Sunday, August 17, 2003

We'd all be in paradise ... if we had the courage

Every day

Paul Daugherty

Right about now, he's in a T-shirt and shorts, sandals and heaven, sun warming the breeze to 85 degrees. Paradise is what you make it, you say? Not exactly. Paradise is at a bend on Route 10 - less a road than a mess of dirt and holes - in the town of Coral Bay, on the east side of St. John, United States Virgin Islands, where Doug Sica is praising the act of being alive.

"I don't have bad days,'' he says. "I don't allow them.'' Sica is 54, formerly an electrician from New Jersey. In 1978, he got laid off from "two of the best jobs in the state,'' only to land on his feet and assume the best job in the world. It happens that way, but not much.

After he was laid off, Sica applied to 52 different places for work as an electrician. The first place to offer him a job was St. John. He'd never been there, but his former brother-in-law had, to deliver boats. "He said it was an OK place,'' Sica says.

Sica took the job there in August of '78, knowing it wouldn't start for four months. He tended bar. He had a wife and two small kids.

For 12 years, Doug Sica managed the bar. He never took the electrician's job. There is something about paradise that isn't especially conducive to repairing power lines. In 1990 or so, Sica and his friend Moe Chabuz sold a boat they owned jointly and used the proceeds to buy a dumpy bar in Coral Bay.

The place offered no food, had no tables, only liquor. "It took us nine months to save enough money to buy the grill and the (exhaust) fan,'' Sica says. Thirteen years later, Skinny Legs is a funky fixture in a paradise town no bigger than a crossroads. Doug Sica works 70 hours a week, marinating fish, making burgers and chatting up the clientele, half of which is the same collection of local wash-ups he had when he started.

Coral Bay is not a place for strivers. Ambition is as out of place there as a tie and tails. You could spend your whole life in Coral Bay and not know who the president of the United States was. Or care.

But here's what you'd think about Doug Sica, formerly of New Jersey, now of paradise:

Paradise takes guts.

You can rent it for a week, as we did. You can pay for a cottage high on a green hill, overlooking the Aqua-Velva waters of the Caribbean Sea. You can sit on a beach where the sand is the color of desert bones, or swim among fish colored like pastel experiments. You can have this beach completely to yourself, your own personal paradise.

But you can't really have it, not without risking everything else. That's why St. John only has 4,900 residents and most of them were born there. Paradise stays that way partly because most of us are unwilling to take a chance on it.

Sica likes to say St. John chose him - "I could have ended up anywhere,'' he says. But without the guts to live the dream, he'd have packed his wistful self up a long time ago. All he'd have now would be the photographs.

I wanted to stay on St. John, at Doug Sica's bar, drinking Carib beer until the money ran out. After a few days in paradise, everybody feels this way. But the courage to take that leap? Didn't have it in me.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Sica brings in a 9-foot-by-12-foot projection TV and cooks sausage sandwiches on an outdoor grill longer than 3rd-and-6 from the 7-yard line. He dresses his waitresses in pleated, satin miniskirts. They walk around with those trays around their waists, selling cigarettes, like a 1950s cabaret.

I told Sica I'd be there this year, at Skinny Legs watching the game in the 85-degree sun, calling some waitress "honey'' while simultaneously requesting a Macanudo and swilling a rum and tonic.

I won't be, though. I'll be in the press box, at the Super Bowl. Paradise exists. But it's not for the timid.


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