Friday, January 29, 2010

Pop and Harvard Polo

That's Pop, third from the left on the pony
with the star on its face.

Pop was supposed to graduate from Harvard in 1928, but he was detained for another year for stealing a bus following the Harvard-Yale football game. So, lucky for the polo team above, he was on board for another year to help them capture the intercollegiate indoor championship in 1929.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Perfect Moment

“I hadn’t had a Perfect Moment yet...and its very important to me to have Perfect Moments in exotic countries like that, you know, I always like to have them, because it gives you a good sense of closure, you know, kinda lets you know when its time to go home.” Spalding Gray, Swimming to Cambodia

Here’s something for you: I never met Goldfinger. Even though my husband worked for him on the island for two years, I never met the man who paid our way. Even though we sailed on his three masted schooner Fleurje, and went to the lavish company Christmas party held at the Sonesta Hotel, and to the Bermuda Ag Fair where Goldfinger rode his jumper horses, I only managed to see him from afar. Once or twice while driving, I saw him on his tennis court that sat near Harbor Road, wearing his long sleeved tennis whites with the matching long pants -- crisp white linen, like he was the Great Gatsby. He stayed covered up all the time because of the burn scars, the scars that came from the ANC fire bombing in Holland almost a decade before.

I considered it somewhat of a triumph to never have met him. Its not that I didn’t try to meet him, he just never showed up when I was there. My husband’s close colleagues thought it was funny that of everyone in the company on the island, the employees and the wives, I was the only one not to have met Goldfinger. And this offered me some anonymity. I suppose if anyone could write about him or spy on him, it would be me, because he didn’t know me. And what's even odder is that I had it all planned in my mind what I would talk to him about if I ever did meet him: Horses.

You see, he kept a beautiful stable on the island and it was filled with Dutch warmbloods; jumpers and dressage horses. He might have been a ruthless oil man, but he was a horseman and a patron of the feral cats of Bermuda. There was a shelter, a sanctuary for the cats in his stable. Bermuda was filthy with feral cats and Goldfinger was very sensitive to their plight. His cat sanctuary would fill up to capacity sometimes, because of course, he had a limited number of people who wished to adopt his cats, so you know what Goldfinger did? He put those cats, something like 50 or so at a time, on his private jet and flew them to a farm he owned in South Carolina where he kept all his retired show horses. And it was on this farm that he kept the cats enclosed in a multi-acre preserve that was surrounded by a ten foot chain-link fence with some sort of baffle at the top that kept the cats from climbing out. And there they lived out their lives with their own personal caretaker, who fed them and attended to all their cat needs every day.

My mother called me one night not long after we returned to the States to tell me about her new farrier. She said, “You won’t believe this but while he was trimming Flamboyana’s feet, he tells me of this farm that he goes to once a month to trim and shoe all these beautiful retired show horses and the farm has the damdest thing on it...a preserve for these wild cats that were flown in from Bermuda by the billionaire who owns the place. Its nuts, the cats have their own staff, he says! And I laughed and told him, "my daughter’s husband worked for that guy out on Bermuda!" And he puts Flamboyana’s foot down and looks up and me and says, ”No Shit!?“ and I replied, ”No Shit!“ and he shook his head and said, ”Well, ain’t it a small world!“

So Goldfinger’s benevolence toward the four-leggeds redeemed his soul in my eyes, even though he would cast us all out without any apologies only a couple of years after arriving on the island. A tantrum would occur and suddenly it was over in a blink of an eye. But its too soon to tell you of how we got home, there is still so much to tell you about my island in the sea.

But I will tell you this: Not long before Goldfinger would make us walk the plank, I would have my Perfect Moment, the moment that made leaving the island easier. The moment that made me feel as though I had completed my island mission.

Py and I had a fight. It was an early evening in late May and after too many Rum Cocos that afternoon, a match was lit. There were rumors flying about the company, among the traders and the wives that The End was near and we couldn’t decide whether to deploy the life boat earlier or later. Hell, we didn’t even know where the life boat was! And so this lovely May afternoon that begin with ideas of going snorkeling found us not snorkeling, but brooding over a game of Gin Rummy on our shaded veranda that looked out to the North Shore while fueling our Rock Fever with Rum Cocos. I don’t remember the content of the fight, it may have been about the Life Boat, it may have been about what to have for dinner, all I know is that it was Quick and Loud and Hurtful and it sent me down into the garage, where I pondered getting in the mini car to go for a drive, but as Jack the dog stood there looking at me with that ”Take Me“ spark in his eye, I realized that driving after three or four Rum Cocos was not such a good idea. And so I opted for my pedal bike.

I had optimistically brought the pedal bike with us from the States with the plan that I would tool all over Bermuda with it, wearing nothing but my bathing suit and a large brimmed hat, because isn't that what Expats do? But I soon found out that Bermuda was a hostile environment for the pedal bike. First there were the hills, of which there were many and we lived next door to the highest point on the island, so leaving with the pedal bike was a breeze, but coming home was a different story entirely, one that required much pushing. Which brings me to what they call bicycles in Bermuda, Pedal Bike is one term, because most islanders ride Motor Bikes, but most called them Push Bikes, because one had to constantly push the Pedal Bike about to get anywhere with any sort of efficiency. The roads were hazardously narrow, and so to ride a Pedal Bike or to walk for that matter was really quite risky. So there you have it, my romantic ideas of pedaling about my island in the sea were dashed and my lovely pea green Pedal Bike remained in the garage for almost two years, until that night, the night of my Perfect Moment.

I patted Jack on that spot on top of his head where his hard skull creased. The spot that sometimes felt hot to the touch from emotion, and told him, ”I’ll be back Jack, I’ll be back.“ He knew that meant that I was venturing out without him and he stood in the garage and watched me wheel down the driveway. I could feel Py’s eyes on me from the lime green terrace above and I didn’t turn around for fear that I would turn to stone. I turned left at the end of Casa Verde’s little drive and headed south on Lolly’s Well Road with no plan, no plan at all. I knew I was going to end up on South Shore Road and I had never taken the bike there, never. It had only been to the Aquarium and back, and so I felt unfettered by this decision to go south. I rode past Malcolm and Christine’s house and by the little farm fields that were full of spring broccoli now. I pedaled through the sandy section of the road without a care and skirted the home of Champion Ridgeback, a very bad dog, very bad dog indeed, despite his owner’s insistent refrain to me every time I walked by with Jack, who was just a common Pond Dog in her eyes, that Ridgeback was indeed Champion Ridgeback of all of Bermuda, to which I wanted to reply, but never ever did, ”How many Ridgebacks could there possibly be on Bermuda?“

Ridgeback was nothing but a brute as far as Jack and I were concerned, exploding through the screen door every time we walked past, flashing those Champion teeth, and me grabbing hold of Jack and Jack never taking the bait. Finally one day though, Jack bit Ridgeback on the nose, ever so deftly, and this sent Ridgeback into the speediest reverse. And Jack looked at me and I looked at Jack and we said, ”well, that settles that, Champion Jack!“

But Ridgeback was obviously unawares of my pedaling by, perhaps my being without Jack was the reason for his indifference to me. And so on I went into the shadows of the lane that I so loved to walk with my dog every day. Where our footfalls on the sandy road were so quiet that we took up no space in the sound of our neighborhood. We were constantly like spies walking that lane, observing the neighbors, and the cows and the little palms and the comings and goings of various birds and the flowers...Jack was a dog of flowers and would put his nose to any flower he could and breathe deep of it....nasturtiums, and morning glories, pink bermudiana, hibiscus...frangipani was his most favorite. When the Time of the Loquat would come, I would find him, just like the school children, beneath the Loquat tree in our yard, standing on his hind legs to pick loquats and then, once he had one, he would lay down in the grass and delicately separate the fruit from the pit and eat the Loquat meat with more joy than if he had caught a mole.

My neighbor saw Jack performing this surgery on the sunny fruit and said, ”its a good thing he does it that way, the pits are poisonous you know! “ For a moment I thought of stopping Jack from eating the loquats, but then I caught myself, and realized that eating loquats was Jack’s perfect moment, something slightly dangerous and wonderful all at the same time.

