In my last ruminations about Dr. Van Mulsen (See, Going to the Dentist, below) I mentioned Nibbs, the bartender, at the Grand Hotel, (here there be pictures.) The Grand was built between 1839 and 1840 and is one of many historical attractions in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Nibbs. I will try to give a clear picture of this wonderful man.
He was tall and dark skinned with a wonderful broad smile. I like to think his ancestry could be traced back to those taller African tribes, like the Zulus or Maasai, who, when merely standing, exude a kind of elegance that is not prideful, but part of their very genetic make-up. Straight back, square shoulders.
Nibbs was like that.
At the time I write about, the Grand Hotel was the gathering place for many locals, both black and white. On the balcony there was a huge round table which could seat at least 20, maybe 30 people. This was the table where the locals sat to discuss the latest news and gossip while they ate lunch, had cocktails, or dined in the evening.
I don’t think he had to, but Nibbs often took responsibility for the round table. He would not only take, but also serve the drink and food orders. Only if it was very busy, would the drinks and food bound for the round table be served by someone else.
He must have, but I don’t remember him ever writing an order down, yet when you went to pay your bill (and he was in charge of that too) there would be your tab, waiting for you.
For years Nibbs had a parakeet. It's cage sat on the counter were people paid their bills and the door was usually open so the bird could come and go as it pleased. Its wings were clipped so it couldn’t fly away. It was very tame and spent a good deal of time riding on Nibbs' shoulder. It was also allowed to wander around the round table. One had to be on the alert for small thefts of food or tiny sips from one’s drink. One day there was a tragedy. While delivering an order, Nibbs stepped on his beloved bird who happened to be walking around on the floor. Nibbs was heartbroken. It was many years before he finally gave in to gentle urgings and got another parakeet, which, in time, was treated much as the first one had been.
When Mom would leave Erva and me at the Grand while she went shopping she’d leave us with coloring books and books to read. In the huge ball room (with stars on the dark blue ceiling) there were several sitting areas with couches, chairs and tables. We would commandeer an area directly across from the bar so Nibbs, as he came and went from bar to balcony, could keep a watchful eye on us. I can’t tell you how many pictures Erva and I colored and gave to him. And I think for many years he kept them all together under the bar.
Once we moved to St. Thomas from St. John the Grand became a favored hang-out. Almost every day after school I went there to wait for my father to pick me up after he got off work. I’d often sit out on the balcony at a small table, farthest from all the others, a place that was out of the way and usually empty. If it was windy or rainy or cold I’d settle myself inside at the same seating area Erva and I had used when we were small. I’d usually get an iced tea, sometimes a Coke, and while I waited for Dad I’d do my homework or study for tests.
Most of the time I had enough money to buy myself something to drink. But sometimes, perhaps once every two months or so, I didn’t and I’d ask Nibbs to “put it on our tab.” It wasn’t until years later, long after I’d graduated from high school, that I learned we never had a tab at the Grand! Nibbs had given me those drinks on the house. I’m so glad I didn’t take advantage of the gift.
A year or so ago my sister ran into Nibbs, who was hale enough to be driving. She said he looked almost the same and that he remembered us.
Certainly I remember him; a gentleman, gracious and generous, with a ready smile and laugh, who was also a most excellent bartender.
I raise my glass: “Here’s to you Nibbs. This is a small token of my appreciation. Live long and prosper.”