chest was $2,000, so he offered me that to open it. I said, ‘You can open it after I die.’ Another guest whose hobby was locks came down with fiber optic equipment to probe and lubricate and play with it. He could see how the lock was made but he couldn’t open it without breaking it, the lock was too rusted. I assume there’s something of value inside, since you don’t put something worthless in a chest like that. Personally, I don’t care—that chest has provided more people with fun and speculation. I don’t open it because to me it’s worth infinitely more as it is, unopened and unharmed.”

Friday, November 5, 1993

Twenty-four Hours in Miami

Written in 1993 for Forbes FYI magazine

If you can make it in from the airport to South Beach without getting killed, Miami might be the most fun city in North America. Let the media carp about drive-by shootings, drug smugglers, phony land ventures, and a few armed revolutionaries. To a casual visitor with survival skills, it’s always Saturday in Miami and the Human Condition is nowhere else as visually pleasing year-round. Like an outlandish stew of St. Tropez, Soho, and Havana, Miami may not make sense, but then common sense is not what’s being appealed to here.

There are many Miamis, spread across sixteen islands. Some you don’t want to know about, much less explore; some no longer seem compelling, like, say, Jackie Gleason’s Miami. The one everybody gets in a lather about today lies at the southern end of it all, a national historic register area known as South Beach, or even SoBe. The square mile from 6th to 23rd Street is the largest art deco district in the world, with about eight hundred "important" buildings dating from 1923 to 1943. Ten years ago they wrote it off as the most faded of God’s waiting rooms; now it’s a pulsating streamlined heaven, if your vision of the afterlife means salsa, margaritas, sixteen modelling agencies, the glare of sunlit sand, and little sleep.

The most direct approach to South Beach is simply to cab it to the News Cafe, drink yourself legless on iced cappucinos, watch the beauties go by with the beach glittering behind, and read Carl Hiassen’s Tourist Season, a carefree, bloody romp about a Florida crocodile with a voracious love for out-of-staters. To get maximum enjoyment out of Miami, however, it helps to have a Cuban companion with plenty of time on his hands. Like my old friend Jorge.

I warned him that for this visit I had only a day. "So what’s the mystery?" said Jorge (a professional violinist), collecting me at the airport. "Take off your jacket and leave the rest to me."

We sped across the Macarthur Causeway (as the local joke goes, the shortest route from Havana to Tel Aviv). A first sight of South Beach’s Ocean Drive astonishes: gone is geriatric Miami, instead you’re cruising a film set with real palm trees, water, and gorgeous young people. You head a block inland and, if you’re lucky, park.

The 11th Street Diner is a chrome-and-formica 1946 relic made more authentic through a loving restoration: two old dining cars mashed into one structure, a collision that was an improvement, as one’s a bar now. (Their milkshakes and malts are known as the best on the beach.) The menu boasts standard Miami fare: macaroni, tofu, omelettes, marinated dolphin, cheesecake, smoked salmon and bagels. Though the diner’s consistently voted the best place for late-night eats, Jorge insisted we gather our energies there with breakfast.

"You want me, or you want good service?" said our waitress.

In Miami double entendres often seem the preferred gambit.

"Don’t ask me these philosophical questions," said Jorge.

A few doors down we looked into a good general food & bar joint called Lulu’s. "My temple of art," Jorge insisted, referring not to the downstairs devoted to American kitsch (service station signs, old Coca-Cola ads) but the upstairs devoted to the King—Elvis carpets, film stills, guitar clocks, license plates, street signs, lamps, statues, busts, plates, and a reproduction of the first dollar he ever earned (April, 1951). If Elvis were currently making movies, this would be a primo setting: Viva South Beach!

There is, of course, the beach itself, a long broad stretch of hard sand, surprisingly clean, surprisingly topless, with free wooden lounge chairs. Freighters and the occasional sailboat awaken the horizon, but you’re not really watching them anyway. A bronzed man in peak condition is meditating upside-down in a yogic posture; without warning he upends and dashes into the gleaming water, past two naked Scandinavian masterpieces discussing Ibsen. The sea is warm and very clean—unbelievable, to be able to swim so easily right in a U.S. city, like a weird new definition of civilization.

Through the palms, the pastel rectangular art deco skyline of whites, blues, and yellows seems too low for this century. Volleyball is played seriously on the sand: the beauty of the conception, as Jorge put it, is you wear as little as you want and who notices?

"No one but you," I suggested.

"Now listen, amigo," said Jorge. "You’re new in town, so I’m going to offer you a choice. For lunch we can either stop by my apartment, hustle up a little tunafish sandwich, some mustard, some mayo, catch a game show. Or else we stick to fabulous Miami Beach, we check out one of the important structural achievements in what they call the art deco idiom where I happen to know a bartender almost personally and you can eat four-star food, a little wine, and experience the supreme beautiful female genius of the world strutting back and forth like targets, man, in a holy shooting gallery, you know what I’m saying? So I’m giving you the choice."

"I’ll take the shooting gallery," I said.

And along Ocean Drive they do walk past, as if paid by the hour: models on rollerblades, in sandals, in bikinis, arm-in-arm in conspiracy against a gawping male world, occasionally passed by a hero windsurfing along the esplanade on a skateboard-cum-sail.