The sun was thinking about setting by the time I reached South Shore Road and I sat at the intersection for a moment wondering if I just might turn back, but I looked back up the hill I had just coasted down and then I looked at the dairy cows, who seemed to be in cahoots with me and I decided that I would keep going. ”And besides,“ I thought to myself, ”I was just beginning to forget about that row I had with Py. If I go back now then it will just hang in the air above us all night.“ So I took another left and felt the bike do my bidding quite nicely. There seemed to be a sea breeze at my back and now I was on the flat South Shore Road with the sea on my right and the green rise of the island on my left. There was no traffic to speak of, rush hour had passed and it seemed as though the island had cleared its throat for me...all I could hear was the whir of bike chain and the sea echoing in my slightly dizzy Rum-Coco-mind like I had a conk shell pressed to my ear.

Can I explain it? I will try...for two years I had driven on that South Shore Road in the mini car or on our noisy motor bike to get myself to the Portuguese grocery or to take Jack for walks on Spittal Pond or to go lay on the pink sand of John Smith’s Bay, our neighborhood beach. I had traveled those curves and miles on noisy wheels with a motor talking in my ear like some annoying woman for all this time and now? Now I was seeing that road like it was the very first time. I wasn't a tourist and I wasn't an expat. I was something else entirely, perhaps the person that Hemingway was when he hiked the mountains of Switzerland.

It was like I was dreaming that road, and my pedal bike and I seemed to own every inch of it. I rode down the center line, sat straight in the saddle and took my hands off the handle bars to reach out, to spread my long tan arms that felt like the fronds of the palms that I was passing by. Time was standing still as I passed Watch Hill and rounded the sharp corner to have John Smith’s Bay open up in front of me. Perhaps it was the Rum Cocos or perhaps it was that I was finally doing what I had dreamed I would do when I lived on an island in the sea...I was overwhelmed with a moment of complete and utter freedom. I think I felt like a sea bird must feel on a day when the wind is with him and the fishes are in clear view for his taking.

I stopped the bike and decided to sit on the grass underneath the Hollywood-worthy fan palms that shaded one end of the bay. There was a long stone and coral wall there that was inhabited by taxi drivers during the day. They parked under the palms, and drank elephant beers and took off their pork pie hats to wipe their black sweaty brows. I would hear them laughing and telling stories when I was floating in the water off of John Smith’s. Their warm sing-song voices would come out to me on the water and keep me tied to the shore. But on this night, the night of my Perfect Moment, the taxi drivers were all gone for the day, they were back in Hamilton now for sure, driving tourists from the cruise ships to a restaurant, repeating the sights that they repeated every day, ”and over der we have de Governor’s House and der is de Botanical Gardens...“ And so I sat there, cross-legged with my arms at my sides watching the last of the swimmers drying themselves off and packing up their things to go home for the night. The beach seemed like a waitress to me, her feet were tired and she wanted the diners to leave so she could wipe down the tables, straighten her hair and return to her little apartment where she might have a tall cold beer and a sandwich before bed.

In that moment, sitting there alone with my bicycle, watching the island all around me, watching the sea rolling over like a lover, I was perfectly content. I wasn’t looking for the Spanish Galleon on the horizon to come save me, I wasn’t wishing for anything other than the moment not to end. Yet everything was so fine that even the moment's ending didn’t bother me. I saw that the sun was tapping its foot and urging me to ride home before the moon came on duty. And so I heeded the coming darkness and pedaled all the way up that big hill to our half empty lime green house . And that night before we went to bed, I told my husband that no matter what came, we were going to be okay.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Rock Fever

There it you see it? There’s Bermuda, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Its easy to miss isn’t it?

Its not in a cluster of islands, it has no clique to hang out with. It is completely alone.

Many don’t realize this. They think Bermuda is in the Caribbean. And its a shock to some when they see where it really is. It boggles the mind really.

Its aloneness makes it unique...its not tropical, its subtropical. The Gulf Stream keeps it from freezing, but I know there were times in the winter there, when the gales blew in, that I was colder than any winter day in Connecticut. The wind rattled the shutters on the house and the damp salt air slept along side you all night.

What is Rock Fever? How can I tell you what it is to live on a 22 square mile island with a population of 75,000 people and feel like you are going mad? You can drive your little car from one end of the island and back again to the other end and then to your lime green house with little furniture on a hill overlooking a quarry on a sunny day and feel as though you got Nowhere.

You can take yourself down to Hamilton for the day and buy the paper and have fish and chips at the Hog Penny and watch the tug boats escort the cruise ships into the harbor and your mind is relieved for an hour or two. But you know you haven’t covered any new territory.

You can walk your dog in every park on the island in a week. You can swim in all the coves and walk all the beaches in a month’s time or so. You can eat in every restaurant and drive down every road and there you have it, you’ve covered it.

You can stand on Spanish Point and feel the sea wind on your face and imagine that you are an explorer with your big black hound dog standing by your side. His nose is raised, as is his tail and his eyes are brilliant in the sun and you both search the horizon for a Spanish Galleon to appear and throw its anchor with a great crash into the depths. You want a hoard of men to row in over the rocks and the reefs and kidnap you and your dog and take you back to America. But no Galleon appears, just clouds parading and parading and parading on their way to Greenland.

Rock Fever afflicts every man, woman and child in Bermuda and Bermudians will be the first to tell you how to cure it. You got to get off dee island. You got to or you will indeed go mad.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

laurie anderson says...

I'm lying in the shade of my family tree
I'm a branch that broke off
What will become of me?

Dear Mom, I'm lying here in this queen-sized bed.
I'm thinking back
To all the stories you read to me.
About the little animals who went to sea
In their beautiful pea green boat.
But I can't remember now
What happened then?
Dear Mom, how does it end?

The owl and the pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat.
They took some honey and lots of money
Wrapped in a five pound note.
The owl looked up to the stars above
And sang to a small guitar.
O lovely pussy! Pussy my love!
What a wonderful pussy you are.

Let us be married
Too long we've tarried
But what shall we do for a ring?
What shall we do for a ring?
Hey! Hey!

They sailed away for a year and a day
To the land where the bong tree grows
And there in a wood a piggy wig stood
A ring at the end of his nose
A ring at the end of his nose.

And hand in hand at the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the
By the light of the, by the light of the moon.

And hand in hand at the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the
By the light of the, by the light of the moon.
The moon, the moon.
Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!

Beautiful Pea Green Boat -- laurie anderson

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Loquat Tree, Part Four

Let me just set you straight on a very important matter concerning my experience as an Expat right now. There was no internet, let me repeat that, there was no internet.

There was no Google, no Amazon, no New York Times-dot-com, no Huffington Post, no YouTube, no Facebook...nothing, nada....zilch. I couldn’t shop on the internet. I couldn’t talk to friends back home on the internet. And I couldn’t keep up with the outside world on the internet. There was an antiquated form of email that reached me the last month I was living in Bermuda, June of 1998, but it wasn’t something that every single person on earth had yet, so it was basically useless to me.

Expats on Bermuda these days have the world at their fingertips with the internet. The world can come to them in an instant. Their isolation is soothed and alleviated by the vast cyber world available to them. I see that they even have several bulletin boards where they may can meet up with each other...complain about their common Expat problems, network for friendships and days out snorkeling, “Hey, all us Expats are meeting at Horse Shoe Bay for a picnic this Saturday afternoon! Come along!” That sort of thing.

So what did I do without the internet all those years ago on my island in the sea? Hmmmm...I wrote handwritten letters home, carefully crafted ink on paper which traveled home at the speed of a cargo ship across the ocean with its lovely Bermuda stamp as its fare. Two weeks later, a friend or a family member got word from me and how I was surviving out there, out in the middle of the ocean.

