Virgin Islands Stories: Art & Janis

Art and Janis

By Bob Tis
© 2000
Excerpted from Tales of St. John and the Caribbean

Art the Painter
Art the Painter

I come for the stories. And, of course, for the companionship. Cartoon large blue eyes roll in acceptance, as Art fingers a slice of a mango I just picked from his jungle yard and sliced up with my Swiss Army knife. We are out in the bush. A steep dirt road winds downhill to a locked gate. Unlocked, the gate reveals a footpath through a jungle crowded with trash-picked treasures. The path leads to a living museum for the last remaining hippie.

Art’s museum is a home built partly in cooperation with Mother Nature, Robinson-Crusoe style, employing two large turpentine trees. It is constructed from thick beams salvaged from the wreckage of 30 years of hurricanes and boatloads of memories. The walls are strewn with block and tackle from long-sunk schooners and smuggling ships. Bad art and hurricane lamps are everywhere; giant candles, Mardi Gras beads, a collection of colorful shirts and the assorted claptrap of 30 years on St. John decorate this un-electrified museum.

The mango sliced, I set my sights on a bucket of congealed floor wax, which I cut loose and feed to a homemade tiki torch. In the gloaming, the first Cuban tree frogs start to croak and Art eggs them on.

“Rrrbiit, rrribbbit.” St. John’s first hippie is clearly amused with the idea of talking to the frogs and his eyes grow even wider, reflecting their seasoned madness in the candlelight. The frogs, mistakenly imported from Castro’s Cuba by some researchers in the 1970s, take up Art’s gauntlet. We are met with a thunderous cacophony of croaks in the Caribbean night.

I go for the transistor radio to tune out the frogs. I pop another warmish Heineken and get Art a non-alcoholic Budweiser. No electricity means no fridge and ice melts too quickly for it to be economical. There could be thousands of dollars buried on the property from various Caribbean adventures but Art makes do on beans and rice and maybe an O’Douls if I bring some up to his museum.

I like to get out of Cruz Bay, where the noisy beach bars have a way of filling up with sunburned tourists in the winter. Tonight I’ll camp out at the museum. Art and I will watch the still, moonless sky for satellites and rehash the business of the day.

The battery-powered rock ‘n’ roll radio brings us a nugget from the sixties and I coax Art into one of his favorite stories of how he met Janis Joplin in St. Thomas well over thirty years ago. It is a story I love. I am continually astounded by the attention to detail in my friend’s storytelling. In Art’s stories, the details never change, and I have learned first-hand that nothing varies from the original event.

“I missed the last bus,” Art explains, talking about a night over thirty years ago like it was last week. “I was drinking in the waterfront bars and my boat was on the other side of the island in Red Hook.

“In those days, there were no cars going in that direction in the middle of the night and bars stayed open all night. It was about three in the morning, so I had a few hours to kill before I could hitch a ride home.”

Art’s hands begin to move and his eyes widen as he launches into this memoir. I easily picture him thirty years ago sitting on a barstool in an empty Charlotte Amalie watering hole, sipping on a draft beer and waiting for the sun.

“She walked in and went right for the jukebox. It was only the bartender and I and maybe some other rummy in the whole place. She didn’t play her song, she played something else.

“She sat down next to me and ordered a shot of Southern Comfort. I was speechless. This was 1968 and Janis Joplin was a very big deal. I was trying hard to be cool and not to spook her.

“‘You look familiar,’ I told her.

“‘Oh yeah, well just who do you think I look like?’ Janis asked.

“‘Frank Zappa’ I told her.
“Janis loved it. She slapped me on the back and bought me a whiskey. Before I knew it she was gone, pushing her way out through the swinging doors just as fast as she came in. All of a sudden her music was playing on the jukebox.

“Word spread like wildfire that Janis was on St. Thomas. Two days later this guy I knew was telling me all about it. I didn’t let on that I had already seen her. He said Janis wanted to go for a sailboat ride, but she didn’t want to go with just anyone. She wanted to go with someone who was cool. I told the guy I would take Janis out the next day.

“At the time I had a nice wooden double-ender, about 30 feet long, with beautiful lines. The boat didn’t have an engine but I didn’t really need one. It was a nice sailing boat.

“There was a guy named Todd living on the boat with me. He was a real freak with hair down to his waist. He was a real ladies’ man, too. I remember telling him we were going to take Janis out sailing and I know he didn’t believe me.

“The day came and it was a little overcast and kind of blustery. It wasn’t the best day, but it was a good day for sailing. The morning went by and Janis never showed up. I kept telling Todd to watch the dock with the binoculars so he could row in and get Janis. He still thought I was kidding.

