“You wan’ dat hat, darlin’? It sure do look lubbly on you. Wanna see a glass?”
I wrote, when the twentieth century still had three decades to run that when you hear those words, you’re in Nassau, you’re a tourist (they know) and you’re about to fall under the spell of a straw dolly.
I was living the life of an expatriate writer, just ninety miles offshore these United States. A lot of times we seemed a lot farther from home, and would drive down to Bay Street to watch the cruise ships leave when the weekend was over, to remind ourselves home was just the other side of the Gulf Stream. Walking in the Straw Market on Bay Street, my wife donned one of the elaborately-woven straw hats bedecked with paper flowers as a joke. But the straw dolly smelled a sale and closed in.
My wife hated to wear hats of any description. She almost rebelled at my brother’s wedding against an Episcopal tradition requiring females to wear hats in church, and took her revenge with a strange tall-round-crowned number that only required a big emerald to resemble an Indian maharaja’s headgear. In the Nassau straw market that afternoon, aloof Norwegian politeness trumped Bahamian enthusiasm with a courteous rebuff that somehow halted the straw dolly’s sales spiel in its tracks. We moved on.
“It’s the camera,” I said, hefting my new Topcon 35. “They don’t expect to see residents with cameras.”
A few minutes later I snapped my favorite photograph of the woman with whom I spent over thirty years of my life: she was wearing a soft slithery dress printed with Bengal tigers. Her lustrous auburn hair, caught in some kind of gather, fell halfway down her back. The soft harbour breeze molded the material to her form as she paused to gaze down at dark, primitive, wooden heads a local artisan was chiseling. I framed her pensive expression with those carved, slightly sinister heads. Her bright dress, auburn hair, large dark sunglasses and expression added a mysterious touch: goddess of gargoyles.
The fresh wood smell of chips flying from the busy mallet blended with the barn odour of straw and the sea smell of fresh-caught conch and grouper from fishing boats tied up along Market Wharf. For years every time I looked at that color slide, those blending aromas came alive in my brain.
I came across faded and folded copies of my Nassau writing recently, where I had used that straw dolly’s hat sales pitch to open a story about the Straw Market. As an expatriate writer working for tourist publications, I was able to explore my curiosity about the dollies more deeply than a tourist might. Nassau may be the only city in the world than lists its straw workers with its painters and sculptors, not with potters and belt-buckle decorators, I wrote. Art form it may be, but the straw industry here comes on like a smoothly if leisurely running machine, powered exclusively by human hands.
My curiosity took me Over the Hill to the home of a straw worker the tourists never saw. At the input end of this Straw Machine, Mrs. Agnes Tucker was gossiping with her 84-year-old mother, keeping an eye on her grand and great-grandchildren, and tickling the ribs of a potcake dog at her feet with one bare toe. Meanwhile, her hands were dipping and passing each other like bobbins in Georgia cotton mills of my youth, and a twelve-fathom plait of coconut palm and “silver top” were warping into shape as if by magic. Hanging all about her were batches of raw material and batches of finished twelve-fathom lengths.
“Dat silbertop dere hangin’, see,” she told me as her mother drifted into a snooze in the warm sun, “it still green and bein’ cured. I went to duh pine barren myself t’get dat. One a m’sons, he carry me out dere in his car, but I gather it all. My momma dere, she taught me to plait when I was jus’ a liddle girl. Dat surely was a long time ago…”
She dipped her grey head, plaited with bright orange wool ribbons, rolled her eyes skyward and laughed. Her hands went right on plaiting without missing a beat. She told me she never went to the Straw Market herself. She sold her fathoms of plait to a woman who came around to the women who prefer to sit home and plait, and then resold the material to marketplace artisans. The Straw Market dollies added the elaborate whorls and flourishes and brilliant splashes of colour designed to catch a tourist eye and capture the tourist dollar.
Maybe it was the advanced age of the dollies I interviewed for my story, and the presence of active parents and grandparents in their families — and youngsters learning the craft — that gave me confidence of unchangingness. One yarn-spinner — as opposed to straw — that I encountered on Market Wharf attributed local longevity to a lifetime diet of conch, grouper and beans and rice. It was as good an explanation as any. Some things simply endure, like the Rock of Ages, and no matter how brief your own sojourn amid the straw dollies, the Straw Market had that feeling of something that might weather, but never fall, beneath the winds of change.