We listened to the BBC on the radio, a short wave radio. The short wave radio brought broadcasts of the strangest kind to us sometimes -- here are some notes from Py's radio notebook:

9690 - Beijing, English, propaganda at Midnight

9445 - Turkey, music from approx. 21 - 3 UTC (6 pm BAT) then news and more music, reception improves later.

9640 - 02:30 UTC Brit station (English service of Deutsche Welle ) Jazz - Germany aimed at S. Asia

9460 - Greece - music - poor reception

9715 - 11:30 Radio Netherlands, cheesy pop music

9860 - 11:30 Radio Australia, Melbourne

15084 - 16:20 18th of May - very faint - Middle Eastern music - Iran on this frequency 24 hours...

...Radio Budapest...

15420 - Sat. 16:30 - National Alliance American Dissident Voices...

11720 - June 21 -- Bulgaria - 04:30 UTC - Bulgaria seems like a drag...

9625 - Monday 0030 - piano concerto? good signal - yes! Mozart concerto for 2 pianos! signal deteriorated by 0130...

You get the picture, you could spend hours listening to the world on the short wave and reception on the island was amazing, because there was little to get in the way of traveling radio waves.

The BBC was my lifeline and we eventually had cablevision, so we got the BBC on the telly to help remind us that there was an entire world of things going on out there. We taped John Peel's weekly music show, yes taped, with cassette tapes, that we then played in our car...Peel kept us up to date with the latest music and he took us back in time with golden oldies too!

There were two or three movie theaters on the island. BUT they rotated movies at a snail's pace. A horrendously bad movie called Booty Call dominated two of the theaters one summer for some hellish amount of seemed like several months, but maybe it was only several weeks. Py would look in the Royal Gazette at the movie listings and tease, "Oh great! Look! Booty Call is playing!" Titanic played on the island for at least two or three months. You were more likely to see a new movie if you went to the video store, and that was a place we frequented almost daily.

I lived for letters from home. A letter from home in my post box in the Flatts post office was capable of raising my spirits to such a degree that I would do a little dance in front of the Postal ladies. These ladies were a grim lot. I learned early on to not request too many care packages from home because of the Postal Ladies and Customs. You see, every package that a person receives in Bermuda must be inspected by Her Majesty The Queen’s Customs...the Postal Ladies. So when you got that little notice in your post box that you had a box, you had to go to the desk and the Postal Lady would take your notice and disappear for an hour or two in the back of the Postal building and then she would return with your box, which had been opened and rifled through. Then she would pull out each item in the box and ask you to declare what it was and how much it was worth, even though, my mother had clearly stated this on her customs sheet that she filled out when she mailed me the package back in the States...“that is a pair of used sneakers, I think they are worth 20 U.S. dollars.”

“And dees”

“That is several pairs of socks, used socks, ten U.S. dollars.”

and so it would go and they would even hold up the fresh new pairs of panties my mother had sent me and I would cringe as I had all these Bermudians in the queue behind me.

I had to tell my mother to take the price tags off of everything she sent and to make everything look as though she had taken the stuff out of storage for me so I didn’t have to pay Customs some huge amount of tax just to get a few new things for myself. Still, though, paying Customs for these care packages was far less expensive than shopping in Hamilton, where there was nothing basic to be had, and what basics you could find came at a price near that of a first born child.

Books were purchased upstairs at the Phoenix Store in Hamilton. The Phoenix Store was like an island version of Walmart, without the groceries. And they were the only bookseller on the island to speak of -- you could find Penguin classics and New York Times Bestsellers, these were books for tourists, to read on the beach or on the cruise ship, but they got us through.

Telephone calls home were wonderful and exciting and EXPENSIVE at twenty cents a minute...being a talkative girl with a talkative family brought us to our financial knees when the phone bill arrived every month. But calling home had to be done, it was necessary for mental survival.

We got our news from other sources too, local news came from The Royal Gazette and The Bermuda Sun. I became a daily reader of the International Herald and I treated myself to a Sunday New York Times occasionally, it came to the island by plane on Mondays and it cost somewhere around ten U.S. dollars, but I could make that Sunday Times last for weeks.

There was another form that news got to us and that was the Harbor Radio. We didn’t listen to it directly, we got daily reports from the happenings on Harbor Radio from the Bermuda evening news, ZBS. Harbor Radio brought you the news of the sea -- shipping news...what ships were coming into Bermuda, cruse ships and naval ships and submarines. We got a tour of a Russian nuclear submarine that was docked off of Dock Yards one summer because we heard about it through Harbor Radio. The Russians let us walk all over the top of the sub and we got to look down inside her, but only look, we weren’t allowed to go down below. The Russian sailors were young with ruddy cheeks and pale eyes, they looked to be from another century in their black crackerjacks with the red insignia.

The thing about Harbor Radio was that it also told of disasters on the high seas. We heard of tankers caught in storms and small sail boats that had become lost in the barren waters. Bermuda had no Coast Guard and they often called on the U.S. Coast Guard to send helicopters to rescue distressed vessels.

People on the continent have no idea how much is going on out there on the ocean. The drama of sailors and vessels would drift to us everyday by way of Harbor Radio. When a gale was blowing across the island or when a hurricane was skirting our shores I was always acutely aware of the dangers that sailors were facing, and at night I imagined them out there, fighting the currents and the sea monsters.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Of Riding on the Road and Ashford & Simpson

I used to ride my pony from my home on Bayberry Lane to get to the Fairfield County Hunt Club. It was something I did from the time I was six until I was eighteen. The Hunt Club was where many of my friends rode and it offered me horse shows, a polo field to gallop around, an indoor ring to school over jumps in during the winter time, and access to miles of trails.

I didn't ride the road every day. I could ride my neighbor's property -- approximately 100 acres of woods and open fields, but the Hunt Club was the hub of riding activity and like my mother before me, I rode the road to get there. The trip by horse didn't take long, probably 20 minutes to cover three-quarters of a mile and I had to negotiate a busy intersection, that of Long Lots Road, Bayberry Lane, and Maple Avenue. Of course, my pony had to deal sanely with the road at all times -- he had to be fearless of school buses, trucks, bicycles, dogs, and Westport's then-form of public transportation The Mini Bus, a Mercedes bus who's diesel engine trilled loudly and spewed an acrid cloud of exhaust the color of coal.

People used to consider Connecticut The Country back then -- New Yorkers would move to Westport or keep a weekend house there and they called it their Country house. I think this still goes on up there -- this describing the area of western Connecticut as some sort of rural respite from the City, but last time I looked, it had transformed to something beyond suburban, despite the beaches and the emerald throngs of maple trees. Its no longer that idyllic location for Mr. Blanding's Dream House or Christmas In Connecticut. The thought of riding a horse down one of Westport's roads today only fills me with visions of disaster involving an oversized SUV blindly guided by a GPS. But back then, in the days of my childhood, most people in Connecticut knew what to do when they saw a horse and rider on the road -- slow down and give the horse some room.

I was a familiar sight on Bayberry-- I kept to the pavement, but once, once I was in a hurry and I took advantage of Mr. Kent's long beautiful sloping lawn to canter part of the grandparents got a call that night, Mr. Kent said only one kid in the neighborhood could put that many divots in his yard. I was sent to Mr. Kent's house on my bicycle the next morning to apologize and promise that I wouldn't gallop my pony on his grass anymore.

On horse show days, I would ride to the Hunt Club just after sun up. My pony was turned out for the show with his braided mane, and I carried my supplies needed for the day in a bucket in one hand and the reins in the other. Sometimes in addition to the bucket, which had a brush or two, towels, and a hoof pick, I’d have a coat bag containing my show jacket and other necessary appointments for my classes. This made for a small feat, to get my gleaming pony down the road carrying all this. And of course, I was hopeful that at the end of the day I would return triumphant with a ribbon or two added to my load.

