I was standing along the bar, watching a professional basketball game picked up from a Miami television station, when a young black man tapped me on the shoulder. He nodded his head to his left. I grabbed my beer and followed. He walked a few feet to where a small brass ring was hanging by a string from the high ceiling. He grabbed the ring, took about three steps back and, with a quick motion, swung it toward a hook shoulder-high in a post about eight feet away. As the ring reached zenith, it settled over the hook and held. He took the ring from the hook, handed it to me and nodded at the line on the floor where he had stood.
Holding the ring as I had seen him, I let fly. The ring swung out and missed the hook by a good two feet. I looked at him. He shrugged. Three tries later, I was rewarded with the sound of ring hitting hook before it swung back to me. Five more tries and I got it to stick.
He smiled. "See, it's easy."
"Once you know how," I said.
"Let's see who can get the most in a row." He spoke in that charming West Indian lilt familiar to American ears from Jamaican music.
My tolerance for public humiliation has never been high. "Why don't I save us some time and buy you a beer now rather than after you beat me?"
He laughed, and we walked back to the bar.
"My name's Jason," he said, adding that he lived here on Bimini.
The islands of Bimini lie some sixty miles east of Miami, in the clear, warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The main island is only some two miles long with a single paved road; contact with the outside world comes through the small airstrip on the south island, the marina on North Bimini, or the large satellite dishes bringing in American TV to the bars and hotels.
Bimini's largest bar in the 1980s and it might still hold that honor if it hadn't been burned down in January of 2006 was The Compleat Angler, a tacky dive that advertised itself as the "Home of Hemingway." True to its promise, the walls were covered with framed yellowing photographs of "Papa" Hemingway with a big fish, Hemingway with a little fish, Hemingway drinking. The rumor, which may have been true, that he lived in a room above the bar while writing "Islands in the Stream" was still enough to draw American tourists with their fat wallets. Young American writers with their slim wallets and big dreams of being the next Hemingway, too.
We ordered, toasted and drank. Jason indicated the game on the TV above the bar.
"Do you follow basketball?"
"Who's your favorite team?"
"Chicago," I said. "Do you all play basketball here?"
"Every day at five."
"You think anyone would mind if I played?" I asked.
"I don't see why. If they do, tell them I said it was okay."
"Where do you play?"
"Up past the doctor's at the park. Do you know where that is?"
We had found the doctor's earlier in the evening.
After checking into the hotel and having the island specialty conch chowder for dinner, I had joined friends at the End of the World Saloon. A small L-shaped building, The End of the World had a sand floor and a low ceiling, maybe seven feet high. Tucked in the back, by a door overlooking a small dock hanging out over the harbor, was a wood picnic table where two of my friends were listening to an older man explain the local rules of dominoes. Grabbing a beer, I joined them.
"Captain Norris" was embroidered on the man's black nylon windbreaker. His skin was darker yet. As he finished going over the rules of play, we drew our tiles.
As play began, it quickly became clear that the Biminian version of dominoes is livelier than at the country clubs back in the States. Erica, the only woman present, played first. Chivalry, or at least sexism, still ruled on Bimini. I followed her play, then Matt.
SMACK. Norris slapped his piece down with a quick, hard movement that got our attention and nearly spilled our beers.
"You got to play da pieces hard," Norris said in reply to our startled faces.
Play continued, tiles flying as we three tourists attempting to outsmack Norris. After the first hand, he turned to Erica: "Where's your husband?"
"I left him at home." Erica had her own cigar going pretty good. I don't think she'd ever smoked a cigar before, but you can't legally get Havanas back home and she wasn't one to pass by an opportunity.
"How come?" Norris asked. SMACK. He played a tile.
"He wasn't behaving."
"Which one of these two is your boyfriend?" he asked, using his cigar to indicate Matt and I, clearly bemused by the idea of a gorgeous redhead like her involved with either of what he obviously considered a pair of inferiors.
