Adventures and Musings on the nether end of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Taken from the travel journals of Howard Dinin, circa 2003-2005
Skinny Legs is a bar and grill at the Coral Bay, the eastward or windward, end of St. John, USVI. It is a real place, though it has all the earmarks of a fiction, a made-up place that, as a result, defies any possibility of authenticity. Yet, it is a real place.
Started in 1991 by Doug Sica and Moe Chabuz on the proverbial shoestring—literally 21 bar stools and no tables or any other places to sit. Not that it mattered. The founders also had no money for food or the means to cook it. They did not have a whole roof. They kind of still don’t.
When the coffers had swelled sufficiently to buy a grill, the menu plan was simple. It satisfied the owners badly felt lack—a forced fast of a dozen years—of a really good ‘burger. They still serve them, still hand shaped, two to the pound, and they are still really good, which translates in Skinny-speak to “pretty OK.”
Skinny Legs is more than a tourist must. It is a significant part of the Coral Bay culture—a rendezvous, hang-out, last resort, and first place to get your eyes open in the morning (or induce them to stay shut). It spawns many things. There are several species of the patron genus, Regular. Salads. A (very popular) fish sandwich. The closest you will get to Wal-Mart in St. John (it’s part of what’s called the Wall Street Complex—but not for a reason you think—which includes two stores selling essentially the same merchandise, plus some unique specialties, but mainly the minimal clothing and footwear and headgear you will need, in case you flew down with only a toothbrush, and some artisans’ shops, and one of the few places on the entire island you can have your mail sent to, in case the road to your house or its location are enough reason for the postal service not to deign to bring it to within spitting distance of said hacienda). And one of the busiest boat docks in Coral Bay is just around the corner.
What more could you want? A buzz, sustenance, a place that gives you something over your head, if not to your sides, a venue to lose your sea legs, or your sea butt, camaraderie a stool’s distance away, guaranteed same day service. And sometimes some really loud music.
Walking the Back Road
for Lunch at Skinny’s
I have now visited St. John four or five times, in the space of less than three years. One of the home truths to life on the island seems to be that a car, if you can afford it, is the basic mode of transportation. There is hitchhiking, but it seems to be mainly the mode for people on the island who are barely above the age of consent and who seem generally to be occupying themselves during their visit with a job that involves the service of alcoholic beverages, and is usually served during the hours after sunset. Many natives hitchhike also, because many natives are poor, in every imaginable sense, and they cannot afford a car. For them there is no choice. It’s hitch, or hike, or take the bus or maybe the taxi (which is essentially a glorified pickup truck with benches and an awning, and mainly serves the tourists) when necessity demands and the pocketbook allows.
Every white hitchhiker I’ve met seems to have a story about not getting a ride on such and such a night—on average within the span of the previous week and-a-half. Such a walk, invariably from Cruz Bay, where the jobs are, to Coral Bay, where the funky places to live are, and where the more interesting island population congregates, is from seven to nine miles and can take as much as three hours. Imagine knocking off your shift at midnight, and having to get home on foot, by starlight, along winding roads, filled with switchbacks and precipitous drops. The starlight traversal of a national park under semitropical conditions is, in theory, a romantic proposition. Miles at night under the real conditions is anything but.
As a consequence, and for any number of other reasons, there is a general disinclination among a lot of white people to consider a walk in daylight hours for any other purpose than a consciously intended “nature hike,” more often than not under the auspices of the Park Service—even if only following their signs during a self-guided excursion. There are not really places to play golf on the island, which is too bad, because I understand this often requires walking.
In short, walking is rarely considered (except out of necessity) as a mode of transportation for distances further than that to the nearest bottle of rum to make yourself another Painkiller. If you feel like having it among the fellowship of good men and women, you will ordinarily and unthinkingly look for a ride or forget about it. If you want an hour of voluntary isolation, however, wherein, in the open air, under a benign sun, you can fully operate erect precisely at the pace of famous “island time.” The only choice, however, with the noble goal of, say, a cheeseburger and a beer at Skinny Legs, is shank’s mare.