There was one bright afternoon I was riding down the road to meet a few friends for a trail ride and a Westport police car passed me. He put on the brakes, and quickly reversed. He swung the cruiser onto the shoulder of the road blocking me and my pony's path. The officer got out of the car and like all cops about to inform you of your trespass on the law, he straightened his hat and pants and cleared his throat. He was young, much younger than most of the policemen I knew. My family was great friends with many of the longtime Westport cops and being so young myself, I saw them all as Old Men, men of great authority and stature. I stopped my pony and said hello to the officer. He squinted and squared his shoulders, "How old are you?" he asked me.

"I'm ten, ten years old. Sir."

"And what's your name?" He had his ticket pad in his hand and he began to write something down.


"Shannon what?"

"Shannon Woolfe. Sir."

"Miss Woolfe, do you know that horses are not allowed on the streets?"

"No sir. I've been riding on the road for a long time now. And my grandfather rides his polo pony on this road too. And...and..." Never talk too much to cops, it only annoys them.

"But its against the law. Horses don't belong on the road. Just not safe, you know."

"Oh..." I was confused and my face felt all hot...I wanted to cry, but at the same time, something told me he was wrong. He kept jotting things down on his ticket book. I thought, gosh, he's going to give me a ticket!

"Miss Woolfe, where do you live?"

I turned in the saddle and pointed back up the road, "51...51 Bayberry Lane. I live there with my grandparents, Tom and Mabel Glynn."

"Miss Woolfe, I want you to turn your pony back around and go home. And I don't want to see you out on this road again."

"Yessir." I was near tears, but I did as he told me. He followed us, my pony and me, up the road with his car. We must have looked like a very short parade. He chided me once again when I turned into our driveway, "Remember, I don't want to see you and your horse out on this road again." And then he drove off.

I trotted up to the house and called for Pop. Out he came and asked me why I was back so soon? Why wasn't I riding with my friends? I told him about the policeman sending me home and Pop got all red-in-the-face-mad, "Jesus Christ...what the hell is going on around here? Listen, go for your ride, I'll call Mac." Mr. MacLeanan was a Westport policeman from way back, he eventually became the Chief of Police in Weston...he taught me how to swim and had even ridden horses with my mother when they were growing up.

Pop called Mac and Mac called the Chief, who then found out who was patrolling Bayberry Lane that afternoon. He was a rookie, a new hire, a city boy. He had never seen someone riding a horse down a road and he just assumed it was against the law. The Chief apparently called him in and showed him a copy of the Connecticut Driver's Handbook that explicitly stated that a driver must yield to pedestrians of all kinds including horses and riders. I would see the young officer every once in a while after that. He would pass me on his patrol down Bayberry and oddly salute me, never looked at me, just held up this stiff white hand as he drove by.

I rarely had trouble riding on the road, sometimes people didn’t slow down enough or give me ample room, the same thing that bicyclists encounter. It was times like those that I was glad to have a road tough pony. But there was one driver who was downright murderous.

I was riding home and hurrying to beat sundown, it was a gray winter afternoon, the kind that makes Connecticut seem like the last place you want to be. The trees were black and bare and there were remnants of a snow storm on the edges of the road...gray snow, dirty snow, the way snow gets when its been beaten into submission by the salt trucks and that black exhaust that pours from the school bus and the Mini Bus and the weird neighbor's old Mercedes station wagon. I was riding my new pony named Snow Poppy, a bay mare I had received for Christmas just a month earlier. She was new to this road work, but she was getting the hang of it. She was extremely sensible and I was smitten with her.

We were only a couple of hundred yards from my driveway when I heard the roar of an engine behind us. I turned to see a white van lurch as though it was raising up on its hind legs while the driver stepped on the gas. It sped up the hill toward us, the headlights were ablaze and it was coming right for us. Poppy and I were in a bad place too...there was no shoulder, we were riding next to a high bank, with a wall of saplings covering its top and there was just no time to cross the road to take refuge in the Goldstein's driveway. So I did the only thing I could with so little time to save myself and Poppy. I made her stand as close to the bank as she could and she miraculously stood stock still for me and I threw my leg, the leg that was exposed to the road over her neck, so that I was now riding sidesaddle. The van catapulted by us at a terrible speed and its sides brushed Poppy's flanks and shoulders -- and the stirrup that I had left empty by taking my leg up and over Poppy’s withers, rang a terrible metallic song. I held my breath and Poppy held her breath and then as quickly as he came, like lightning striking, he was gone in a filthy white blur up the road. But I did get one thing off that truck as he squeezed Poppy and I into that bank on the side of the road, I got the big blue word SEARS tattooed into my brain.

Poppy could have panicked but she was as resolved as I was to get home after the SEARS man had tried to kill us. We trotted, clippity-clippity-clippity up the center line and in the gate for home, where I found my grandfather making hot mashes for our horses’ dinners. My story sent Pop running up the hill and into his car. He sped out the driveway and disappeared. I untacked Poppy and looked for some sign of injury on her -- nothing, not a hair out of place. The only evidence was a gash in the flap of my saddle, and it came over me like a terrible wave that my leg could have been ripped open the way my saddle had been.

Pop found the SEARS man at the liquor store up the road. He took him to task in the doorway and told the shopkeeper to call the police. The SEARS man was arrested and I suppose he lost his job. For years after that Pop fretted that the SEARS man would come back to the neighborhood for revenge, but he never did.

Sometime in the very late seventies, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson of the legendary R&B team of Ashford & Simpson moved into a grand old house at the other end of Bayberry Lane, on the corner of Cross Highway. This caused a bit of a stir, of course, being that they were black celebrities. Westport was very accustomed to celebrities, but our celebrities tended to come in one color: white. And Old Westport wanted Westport to stay a certain way, a battle they would soon lose.

Not long after he moved in, our new neighbor drove by me and my pony. I always turned round when I heard a car coming from behind and on this day, my young heart skipped a beat when I saw this spectacular car rolling toward me. It was a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, a fantastic looking car, like nothing I had ever seen before, and it slowed way way down as it went over to the other side of the road to go around me. The window rolled down and there he was at the wheel of his shining ship, this gorgeous black man smiling this starry smile at me and wearing a deep purple velvet suit. He waved his lovely dark hand at me and I knew who he was, he was Nick Ashford! It would be like that for a couple of years...he would drive by and smile that smile and sometimes She would be with him, Ms. Simpson, and she radiated this unbelievable warmth as they glided by me in that car. No wonder they could write songs like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and You’re All I Need To Get By! They seemed to emanate waves of Love everywhere they went.

Finally one day, he stopped and I stopped my pony and leaned over to see Mr. Ashford beaming at me from the helm of his magical car. "I just want to tell you how happy I feel when I see you riding that beautiful horse. It makes my day every time I see you."

"Thank you Mr. Ashford!" I wanted to tell him how it made my day every time he drove by me in his Silver Cloud. But I couldn't get the words out.

And then he drove off, and I felt like some must feel after they have been blessed by the Pope or have knelt in front of the Dali Lama. And I hummed “Ain’t no mountain high enough...” all the way down the road.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mom in Ireland

with her father, her stepmother, and driver...
about 1925

Sweet Jane

The older I get, the more I like the young Jane Fonda -- you know, the plucky girl of Barefoot in the Park and Sunday in New York. The girl from Jersey who has almost by mistake fallen into the exciting life of New York City. She’s naive and curious. She’s looking for thrills, but she doesn’t know what those thrills are. And she wants everyone to join in with her discovery of life. She has so many questions...questions, questions, questions. She’s never been drunk, never been high, never been a newlywed. I get the feeling she’s never really experienced any sort of deep sadness, this just over 21 girl, and normally this would raise my disdain factor, but with Jane, it only serves to make you admire her, you want to say “hip hip hooray, she’s absolutely a fool for life!”

Maybe she’s so damn good at playing these joyous innocent That Girl characters, because in her own too real life, she experienced the grief of living with a depressed mother, who eventually killed herself. That dark side gave young Jane the ability to take the light and work with it.

