There are times when my memory takes me places I thought I would never revisit. Now seems to be the best time to relearn old lessons. I wrote this in an effort to remind myself of what was important.
He learned that if you held your thumb parallel to the horizon and counted the number of stacked thumbs it took to the falling sun, times twenty minutes, that was exactly how long he had until sunset. This was useful, on the beach of Negril in 1978, if you needed to walk eight miles to the Rock House for cocktails before it was dark. Not Cleveland Ohio dark where there were street lights and neon signs to mark your path, but Jamaican Negril dark where only the stars and whispers from shadowed faces were there to guide you.
He points to a sky so graphically exact that it could be an observatory: “Delonn, isn’t that the constellation Orion.” The young Jamaican with the body of a Greek god( if Greek gods had black bodies) responds:
“Sir Richard, in Jamaica we call that a bunch of stars.”
He wondered how much it showed. He hadn’t had a date since sixth grade and was freshly divorced from a 13 year marriage that produced two children. He had his “space” and not a clue how to fill it. Thursday night, he was told, was the night to meet and greet in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He thought he was ready. He had the new designer jeans, soft contact lenses and a clean apartment. An open mind.
On his way into the restaurant/bar he noticed a very tall blonde girl who he thought he had seen before. Was her name Sue Anne? She was saying something he could not hear to some of her friends and then looked his way. When she saw him returning her stare she said:
“Wait right there, Richard. Don’t take another step.” A little dumbfounded he responded:
“OK fine but do I know you”?
“Not that well yet but you will know me much better by the end of the night. You’re not going in there. You are coming with me”.
He didn’t like beer so he pretended he liked scotch. No refrigerator or ice required. Sue-Anne liked beer but preferred sex. She said they could go to her apartment but then they wouldn’t have the privacy she required (“If you know what I mean”. “Not really,” he thought.)
“Lets go to your pad.”
“But you don’t even know me.”
“I know enough”. “You’re single, smell good and haven’t been with anybody but Wifey in many years. “
“Like A virgin”.
She was doing a reverse Andrew Marvell on him:
Had we world enough and time, This coyness lady were no crime. We would sit down and think which way to walk and pass our long love’s day. …
There would be no conversations with this strange girl. What followed was copulation not love. He was learning a new sport that he discovered he was surprisingly good at. Lacking any emotion he could approach the new contest much like a dance. Lacking any concern for the emotional status of his partner, he found his new passivity liberating. If not satisfying in the complete sense of an emotional release, it was more like the feeling he had after he ran ten miles. He was in tune with his body and had a good sweat. Oh and she was there too. A beautiful body but a mouth like an ash tray. Were you permitted to ask them to brush? He’d learn that rule later.
Delonn did his cliff diving thing and collected six Jamaican (3 bucks USA) from the bartender and several rum drinks from the spectators before returning to Richard. He smoked his first spleef, which he had earlier retrieved from a plastic bag he had buried off the main road. He was aware Richard knew where he kept his stash but wasn’t worried. Richard was the only US guy he knew who didn’t smoke ganja.
“Who is that very large woman selling pills to the new arrivals?” Richard asks.
“That’s May. She and her husband are bad news.”
When Sue Anne asked him if he wanted to meet her in Jamaica this actually created quite a dilemma for him. First of al,l he was used to defining relationships and he certainly couldn’t define theirs. Did sex buddies qualify? Was that relationship enough to go on a vacation together? And where was Jamaica? He had never been out of the country except for Canada. Did you need a passport? His decision to meet Sue Anne was finally decided for him by a high school kid with a prank gone wrong. Richard had just put a deal together to buy a strip center in a west side neighborhood. The day after the celebratory closing, one of the two anchor tenants, the drug store had a major fire from a “stink bomb“. After an initial panic, Richard was informed by his partner that “this is great we will make money on the insurance adjustment and we can terminate the lousy one sided tenant lease now if we want”.
“Get out of here Richard. Take some time off.”
“That’s great, Richard. You will love Jamaica. I will be there a week before you get there so I will take care of everything. Just meet me at the Yacht Club in Negril Sunday. Sue Anne adds: “Negril will blow your mind.”
