City Portrait

Bermuda: Paradise Proper

On an island of civility: spacious shorts, good roux, and a close encounter with Darth Vader

City PorGoing to Bermuda with a banjo on my knee. Going to Bermuda with a banjo on my knee. Supposed to come from Alabama and go to obouisiana with a banjo on one’s knee. Bermuda is better than Louisiana and Alabama for the banjo-knee-going, sweet home or no. I know about the sweet home, I went to school with ’em boys what became Lynyrd Skynyrd, I knew Allen Collins, the skinny girl-beautiful guitarist, I put Allen Collins in every travel piece I do, travel writing is harrowing, going to Bermuda with a banjo on my knee.

Travel writing is harrowing. You are in paradise, more or less, having to prove it is paradise. It is hard to have a good time trying to figure out a way to say you are having a good time, whether you are having it or not, even in paradise. The harrowing will make you daft. As I have, I think, amply demonstrated. Let’s move on. Let’s do Bermuda in Moments, with subjunctive Points of Advice.

A Moment in History
Bermuda was slow in colonization. People couldn’t find it, it was so low, and when they did find it, it was usually the hard way, foundering on reefs that ring the islands (the Bermudas, 181 islands) for miles out. It was not on the way home from the New World, outside the prevailing westerly winds. When people wrecked on the reefs, they spent five months, three months, a year rebuilding their ships or building new ships. Then they got away. Hogs were put on the islands, deliberately and as victims also of shipwreck, providing eventually a handy maritime pork store. The first money coined on Bermuda after it finally did get some colony action going had pictures of hogs engraved on every piece and was called hog money, according to Mary Gray, who has written the shortest, and until I saw Rosemary Jones’s Bermuda: Five Centuries, my favorite, serious history of Bermuda. The first known black man on Bermuda was called Venturilla. In 1738 the governor was named Alured Popple. I credit Allen Collins with having had the wit to come up with Lynyrd Skynyrd to make fun of Leonard Skinner.

A Moment in Geography
Bermuda was also difficult of access because it was not in the Caribbean with the other islands. “The Bermudas” sounds like “the Bahamas,” but it’s not. Bermuda is not even tropical. The charm of the tropics—the heat, the chaos—is not there. If you dragged Barbados 1,364 miles north toward Greenwich, Connecticut, or if you dragged Haiti 1,035 miles north and replaced the mad French influence there with the civil British footprint (the same civil footprint in Kenya and India), you’d have Bermuda. Another way to make Bermuda would be to collide Greenwich, Connecticut, with Barbados in the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. Either way, dragging or colliding, same result. The hot sauce the color of yellow road paint made from Scotch bonnet peppers in the corked bottle in Barbados that will remove yellow road paint from a road if applied for that purpose and that you store with the cleaning supplies under the sink when you get it home and that no one will put on food is not to be found in Bermuda. You can see a chicken fight in Jamaica, and you can see two feral chickens on a golf course in Bermuda, or one feral chicken on a fancy hotel lawn.

A Moment in a Taxi
My driver Sean Simons is seventh-generation Bermudian, and he tells me that cruise ships put 5,000 to 7,000 tourists a week on the ground in Bermuda in high season, that some 65,000 permanent residents handle them as hoteliers or restaurateurs or taxi drivers or tour agents but some of these residents are not concerned with touring—they work for the “exempt companies”—and Hurricane Fabian in 2003 wrecked a lot of chicken coops, hence the “wild chickens.” If they get in your yard, you can either keep them or call the authorities, who will remove them. The exempt companies include the large international industry of “reinsurance,” the business of insuring insurance companies. The big new buildings downtown are invariably the houses for reinsurance, and the law offices and accountancy offices that attend the business of reinsuring the insuring.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Spittal Pond reserve.

A Moment on the Beach
On Elbow Beach, three generations of women from Baltimore are asked to distinguish Bermuda from the other islands:
The grandmother, who has been to fifteen-odd islands all over the West Indies, from St. Kitts to St. Lucia, thinks.
The mother says, “Cleaner…quieter…safer.”
The grandmother agrees.
The mother says, “The others are wilder. On Nevis you can go to a sugar plantation, but you are on…high alert.”
The grandmother agrees.
The mother and the grandmother agree that on Bermuda you are on no alert.
The girl, four or five or six, keeps her opinions on these matters to herself. That there is no sugar-plantation-going on Bermuda does not concern her. Yet sound of body and sane, she wants to get off the beach and go see Daddy.