Her perpetually surprised take on life is intoxicating to me and its initially that way for Robert Redford in Barefoot in the Park...but then he becomes the sullen life-is-a-load husband. He becomes more suited for his mother-in-law than for his young too-excited wife. Jane dances exuberantly and drunk with Charles Boyer and don’t I want to be her when she’s in this blissful state? You bet I do! Redford becomes more and more exasperated as Jane’s life seems to be opening up in front of her like a Christmas package...he catches cold, he becomes so drunk he can’t feel his teeth, his cynical old-man nature rises to the top as he discovers this wild thing he’s now betrothed to. What a wonderful surprise to find out the girl you married ISN’T your mother! But Redford seems to have wanted his mother and instead he got Jane. Impetuous Jane.

But something happened to Jane, perhaps Barbarella was a turning point for her. The funny thing is that Barbarella is that same innocent girl from the suburbs looking for unknown thrills. She maintains that child-like wonder, that need to ask questions like the Little Prince, who never stopped asking a question until it was answered. She purports to be a scientist who specializes in Love, but isn’t she just That Girl again in a fur lined space ship?

The Jane that lands back on earth after her exploits in Love and Sex in Barbarella is one that I don’t care for as much. Sure, she teased us with her brilliant dark portrayal of a high dollar call girl in Klute, only to then disappoint me as time wore on. The new Jane went for sensible knee high boots and journalism school. She traded in That Girl for Brenda Starr -- her sense of wonder was given over to a sense of political concern and her brow seemed to knot up with the weight of the world. It happens to all of us as we grow older and more responsible, I suppose, but I'm becoming a firm believer that we have to maintain the Shamma Shamma, just a bit of it, to fend off Mr. Time, to stay clear of the nursing home doors...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Great Grandfather's Showroom

My Great-grandfather, Erwin M. Jennings
was a car salesman. He was the first man to sell cars
in the state of Connecticut.

Aunt Francis

This is Aunt Francis, in the hollyhocks, in the marsh that sat behind Burying Hill Beach, in Greens Farms, Connecticut. Its probably summer of 1908, maybe 1909. Francis was my grandmother's older sister. The house that sits on the hill behind her is Red Oaks. It was my great grandfather's summer home -- from that grand porch, my grandmother told me, you could see the Long Island Sound stretch on and on until it met the other side, Long Island don't you know. Their winter home was in Bridgeport, only 20 miles away...the Bridgeport home was sheltered from the cold sea winds I suppose, but I always thought it odd that their summer home and their winter home were so close. All that effort, to pack everything up and move the six children back and forth every year.

This picture was taken only a few years before my great-grandmother, Francis' mother, would die. Her death would change everything for Aunt Francis and my grandmother and their four brothers. Their father would marry their mother's nurse and they would all be sent to boarding school. My grandmother and Aunt Francis went to Emma Willard in upstate New York where they cried every night for their mother, and their father.

This is what I know of Aunt Francis. She was very beautiful. Like a young movie star and she wrote poems, amazing rhyming poems, stacks and stacks of them. My grandmother kept Francis' poems in her bedside table, and when I was young she would pull the poems out and read them to me. The poems are gone now. She wrote poems about my grandmother, and her brothers -- John, Jarvis, Glover, and Austin. She wrote a poem about my grandmother's horse Silver Lining. She wrote poems about her dead mother and her father, whom she worshiped. The poems were melancholy and full of music and love.

Aunt Francis was married once, to George the lawyer. They had two sons. They lived in a grand house on 10 acres next to my grandmother's house...they both received 10 acres of former onion farm from their father as wedding presents. But Aunt Francis sold the house when she divorced George the lawyer. She wasn't living there by the time I moved in with my grandparents -- a large Irish family was living there and sometimes I would play with the daughters and tell them how their house once belonged to my Aunt Francis. I remember exactly two things about that house. It had a laundry shoot that traveled from the third floor to the cellar -- the Irish boys liked to throw things other than laundry down that shoot. And there were bars on the nursery bedroom window -- Aunt Francis had her first son not long after the Lindbergh kidnapping and she insisted that the bars be installed. My grandmother and Aunt Francis were obsessed with the Lindbergh kidnapping, which frightened me to no end as a kid.

When she was young, Francis was a well-known socialite. She and my grandmother appeared in the papers of Fairfield every time they had a party or played a tennis match or went on a trip -- Those Jennings girls are at it again! They set sail on the Queen Mary this Saturday morning for points east -- the Azores, Gibraltar, Barcelona, Rome, Palermo, and Tunisia. Bon Voyage!

But the young images of Aunt Francis never matched the woman I knew while I was growing up. By then Francis was on the skids. Her sons had grown and moved far away -- one became a school teacher, the other a piano player on cruise ships. You see, the money ran out and Aunt Francis ended up living on the streets of Newark with her boyfriend Charlie. Charlie hung himself one night and Uncle Glover had to go rescue Aunt Francis. He brought her back to Connecticut and put her in the hospital where they tried to dry her out, it was only temporary.

Her sorrow over Charlie and her slide from fortune was incurable, but my grandmother and her brothers found Francis a housekeeping job and this saved her life. The job was a bit of an embarrassment for everyone though, because it was with Miss Bedford. The Bedfords and the Jennings had been equals at one time. The families both owned large stretches of land on Connecticut's Gold Coast, Beachside Avenue, Westport. The luck of wealth ran out for the Jennings, but it smiled on their neighbor, and Miss Bedford still held the wealth that her father had amassed.

Miss Bedford lived alone with her dogs in a grand stone and clapboard house that boasted an apple orchard and ancient weeping willow trees on a great lawn that languorously unfurled and ended at a cement and stone sea wall that dropped down to her rocky private beach. There you would find a private boardwalk that was so weathered it looked to be constructed from driftwood. It went far enough into the water, that when the tide was out, you could walk the boardwalk to its end, descend the staircase, and be in the deep to swim. I distinctly remember this beach because my grandmother took me their in my first few summers in Connecticut. Its the beach where I learned about the wonders of the Sound, without really knowing how to swim yet...I discovered the barnacles and the mussels, the seaweed, the horse shoe crabs and the jellyfish. Best of all was the Rock. There was this rock the size of a Volkswagon, and I climbed all over that rock. Fiddler crabs lived in tiny holes that decorated the salt beaten surface of this rock...they would pop in and out with their pale pink little arms, and pinch at the air and at me. I imagined that rock to be a carriage sometimes, it had this wonderful ledge on the side that faced the shoreline and you could sit on it, even when the tide was high, and dangle your legs into the cool salt water. It was from that ledge that I drove my team of horses to every adventure I could think of.

So this was where Aunt Francis landed, not exactly on her feet, but at least Miss Bedford was willing to give her a chance. Miss Bedford was very gruff, and independent. She never married and never gave you the impression that a man was at all necessary to her life. She knew Aunt Francis' foibles and she was in some ways more a patron to Aunt Francis than an employer.

Francis lived in an apartment over the expansive four car garage. And she was given a car to run errands, a 1969 Volkswagon Bug, baby blue. Francis did everything a house keeper was supposed to do and not supposed to do. She maintained most of the time, but fell hard off the wagon often. And when she did, it was my grandmother who Miss Bedford would call, sometimes in the middle of the night, "Mame, your sister is drunk again..." And so Mom would go over there and tend to Francis. Sometimes Aunt Francis dove so deep into the bottle that the only way to bring her back to the surface was to put her in the Tank. The Drunk Tank, as my grandparents liked to call it, was a part of the hospital that many in our community disappeared into for short periods. I learned far too young what it meant to dry out, go on the wagon, to be on the skids...and it was from observing Aunt Francis that I learned about the DTs (Delirium tremens) -- Mom had to take me with her to see Aunt Francis in the Tank, for some reason I couldn't be left home, and she told me to wait in the hall, but I followed her and looked through the crack in the door. There was Francis, tied to the bed crying her eyes out because there were birds flying around the room. I looked for the birds. There weren't any birds...