When I was there, the dollies were a fixture, having survived sniping from the “Bay Street Boys,” slang for the white party in power for years before I came. Bay Street merchants in their upscale shops resented the dollies’ competition for the almighty tourist dollar. You could find upscale shops in New York City and London and Paris; but you couldn’t find a living, breathing, wise-cracking, ego-flattering human Straw Machine. The market had become the undisputed face of the city, so the government grudgingly built them an open-air arcade in 1963 after it condemned the old Market Building. When I was there, members of a new black-power party that had achieved political control introduced parliamentary resolutions for a fine new building for the straw dollies, but it never got off the ground.
No matter how far I wandered in later years, Nassau remained part of me. One wall of an old man’s apartment is decorated by a tourist poster featuring Nassau Yacht Club, where the conch fritters and conch salad in the Poop Deck, washed down with pints of draft Courage, were a celebration of island living. Another wall is given to a full-size Winslow Homer watercolor print of Out Island boats. Some cities are like that — they stay in your blood; and all you have to do when their name comes up is say “I lived there” to experience a conversational pause as the others assimilate this startling pronouncement into their view of who you are.
Paris — Hemingway called it a moveable feast, and a woman I love said I compared wherever I was to Paris as a benchmark. Las Vegas — I happened in Vegas, but contrary to the slogan, I didn’t stay there. Los Angeles, city of angels; I worked there but not as a cop as Jack Webb used to drily announce on Dragnet.
And Nassau, capital of the Eternal Isles of June; in my gypsy wandering years, when my cyclical depression seemed to be getting the upper hand, recorded goombay music was the infallible antidote.
Pennsylvania during the dreary winter of the Berrigan brothers’ antiwar trial orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover; I would play the steel bands and relax. Seattle, where provincial-minded daily newspaper editors couldn’t believe an East Coast reporter could possibly understand local culture; steel bands raised my sprits during the job search. Phoenix, where 112-degree days made me wonder what I was doing in a big city in the desert, two of my least favorite things — the steel bands played with a backbeat from the chugging swamp cooler trying to keep the house livable…
Half-asleep, the moist breeze from the swamp cooler became the trade winds making up. In some ways, faith in the unchangingness of the Eternal Isles of June was a gypsy’s emotional anchor.
In the straw market in 1970, a sympathetic listener would hear straw dollies moaning, “times aint’ whut dey used to be. Many’s de day I doan make a dolluh.” If pressed they would say they lamented the boom days after the Second World War when American tourists “discovered” the Bahamas — and the Straw Market.
This despite the enormous tour ships that called regularly, disgorging hordes of tourists for whom the dollies were the first things they saw with vacation money burning holes in their resort wear. One dolly confided to me, on what a politician would call deep background, that while she could finish only six straw bags a day to her exacting standards, each winter she spun off enough production to make three or four shipments of fifty or more items to Miami Beach. Her last invoice was for $800 — U.S., not Bahamian.
The usual day’s proceeds probably fell between the bewailed dollar and the daily take averaged from that invoice — not bad for 1970. The dollies evinced every ounce of the artistic temperament a painter or a sculptor could claim — and then some. They were vocal, haggling, cagy, hard-headed, soft-hearted — and close-mouthed about the bottom line. One even twitted me: you don’t ask a painter what he sold his last canvas for, do you?
I sought enlightenment from Mrs. Telator Strachan, president of the Rawson Square Straw Vendor’s Association, and she told me there were days some of the dollies went home with a hundred dollars.
“Of course that’s not every day,” she hastened to add, as if she had said too much. “And we have to pay for our materials too, whether we sell anything or not. A really exceptional day would bring $150 to $200. But it’s chancy.”
The sisterhood of the straw was clearly intense, a far deeper thing than just a group with a name and elected president. They looked after one another’s stalls, sold each other’s goods (charging no commission), tended each other’s children, and minded each other’s business.
Nearly all marched together in the Labour Day Parade (first Friday in June in the Bahamas) wearing identical print dresses and — their identifying symbol — straw hats.
