Stranger 11/100 — Lawrence

I photographed my eleventh stranger on Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas.

Lawrence was the cook at an open-air bar and grill on the Caribbean coast where I stopped for breakfast one morning. It was early and there were no customers, and when I pulled up Lawrence popped out from the kitchen to welcome me, his voice raspy and buoyant with that Bahamian cadence. Yea man. He said he was cooking chicken souse and Johnnycakes, which I had never heard of but ordered, along with coffee.

My wife and I had spent the week on Eleuthera with friends. We had stopped at the restaurant a handful of times, and I had seen Lawrence behind the kitchen screen deep frying grouper and stirring up coconut rice and cracking conch with a hammer.

The place, LeoRose Sunset Beach Bar & Grill, is essentially a covered deck built on risers in the sand and painted Caribbean blue and yellow, the colors of the Bahamian flag. It has a timeless feel, despite having opened only a few weeks ago. At the sea’s edge is a tiny, roofed bar with seats for six people to sit and drink Kalik beer or rum punch and watch the sun make its daily descent into the turquoise water. The first time we ate there, a man was frying chunks of barracuda in a long-handled pan over a wood fire, which he distributed on paper towels free of charge. The men and women who work there are friendly and like to listen to American 80s music, especially romantic ballads. They pick peas from trees across the street and troll offshore for jackfish and mutton snapper. In the evening, they burn coconut shells to keep the mosquitos down.

Lawrence returned with a cup of black coffee and a steaming bowl of the souse, a stew of potatoes and carrots and chicken that slipped right off the bone. The broth was light and delicious, and Lawrence told me it was flavored with lime and allspice. I soaked it up with a hunk of sweet bread and complimented the chef, who took a seat across from me as I ate.

At 61, Lawrence had spent a lifetime island hopping — Andros, Nassau, Exuma, Haiti — making his living cooking meals, driving buses, selling conch, managing a hotel. He described himself as a restless soul who picked up and moved whenever he felt the tickle of boredom on the bottom of his feet. Cuba, he said, was far and away his favorite. Never seen so many beautiful women, man! He recalled with fond fascination a bar where a man would have to wade through women three deep just to order a drink. Yea man. Though he spoke no Spanish, he always had one or two "personal interpreters" with him.

Anyway, Lawrence seemed to have little trouble communicating with the fairer sex. He said he had fathered seven children with seven women and had never married. His eldest, a daughter, turns 40 this year; one of his sons lives on Eleuthera. Lawrence said he came to the island a few years ago after a bus company he started on Nassau — or maybe it was Exuma — collapsed. A foot injury from an accident left him with a $5,000 medical bill, which he couldn’t afford, and soon he lost his company and his apartment, he said with notable disappointment. So he found his way to Eleuthera and began working with Leo, a close friend of his brother.

When I asked Lawrence to be part of my project, he said, Anything to make my customers happy, man. Since we had the place to ourselves, I tried four locations, taking several shots in each. In the end, I chose the very first frame. Go figure.