When Aunt Francis wasn't on the skids and she was maintaining, she would stop by to see my grandmother. She'd roll up the driveway in that VW bug, that seemed to have a new dent every time we saw her...stone walls popped up in her way frequently. Francis had this voice, and I can't put it any gentler than this, she had a voice that could shatter glass. It was hard for me to see how she could be my grandmother's sister, because Mom's voice was quite polished and soft, loud, but always pleasant. But Francis was still beautiful despite the beating she had given her body -- she dressed neatly in tweed suits and cashmere sweaters, leftover from the Salad Days...she even had a fur coat. Her hair was still slightly golden and she always, always smelled of Elizabeth Arden's perfume Geranium...the powdery lovely smell would linger long after she left. But the thing was, the thing that drove me crazy as a kid when Aunt Francis would come to visit for the afternoon, was that she'd let herself in the kitchen door, take a glass out of the cabinet, fill it with cold water, take her false teeth out and immerse them in the glass, which she then left on the counter. It was like she was taking her shoes off to get more comfortable and relax in my grandmother's company. The sight of that glass with her teeth floating in them, like something in the Museum of Natural History, made me slightly queasy.

Aunt Francis died not long before my seventeenth birthday and I inherited her car. We were a family of grandfather drove a navy blue fastback 411 and my grandmother drove a gold fastback 412 with a Porche engine. The 412 was about the coolest car ever, and until I inherited the Bug, Mom let me drive the 412 anytime I needed it. It was terribly fast.

When we went to pick up the Bug, you could barely see that it was baby blue for all the dents and the rust and the muffler was gone, but I didn't care, it was my car now. My grandmother insisted that we take it to Bruno for some work. Bruno's German Carworks was on the Black Rock Turnpike, way up there near Bridgeport. And Bruno was the most German German I have ever known. He was stop-your-heart-handsome -- he had short sandy curly hair and his face was always covered in grease, but it was his eyes that took you down. Bruno's eyes were aquamarine and they hypnotized you as he told you what he was going to do to your car. Bruno was Paul Newman's race car mechanic...he would put a Porche engine in anything -- if you gave him a cardboard box with wheels on it, Bruno would put a Porche engine in there just to see how it might go.

Bruno shook his head when he saw my shameful little bug. He said to come back in a couple of weeks...I looked at my grandmother and said with the grim impatience of a teenager, "I could be dead by then!" But the weeks went by and I lived despite time dripping by. I thought how could changing a muffler take so long?!

Mom took me up there to get my car and it was hidden away in one of Bruno's dark greasy garage bays when we got there. Bruno was very excited when we pulled in, "Well den, are you ready to see your new car?" I was perplexed, but we went into the shadows of the garage, and there it was, but it wasn't the car the Aunt Francis had left me, it was now a fully restored 1969 Volkswagon Beetle. Bruno wanted to put a Boxer engine in it, but Mom wouldn't let him, so he put a fully rebuilt VW engine in it that put any other bug engine to shame. He had put four new fenders on the little car, and repainted the whole thing -- she gleamed. The heat worked, a rarity in VWs, and the upholstery had been repaired. It was about the most perfect little blue thing in the world, almost as perfect as Bruno's sea-glass colored eyes.

I drove the VW right through high school and then it traveled with me through college -- it drove up mountains in North Carolina and down country roads that needed to be explored. But one day the electrical system started to go -- the horn would blow randomly or puffs of smoke would come out of the dashboard. It was time to sell my little car. I advertised it and a woman called, she wanted her VW mechanic in Greensboro to look it over. I drove my worn little car over there hoping it wouldn't blow its horn or smoke when we got there. I was honest though, I told them that the wiring needed some work. The mechanic asked me where I got the car and I told him Connecticut. And then he opened the rear hood and peered in at the engine -- a grin overtook his face -- "Where did this engine come from?" I told him Bruno built that engine and the big man said, "I don't know who Bruno is, but lady, this is an engine!" The woman bought my little bug for $1,500 no questions asked.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Loquat Tree, Part Three

Jack spying on the dairy cows
and feral chickens
of Lolly's Well Road
Smith's Parish

Bermudian Honey is exquisite -- there is a handful of beekeepers on the island and each one is registered with the Bermudian government, says so on their unique packages...unique packages? Each bee keeper had their trademark recycled container for their liquid gold, and the apiarist of my choice always decanted his honey in bottles that formerly held rum. There was the honey that came in old vodka bottles and the honey that came in a globe like Courvoisier bottle, but for me it was the native rum bottle that I chose. I tried the other honeys, but this one made my morning tea sublime. Naturally, I assumed that the bottles were emptied of their original alcoholic contents by the beekeeper on cold Bermuda evenings after he had finished wrangling with bees all day. And I wondered sometimes if my beekeeper didn’t leave just a bit of the original tenant in the bottle to make his honey slightly more magical.

Of course, I bought my honey along with other groceries at Harrington Hundreds, a small grocery owned by a barrel-chested Portuguese man, that sat on a curve on South Shore Road in Smiths Parish, not far from Watch Hill Park and my neighborhood beach, John Smith’s Bay. I call the grocery small, but it was grand in its offerings. All groceries on Bermuda are small, simply because living on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean limits your choices. The milk and cream came from the little local dairies -- we had one at the end of our road, with exactly ten Holstein cows that my dog Jack and I would walk by every day. Miss number 42 was our favorite, a social girl that took a liking to our daily chats. You could buy local chickens and eggs, but beef came from the UK. In fact much of our pantry was filled with products from the UK. We enjoyed European yogurt and Belgian chocolate -- no Hershey bars in Bermuda. There was local carrots (the sweetest), broccoli, cauliflower, red potatoes, fennel, cabbage, and of course, Bermuda Onions! But other than those few locally produced fresh foods, everything else came on a ship or a plane.

And contrary to what you might think, sea food was not abundantly available. Almost all seafood came from abroad and it was frozen and priced like rubies. Bermudians favored cod fish for special occasions like Easter and Christmas. Occasionally you would run across locally caught Parrot fish, but only if the fisherman was a friend and willing to share. Shark showed up every once in a while too, but I consider shark a poor man’s swordfish really. February was known as Lobster season -- Bermuda lobster is, in my humble opinion, a sorry impostor for what we Americans enjoy -- the great and buttery Maine Lobster. Bermuda’s lobster is a small and tough Rock Lobster who is sinewy and tasteless. They foist them upon tourists at great expense in grand Front Street restaurants in the winter season...I am certain the tourists walk away perplexed and still hungry. The seafood situation in Bermuda was one of my biggest disappointments as an expat -- I longed for huge plates of fish out there on my island in the sea, but there was none to be had, we were too far from the gulf stream and upon a barren sub-tropical sea mount.

Prices were astonishing. Our grocery bill was a force to be reckoned with every month -- it was three to four times what we paid to feed ourselves back in North Carolina. And because you had so few choices among similar products, there just wasn’t any competition, you had to buy the brand you were offered, the price be damned. We learned a few tricks, one thing that we never bought was paper towels, at 6 dollars a roll, who needed ‘em! But of course you had to buy toilet paper, they had you there. I learned to go to different stores around the island for certain things, somedays it would take me a full afternoon of driving from one store to another to get all the things I wanted, but the savings was worth it, and I found the things that made life a bit happier in our kitchen.

We were vegetarians for ten years before moving to Bermuda, but that ended when we got to the island. It became apparent to us that refusing to eat meat would almost be impossible on Bermuda. Py went to elaborate company dinners that Goldfinger held, 5 and 6 course meals at Tom Moore’s Tavern or out on Goldfinger’s schooner...late into the evening they would linger on deck, while plate after plate of amazing food would be put in front of them, the stars would wink on and off, as they filled their bellies and drank sumptuous wine. Py couldn’t just up and say “So sorry, can’t eat that, I’m a vegetarian, you know.” Nope, just not cool, not cool at all. So we went from being meek vegetable and tofu people to all out meat people. We decided if we were going to eat meat again, we would eat every kind of meat we could find. And we found it, in a hole in the wall Indian take-out grocery that sat in the Back-A-Town -- where you almost never found white people and never-ever found tourists. Back-A-Town was the backside of Hamilton, the big city, the capital, where all the action was. It was boisterous and chaotic with crazy loud motor bikes ridden by Jump-Ups (Jamaicans who came to Bermuda to work).

