[unpublished profile fragment: 22 October 2002; travels to U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas]
Jake is a smart kid. Not the kid you want your kid to be necessarily, more the kid you wish you had been. He is from Montgomery, Alabama, as ignominious, if not notorious, a place as Providence, Rhode Island, or Newark, New Jersey. But he comes, given his roots and the far-reaching peregrinations of his young life, with the onus/appeal of an accent, from the unmistakably deep South, unmistakably American.
“I know I look 15, but I’m 24,” he tells you, and in case you are not aware of the advantage, he tells you about it. When you tell him that the real advantage will come when he is 50 and looks only 32, he readily agrees. The advantage is the sort, the only sort, that counts in a man’s life, when all accounting is done – for bartenders, artists, poets, politicians and nuclear physicists – the advantage with women. Jake implies he has been with many, and among the sweeter, indeed, was one where the age differential could only have been equitable if the female, in this case at age 44, had suffered none of the gravitational influence that terrifies all women living West of the Greenwich Observatory, East of the International Dateline. As he talks about it, the corners of Jake’s mouth twist slightly at the sweet memory. He reveals the true burden of his youth in not hiding the pride he feels in having been with what less imaginative people would call “a real woman,” and leaving the distinct impression as well that he had the stuff, his unblemished complexion notwithstanding, his 20-plus year deficit notwithstanding, to leave her satisfied. And gravity played no part for either party.
As you pull out a stool at Bobby’s Bar in one of the many arcades that provide cool passage between Main Street and Waterfront Highway in Charlotte Amalie, and when you ask if he is Bobby, as he rises from a stool on the money side of the small bar that juts into the main walkway, furtively snuffing a cigarette and slipping behind the bar, he tells you, not that he is Jake, but that he is “Bobby’s bitch,” and he works here for five dollars an hour, seven days a week. Bobby is “traveling,” (as he does, it turns out, periodically; working a month, and traveling a month, apparently for pleasure – the remittance man with the best justification in the world: he is padrone, boss, sole owner). There is a kind of swagger in all this, and you know, jaded Northeasterner that you are, that he means the “bitch” part, not in the way it’s meant at Walpole prison or in Boston’s south end, but in a kind of urbane ironic way. Jake is clearly a master at creating a sympathetic resonance with any customer, including two grizzled middle-aged white guys, stragglers of some sort, toting imposing professional-looking cameras and clearly not from any cruise ship – all cruise vessels being temporarily absent from the usually teeming Charlotte Amalie harbor. To hustle tips from tourists with excess discretionary income, especially in tough times, is a craft that even the most tender-faced must master. Jake knows this is a good job, even at less than the U.S. mainland minimum wage. He gives a tutorial in staffing tourist bars in the West Indies. Among the competition, there are at least two bartenders, spelling one another, by weekday, or day part. However, Jake insists on taking on all barkeep duties. He likes having things behind the bar his way, everything in its place – essentially as Jake defines it.
We are the only customers. It is 11:30 in the morning after all, yet appropriate for a first cocktail, especially in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where, for many, rum is a breakfast drink. Jake launches into a rap that, in retrospect, is clearly well-practiced. We learn that he has traveled: for one, to Dallas, for an extended visit after college. In Dallas, despite his youth, he worked hard, tending bar, befriending the bar owner, and endearing himself (not to mention proving his value) sufficiently that the untimely death of his friend led to a recall by his boss’s widow, and the subsequent bestowal of 30% ownership of the establishment for a mere ten thousand dollars. Every month, Jake still receives a direct deposit of 30% of all revenue. It’s clearly better than a Fulbright, a kind of bibulous McArthur grant, acknowledging the genius of his native acumen and hosting skills. Dallas has become for Jake, a life goal: a “great place,” his objective for settling down, and, once he has accumulated the requisite cash, the place where he will leverage his value by buying out the place.
Among his travels is a sojourn in Japan of three and a-half months, where he sat “doing nothing,” waiting on his girlfriend who was in the island empire doing something indeterminate. In some essential way American, peripatetic (that most American of qualities), this young wanderer has, nevertheless, never been north of Memphis. And so, your native Boston remains a someday destination. You can only suspect that if there were a dollar in it, or perhaps a woman, the visit would occur.
Jake has been in Saint Thomas for 14 months, living in Frenchtown, one of the communities that make up Charlotte Amalie, the great sprawling tourist mecca and native ghetto where it seems the population lives in a kind of dignified squalor. Frenchtown is, by any account, not squalid. It is a white enclave. Given his venturesome history, and his taste for edgy experiences, it’s a little bit of dissonance to hear that Jake has elected such quarters. Or maybe it’s that quite simply, when it’s time to go home and get some rest, he wants no excitement, or surprises. Only a later interview could clear this up, and you make a note to ask him at a later opportunity [which never does present itself].
When you ask for a place to eat, not the usual tourist haunt, but a place where locals eat, Jake first mentions the obvious – well-known, unimaginative “safe” places for bourgeois tourists to congregate and consume familiar fare, as if all were adherents to the philosophy of “accidental tourism.” When you press for a name where the local fare is featured, Jake, almost apologetically reminds that he is in the habit of helping out his buddies who run several local favorite local eateries, but he does offer the name of Cozzin’s, a short walk away on Back Street (and, as it turns out later, what amounts to a sanitized version of local specialties, plus the usual offering of tourist fare: salads and burgers, with table cloths and laminated menus – you’ve been directed by Jake to what is no doubt another buddy’s place, and the closest no doubt that he can offer to what you’ve requested without compromising his loyalties). You can take the baby-faced white boy out of Alabama, you can take him around the world, but in the cultural plane you can not take him far at all.Copyright © 2015 Howard Dininby
Nice capture of a real story from down there…where people somehow end up after travels and travails that would conquer lesser men, or perhaps those who simply don’t bend with the wind the way everything down there requires…whether it is earning a living, or surviving a hurricane…