It was just before 7 a.m. in Hope Town, and Vernon Malone was holding court in front of his grocery. Not an official court, of course -- although he's also the town's justice of the peace. This was just Vernon offering a warm cup to a visitor, then the two of them sitting down to greet the day and whoever came by.
"The Bahamas sure ain't what they used to be," he says. "Wasn't even 30 years ago this island didn't have electricity or telephones, and now look at it. The people coming here now want the 'modern conveniences.'" He says that last part with a combination of scorn and bewilderment, like he can't grasp the idea of coming to the Caribbean and watching television. "And these kids that won't go outside and do anything when it's 80 degrees out. They think it's too hot! It's because they've all grown up with air conditioning."
Vernon's not bitter, exactly. But rapid change is a newcomer to the islands. And Vernon didn't flee the corporate maze or urban race to come down here. He's always been here. His family and others started a new English colony here after the American Revolution. He runs the grocery, bakes bread and key-lime pies every day, marries people on occasion, and serves as lay minister at the Methodist church, the one with the view of the ocean behind the pulpit. And while there's still no resort at Hope Town -- nary a golf course or a tennis court to be found -- there are vacation homes going up all over the island, and the visitors are clambering once again to pave the roads.
A delivery truck comes by, and such are the narrow streets of Hope Town that we have to pick up our feet to let him pass. Behind it is a huge man walking with obvious pain in his legs. He sits down next to me, and Vernon gets him a cup. This is George, a retired cop from Boston, who warns us that he's seen the kind of people who have just "discovered" Hope Town before. He says they're uppity, new-rich New England types, with plenty of cash but no class, and they'll flood the place, looking for peace and quiet, until there's no more peace and quiet in Hope Town. While he's talking, a home-builder from Long Island stops by and tells stories of people buying $20,000 dressers for their bedrooms and million-dollar yachts on 14 percent loans. We all shake our heads at the insanity.
From down in Hope Town, America seems like a bubble of money, with whole economies living off the leakage. A family of four from Seattle might spend $10,000 on a week in the Bahamas; Vernon probably doesn't make $10,000 in a year. But when the Seattleites go home to the rain and the bills and the cubicles, Vernon is still baking and sipping coffee in the morning sun, wondering how, or why, they live that way.
There's a guy in Hope Town named Tom who lives the Official Corporate American Dream: Years ago he gave it all up, bought a boat, and sailed off. That, of course, is where the dream ends: Once you're on the boat, they roll the credits. But Tom did that almost 30 years ago. Now he spends his summers on Martha's Vineyard, chartering his boat out for afternoon cruises, and then spends his winters working on her in the islands. When I congratulated him on making the dream his own, he said, "Yeah, well, I used to work for somebody else, and now I work for the boat. If you sail like I do, you have to either be rich or know how to fix everything." A look at Tom and a shake of his hand make it clear which camp he's in.
I looked around Hope Town and tried to imagine myself actually living there. My first question was, "What would you do here?" I mean, lying around on the beach and drinking fruity drinks would get old after, say, a month. You can't live a vacation. Or living on a boat? Think about that honestly for a minute. Alone on a 40-foot boat? There's still life after the credits roll, you know. And when Vernon was telling me about Hurricane Floyd -- 250 mph winds for four hours straight at the peak of it -- and when I considered that it was hitting 90 degrees in early April, I thought maybe the dream wasn't for me.
But I need to know that the islands exist. I need to know, when I'm staring at my computer on a rainy day, that Vernon is down there making a batch of pies and giving out coffee on the street. If the Bahamas begrudgingly need our money, even while wondering at what we do with it, we also need the Caribbean to survive, to know that we can go down there and chill out for a while, even while wondering at what we might be doing to the place.