And so I set out one lunchtime, there being no other takers for the bumpy journey to the foot of our mountain. I could have driven. I decided instead to see exactly what everyone but the poor, the poetic, and the peripatetic youth was avoiding. I put on my shoes and a hat with a long peak and went out the door.
It’s a completely different experience of the island physically. Walking brings the hills closer, even to a sense of intimacy, and makes them denser and more expansive at the same time. There seem to be more trees, but each tree now is a singularity—thousands of singularities packed densely. Like Provençal côtes, they undulate through several intersecting planes, the greens subtle and variegated—with an additional layer caused by shifting light playing on the unbroken growth—the tonal range rich and broad.
On the road you can see the goat shit and the feral donkey shit—pellets and briquets, instead of the undifferentiated blur of passing roadway at speed. Their aromas mix with the myriad others you miss in even the slowest lurching vehicle. On foot as well, the grade is less and the traction greater.
Only the passing natives wave or give the high sign from their trucks and cars. Whites drive by unseeing, their windows shut tight, hermetic, their faces set, some of them grim, urban, inward. The tourists, in cars with windshields emblazoned with the name of their car rental agencies, are too intent on the road, concentrating on remembering to drive on the left, to notice the rare pedestrian, let alone signal, “hi!”
On the walk down, here and there I can hear native workers through the brush. Here visible on the half-finished deck of a rental villa. There bellowing indecipherably one to another, invisible high above me halfway up the tree-enshrouded hill side.
As the gulleted and rutted red dirt roadway gives way to expertly seamed, barely patinated concrete, the temperature rises noticeably and suddenly the deceptively unsullied paradise ends with a view just 75 yards below on the flat of an ill-kept field of wrecked cars and trucks. They sit in imperfect rows, unnaturally colored, some a grayish ghostly white, the color of bad teeth, the occasional few the color of Pepto-Bismol or fading turquoise, interspersed with motley greens and blues, and fugitive reds and ochres, matted out, mute, decayed.
Turning the corner onto the road, ahead of me, first audible and then visible, traversing the street is a small pack of errant mature goats. At this distance—baying loudly with baaaas like drills—they have the coloring and markings of impalas, that is, the Serengeti variety.
A little farther along a much gentler bleating diverts me, and there, ignoring my gaze to the right into a huge penned yard are more diversely colored, but minuscule, kids, tumbledown and spindly. They are clearly too small to be allowed to roam free like the rest of the island’s goat population. I have the fantasy of making off with one of these story-book creatures, taking it up with one arm—so tiny are they—and tucking it under my t-shirt, a living tender downy innocent souvenir.
Further along still and I pass a low white concrete bunker behind a low chain-link fence with a bolted gate. On each side of the gate are official painted signs, one identifying this as an outpost of the Federal Department of the Interior. The other warns, separately and temperately, that the water available here is meant only for external application and should not be used either for drinking or for cooking. Below the sign, barely noticeable, on boards bolted through the fence links are three spigots, obviously intended for ready and constant public access.
There is now the fine vague putrid smell of rot and sewage. Puddles and rivulets on one shoulder are filled with an opaque fluid, the color of weak and greenish cocoa. A young man with a cinnamon beard and long hair sits by the side of the road, straddling a stone wall, rolling one of his own, one-handed, as he licks the edge of the paper. He is tending to three harnessed and saddled ponies cooling in the thin shade of a tree or two. He flashes me the “V” for victory, and I salute him back in kind.
Inevitably, this first walk among the landmarks and sights so familiar from the seat of a car gives not only a different perspective, but induces a fresh sense, a different sense of my relationship with the surroundings. What makes for the barely noticed quotidian of the island’s inhabitants, especially for the natives who saunter back and forth along these narrow, ill-kept roads, makes for me an eye-opening identification. And opening for me as well is a bit of my soul, to the funky, unkempt, bursting soul of this end of the island. The greatest shock of traveling in the confines of St. John, I should add by way of pertinent digression, is entering the grounds of either the Westin resort or of Caneel Bay. The shock is the shock of enforced order in this essentially rude paradise. I know in my soul that machines for cutting and pruning and edging and trimming were not meant for the natural state of the wild vegetation.