SMACK. Erica played her tile. "Neither." Ouch. She had no husband, and we were both vying for her apparently none too successfully. She stared at Norris through her cigar smoke for about a half-minute, until he looked away uncomfortably. I began thinking I might have been in over my head chasing this one. A few turns later, she won the hand, and I moved to the bar to make room for a group of pasty-white tourists who let everyone in earshot know they were just in from Indianapolis. Norris won the next round, and Erica and Matt joined me at the bar.
"See the dog bite I got this morning?" She held her hand up for inspection. I set my beer down and looked at the small red wounds in the fleshy part of her palm.
"What'd the doctor say?" I asked, pulling the beer up to my lips.
"I didn't go to a doctor."
I stopped drinking and looked at her over the bottle. "Ever hear of rabies?"
"Stop it," she said, her brown eyes growing large. "You're scaring me."
"Good let's find a doctor."
Matt wasn't going to let a rival walk off with Erica so easily. "She doesn't need a doctor," he said, holding her hand up to the dim bar light. "Just wash it and it will be fine."
Erica looked back at me. Great. He was telling her what she wanted to hear I got to play the heavy.
"Seems to me a short walk to the doctor beats hell out of all those shots in your stomach if you get rabies." Subtlety was never my strong point. Matt looked angry; Erica slowly nodded her assent.
She and I finished our drinks, and headed toward the police station past Alice Town, past the tourist bars and our hotel, north toward the township. The officer on duty looked at Erica's hand with great interest, and directed us toward the clinic, where the nurse lived.
Following his directions, we made our way into the township as night started to fall, but couldn't tell which house was the clinic.
A young black man asked if we needed help. We told him we were looking for the clinic, and he led us three doors down, where we approached a two-story clapboard house. Bo, our guide, walked up and knocked softly on the door. We waited a few minutes, but no one answered.
"I'll take you to the doctor's house instead," he said.
A few more houses down the street, he stopped and again knocked softly. No answer. Erica looked at me with an expression I couldn't place anger or fear, I didn't know, but I figured I better do something. I stepped up and knocked harder. Nothing. I knocked again, loudly. Either the doctor wasn't home or didn't want to answer.
We headed back to the clinic, and I rapped on the door as loud as I could. No answer. I knocked again, frustration making it louder than it needed to be. Finally, we were rewarded by the face of a small child looking through the window next to the door.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"We need to see the nurse," Erica said.
"One minute, please."
Bo turned to us. "I sure am thirsty." Erica and I both gave him a couple dollars. He thanked us and headed back to town.
We waited on the porch for the nurse. After five minutes, I was ready to knock again when the door was opened by a large, matronly black woman. She looked as if she had just woken up.
"Yes, what is this emergency?" she asked, irritably.
"I was bitten by a dog this afternoon," Erica said.
"Well, why didn't you come this afternoon?"
Erica didn't answer. She looked as if she felt miserable. After an uncomfortable silence, the nurse stepped back from the door and nodded. "Come on in, then."
She took Erica into the examination room. A few minutes later, Erica came out with a small bandage on her hand. She didn't say a word; wouldn't even look at me. About halfway back to the hotel, she finally said rather coldly, I thought "They've never had a case of rabies on Bimini."
Nine a.m. Hangover. I headed over to the hotel bar, arriving at the same time as my friend Doug. Banks, the bartender, was cleaning glasses, waiting for his first customer. Doug and I both ordered three bloody marys, then slid one each back to Banks and the three of us toasted the new day.
After an hour or so, in which Doug and I washed down some scrambled eggs and toast with our bloody marys, the rest of our party joined us. Staff members from a small magazine, we were on a business trip to "get to know one another better," stuck on a small island with nothing to do but drink. Breakfast was followed by a swim, then lunch, then half of us wandered up the road, past the tourist bars, into the local bars where the greetings weren't so warm, our dollars taken more coolly. We were trespassing in a way, violating the unwritten law that tourists stay in their own bars and leave the honest working folk to theirs.
