Rockland Is My Blackberry
They ask us: “What do you people do, now that summer's over?”
Well, most catch lobsters, of course. Don't be silly. With the price the way it is today, many of the guys would just as soon be selling shoes I guess, but that's a subject for another time (except to mention that when lobsters are cheaper than hot dogs, what people do all winter won't include a lot of Disney World this year.)
Allow me to ramble a bit. We're often asked to field this “What do you do?” query. It's based on the contorted reasoning that assumes a year revolving around summer, that island life begins and ends with summer, and that somehow the rest of the calendar is an abstraction, an intangible, some bit of white-space at the margins… but that is, understandably, the vacationer's perspective. I suppose in a sense I don't truly understand those signs in Grand Canyon National Park that describe death by heat stroke, as I've only hiked in the cooler months. It's a hypothetical reality, and comes without a mental picture. Can you imagine your beach-rose and lobster-roll-filled summer refuge on a Maine island battered by the gales of November, rain like a fire hose, all color gone, and no sign of those still winter mornings for a very long while?
Truly, we have nothing on some of our neighboring islands; they carry the burden of the summer-world like a load of rocks, overwhelmed and on retail autopilot. We manage no cattle-car boatloads here just for the day. Nobody squawks for the last copy of the Wall Street Journal, and we see relatively few hair-sprayed ladies in white plastic pumps marching down the transfer bridge, matching handbag over the forearm, good gracious. On the continent of Matinicus we may at least enjoy the company of many friends during the busy warm months, part-timers who tread lightly and know how things work around here, which helps offset how weird the work gets for those who trade in the public square: the flurry of incomprehensible questions, the genuinely insignificant “needs” described with raving urgency and ulcerative desperation, the pre-existing notions built up of years of myth, adamantine, and cement.
As for me, what I do is, in September, I go to Rockland and talk to everybody by accident.
Hey, you did ask. I have discovered the most fun side of being a writer: the privilege of thinking with my stomach (nothing new for me.) I get more correspondence and journalism and research and planning done just by eating my way around the Lime City than I ever could trying to make appointments from out here. Who needs a palm pilot or a blackberry when there are still perfectly good coffee shops? I have not set out to do this; I am merely in mind of a sesame bagel or a Compass-muffin or a chocolate almond bear-claw or a slice of Carol's sour cream coffee cake; all the random meetings with people who help me do what I do are but fortuitous coincidence.
In Rock City Books and Coffee, I turned around recently and was face-to-face with one of the correspondents for my one-room school book, one whose telephone number had changed and of whom I had lost track, one who had been in that single Spruce Head classroom when my great uncle John Monroe taught there. He wrote down his new phone number on a book-mark and I explained that yes, I was still working on the project. I was glad I'd stopped in to get a cup for the road just that moment.
Recently, as I ate my usual taxpayer-subsidized cheeseburger in a Rockland pub the evening before the next iteration of my recycling-truck-on-the-ferry duty, I ran into George the wind power cheerleader. In the face of his unremitting certainty that no roadblock (and no invoice) was too high I, playing the so-called devil's advocate, took to smart-mouthing him more than he probably deserved (“no matter what you say about Matinicus, remember that the opposite is also true.”) My take is consistently to argue that nothing ever approaches simplicity out here, but in the end, I admitted that his optimism was reassuring. The subject of potential wind-power projects on this and all of these islands is no small beans right now, and I am eagerly interested in the discussion. Assumptions and folklore get in the way of fact-finding on Matinicus Island though, worse than anywhere I've ever heard of outside of a war zone.
So I do my ordinary errands, and at the same time, meet people everywhere who tell me things I need to know. Here, someone who grew up on Monhegan, or Cliff or Swan's; there, someone with information about an offshore rescue that took place years ago; later, a former island teacher, the surveyor who remembers some detail, another small-town EMT, one of the victims of the harassment, part of the back-story, a native, a good one-liner, an address, a reassuring thumbs-up or the advice to pick my timing. Once, somebody stopped their car in the street to call out to me on the sidewalk, and tell me the honest truth about Abbie Burgess' father. Meanwhile, Organic Nicaraguan, Sumatra Mandheling, Dark Star, Morning Call, Kilimanjaro.
Four and a half years of writing a regular column in a local newspaper is part of it. I still look a lot like that picture from the op-ed page. The lessons: go nowhere in Rockland without a note pad and pencil, for goodness sakes park considerately, and try out all of the possible lunch places over time, because you never know who'll be there, with the answer to a question that's been on the list for weeks.