“She showed up around 3 p.m., with a whole entourage of record company hangers-on. I was yelling to Todd that she was at the dock. When he finally saw her through the glasses, his jaw dropped. It took Todd three trips to get Janis and all her groupies out to the boat. When Janis got on board, she recognized me immediately.
“‘I should have known it would be you,’ she told me.

“They brought all sorts of food, chips, dips, olives, booze, all sorts of stuff you couldn’t get in the Virgin Islands at the time. We put up the sails and it was obvious that most of them had never been on a boat before.

“Janis was scared at first, but after I explained to her the physics of the boat, the fact that the keel was so heavy it wouldn’t allow us to capsize, she felt better. She just didn’t want to tip over.

“Everybody else though, except Todd and myself, were ter­rified. We were slogging through some good chop, really sailing. Janis started to get into it and I let her hold the wheel. She took off her shirt and showed everybody her giant nipples.

“The guys in the record company crew were still griping. Some of them were throwing up. I think they had eaten some Quaaludes.

“After sailing for about twenty minutes, I came about and explained that everybody who wanted to go ashore had one chance, one chance only. I was sailing for the beach and when I said, ‘Jump,’ they could get off or spend the rest of the afternoon on the boat.

When I got to the beach, most everybody jumped off. A few guys wanted to stay but Todd and I just started tossing them into the ocean. After we pried the grip of the last guy off the starboard stay, we chucked him in the water and turned out to sea. Me, Todd and Janis.
“We slipped into a real nice reach and really started having fun. Janis loved sailing. Todd got naked and told Janis that he had always wanted to have sex with her, and how about now?

‘“No thanks,’ Janis said. ‘But if you want to have me after one of my shows, you can. After I’ve made love to the whole audience for two hours, then you can have me.’

Art’s wild eyes radiate when he gets to that part, his smile betraying just how vividly he remembers the day’s events.

Art goes on to explain how he got to be friends with Janis over the next few weeks. He retells the story of listening to the first recording of her new album on the hotel room bed at Bluebeard’s Castle Hotel. He retells the story of having dinner with Janis and a friend at Escargot, which was, at the time, the best restaurant in the Caribbean.

Art finishes this rock star story by retelling Janis’s very tempting invitation, which resulted from his missed bus ride.

‘“Janis said, you’re from New York, come to Woodstock with me this summer, you can be my guest, I’ll fly you up there.’

“I told her I had read in the paper that Woodstock wasn’t going to happen, that they couldn’t find a place for the concert.

“Janis said, ‘Baby, I’m going to Woodstock this summer and so are a lot other people, you can bet that it’s going to happen.’

“I didn’t want to go back to New York. I had just bought the boat, so I stayed in the Virgin Islands,” Art says ruefully.
So like time itself, Woodstock just sort of passed Art by in the Caribbean. In his museum, the cover from the very album that they listened to over three decades earlier is still tacked to a wall. In the photograph, you can see through Janis’s oversized spectacles and look into her equally wide eyes. When you stare at the picture closely you can’t help but think that Janis could have been Art’s sister.

The album cover is faded and wilting, but her wide eyes are still clear behind the Hollywood glasses.

© 2000 Bob Tis

Bob Tis is also the author of Down Island

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Virgin Islanders and the Right to Vote

It is interesting to note that a United States citizen living in any part of the world, be it on the remote banks of the Amazon, in the mountains of Tibet, the North Pole or, I would imagine, in a submarine hundreds of fathoms below the surface of the ocean or circling the Earth in a space station, all can cast their ballot to decide who will be the next president of the United States.

Except, that is, if that citizen happens to reside in the United States Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or in another United States territory or possession. United States citizens living in these territories, commonwealths or possessions do, however, retain the right to be drafted into the US military.

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Virgin Islands WAPA, Outages and Electricity Rates

by Gerald Singer

You had to hand it to WAPA. During the night when Cat 3 Omar slipped through the Anegada Passage instead of whacking us on St. John, where we live in Chocolate Hole, we lost a little more than one minute of electricity as evidenced by our electric range-top clock that had to be bumped ahead by one short minute the next morning.

Notwithstanding WAPA’s exemplary performance Wednesday night, Virgin Islanders have been subject to an increasing amount of power outages in the last several years. Perhaps this is due to the increased demand presented by the building boom, which has not only given us many more houses, but also larger ones with more systems requiring more electricity than ever before.