Mrs. Mary Thompson told me she always marched. She also told me she could spot Andros coconut palm in a straw baseball cap from across the street, Exuma silver palm in a straw shopping bag, Eleuthera white palmetto in a straw purse. From Cat Island, she began to work in straw when she was 13, as so many did — and still were doing, pre-teens learning finger skills at the feet of the dollies that would make a casino blackjack dealer weep for envy.
Straw plaits from the Out Islands, like those of Mrs. Tucker from Over the Hill, were shipped in unadorned. Supply was having a hard time keeping up with demand when I was there — and with the nimble fingers of the Straw Market dollies who formed and finished the work with flowers and fish and crabs in a riot of hot colours to mesmerize the tourist’s eye.
I felt an almost proprietary interest as I wrapped up my interviews and paused to cast a fond eye over the market, running at fever pitch with a new tourist ship in port. The restful tans and browns of the cunningly fashioned straw was accented by explosive bursts of hot colour; a dozen crooning sales pitches in that lilting Bahamian version of English that some first hear as a foreign language; staccato back-and-forth gossip; good-natured child-rearing — all at once, without apparent effort…
“I made dat hat dere jus’ for you, darlin’,” a husky contralto crooned in my ear. “I tellin’ you nothin’ but d’truth, and it suit you ree-e-el good.”
“But,” I said, “I live here! I’m not a tourist.”
“Course you does, darlin’, who wouldn’t wanna live here? Wanna see it in uh glass?”
I left Nassau to go back to daily newspaper work fifty years ago. Our island calico cat, which we named Junkanoo for the festival about to start the week I captured her from her feral litter on Cable Beach, went with us. We only returned for one visit, and many things were just the same but other things were changing — like anywhere else. We stayed at the Sheraton British Colonial, that palatial pile on Bay Street with its own private beach right downtown. It hadn’t always been a Sheraton; construction of the BC, as the locals called it, probably preceded the entire Sheraton chain. Despite the name change, it still was the BC to us. To me it offered mute assurance that some things in the Eternal Isles of June were indeed eternal. Like the Straw Machine.
I was writing this piece of nostalgia when I began to wonder how things stood with the straw dollies in this new century, and what the internet would have to say about that. The search engine’s first results jolted me with the impact of a five-bell Associated Press teletype bulletin: the Straw Market had burned down!
But it was old news. Disoriented, I searched further and sorted out that there were two straw market fires, one not long after our last visit in the 70s and another September 4, 2001, one week before the Twin Towers fell. The second fire was arson. The arsonist was arrested, tried, convicted, and served ten years of his sentence, according to Bahamian news accounts, before the Straw Market found a new permanent home.
A police assistant superintendent testified that he interviewed the suspect at Quakoo Street Station, a peanut vendor with reported mental issues, the day after the fire. The peanut seller, he testified, freely admitted he was the torch and wanted to know if he was going to be on TV and famous for the deed.
In his confession, read into the record, he described taking a bus from Nassau Street to the market with a container of gasoline from Mosley’s Gas Station on Boyd Road. He sprinkled gas on the floor of the market and applied a cigarette lighter.
“The fire started quickly. I duck out of the way and ran to the side that was closer to the road. I told the woman get out of the way! This will burn down like Parliament burn down,” according to the statement read into the court record. Then he took a bus to Montell Heights where he pointed out the column of smoke above Bay Street to an acquaintance and said he “brought judgment down on Bay Street.” He told police he didn’t have an animus against tourism, but didn’t like it that the Bahamas depended so much on tourism.
At the end of the day, according to news accounts, his real motive appeared to be wrapped up in anger against a woman who had dumped him. One account said he started the blaze at the stall of his erstwhile girlfriend. Street talk cited by one reporter ten years later said the arsonist shouted to a crowd that gathered to watch the police take him away: “They came to arrest the I, who set fire ‘pon Babylon over woman…”
The arsonist put an estimated 300 women of the Straw Machine out of work by burning down the market occupying waterfront space that had hosted one kind of market or another since 1790. During the nineteenth century, Nassau residents — and, one supposes, Confederate blockade runners in town between adventures — bought all their groceries at large wooden sheds there.