All the government of Jamaica required was his birth certificate and twenty dollars. He hoped he packed enough clothes and that he had the proper look for the Yacht Club. He grew up a country club boy with valet and dinner dances. Surviving the minimal customs in Montego Bay, Richard exited the airport to a field of mules and dogs. Among the many cab driver solicitations he chose the driver standing next to the ‘54 Buick Roadmaster that reminded him of the family car as a boy. “Irie then, Master Richard” shouts his new driver friend Rashard.
“Welcome to Jamaica and the beautiful drive to Negril. Is this your first time?”
“It is Rashard.”
“Do you know the Yacht Club in Negril?”
“Are there many boats there”?
Rashard lights a joint that would have made Cheech and Chong gag.
“No boats Man”. What your friend tell you?
The Northcoast Highway from Montego Bay to Negril travels around the coast for 50 miles and takes even the most aggressive cabbie two hours. Rashard got Richard to the Yacht Club in just under 2.5. As he dropped Richard’s two large bags on a pitch dark road after sunset, Richard assumed that a golf cart or something would take him the rest of the way to the Club House where he would find Sue Anne and a Dewars. Instead after Rashard had been gone for at least a few minutes and Richard’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw a sign on a shack not more than twenty steps from where he stood that said by way of a twisted rope: “Yacht Club.” Outside of the door stood some locals with yellow eyes who must have noticed his bewilderment and said: “You’ll need a Red Stripe“? And he had several of the local beers before he saw Sue Anne walking down the road to greet him.
“Shit what did you bring? I hope you remembered the Bic lighters”.
No electricity also means no telephone or hot water. Hot water was obtained for short periods through the pipes exposed to the sun next to the shower but that rarely lasted more than 30 seconds. To see in the dark you employed lanterns and so matches were at a premium. A Bic lighter was a gift from God. Long distance phone calls? Very difficult. He was worried about the status of the shopping center deal and had planned on calling his partner. Now he was told to essentially forget it. A call to the States was an all day process. Only one hotel on the beach had an operator willing to tackle the hurdles and if you could afford it you still had to wait in the lobby most of the day to accomplish the call.
There were no visible hotels by any standard Richard knew. Sue Anne had arranged their lodging at a cottage owned by Cyril Connell, a local builder known as tough but fair. What she had not told Richard was that their lodging was essentially a two bedroom apartment that they would share with another couple from Rennison Island, British Columbia.. The roommates Janice and Edmond were fisherman who when they were not fishing drank beer. When they were not drinking beer they were sleeping.
While drinking beer in Negril they were mostly drunk and incomprehensible. Their inability to converse in a manner that could be comprehended was now being practiced and perfected by Sue Anne who was also now rarely sober. She mostly smiled and said: “How ya doin.” After two days of this the final blow to Richard’s sense of calm occurred when Edmond allowed two of his friends to sleep on the hammocks on the porch of the cottage. Cyril Connell did not think well of this and hit both “freeloaders” with a broom to wake them in the middle of the night. He reminded the two that he didn’t allow anyone to stay for free and although he himself had black skin this did not grant any special status for an American Negro.
Sue Anne laughed it all off but Richard decided that although Negril deserved a second chance, Sue Anne did not. He told her he was too preoccupied with things occurring stateside to properly let his hair down and was not going to wreck her good time. He only had a few days left and would find somewhere else to stay.
Richard had been staying at Ten Sing Pinn for three days before he met Delonn one day after his epiphany. Ten Sing Pinn was run by a Brit who owned an oversized ancient gas-guzzling Jaguar that seemed totally out of place in Negril. His cottages were for those who were “short of funds”. In other words there were lots of very young people lodged in rooms about the size of Richard’s stall shower.
The Brit’s name was Nigel. He shared Richard’s love, if not skill, at backgammon. If Richard had not been humble he could have stayed at Ten Sing for free for the rest of his life on his backgammon bounty or rather on Nigel’s failure to master the doubling cube. After one particularly bloody backgammon massacre, Nigel offered Richard some magic mushrooms as payment. “You know they grow right on top of shit. Very powerful”. The non-pot-smoking, Richard a little off course from his split with Sue Anne and recent life adventures in general, decided to try something new.