It was a part of Bermuda that I was so glad existed, because I knew there had to be a seamy side of the island, the side of the island where the machete robberies were planned and where pot was freely smoked. Bermuda had an underbelly, whether she liked it or not, Queen or no Queen Gov’ner! And so the underbelly was revealed in Back-A-Town, a place that Py and I only ventured into during the day light hours. And oh, the wonderful things we found there in the Indian Take Out grocery! They had a huge Tandoor that burned all day and even all night I suppose. And out of it came the most beautiful flat breads and the reddest Tandoor Chicken. There was Lamb Rogan Josh and Goat Curry and then they would pile this gorgeous yellow rice in your styrofoam box to hurry home with. This was where we learned to eat meat again. And best of all, we could buy all the supplies and spices we needed to make our own Indian dinners at home and at Back-A-Town prices. Sure, anybody with enough money could spend an evening in The Bicycle Club with all the tourists down on Front Street and get their fill of “Curry” but we could fill our car with enough supplies to live on Dal and Rice for a month.

And we learned about real Indian food -- it must have been because we were in a British colony that we felt a need to learn something that the British colonists never learned. We found this most satisfying not only for our bellies, but our souls. Madhur Jaffrey, the Julia Child of Indian cuisine taught me immediately with this passage from her Invitation to Indian Cooking:

“To me the word ”curry“ is as degrading to India’s cuisine as the term ”chop suey“ was to China’s...”Curry“ is just a vague, inaccurate word which the world has picked up from the British, who, in turn got it mistakenly from us (the Indians). It seems to mean different things to different people. Sometimes it is used synonymously with all Indian food. In America it can mean either Indian food or curry powder...The origin of this English word could be kari, a Tamil word meaning ”sauce“, it could be a spice called the kari leaf, or it could be karhi, a North Indian dish made with buttermilk and chick pea flower. Who knows where some wandering sixteenth-century Englishman found his inspiration! Whatever its source, the word is obviously a British oversimplification for what is recognized as a richly varied cuisine.

If ”curry“ is an oversimplified name for an ancient cuisine, then ‘curry powder” attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself. Curry powders are standard blends of several spices, including cumin, coriander, fenugreek, red peppers, and tumeric -- standard blends which Indians themselves never use. Here again I am sure the British are responsible for its creation. This is how I imagine it happened:

A British officer in full uniform (possibly a young David Niven) is standing under a palm tree and looking fondly at his bungalow as Indian servants go back and forth carrying heavy trunks from the house into a waiting carriage. When the carriage is loaded, the servants line up on the veranda with tears in their eyes. The officer himself, overcome with emotion, turns to khansamah (cook).

OFFICER: How I shall miss your delicious cooking. My good man, why don’t you mix me a box of those wonderful spices that you have been using. I will carry it back with me to Surrey, and there, whenever I feel nostalgic about India, I will take out the box and sprinkle some of your aromatic spice mixture into my bubbling pot.

KHANSAMAH: Yes, sa’ab, as you say, sa’ab. (Runs off to the kitchen.)

Scene shifts to kitchen, where cook is seen hastily throwing spices into box. He runs back with it to officer.

KHANSAMAH: Here is the box, sa’ab. Sa’ab, if your friend also like, for a sum of two rupees each, I can make more boxes for them as well. . . .

Several years later: Former cook is now successful exporter. He is seen filling boxes marked “Best Curry Powder.” When boxes are filled, he puts them in a large crate and stamps it in black: FOR EXPORT ONLY. Then he goes to his money box, opens it, takes out his money, and gleefully counts it. As scene fades away, former cook and present exporter is doing Dance of Joy. . . ."

Ahh, yes, the British. . . making the world a better colony for everyone.

Friday, January 8, 2010

David Byrne Says...

The Saint of Unemployment
-- Buenos Aires
"I ride further our from the center of town. I don't have a destination. I stumble upon a feria -- a village fair -- this one an outdoor festival that celebrates gaucho and country culture. It takes place in a small plaza out in the suburbs. On the way I pass a queue of people. One sees only the line, no destination or end -- just people standing, patiently, and occasionally inching forward, but toward what is unclear. This line is so long that it disappears somewhere down the road, and where it ends is too far away to tell. The line snakes through a succession of neighborhoods, in and out of small town centers. It disappears from my view and then incredibly it suddenly appears again. Its four kilometers long at least. Half a million people or more, so I am told later, waiting to see San Cayetano, the patron saint of the unemployed. This is the saint that people pray to when they are in need of work, and today is his day. All the local roads in the area around the church where the saint is housed are blocked off by the police. The people come to pray for work, for employment. Some of them come carrying a few stalks of DayGlo-dyed wheat, which they will take home in remembrance, while others will leave with nothing"

From David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Paradise had mixed feelings. She never knew how to feel about us. When she first asked us to land on her shores, her arms were wide open and her smile, oh here smile was warm. But Paradise became confused soon after we arrived and she took a terribly long time to decide what to do with us. There were the days when Paradise set the table with hibiscus and oleander, parrot fish, turquoise seas, soft warm sand, a goodly breeze, puffy little clouds marching along the North Shore, sweet sun, long happy walks on a Wilderness Road, and would invite the best of friends to surround us and make good conversation. On those good days, Paradise would make a dessert of cobalt sky that fell out of the West, filled with sugary stars and then a comforting Bromide full moon to settle our stomachs. This was when Paradise seemed as though she was all we needed.

Paradise went on angry strikes in the kitchen though. She would throw the pots and pans and leave dirty dishes in the sink. She would cast a hot burning stare on us as she sat in the yard and dragged us in to her blue funk. Paradise would make the sky turn a milky humid white and would blow a 30 knot wind for days to rattle the windows, beat our skin with driving rain of cold pins, churn the seas to a witchy green that threatened to swallow us and even Paradise herself. Paradise could shut us in the house for days and drive us to tears with our boredom and sadness and hope for home. She often offered us thunder and lightning that could come in the windows and through the floors and shake our hearts to pieces.

Paradise is not forgiving and when she started cooking good meals of sun and calm seas again after a gale, she often lulled us into believing that all was forgotten. We stupidly bellied up to the table, smiling and thanking Paradise, and she would serve a meal so filling that we became sleepy and unable to move. Then Paradise would begin to play her little tricks on us just to see what we might do. Paradise would tell us secrets and attempt to divide us with her cunning – she adopted the most bizarre methods of mind control and experimented on us, just as she did with her beguiling recipes. Her all out tirades became much easier to stand than her quiet trickery.

And then as suddenly as Paradise came into our lives, she decided it was time for us to leave. Paradise showed us the door and handed us a little brass box containing a tiny peeping tree frog to keep us company on our trip home. It was over and weirdly, we would miss Paradise and her cooking.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Loquat Tree, Part Two

Thunderstorms in Bermuda are extraordinarily violent. They come across the ocean as though they have been stalking the island and then they carry out their assault in such a horrendous manner that you find yourself questioning whether it was just a nightmare, or not, because where you come from, thunderstorms don’t act like that.

The storms begin as a low rumble that rides in on the waves. When you are new to the island, you don’t even notice it -- as far as you know, its the low timpani-like voice of a distant motorbike...a bike being ridden by an old Bermudian, headed home with groceries in his basket, he’s humming a song to himself and he’s thinking about walking in the door of his pink house and kissing his wife. But then the kettle drum multiplies into a battalion of baritone instruments that is escorted by these bruised cloud formations on that flat horizon that you look at day in and day out -- that line where the distant sky meets the distant surface of the sea, that place where you wish to see a ship or even just a little skiff, something, anything, to break up that damn straight empty blue line. And so the militarily organized storm advances and you know the electricals are starving for contact with land, they are hungry to ground themselves into the little limestone island. They are like sailors who have been out to sea for so long that they are mad with criminal desire and before you can unplug every appliance in the house and close the windows and the doors and lockdown the shutters on the windows without smashing your fingers, the storm is on you and your house.