Early in the twentieth, a two- story stone building replaced the sheds. The first straw dollies set up their wares in Rawson Square in the twenties, making the long hike in from Fox Hill district, after Prince George Wharf was completed. The sponge market, which had provided a livelihood to many, was going belly-up and the enterprising women decided to test the market for their handicraft among passengers of ships calling at the new wharf. They began to sell woven straw goods they had used around the house going back to the days when, freed from slave ships by Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, they were compelled to make the islands home. Their weaving skills had been handed down from their African forebears.
By all accounts the straw dollies’ test market was such a success that their booths eventually outnumbered those of the fruit and vegetable vendors, who retreated to another location. So the Straw Market was in place and humming along when tourism “exploded,” by one account, after the Second World War.
That happy interlude, during part of which I lived there and interviewed the dollies, ended with the 1974 fire, causes unspecified. The news of that fire never reached the West Coast newspapers I was reading then. No surprise; the farther from the news desk an event occurred, the more violent and catastrophic it had to be to find room in the editorial hole. Fifty to 500 tourists immolated in the blaze would have done it, but that didn’t happen. What was cataclysmic locally wasn’t a blip on the radar outside the islands in those pre-internet days. And of course newspapers in September 2001 were full of the destruction of the Twin Towers; if the second Straw Market fire was mentioned, I missed it.
So all the fire news was news to me; I learned the straw dollies were without their familiar home base until 1983 after the first conflagration, when the government completed work on a new building, partly to house the tourist bureau. The more I read about the tribulations of the straw dollies after I was gone, the more I appreciated their resilience and durability.
The 1974 fire burned the market to the ground and called for urgent measures: the government attempted to move the whole show to Fort Charlotte, asserting there was plenty of room for the vendors there. The Rawson Square Straw Vendor’s Association objected to the move with such vehemence that the government backed down and permitted open-air stalls on the cleared-off site of the first fire. And there matters rested while various interest groups reportedly lobbied politicians to get their hands on this prime piece of waterfront real estate. Local news accounts reported running battles between government regulators and straw vendors trying to set up sidewalk stalls on Bay Street. Eventually the straw dollies agreed to a temporary move to the old Customs Shed on Prince George wharf, though one called the location “not fit for dogs.”
They didn’t get back to their traditional location until the 1983 opening of a new six-million-dollar Market Building. Immediately, more controversy erupted, this time over heavy flooding when it rained and the limited number of stalls available. A familiar name popped out of the news accounts: Telator Strachan took newspapers to task for using market problems to attack the PLP government. She still was listed as “straw vendor chief.”
I flashed back on her voice in happier times: “Working in the Straw Market is a pleasant thing to do,” she told me then, having forsaken an office job. Her mother before her was a straw worker, and she told me she would never go back to the confining rut of office work.
“It’s constant hard work to keep up,” she said, “but in the straw market we’re always talking, because our friends are there, and we’re always eating.” Pause, giggle. “I guess that’s why we are all so fat.”
That was four years before the 1974 fire tested the endurance and united will of the straw dollies. And decades before the spurned lover ignited the second fire in 2001 to burn “Babylon” to the ground. His act forced straw workers back into unsatisfactory lodgings while their original place in the sun was left undeveloped. (It was used as a parking lot for a while, this prime real estate — once it was destined to be designated as “green space.” — the reports said.)
A white vinyl tent like something out of Ringling Brothers was erected for the straw workers. When the fans quit working it was stuffy and awful inside. There were reports of backed-up toilets left to fester. Six years after the devastating fire, a native son of Long Island (named Fernandina by Columbus for the queen who financed his voyage) visited the tent and was infuriated by what he saw.
“Nassau’s flea market, I mean straw market, is an eyesore that has become a ghastly national blemish which has irrefutably become a liability to our country’s tourism industry,” he wrote in the Nassau Guardian. The young man was very angry. The tent was a “major blot” on Bay Street; “rats, roaches and other rodents are permanent residents… where health and environmental hazards are the order of the day.”