A Moment Downtown (First Points of Advice)
Coral, teal, pink, navy, lime, wine, tan, yellow, white, gray, khaki, light blue, gold, green, black, and Breton red are some of the colors the eponymous shorts come in, and poly/wool, poly/cotton, poly/linen, and madras cotton are the fabrics they come in, and the place to get them is the English Sports Shop on Front Street, where I would advise you to, and I did, go and get some. Helpful British gentlemen will help you. They fitted John Lennon for a custom-made suit shortly before he was killed. Did he get the suit? Mr. Creamer says it was posted to him, and Mr. Hamshere says that his manager (Mr. Creamer: “His PA—personal assistant—” Mr. Hamshere: “Yes, what was his name?” “Seaman.” “Unfortunate name—but it has an a in it”) came down and said they might bury him in it, so he is sure John Lennon got the suit.

The Bermuda short chiefly differs from the casual short in the matter of “rise,” the difference between the outseam and the inseam. As the waist increases in the Bermuda short, the inseam shortens, effecting, in Mr. Hamshere’s decorous phrasing, “more ballroom.” I ask Mr. Hamshere if he is familiar with the tape of Lyndon Johnson’s ordering Haggar slacks and requesting the crotch be let out lest they “cut” his “nuts” and feel like he’s “riding a wire fence,” but while he is most sympathetic to Mr. Johnson’s plight he is not familiar with our presidential history to this extent. The inseam of the Bermuda short falls behind the outseam when looked at from the side of the leg; thus the seams are not parallel as they are in the casual short. The inseam-side hem in the Bermuda short is cut to rise about a half inch as it approaches the inseam, describing a shallow triangle; thus the inside hem is a half inch higher than the outside hem. This higher hem inside the leg prevents the fabric in there from flapping. You do not want flappy on the inside of your leg wearing the Bermuda short. That might be a worse affair than want of ballroom owing to inadequate rise. With these critical features of the Bermuda short in place, you can get ten pairs or twenty or thirty, and match them with thirty pairs of kneesocks, and wear these to work every day of the year, though the winter is sometimes not deemed shorts weather, and be natty beyond natty. A man in a proper pair of these shorts is a proper man.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Pastel homes across the water at Fairyland Creek.

Beneath and behind the English Sports Shop in an old livery tunnel made now into a shopping arcade is the Gem Cellar run by Chet Trott. There are Trotts all over the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Possibly the Trotts of South Carolina are some part Bermudian. Bermudians went to South Carolina, among other places, in the early days seeking better religious prospects. Chet Trott has made a pair of hog-penny cuff links in 14-karat gold that I want very much for my new shorts outfit, but they are $715 and I don’t get them. But this is decidedly where I would get them. The nice silver Bermudian toad for $55 is more my thing. I don’t get that either. I’ve got ballroom and nothing flapping inside my leg and I’m good.

A Moment Back o’ Town
Back o’ Town is the area of North Hamilton reputed to be where the bulk of the “shooting incidents” are happening. There are not many of these, but, for a place alleged as few as fifteen years ago to not have a gun, shooting incidents are bothersome. The incidents are gang-on-gang. Gangism shows American influence. Rosemary Jones says, “You know the saying, when America sneezes Bermuda catches a cold?” Ballistics are suggesting that one gun has been used in several shootings, and even that the same gun has been used by both gangs. The conclusion is that while it is true Bermuda no longer has no guns, maybe it has just one gun.

In suburban Back o’ Town is a sandwich take-out place called Art Mels. It is white in decor, black in clientele, doing heavy business at two in the afternoon. Rockking, son of Art, runs the counter. The fish sandwich runs $10.50, can come on wheat or raisin bread, with slaw and with hot sauce they make on premises that Rockking is proud of. The fish sandwich feels like it weighs two pounds, about a pound and a half of which is fish. A person should not eat one entire in a sitting, but he probably will.

A Moment Eating
I would go, and I did go, to the Black Horse Tavern way up-island on St. David’s Island and talk to Judy Williams, the main hand, and Gary Lamb, proprietor. Gary Lamb is old Bermudian, the recipes at work in the Tavern are eighty years old and from his grandfather, he fishes, he builds, he has an accent that will get away from you and that would be familiar to anyone who’s been on Johns or James or Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina, he is weathered, the whole effect is reminiscent of Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws, the rheumy eye, burned skin, solidity all shouting what people must call a Character. There is no pretension. If he says he’ll git y’shark fer ye, he will get your shark for you. He has seen people on Bermuda make money and change and it frankly chaps his ass.

“Is there a roux in this?” I am speaking of the fish chowder that has been set before me and that is good.
“No,” Gary Lamb says.
“What makes it this dark?”
“Burnt flour.”
“That’s a roux.”

Gary Lamb clearly knows how to take a roux down to the Hershey’s syrup stage, longhand for burnt flour, but not that it is called a roux, and he doesn’t care. This is a fine gumbo with the elements reduced smaller than you do in gumbo. This is the best gumbo I have had I did not make. Maybe it is as good as the stuff Barry Ancelet made that night in Scott, Louisiana, that made us stop drinking Jameson after drinking it all day and eat the gumbo and not die.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Fresh lobsters at a roadside vendor outside Hamilton.