The dog is panting and the cats are pacing and the thunder is so raucous that your mind reels from the sound and the vibration under your feet. You are afraid to try to unplug any more appliances for fear of touching the wires now. You just get into bed with the dog and your husband and you wait it out and you wonder whether the starved lightning is going to eat at your house or your neighbor’s. The house goes dark, darker than if it were night, and suddenly your scalp tingles, the hair on your arms stands up like sea grass and the room fills with this electrical uninvited guest....there is an audible zap and a zing, and then the most amazing thing dances before your eyes in the corner of the bedroom, next to the dresser neatly piled with fresh laundry -- St. Elmo’s Fire, shimmering like a girl in a sequined dress in a night club. And as fast as she arrived, she disappears, leaving you and your husband and the dog breathless. “Did you see THAT?” yes, you all saw it, and you are glad she’s gone and that she only sang one song, because who knows what would have happened if she had sung another tune, one that might have electrocuted all of you, right there in your own bed.

Thunderstorms in Bermuda are responsible for more property damage than hurricanes, floods, theft, vandalism, and or arson, I suppose. Our neighbor’s home was hit by lightning and not only did they lose most if not all of their appliances, but a supporting wall of the house was split in looked as though there had been an earthquake, not a summer afternoon storm. Their television, their stove, their refrigerator, and their stereo were all burned from the inside out. They were in town at the time of the storm, perhaps if they had been at home they could have unplugged everything in time and only sustained the damaged wall, but then again, maybe it was a good thing that they were far away when the storm hit.

My neighbors Donna and Rick told me of a night when they were awoken by a thunderstorm in the middle night. They were safely in bed with their dogs and their cats, but Donna got up, she wanted to go to the kitchen and unplug everything. Rick told her to stay in bed, it was too late. But Donna got up anyway, and began the walk down their hallway. Their house was a small “shotgun” cottage -- a bedroom on one end, then a hallway to the kitchen that led into another short hallway and there was their den. That was it. There were doors on either side of the kitchen, the front door and the back door that led into their small garden. That night both the doors were open, with only the screen doors protecting the kitchen from the elements. As Donna made her way down the hall there was an enormous explosion of thunder and electricity all at the same time and while she stood frozen in the hallway, she heard the screen doors swing open and she watched as the lightning came in the front door and ran out the back door as though God was chasing it down. All Rick could see was Donna illuminated by the great but fleeting fireball. Donna was back in bed before the screen doors slammed shut again.

Where ever you might be on the island at the time of an approaching storm, you do your best to get home and unplug everything. Bermudians drop whatever they are doing to get home and unplug de house. It took me a few years to get over that behavior when I returned to the States and sometimes now, even a decade later, I still fight the urge to unplug the refrigerator whenever a storm approaches.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Scout & The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Part Two

me trying to bring Scout & friend
in the kitchen door

me and Strawberry Alarm Clock 1968

Can't tell the difference can you? The only clue is the tail!

Scout & The Strawberry Alarm Clock

me and Scout

I had two first ponies. Most kids don't even have one first pony, but as fate would have it, I was granted more than my share of ponies. Scout was the first to arrive and this might confuse you, but just hang with me here and you'll get it. Scout was a lovely mannered paint pony standing eleven or so hands. He was the quintessential perfect child's pony -- his black and white markings were handsome and magical. He resembled the Indian girl's pony in my favorite books, Holling C. Holling's The Book of Cowboys and The Book of Indians. Never mind that I was barely two when Scout arrived in our barn, I knew what I wanted and Scout fit my requirements perfectly. I was the lucky offspring of two professional horse people and so, of course, I would have my own pony as soon as I could walk. I had all the accessories too -- the chaps, the vest, the hat, the boots, and the guns. There is an unconfirmed rumor in my family that my first word was Horse, my second was Cowboy, and my third was Inyo, my version of Indian. Mummy and Daddy were words that came much, much later apparently.

I went everywhere with Scout and Scout went everywhere with me. I ran away occasionally, wearing as much as my nightgown sometimes or as little as nothing but my cowboy hat and boots -- and of course, the dogs accompanied me and Scout down our sandy road in Southern Pines, NC. My mother would let me get just so far, just far enough to let me believe that I had succeeded in running away with my Indian pony and my hounds, and then, then she would catch me and bring me back to the fort.

I tried on several occasions to bring Scout into the house, by way of the kitchen door, but Scout knew better than to step inside the house.

But Scout didn't make it to my third birthday. He was turned out one day in a paddock with a much larger horse who for some reason kicked Scout, deftly and once, and broke the pony's back. Scout was gone in an instant.

And my mother was left with a task -- to find a pony that looked just like Scout, and find him fast. She was going to pull a fast one on me...some parents replace goldfish, some replace hamsters, some might even go so far as to bring in a ringer cat or dog, but my mother is probably the only parent ever to pull the switcheroo of a kid's dead pony.

She got the word out fast among her horse friends and within hours she got a lead on a small carnival pony ride operation that was going out of business in Raleigh. They were selling all their paint ponies. So my mother got in her wonderful gray International Harvester jeep with a small trailer in tow and she made the drive up Route 1 to see the pony man. When she arrived, she found a pen full of lilliputian paint ponies all named after rock bands. There was Lovin' Spoonful, Monkee, Beatle, Beach Boy, Mama, and Papa, Ike, and Tina, Steppenwolf, Pink Floyd, Buffalo Springfield, and even Rolling Stone. But the only pony that looked exactly like Scout except for having a white tail instead of a black tail, was Strawberry Alarm Clock. That's right, my second first pony could have been Rolling Stone or Pink Floyd or hell, Ike, but I got Strawberry Alarm Clock...the pony who brought the world Incense and Peppermints.

My mother loaded Strawberry onto the trailer and rushed him home to Southern Pines in time for me to go for my afternoon ride with the hounds around the barn yard. I had no idea that Scout had been replaced by a rock band.

I suppose for a time I called Strawberry Alarm Clock "Scout", but by the time my parents split and I was moved from Southern Pines to my grandparents farm in Connecticut I was addressing my pony as Strawberry. Who knows where the transition in name took place...children are pliable that way I suppose. And it wasn't until I was seven or eight that I learned of Scout's demise and Strawberry's covert arrival. It was a gradual realization that came from comparing photographs and a few searching questions...I was relieved to know that my memories of Scout weren't just some odd dream, that he was indeed real and Strawberry was his stand-in...albeit a roguish replacement.

Strawberry bucked me off almost every day, he ran under low branches...he would glide under and leave me hanging on the tree limb, he found two trees in our yard in Connecticut that stood just far enough apart that he could fit between them but I would have to bail out of the saddle for fear of breaking both my knees. Strawberry bucked my friends off and my steeplechase jockey father. He was a legendarily bad pony. But first ponies are meant to be bad, because that is how one learns to ride and fall off and get back on again.

I eventually graduated to a much larger and in someways more troublesome pony, one named Friar Tuck. Friar Tuck would carry me to many a horse show and on many adventures far from our barnyard. Strawberry lived on our farm in Connecticut until I went off to college. We gave him to some friends to keep an old polo mare company in a pasture and that is where Strawberry lived out his grand old age...telling stories to the old girl about his years as a ringer. And I suppose the old girl returned the favor with daring stories of her days on the polo field.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Spaulding, Man!

okay, while she's gathering herself up for the task ahead, the rendering of her perfect moment, she wants you to listen to Spalding Gray and his perfect moment...

Friday, January 1, 2010

Just An Empty Suit

I heard on the radio today that they are throwing an old space suit off the space station tonight. Its going into orbit with a small radio transmitter which will broadcast a message for amateur radio operators to hear. What might its message be? “Has anybody seen my astronaut?" (February, 2006)

Denial Ain't Just a River

Sandy Bates' analyst in Stardust Memories says, "I treated him. He was a complicated patient. He saw reality too clearly...faulty denial mechanism. Failed to block out the terrible truths of existence. In the end his inability to to push away the awful facts of being in the world rendered his life meaningless."