That afternoon, as we headed back to the hotel, I left my friends and followed up Jason's tip on the basketball game.
"You think you can guard me?" Mocking contempt, only partly affected, dripped from the question. He was a foot taller than me, and a good 50 pounds heavier.
"We'll find out," I said, none too sure about the prospect, but what the hell there was no way to gracefully back down now.
He brought the ball from behind his back, dribbled to his right, faked left, and broke back to his right again leaving me standing flat-footed as he scored an easy layup to a chorus of laughter.
The game is called "21," and it's played the same on a sun-swept islet in the Caribbean as it was back home in the corn fields of Ohio where I grew up. The concept is simple to anyone familiar with basketball: There are no teams; two or more players all face off against each other. You can be guarded by everyone or no one it's a rough version of basketball where size is far more of a factor than in the more organized team variety.
As more players showed up for the late-afternoon game straggling in from work or school it became more difficult to even get near the ball. Being the only stranger the only white, in fact on the court got me more than a few quizzical glances. But at least I wasn't treated with the deference afforded a tourist I was checked often and hard, and the formal British-tinged English of the hotel and bars disappeared for the West Indian patois that is the everyday spoken language of Bimini. It may be spelled the same as standard English, but the local dialect is as foreign to American ears as the strongest Cockney accent someone once apparently yelled "Heads up" or its equivalent, which I didn't pick up before the ball flew into my face, giving me a bloody nose that actually went over quite well on the court.
My nemesis, by far the largest player on the court, won the game easily, and the locals split up into their regular teams. I watched awhile, then walked the half-mile back to the artificial world of the tourist bars lining the road to Alice Town.
Our second morning we chartered a 22-foot day cruiser to take us to Gun Cay. Halfway there, the captain slowed to point out the rusting skeleton of a preformed concrete floating casino ship that had run onto a sand bar one evening some 60 years before. There were two small yachts anchored next to it. "The drug smugglers drop their load off there and hide it from the police," Michael, the captain, said. "During Prohibition, they hid rum there on the way to the States."
He brought the boat around, and we slowly circled the wreck, a rotting metal-and-concrete whale carcass with ribs showing through. As we pulled away, we were approached by a high-speed police boat throwing up a huge chute of water behind it. The police circled us for a few minutes, aiming cameras with two-foot-long lenses at us.
Gun Cay is smaller than most racetracks. It's home to a Coast Guard lighthouse, a few palm trees and cactuses, and not much else. During low tide, it's roughly shaped like a lopsided figure eight; at high tide, it becomes two islands and you can stand on the sand bar separating them and feel waves slapping against the front and back of your legs at the same time.
Michael held the boat about 100 yards offshore the shallow lagoon wouldn't allow him to get any closer without running aground or tearing off his propeller. The five of us hopped over the side of the boat into the bath-warm, waist-deep water. The two crewmen handed us the two coolers with our lunches and beer, and promised to be back by four.
Once on shore, David, 25-year-old scion of a huge American industrial empire, whose riches allowed him to publish a magazine with almost no advertising, opened the cooler. He took the foil-wrapped sandwiches he'd bought from the hotel bar that morning and buried them a few inches under the sun-baked sand. Then he handed everyone cold German beers, and we went exploring. Within twenty minutes, we knew as much about Gun Cay as anyone ever had. We came back to the beach and played with a football and a frisbee: pushing, shoving, laughing being young and exulting in it.
A couple hours later, David dug the sandwiches out of the sand. Made with sweet Hawaiian bread, thick slabs of honey-glazed ham and oh-so-sharp cheddar cheese, the sandwiches had cooked in the hot sand. Ravenous from the alcohol and athletics and some of David's ever-present hashish we tore into the sandwiches like war refugees going after a CARE package.