They put fried wahoo in front of me that is the best fried fish I have had. They put half a Bermudian lobster with a stuffing that has sugar and an herb I cannot identify in it that Gary Lamb won’t identify. I eat it. The Bermudian lobster is a little tougher than the Maine or Florida lobster, rather gratifying. Gary Lamb tells me he served some mullet roe to a principal in Watergate whose name eludes him who said, “This is the best caviar I have ever had,” and Gary Lamb asked him if he was fleeing from Watergate, and he said no.

The mullet roe must be carefully cut from the fish so that the sacs are not hurt or separated. The sacs are rubbed with salt until they begin to sweat and feel cold, fifteen to twenty minutes. Then you put a paper towel on the counter and a piece of waxed paper on the towel and the roe on the waxed paper and another piece of waxed paper on the roe and a piece of plywood on the whole deal and weight the plywood, or you can clamp the roe between two pieces of plywood and screw down the clamps but put a half-inch spacer at the top and bottom of your press so you do not go too far and crush the roe. After a day of this pressing, hang the roe in the sun for four or five days and do not let it get wet or damp, or mildew will ensue. The finished roe will be hard, like a biscuit, and is eaten like a biscuit, the British biscuit. Some people even put it in their lip like Skoal. Once Gary Lamb found some roe in a drawer that had been there four years and he ate it and it was good. If I were to eat at one place on Bermuda, the Black Horse Tavern is where I would do it. I would in fact stay on this downscale end of the island. Across the water is the original capital before it moved to Hamilton, St. George’s, as quiet and seventeenth-century quaint as sunny Bretagne.

A Moment in Transcendence
Nadia Aguiar and Tim Hasselbring, young citizens of Bermuda, take me onto the roof of the aquarium at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo. Tim Hasselbring drives the boat for the Bermuda Zoological Society and has had the cured roe and says it is like sliced hard Parmesan or Romano cheese. We squat down next to the open-air top of the North Rock Exhibit, which Rosemary Jones in her Moon Handbooks Bermuda calls “the first living coral-reef exhibit of its scale in the world.” Nearby is a trough on an axis dumping water into the tank at a regular period to simulate surf forces that the coral below need. Nadia pats the water and Tim tells her to pat it closer to the edge. “Don’t lean out like that.” I see a barracuda, a big one. “That’s Spike.” Up wells a darker, thicker, heavier fish. He is coming toward the hand patting the water. He is a grouper about four feet long the size of a large dog and he comes to the hand to be petted like a dog.

It’s my turn. I take Tim at his word and do not lean out, and I pat the water at the very edge of the pool. The fish edges toward my hand. His name is Darth Vader. I estimate him to be closer to 120 pounds than to 80 but I know nothing. I pet him, stroke him slowly, avoid the eye the size of a half-dollar, as dark and sober as a plum, as it slowly develops what this is all about: Darth Vader would like us to find some parasites and get them off his ass. I totally want to be a good boy to the big boy. He raises his gill plate. Gill plates can cut like a razor. But that is when a fish is fighting you. This fish is asking you to do a fellow a favor. I reach under there and feel for leeches, more afraid of touching the gills themselves. I am transported. This is something that would thrill a boy to death and it is almost making me a boy again to do it and I am 5911/12 years how-did-this-happen-to-me old. I stroke him lower down. “Can I have sex with him?” “No,” Nadia says. “Okay.” I am changed by this, as different a person as we can be made different by small large things that happen to us. This outfit is a serious conservator doing serious conservatoring (Harvard and NYU were involved) and I am coming back here, when I come back, to see my man Darth.

A Moment in Color
Candy pink, primrose yellow, banana-pudding yellow, yellow yellow, white, green, blue, new white, beige, ivory, turquoise, old white, brown, chartreuse, red, and eggplant are the colors of the houses up and down the island, driving which takes about an hour, and all the roofs are white white. There are dozens or hundreds of bays and beaches, some most quaint and protected and private-feeling, all easy of access. And in them you face why you would want to come to an island like this: the water. The water cannot be captured by a camera or by a boob saying it’s incredible. Its colors juxtapose in bands that move, functions of depth and wind and shade that change, a psychedelic palette of plain old blue blue, chalky cornflower blue, glass cobalt, tincture of iodine, Granny Smith and chlorine, sapphire, anole green, xylene in blueberries, diamonds, mercury beads, potassium permanganate, Waterford crystal. Edge it all up with the stunning cool white of refined sugar or with the cinnamon coquina. Sit there and look at it. Pop the polarized lenses up, down, up, down. Arsenical green shifts to indigo, indigo shifts to arsenical green. You can do it all day.