Larry Rockefeller, you were a genius. What energy and time are spent on the western end of St. John, trying to subdue and beat back what the sun and the earth and the manure and the organic decay work so effortlessly to produce. Cruz Bay tries interminably to deny itself. Coral Bay seems never to want to even face such concessions to civilization.
As I trudge briskly (try it, this is not an inapposite combination of verb and modifier!), I pass a number of familiar sites. There’s Sputnik, which deserves its own story, and just a little further along, the local school, festooned with lively paintings on its stucco, with the color and energy, but none of the intrusiveness, of graffiti. However it is clearly intended to lift the spirits of the tiny inhabitants, and surely they are lifted, because from within, their gleeful, disembodied voices are raised in song. The lilt of the Caribbean even in these childish chants.
Some part of me wishes not to get to Skinny’s so soon, to prolong the walk, without abandoning the objective. I couldn’t walk any slower and still be ambulatory. Finally I get to the Wall Street Complex, and walk past the side toward Connections, the Coral Bay link to the outside world, with rentable mailboxes, and parcel mailing services, internet connectivity, and myriad other services of which I have not availed myself to date, uncertain that I am thereby blessed or deprived. Connections is just past the comically appropriate picket gate that leads to the “front” entrance of Skinny Legs. Remnants of the lunch crowd still fill most of the tables. There are one or two for larger parties available, but I head for the bar, and order my Carib beer, and my cheeseburger, and my salad with Roquefort dressing, which Doug had unabashedly extolled during our earlier interview with him.
The salad is very fresh. The Roquefort dressing is not the greatest I have tasted, but it is fine and mainly missing a stronger presence of mustiness and mold I associate with this king of cheeses. The cheeseburger is, of course, perfect. I eat, and sit. I drink, and sit. And Skinny’s slowly empties.
As I switch my seat from the bar to a now abandoned deuce toward the back, the burly black, bulky, with the lithe sureness of a running back, is leaving with his brood of beautiful Yoo-Hoo colored daughters. He wears a deep athletic grey Polo Jeans & Co shirt molded to his powerful shoulders. His massively muscled arms are bare with tattooed whorls blacker even than his brown-black skin and barely visible. He wears Nike branded baseball cap and trendy sport slip-ons. His wife follows, admonishing one of the littler girls. The woman is handsome, taut, well-kept and physically forceful. She is at once lithe, and yet, at the back, callipygian, the protuberance offset by splendid globular breasts. She is altogether tightly bound in spandex, a striped top with black athletic shorts. Her hair is pulled back and her face, a shade somewhere between her husband’s and their children’s, is beautiful, as it would be to anyone but the most biased Anglo-Saxon.
The man, with a broad, smiling good natured face, stops to talk to Moe, who apologizes almost inaudibly for something. It’s a remark the man waves off in a gracious way. They leave and Moe explains minutes later to a tourist who has asked if “he’s a famous baseball player or something,” that the wife is merely the daughter of regular customers. Moments after this I sense someone just behind me, and a hand puts keys on the table next to my still unfinished second Carib. It’s Steve, with the keys to the Trooper. He’s driven down alone after all for the afternoon sailboat race, and I’m to take the car back up to the house when I feel like it. Another beer would do me in, and I catch Doug, and tell him I’ll take a rain check on the birthday brew. I pull out of the lot, and see Steve join his friends on the dock in the rearview mirror. I pull out just ahead of a school bus full of mirthful children and as I enter the road, I decide I’ll take the front road for the trip back up the mountain.
I am sitting in Skinny Legs on a whim, an urge, a compulsion. Back at the house, halfway up Bordeaux Mountain, the luncheon choice was more leftovers and further emptying of the larder of surplus before we have to leave the island and discard what we haven’t consumed. Well, what the hell. I can eat that kind of stuff any time. What the hell, it’s my birthday. Given the choice, I’ll take another cheeseburger, and many thanks for your assistance. I’m going to make a couple more special meals at least, as guest chef at Casa Yaya, before we depart in any event, so no opportunity for guilt.
Mikki handed me the keys to the Trooper, and before you can say, “another Painkiller there, buddy,” I’m out of there, retracing my route of the now famous walk down the Back Road to Skinny’s of the other day, only this time in the hunkering, gaudily boxy 4-wheeler that passes for standard transportation.