Why someone dares to drive with their hands off the steering wheel is a mystery. Richard never lost control. Ever. Until that night. Timothy Leary’s arguments not withstanding, this was not a good experience for Richard. It is one thing to see the world warped into bizarre distortions in the USA and quite another in Jamaica where its often difficult to not float into an altered consciousness merely from the presence of a less filtered nature. Stumbling down the road, commencing with the first person remarking to him: “Good mushrooms, eh?” he knew he was in trouble. As he became more and more uncomfortable in his skin, he thought that food might help. But Negril was shut down for food and actually even the bars were closed. In a full panic, he looked for Sue Anne. They were no longer a couple but he needed a familiar voice to steady him.
Suddenly finding Sue Anne became the most important thing in his life. After what seemed like hours to him, he could not find her. He felt more alone than ever before in his life. Exhausted, with no idea where she was, Ten Sing Pinn or in fact where he was standing, he sat on the side of the road and laughed hysterically and then finally collapsed into a heap. He awoke with the sun to the bug-eyed stare of a very young girl.
“You alright, Richard”?
“Uh, huh.” How do you know my name?”
“All the kids know Richard”
But why, he asks?
“You the white Rahsta man. All that blond curly hair. The only USA guy who play with us. Let me get my Dad to help you. He’s just inside. You know my Daddie Delonn?”
No he had not found Jesus but to Richard his epiphany was that he could survive and maybe even thrive just by being himself. He needed little help and certainly not a Sue Anne. Just being Richard unaided by drugs or super powers was enough to warrant an audience with the world. Everything would be IRIE.
Delonn had many jobs. As an entertainer he was a cliff diver nightly at the Negril version of Rick’s Café and by day he walked on hot coals at the Hedonism Club. To his community he was the chief herbalist, keeper of ancient healing recipes and consultant to scientists from London working on new drugs from old Jamaican wisdom. He was the father of two beautiful little girls and potentially Richard’s first Jamaican friend.
“So Richard besides entertaining the children and being an excellent example of the dangers of drugs to amateurs, what do you do in the USA”?
“I put investment groups together to buy real estate.”
“Excellent…would you like to see the site for my new home? I have some real estate skills as well”.
Delonn took Richard to the site for his new home, which he had staked out carefully to accommodate the pattern of the rising and setting sun and the drainage from the potentially very heavy summer rains. He taught Richard how to taste the trees to determine which ones would successfully deter insects. Before they left he spread butter around the perimeter of the site and put his cat in the center.
“She will mark this territory and keep all the varmints out”.
Richard stayed with Delonn and his family for several weeks. He had managed the telephone struggle and learned that all was okay. His kids were with his parents on vacation so he was free. He learned that he had brought unintentionally some precious cargo. His Miles Davis tapes were good as gold and his fifty Bic lighters a treasure. But mostly what he offered the Delonn family was a baby sitter. He read to the girls and told them stories about the USA and reminded them that their Country had treasures as great as his.
About a month after Delonn had told Richard about May and her husband, Richard learned that while May was selling drugs at Rick’s Café to visitors who had been told to meet her there, her husband was busy robbing their lodging with the knowledge that they would be with May and maybe high on drugs. This profitable and successful scheme was finally halted by a tall Indian man name Asher who had discovered May’s husband doing his deed and reported it to the authorities. Richard knew Asher from a long evening’s introduction to the sitar starring Asher and a friend.
May’s husband was arrested.
Two evenings before Richard’s return to the States on the walk to Rick’s, an enormous naked May wielding a golf club came out of the bush to attack Richard. Able to duck in time his one push drove the inebriated May into a collapsed heap. Richard learned later that she was certain Richard was Asher. All white guys look alike.
Many years later Richard returned to Negril, rented a car and saw the rest of Jamaica. Fake Rahstas, satellite dishes, disco music, hamburgers, cocaine and vodka had altered the chemistry. Even Delonn and his family had moved to London. A tour bus took tourists from Hedonism to Rick’s Café ignoring all the mystery and adventure along the way. There were more than 50 hotels along the beach that bragged about MTV and French fries. The Negril he knew no longer existed except in his memories, where it was locked in a safe place nurturing his soul and coloring the world IRIE.