The problem of not being able to supply enough electricity to meet demand is a common one throughout the Caribbean. In Santo Domingo, where outages an almost everyday affair, anyone who can afford it has a backup system, a generator or an inverter which stores electricity in car batteries and dispenses it when the power goes out. In Santo Domingo they say that the power no se va, se viene (doesn’t go out, it comes on every once and a while).

Power or Current
What do we say when the electricity stops. Interestingly, the word we use differs culturally.

Continentals will usually use the word, power, as in: “we lost power” or “the power went out.

West Indians, on the other hand will usually use the word, current, as in: “we lost current” or “did the current come back?”

Webster’s Dictionary defines power as relating to electricity as “a source or means of supplying energy,” and current as “a flow of electrical charge.”

Although I am accustomed to the word power, thinking about it, I believe I prefer the term current better.

So on Wednesday night, we had current just about all night

Electricity Rates in the Virgin Islands
Our September WAPA bill showed a rate of about 40 cents per kilowatt hour, which consisted of a Consumer Charge of seven cents/KWH and a LEAC charge of 32 cents/KWH plus other charges such as a Customer Charge, a PILOT SUR, and a WHB SURCHG, whatever these are. (The LEAC is the charge WAPA’s customers face each month to pay for the cost of fuel.)

Comparing our Virgin Islands territorial electricity costs to electricity rates in the United States we find that our .40/KWH is quite high, especially considering our proximity to the Hess refinery on St. Croix.

Within the contiguous 48 states, June 2008 prices ranged from about a little less than eight cents/KWH in Idaho to a high of 19 cents/KWH in Connecticut. Alaskans paid 16 cents/KWH and in Hawaii the rate was 32 cents/KWH.

In short, we on St. John and in the rest of the USVI pay a lot more than other Americans for electricity and for just about everything else, for that matter.

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St. John Shaken by a 6.1 Magnitude Earthquake

Yesterday morning a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook St. John as well as the other Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. No damage or injuries were reported, but we all got a nice jolt.

Earthquakes are common here as we lie on the edge of the Caribbean and Atlantic plates with the Atlantic Plate slowly sliding beneath the Caribbean one, a situation that builds up energy resulting from time to time in earthquakes and volcanoes.

Just about every day we have about a half a dozen or more small tremors, which no one feels, but are reported by the US Geological Survey. Historically, however, we have one or two major earthquakes every century. Ninety years ago there was a 7.3 magnitude quake that killed 118 people, but the last real big one was in 1867. These big quakes often are followed by Tsunamis as was the case in 1867.

The 1867 quake caused massive damage, injuries and loss of life as did the tsunami that followed in its wake. It was reported that the water in Charlotte Amalie Harbor was sucked out to sea leaving boats at anchor in the harbor lying helplessly in the mud while fish flopped around in the broad daylight. The resulting wave sent vessels and fish far ashore and devastated the St. Thomas waterfront.

St. Thomas had experienced some hard times that year. Prior to the quake there was a major hurricane, a cholera epidemic and a massive fire that swept rapidly through the town fueled by the predominantly wooden structures that existed in those times. To prevent a future occurrence, officials mandated that the reconstructed houses be built in stone instead of wood, which turned out to be the worst material in the event of an earthquake as many people were killed or injured by falling stones. Furthermore with the many aftershocks following the quake for weeks after the event, made it unwise for people to return to their house even if the damage was insignificant.

It’s been almost a century and a half since this powerful seismic event and people here really don’t think too much about earthquakes.

What they think about is hurricanes, and by and large Virgin Islanders are fairly well prepared for the next big blow. But it wasn’t always this way.

Before Hurricane Hugo in 1989, there hadn’t been a major hurricane since the early part of the 20th century. When I first arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1969, I remember reading in a tourist information booklet that the Virgin Islands lie so far north of the hurricane belt that they are rarely threatened.” People didn’t build their houses with hurricane clips or didn’t screw in their galvanized rooftops. Yachts stayed at anchor  the year round. Tourist seson was twelve months a year.

For example, For some twenty years, Foxy held his famous Wooden Boat Race on Labor Day, the height of hurricane season. Nobody said, “hey, you’re crazy to have a sailing event in the Virgin Islands in September.

But after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 the hurricane psychology changed radically. You can’t even get windstorm insurance on a wooden house no matter how well it’s built, tourists pretty much avoid the Virgin Islands from August until November. Yachtsmen put their boats on land or sail to safe harbors in the late summer and Foxy’s Wooden Boat Race is now held in May.

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St. John in the 1970s: Jelly Nuts

I was first introduced to green coconuts when I arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1969. At that time there were always several vendors on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront who would set up alongside the seawall with their piles of coconuts, chopping block and sharp machete offering the general public this refreshing treat for the modest price of between 25 cents and a dollar each.

