“You wan’ dat hat, darlin’? It surely 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 we 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 maharajah’s headgear. In Nassau that afternoon, aloof Norwegian politeness trumped Bahamian enthusiasm with a courteous rebuff that halted the straw dolly’s sales spiel in its tracks. We moved on.
“It’s the camera,” I said, hefting my new Topcon 35mm. “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 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 the blending aromas came alive in my brain. I came across faded and folded copies of my Nassau writing recently, where I had used the 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 the 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. 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 women who prefer to sit home and plait, who then resold the material to marketplace artisans. 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 — and youngsters learning the craft — that gave me confidence of unchangingness. One spinner of yarns — as opposed to straw — 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 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 had achieved political control and 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 room is decorated by a tourist poster featuring the Nassau Yacht Club, where conch fritters 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 places are like that — they stay in your blood. All you have to do when their name comes up is say “I lived there” to experience a conversational pause, as others assimilate this startling pronouncement into their view of who you are.
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 lament 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 had been for $800 — U.S., not Bahamian.
The usual day’s proceeds probably fell between the bewailed dollar and the take from that invoice — not bad for 1970. 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?
When I sought enlightenment from Mrs. Telator Strachan, president of the Rawson Square Straw Vendor’s Association, she told me there were days some 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 far deeper 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 — woven straw hats.
Mrs. Mary Thompson told me she always marched. She said 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 dollies whose dexterity 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 to the Market dollies unadorned. Supply was having a hard time keeping up with the nimble fingers of dollies forming and finishing the work with paper 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 were accented by explosive bursts of hot colour. I heard a dozen crooning sales pitches in that lilting Bahamian version of English that some hear as a foreign language; staccato back-and-forth gossip; good-natured banter about child-rearing…
“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, “But I live here! I’m not a tourist.”
“Course you does, darlin’, who wouldn’t wanna live here? Wanna see it in uh glass?”