At the Colony (its triple-sided neon sign one of night’s icons in South Beach) a newcomer is downright grateful for the fierce air conditioning that enables him to better appreciate pastel walls, half-globe lights, enormous potted palms, marble tables, and a great ’30s painting of a jungle scene. Best of all is the food in such a lavish setting (the restaurant fronting a hotel, by the way): lobster gazpacho, pan-fried crab cakes, a mango-creme brulée in a "hurricane" of fruit sauces. While you’re debating coffee, a madman named Jorge starts screaming that it’s time for a Madrid newspaper.

A minute’s walk up Ocean Drive you reach the News Cafe, the epicenter of the social earthquake that shook Miami a decade ago. A man of reason, unencumbered by Jorge, has little to do except plonk himself alfresco and wait as only people in tropical climates can, for all the beauty and foreign press of the world to arrive. . . .

"Buddy boy, we’re wasting time here," said Jorge, and yanked me off toward Coral Gables—where the wealthy traditionally built their mansions. The grandest, right beside Madonna’s recent $4 million acquisition, is Vizcaya, an Italian renaissance villa with gardens built in WWI for John Deering, who owned International Harvester. The gardens took five years; the entire 180-acre enterprise employed a tenth of Miami’s population, and involved cutting back tropical jungle and putting in a railroad, a dairy, a poultry farm, a mule stable; fruit, vegetable, flower gardens; tennis courts and canoe waterways. . . . Following Deering’s death in 1925 (he had four years of enjoyment after it was finished), his heirs sold it to Dade County. A museum now, it’s become what Deering evidently intended: his living monument, a latter-day equivalent of Cheops’ Pyramid.

And a reminder of how much great art of twenty-five centuries it was possible for a wealthy man early this century to accumulate. What Deering bought no one could afford today: from a gala standpoint of tapestries, statues, carpets, tiles, this is the ultimate villa.

After all this highbrow culture my nerves were a bit frayed, so we roared back to South Beach and the Sterling Club, a swank poolroom with a period bar, whose twelve superb tables were just getting underway. Jorge took dinner money off me and suggested we eat early. "You want to lose again, we can come back at 4 a.m."

For dinner Amano is still the place, if you can afford it, ultra-modern decor in the only non-deco building on Ocean Drive. The menu is a schizophrenic local melange, nouvelle Miami: say, macademia-crusted softshell crab with soba noodles and Thai curry butter sauce, followed by almond / black pepper salmon and citrus cous cous or Chinese B.B.Q. chicken with plantain mash cornflan, and a passionfruit cheesecake with raspberry sauce.

Jorge had raved about the Talkhouse all day—an ideal-size music club, with a courtyard bar in back. He said they consistently offer world-class salsa (if they don’t, try Lario’s On the Beach).

"And tonight, my friend, is no exception," said Jorge. "We are talking about a monumental event in Miami salsa. A hot local band named Abasi with two unbelievable guests. Both legends in Havana. Cachao on bass—an inventor of the mambo who revolutionized salsa back in 1959 with one historic jam session. And on congas, Patato. I don’t know when they came over, but this night you won’t forget."

He wasn’t exaggerating. Cachao, an enormous man with a brooding forehead (like a mulatto bull elephant in suspenders) attacked the bass as if it were a percussion instrument, pulling the rest of the band (piano, drums, chiquita singer) into his riffs. Patato was his opposite—a small, dapper, mahogany man, mustached, in borsalino hat, tie and jacket, approaching seventy. Not much taller than his four congas, he treated them like disobedient children, admonishing, instructing, and commanding; instead of a blitzkrieg of speed he could control your attention with a few whacks that brought people to their feet. One voluptuous young woman in a slinky black dress, propelled by the music, did a sexual shimmy through the club that had the musicians sweating and the crowd roaring. (She turned out to be a feature journalist for the Miami Herald.) It was incandescent, joyous music, and when there was an intermission Patato went from table to table getting his picture taken with females of all ages.

After so much upheaval we were both hungry, so at midnight Jorge and I ended up at one of the best Cuban restaurants in town, the Puerto Sagua, which looks like a New York coffee shop except for the 3D mural of Havana’s Plaza de Catedral in the back. A fried bisteco palomilla got me moving, along with coffee like jet fuel.

Now that we were awake, at one in the morning we needed a drink, and out of too many chic bars Jorge chose a fancy, low-key bar-restaurant, the Strand—grand in scale, spacious, high-ceilinged, with latticed lights, marbled arches, great red sofas, mosaiced columns, and great hanging urn lights in domes, with a good menu as well. According to the pretty bartender, the crowd was always "lots and lots of models and a few lecherous men—you guys stand a very good chance." As which one, she didn’t specify.

Tempting as it was to overnight somewhere sleek and modernist, I needed a break from South Beach, so I got Jorge to drop me at a hotel over in Coconut Grove. I was surprised, by this point, that they let me stagger in.

"Don’t worry so much, amigo," was his final message, as he delivered me to the airport the next morning. "Never forget: in Miami the sun always shines for the cool." Here endeth the sermon.