After lunch, we napped on the sand, covered with towels to protect us from the sun. By three, we were up and snorkeling in the lagoon's bath-warm water, marveling at the schools of fish, splashing each other and again celebrating a youth we took for granted, a youth we knew would last forever.
We spent that night crawling from one bar to another, finally getting back to our room at some ungodly hour long after midnight.
Everyone else collapsed into bed, but the sound of the waves drew me outside. I decided to sleep on the patio, open to the sky and sea. I began moving the lawn furniture off to one side in order to make room to lie down. As I set down a chair too noisily, a voice floated over from the adjoining patio on the other side of the dividing wall.
I jumped at the voice. "Excuse me?"
"You okay?" An older black man stuck his head around the wall.
"I'm just making room to sleep," I said defensively.
He laughed softly. "That's fine. I just want to know if you're okay."
"I'm fine, but the light's out on our patio," I slurred. "You have a spare bulb?"
"No." He laughed again. "Not now."
"Oh." With a head full of rum, it took me a minute to digest that. "Do you mind if I sit by you and read for awhile?"
"Oh no. C'mon over." The short, wiry man reached around the wall and I handed him a deck chair. He set it by his own on the patio outside the now-closed hotel bar. We'd met earlier in the evening as his shift as night watchman began, and he'd introduced himself as Bob. Just Bob. He was wearing a tattered black leather jacket and a Greek fisherman's cap pulled low over his half-closed eyes.
I settled in my chair and just listened to the waves breaking some 20 yards away. Bob saw me looking out to sea and not reading.
"The world is falling apart," he said quietly.
"Oh, I don't know." I felt warm from the drink and balmy ocean breeze.
"The drugs, they're killing the world."
"Sure, drugs are bad ..." I trailed off, thinking of the three joints we'd smoked before dinner.
A few minutes passed and then Bob spoke again. "Whose fault is the drugs?"
"Those who buy them," I said slowly.
"You see my point," Bob said after another pause. "Why do they buy them?"
I thought before answering. "I don't really know."
"No, I don't either. But those that sell them, why do they do that?"
"For the money."
"Yes, you see my point. They are more interested in money than in being decent." We both resumed watching the moonlit ocean. "My boy, he don't use drugs, I hope. He lives in Florida with his mom. When he was little, I told him 'Don't use no drugs.' I hope he listened. If he is a decent person and don't use drugs, then I've done a good job. I am 65 now, and my mother died when I was 3. I still do what she told me. That's why I'm a decent person."
Bob scanned the night sea. "The drugs are not so bad around here anymore."
Sometimes I just don't know when to keep my mouth shut: "I don't know. On my way to town this afternoon, four or five young men offered to sell me drugs."
"No, no. I'm not talking about that. I mean the airplanes and boats taking the drugs stateside are not so many. A few years ago, you would see five or six planes every night, circling around. They was all drugs."
"It's better now?"
"Oh yes. The government sends the ships and planes to stop the drugs. It doesn't stop it, but it's better."
"It won't stop as long as there are people who want to buy drugs. Somebody will bring them."
"Yes. You see my point. But why do they want to take drugs?"
"I don't know." And, right then, I really didn't.
"You see, the drugs are killing the world."
"No, the people are doing it to themselves."
A pause. "Yes, I see your point."
We sat and watched more of the moonlit ocean the phosphorescent foam riding the waves to shore, the starlit sky laying like a mantle over the world as the Caribbean breeze bathed us in its warm currents.
Finally, Bob arose to resume his shift. He helped me back to my patio, and handed me the chair.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine." We shook hands.
"Thank you for listening to an old man," Bob said softly.
I looked at him for a few seconds, seeing a very serious man, a man who cared very deeply about his world, a man I had underestimated in my drunken, youthful hubris.
"No," I said slowly. "Thank you for trusting me enough to talk with me."
Bob squinted at me for a second. "Yes, I see what you mean."
Published January 2007