I arrived and took a deuce at the back, near where the Scrabble players congregate. A guy, who looks like his deep tan has been dry lacquered with the silt of the back roads, sprawls in a chair way too short for his very long legs. He wears the regulation island getup: shorts, sandals, beard, thatch of hair. He’s absorbed in a thick paperback, and I think I can spy the name ‘Pynchon’ on the cover. During the course of my stay he will periodically unfold himself and saunter over to the library up at the front next to the bar, and pore over the shelves, bringing back a different book each time, until he settles on one. I never do make out its cover. He at one point leads a jet-black dog of no discernible breed who has wandered in, out. It seems to be his dog. When he returns to his table and his book, he finally orders a drink, a ginger ale, which he nurses for the duration, completely immersed in his final choice of a read.
So here I am in Skinny’s. Maybe the last cheeseburger in paradise for at least six months. Why is it easier to resist a ’burger at home, not much worse, if not at least as good, than here? At least part of the reason is that the cheeseburger—inarguably the best exemplar of an exemplary bar menu—is the best completion of an otherwise complete holistic experience. While some people I know, earnest world-saving purists all of them, would be aghast at the word ‘holistic,’ the word carries with it, like life in general in Coral Bay, no moral determinants.
And things are certainly “of a piece” here. And no more so than at Skinny Legs, the quintessential amalgam of accident and design conspiring to produce in the course of 14 years a perfect whole. If you cannot be happy here, you cannot be happy in any way in Coral Bay. Not that you must drink and not that you must eat meat and not that you must like people unstintingly, and not that you must ever stand on ceremony, and not, obversely, that you must expect discomfort here if you so stand. You’ll be ribbed and ridiculed and charmed into loosening up, but never discomfited.
It is a place roughly shorn, so to speak. Part of the roof is a beat-up sail, duct tape patches mark the ‘x,’ mold growing in dark spots over its entirety, and the slowly ghosting painted mermaid disappearing into the roof over the bar. The patchwork banquette partitions bear serried rows of staples from some former anchoring of crepe or plastic bands from some historic festive rout that occurred here.
The regulars, of one worldwide species, are a particular island type. Long stringy hair bound under a cap or visor or even a band of cloth torn from some indeterminate source is complemented by a grizzled beard, neither kempt nor wholly unmanaged, or the dense wild bush of a Wild West mustache. Their arms and legs are the limbs of wraiths, specter thin, covered with the lax hide of the chronically dehydrated. Their spindly shanks are an apotheosis, as if determined by the name of this charismatic joint. Their color ranges from antique hardwood furniture to the color of fish bellies. Their age is indeterminate, fixed somewhere, as in the Broadway show tune, “somewhere between 40 and death.”
In marked contrast is a seemingly endless train of lithe young women. These are all glowingly clean, with lustrous hair, and contradictorily, piercings here and there or random tattoos that slither, typically, under sleeveless tops at the shoulder or up the legs under Capri pants or tightly wrapped luminous gauzy scarves cinched at the waist below bare midriffs, invariably taut, the navel punctuated by a tiny ring entering and emerging from the wisp of slack flesh, the only bit of it on their bodies. I wouldn’t want to suggest that Coral Bay is an ogler’s paradise, among the other paradises it may be. That train of nubile maidens does not stop here, but moves on, to other bars and restaurants on other islands, back to mainland colleges, and no doubt as well to many a midwestern dell or plain. The women who stay are fleshier, that is, of less resilient dough, dough that may have risen one too many times. Some is baked, some is impervious to heat or seems to rest in shadier, damper corners. They too sport gimme’ caps or bandanas. Lines of misery in some, of perpetual sunny friendship in others, seam their faces.
The young man with the head of thick sandy hair, more chopped than clipped, with a studied three- or maybe four-day growth, straight white teeth and eyes the blue of water just as it begins to deepen yards from shore, escorts a Midwestern looking woman, with strands of gray at the temples of her head thick with the same sandy-colored hair. With his scarred hands bearing work-worn nails he shakes the waiter’s hand and introduces the woman as his mom. Her skin is unmarked, not a line on her face, while her son’s is seamed with countless premature lines.