Thursday, August 14, 1997

A Childhood in Nassau

Written in 1997 for Sky magazine

For a writer, childhood is the treasure chest; one has the rest of life to share out by the fistful the amazing, gleaming pirate’s hoard buried many layers deep in the imagination.

When I was a boy growing up in the Bahamas, I used to get up mornings at dawn and go out on our little second-story terrace to look over the jumbled town of Nassau and, beyond its quiet streets, the gradually awakening ocean. Nothing meant more to me then than the startling sight, two mornings a week, of the ocean liners from Miami edging over the horizon, plumed with pipe-swirls of smoke. I would watch each slow ship slip across the water towards me and make the prim turn into harbor and sound its horn, waking everyone on that side of the island. I learned to count on ships’ funnels; I learned geography from watching boats unload their different cargoes.

We didn’t live in Nassau year-round—that would’ve been too good to be true. My mother was a ballet teacher, a Londoner based improbably in Georgia; my father, an American journalist, was perpetually abroad. Soon after I was born in 1957 it made sense for my mother to escape Southern heat every year and assuage her homesickness by bringing us to a guest house in Nassau for the whole summer.

In those bright days Nassau was small, elegant, sophisticated, and intimate (we had the same taxi-driver year after year). Most shops closed Friday afternoons; there was only one casino, run like a private Mayfair gaming club. The town of uneven streets was suffused with the fragrance of oleander and poinciana. Even the architecture had a languor: low, balconied, pink, yellow and lavender buildings in wood or stucco, all shutters, jalousies, and fruit trees in high-walled gardens. Those walls’ modern counterparts, just coming in, were discreet “offshore” banks for the nervous big money of Europe, worried about tax laws and the nuclear threat. Nassau was inexorably British (the Bahamas remained a crown colony until 1973), in ways that are difficult to describe now without sounding like an exercise in nostalgia for Empire.

This was undoubtedly because I saw the place through my mother’s eyes—determined that I would not be brought up wholly American, and delighted at being able to get the latest English novels at the Island Bookshop, or pharmaceuticals and chocolates unavailable in the States, or catch up on London theater gossip in chance conversations on the beach.

Nassau was also very safe. At age five I was allowed to walk around by myself. I’d go down to the Prince George Wharf to gaze at boys my age diving for tossed shillings and the cruise ships disgorging passengers where the fringed horse-buggies awaited them patiently. Here, too, local sloops would be unloading fruit, vegetables and fish, while the mail-boats got ready to “tie loose” for the Out Islands. What is now the Straw Market was then the city marketplace for produce and fish; the straw work was done by Bahamian women sewing away outside under umbrellas (“Can I sell you something, darling?”). The “native” paintings and sculptures, often of real finesse, were mostly done by Haitians.

The only danger for a child alone was that I might get lost, in which case any Nassavian would’ve pointed me back to our guest house. Like my Bahamian playmates I’d mastered a greeting popular then among local men which I was sure would distinguish me from an average tourist brat. It was done by an upright forefinger held around eye-level, flipped forward in a brief gesture with a mix of studied casualness and a hint of the Bogartian toughness copied around the Caribbean then.

Our guest house, the Ocean Spray, was on Bay Street up from a cream-yellow queen called the British Colonial Hotel—ramparts on an imperial scale, flags of visitor countries, and the slowest service in the islands. The little Ocean Spray stood across from what was then a private beach owned by the hotel, a beach divided by a wall too high to see across. One side was for hotel guests, or anyone who paid a beach fee. The other side was public, for Bahamians—who from their side could come up the private side only as far as the tide-mark. This was not quite a color law; that would’ve been too precise for Nassau. It made for a curious counterpoint within my racial education, since in Georgia all my friends were white, and in Nassau they were all black.

I can still see that beach, its sugary expanse punctuated by two coconut palms growing from a common base. It looked across to the western tip of Paradise Island, with its lighthouse set like a candle marking the entrance to Nassau harbor. We’d spend most days there; occasionally there’d be a commotion, as when some Italian sailors caught a shark in the shallows and heroically hauled it in. At day’s end we had only to cross the street to be home. The guest house was run by a family of Syrian emigres called Moses. The daughter, my babysitter, ceaselessly gyrated and shrieked to Elvis Presley records; the mother made wonderful stuffed grape-leaves—they kept vines out back.

I had my own passions, of course. One was mangos, which I resisted trying (they looked too ugly) for years, until my mother persuaded me one hot July afternoon. A plot formed immediately; I feigned sleep that night, waited till she was in bed, then got up stealthily and in darkness assaulted the other mangos ripening on the table. My punishment was being sick for days—little boys shouldn’t consume three mangos singlehanded. Equally addictive were caneps, a sour fruit the size of a large marble that pops out of a green skin into your mouth and refreshes you instantly.

I learned to read there the summer I was four. My favorite haunt quickly became the library, a domed octagonal 18th century building in a little park just behind the main colonial square and post office. Originally the town prison, the bookshelves were in what had been the cells. This added greatly to the lurid allure of books about former Nassau colleagues like Blackbeard—any boy feels an instinctive kinship with pirates.

Another treat, high tea outdoors, often followed a library visit. Nearby soared one of the grandest hotels in the Caribbean, the Royal Victoria, a lovely balconied 19th century wooden manse like a tropical Tara, built for rum-runners and surrounded by glorious, cathedral-like botanical gardens. At the center was a huge banyan tree whose arms cradled a stage where a band played calypsos from tea-time on. Years later it closed, fell into ruin and was recently razed. It would’ve made a great movie set.

Nassau was a calypso town then. Today calypso seems, outside of Trinidad, like a nostalgia-ridden word, conjuring up a phony 1950s Caribbean with all the allure of stale suntan oil. But the music began as an authentic local expression of musicality and wit, and if the Bahamian version (“goombay”) was less sardonic and more melodic than those farther south, this is significant too. A look at a faded 1965 tourist guide reminds me that there were a good dozen fine calypso clubs in Nassau: Dirty Dick’s and Blackbeard’s, the Big Bamboo, the Drumbeat, the Junkanoo. Listen:

When Papa beats his Goombay Drum
From miles around the people come
To hear the rumble of his jungle drum . . .
He beats the rhythm that can give them heat
From swaying hips down to their dancing feet
Recreation, culmination, agitation, great sensation!
When Papa beats upon the Goombay drum . . . .

The greatest Bahamian drummer—he still has his own nightclub—was Peanuts Taylor. Singers? I remember mostly men: Vince Martin, Richie Delamore, and a Haitian, AndrĂ© Toussaint. My favorite was always a grinning toothless man named George Symonette, the tallest man in Nassau, now deceased, with the face of a walrus; he played piano in church on Sundays and calypso till all hours the other days. A few old recordings, long out-of-print, are around again on cassette, with his out-of-tune piano and that delicate croak of a voice. He used to plop me beside him on a piano bench and muse those gentle rhymes that were Nassau, like the one about the king who became Governor-General of the Bahamas:

It was love, love, love alone
Caused King Edward to leave the throne.

I glimpse it all with the vibrancy of a repeated dream, for it was in Nassau with my mother, in childhood, I first had that most adult of sensations—of knowing I was happy, knowing why, and storing it all up against a time when perhaps that would not be as inevitable. So that thirty years on, I have only to hum one of those calypsos, and there my Nassau is again. As she is, too.

1 comment:

  1. An orgasmic "treasure chest" ... so evocative and beautifully written. Lovely how children are like dry little sponges, soaking up every tidbit, then squishing it out later as needed. When all else fails, the mind is a wonderful hiding place for such treasures...