These were not the dark brown, fuzzy, three-eyed, hard-shelled coconuts that I was accustomed to seeing in stateside markets. These were the green slightly immature coconuts that were picked early, before they hardened, turned brown and fell to the ground.

There is a big difference between eating a hard-shelled coconut and a green one. When you crack open a fully mature coconut, you’ll find some concentrated coconut water and a hard white pulp adhering to the shell.

The green nut is quite different. The husk is softer and less fibrous. The water inside is less concentrated and and there is more of it and the meat is soft and sweet like jelly accounting for the popular name, “jelly nut.”

So for a small amount of money, you got a nice drink of coconut water and if you so desired a bit of coconut jelly to boot. Jelly nuts are a very popular item and vendors on St. Thomas had no problem selling out just about as fast as they could open them up and collect the money. Also, the commonly accepted notion that coconut water, especially when mixed with gin, has aphrodisiac qualities, certainly didn’t hurt sales.

Personally, I not only loved coconut water and coconut jelly, but I also loved the cultural experience; the coconut man wielding his sharp machete seemingly without effort, confidently and precisely while holding the coconut in his hand. (At first I was afraid to watch, for fear of the man cutting up more than the coconut if you know what I mean.)

The Process
The first cut would be to slice a thin piece of the outer green husk about two or three inches wide and four or five inches long, to make a spoon used later to eat the coconut jelly. Then the husk on the top of the nut would be cut away exposing the thin shell beneath. The next cut would expertly take off just the tip of the shell leaving only the coconut meat itself to close off the hole in the nut. At this point the coconut could be carried away and the drunk later by simply cutting off the top piece of pulp or this could be done on site and you could drink the coconut water right then and there.

After finishing the water, you could ask the coconut man to cut open the nut so you could eat the jelly. In which case he would either lay the nut on a chopping block or hold it in the palm of his hand, and in one swift motion pass the machete through the nut, chopping it in two. The spoon would be removed from the nut and used to scoop the jelly off of the shell.

Going into Business with John Gibney
I found the whole process to be quite impressive and one day, while eating jelly nuts with my friend John Gibney, I mentioned my fascination with coconuts as a business enterprise. John knew all about it, and said that we could easily do it ourselves and so was launched our one-day foray into the jelly nut business.

We started bright and  early one morning getting our coconuts from the coco palms growing along the beach on John’s property. They were full-size trees, not the dwarf variety that are so prevalent nowadays. This meant that the coconuts were high up above the ground and not so easy to get at.

I had heard that on the island of Dominica, they used trained monkeys to climb the tall coconut palms and throw them down to gatherers waiting safely below. Safe, that, is if one avoided getting hit by falling coconuts. We didn’t have access to trained monkeys, but this wasn’t a problem, because John could probably out-climb the ablest Dominican simian.

John tossed the coconuts down to me, and I chased them and gathered them up. We then brought my 16-foot fiberglass outboard-powered runabout close to the beach and started to load the coconuts aboard. We filled the boat as much as we could, and John and I had to climbed over the coconuts to take our positions aboard. We motored out of Hawksnest Bay headed east to Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.

I guess we may have let greed overcome common sense because we had put way too many coconuts inside this small craft. The boat was overloaded, we were left with only about twelve inches of free board. That is, the weight of the coconuts made the boat so heavy that we were riding way too low in the water. The run from St. John to St. Thomas can be a bit rough and between the big seas and the small free board we began to take on water. Luckily we were going downwind, so the effects of the waves were moderated, and we were able to control the situation by John baling out water with a calabash while I manned the wheel. We reached the St. Thomas waterfront safe and sound, with no more than a few good scares and a crash course in having respect for the sea.

We set up shop on the waterfront. John was the coconut man. I collected the money.

Now John, notwithstanding the lightness of his skin color, was every bit as good with a machete as any other West Indian. With his long blond hair and tall stature, many native St. Johnians referred to him as Tarzan. But, he was virtually unknown on St. Thomas and the sight of a white boy cutting open coconuts on the Charlotte Amalie harborfront was a little more than some local people were ready for. You could see the nervousness in their eyes as John, albeit skillfully, cut open the jelly nuts with his machete. Sometimes customers even refused to let him do his job, and instead insisted on opening their own coconuts. Nonetheless, we sold out our supply of jelly nuts in good time and motored back home to St. John with some good money in our pockets. But for me, much more than the money, the overall experience was something that to this day brings a big smile to my face when I think about that Virgin Islands morning some forty years ago.

Gerald Singer

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