As a boy on Long Island he had watched his grandmother weave straw plaits to send to one of Nassau’s premiere straw purveyors. His grandmother taught him plait patterns and he helped his grandfather “top” trees and plait baskets for catching crabs. Now, the vendors beneath the white tent sold trinkets made in China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Then there were the fake designer goods with bootlegged names like Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton.
“Paris might be the fashion capital of the world,” he concluded bitterly, “but downtown Bay Street is a knock-off mecca around these parts.”
Clearly, the market had fallen on hard times. Then Hurricane Irene got in on the act, demolishing the stuffy white vinyl tent, forcing some vendors back to Prince George Wharf and some into an assemblage of smaller tents that even more closely resembled a flea market than the once-proud Straw Machine. The straw dollies waited, with superhuman patience — and the straw dollies lobbied to have their own place again. By 2010 plans were in place for a new Bay Street market building while some vendors operated out of a pair of buildings on Cable Beach.
Until the third straw market fire. A sympathetic reporter wrote, “Straw market vendors in Nassau just can’t seem to catch a break…now the Cable Beach Straw market has burned to the ground.”
I envisioned the modest homes I remembered on Cable Beach, buried in lush sub-tropic foliage. I captured Junkanoo the Christmas cat under one of those hedges and took her home in a paper grocery store sack. In less than a week she was in charge of our Oakes Field bed-sitter and seemed to wonder what took us so long to come get her. I wondered if the Cable Beach market building — and a fancy casino nearby — plowed those cottages under. No way to know from this distance. But the Nassau Guardian reported forty vendor stalls destroyed and seventy people put out of work. The police were looking at arson — again.
Finally, finally, December 21, 2011, the new $11.3 million Bay Street straw market opened its doors. The date struck me as personally auspicious — forty-two years to the day since I captured Junkanoo. The new market reportedly boasted space for 400 booths, wide aisles — and a sprinkler system. On the waterfront would be fourteen wood-carver stations and “food booths in a shady environment.”
The prime minister, Hubert A. Ingraham presided at the opening and gave a pep talk: “The dollars you earn flow back into our Family Islands (newspeak for Out Island, evidently) communities for the purchase of more raw materials,” he said in part. “Since you spend very little on imports to create these authentic Bahamian straw goods, virtually every dollar earned stays in The Bahamas…virtually every Family Island now produces a dazzling array of crafts, souvenirs, native jewellery, straw work and other products of Bahamian ingenuity and artistry. A part of…the magic of this city has been the Straw Market, the sights and sounds of which resonate in Bahamian history and the memories of generations.”
The straw dollies appeared to be home and dry after wandering in the wilderness, so to speak. With each new file my search engine turned up two years after his flowery opening-day remarks, I crossed my fingers, and cringed when I saw another headline about a straw market fire. But they were just different takes on the three earlier fires. I breathed easier.
The most recent thing I saw was a warning from a disenchanted tourist who, visiting the new market, echoed one of the complaints of the disgusted Long Island resident: she said the vendors now sell straw products from Asia; and bootleg CDs; and fake designer handbags; and T-shirts and gewgaws imprinted with Bahamas names and logos but made somewhere like Vietnam. In other words, just about the same things you could buy in Seattle’s Farmers Market if you don’t shop carefully. She advised travelers not to waste their time or money.
I once was Seattle tour guide for a British chief inspector from a Midlands police force, whose wife commissioned him to bring home something representing the Pacific Northwest. He was scandalized to find the same Asian products the Nassau tourist disliked, but with a Seattle logo. He had seen almost identical stuff in English seaside towns, sporting English logos. We finally found a local artisan who made her own jewelry and he was pleased to spend some money with her.
I was saddened to read the Nassau tourist’s complaint about bogus merchandise in the new Straw Market, opened with such hopeful words from the PM. I had a hard time reconciling her report with the cornucopia of straw I remembered, plaited with skills imported directly from the Dark Continent, aflame with hot orange and pink and red accents. I almost took her adverse remarks personally; I am still invested in the indomitable, unsinkable Straw Machine of which I wrote a lifetime ago.
The straw baskets we took with us from Nassau lasted for years. The bright flowers faded like live things under far colder skies than those where they were fashioned but the structural straw stayed sound across thousands of miles of travel and the tender mercies of moving men.