There are times when we need to come in from the storm. When caught in sudden summer downpours in Gotham, those without umbrellas find places to hide or scurry close to buildings jumping from under one awning to another. The path is plotted to include scaffolding and places where distant cornices protrude or the wind shear of the building itself may provide some relief from the pounding rain by convection. Snow squalls can also come from nowhere, particularly in the higher elevations. A friend and I were hiking up in Labrador, and the treeline is much lower. While a dingy late summer day when we started, the moment we pushed up above the soaking moss and pines decorated with droplets the cold air came blasting down on us.
Unrelenting, we continued to the summit of the gigantic and ancient hill in order to plant our flag. Suddenly, a storm lurched towards us. The temperature dropped suddenly, and we were attacked by snowflakes that kissed our face and then tricked cold under our already wet clothes. We huddled in a crevasse between boulders and I considered for a moment as to how long we had to be soaking wet in such weather before we succumb to hypothermia. “Do you think we’ll die here?” I may have asked. We did not wait for an answer from the ice gods, but made a run for it down and back to the valley and the relative warmth of a Canadian day. As we hustled back to the trail, I saw the storm recede into the distance as a cloud of ghosts now vaporizing in the daylight and the sun returned as if never absent.
There are four Long Island quadrants (less the City of New York). There is the South Shore of the pounding open ocean if one passes on to what is called Fire Island, a thin strip of a sandbar that follows much of the Island. Here there are crashing waves and blasting sun that attracts the crowds of beach-goers, the lotion-slathered Blue Tooth Speaker blasting bumkins of mediocre median mendacity who filthy up a towel for a splash about in the waters before going to Jimmy’s confirmation or Loretta’s piano recital. There is then the North Shore and that of the relative lapping of the waters and tidal flow in what is known as the Long Island Sound. The North Shore & Sound allowed for more gentile (sic) experience (enforced in many places until the 1950s… if youknowwadamean) with the calmer slower waters and was historically the preferred choice of the monied and educated classes. Sailing, fishing, and relaxing are the ordered activities as I remember, and may yet remain in the many private beaches and secret access points from Oyster Bay to Port Jefferson.
From points North and South, there is also an East and Westerly division to the island. This demarcation is between the Long Island of ex-Brooklynites and those salty characters in keeping with Old New England. The line between the farms and oyster beds and creeping crud of Modernity has been shifting ever East since before I was born and indeed these past few decades the westerly culture of cracker-box cookie-cutter homes and crowded commuters has been encroaching the more New England aspects of what is now found only beyond Riverhead to the North and Mastic Beach to the South.
To this, there is yet one more division between what is called the “forks” of Long Island. The southerly fork is the realm of gated manors, the Gatsby nights of the Hamptons and Ditch Plains surfer days of overcrowded condos, selfie-authenticated trips to the Ditch Witch and the Montauk Light House. The northern fork remains a moment of charming – and not so charming – New England where along with ancient farmhouses one can see a few metal garages housing boat repair welding shops and farms producing more than vanity but actually producing potatoes or ducks or ducks fed potatoes.
Between these worlds sits Shelter Island. We of the land forget that this Great And Storied Nation was built from the waters onward. For those of this current age, even the waters are conquered by all manner of technology. Nevertheless, the oceans remain as tempestuous as ever. Off the coast of Key West, our pleasure vessel, a schooner of about 25 passengers, was caught in a sudden summer rain. This cloudburst was not warm but cold and hard. The weight of water is no small matter and falling unencumbered by any convection, it pounded in such a way that was startling. We could see land until the rain was upon us, then all points of the compass vanished until the sudden storm had passed and we stood in the rain as if a bubble of a world had entrapped us. I thought of those old sailing days when a chart, a few glimmering stars, and whatever compass could be hand was all that may guide back on course. I sipped my wine now diluted by the sweet waters. For eons, Shelter Island has provided such relief from those oceans. Today, it also seems to mix all quadrants of the Island into one location.
Connected to the mainland Island by two ferries, Shelter Island is not the destination of casual or accidental discovery. Once must commit to the cost to enter and exit. From the south, one leaves behind the wealth of the south, for the wealth-wealth of the island. At $14 for a car with one person, this island is somewhat more to get on than the cost of a Hollywood film. The working ferry is not picturesque, it is nothing more than a motorized platform to bring in visitors, supplies, and since this is the off-season, all manner of contractors.
In wealthy areas it must be known that during the day when Mumsie and Dadsie are off making wealth and creating jobs, and little Damion and Soon-Ye are away at boarding school or digging a well in Africa since poor people help rich people get into college, the manors belong to a phalanx of contractors, grounds keepers, and very dark blue collar residents. If the region is in any way seasonal, such as I assume Shelter Island to be, most construction is accomplished on the off season, where the Superrich 1% will have fewer complaints to the Village Board to confound the merely rich 5% as they muster an addition on the beach house or renovation of the garage to add a small apartment that will at first be for Soon Ye to spend the summer she discovers boys/girls/other but in time will be not-so-secretly hawked on AIREBNB in order to continue making those good decisions that lead to increased wealth and a stable retirement-and-death. Here and there, workers, and someone directing them, typically elderly, were the only people outside on what was a pleasant global-warming-seasonably warm sunny day.
As I drove around the island to explore and get my $14 worth from the ride, these convenings became a familiar sight. It seemed uncanny that each group was some elderly matron outside in a driveway or on a lawn gesticulating to the property and/or house to several worker-looking-guys while a legion of Hispanic worker-looking-boys dragged a quantity of tools about or used loud engines to blow grass clippings across the driveway and hither and zither to Centereach. Interspersed with these vignettes of the community, were larger projects where entire houses were being built on small plots of land.
In areas with neither active contractors nor construction, the houses were quiet and dormant. Most were well appointed in design, layout, and landscaping that ran from manicured gardens to manicured examples of local nature, not a twig out-of-place. A good many houses were typical shingle style not uncommon to New England while several were of a modern flare an one very out of place mansion was of the Spanish Style because in every area there must be at least one in this style (I have seen this from Florida to Maine). The coast of the island varies from meeting the water with the typical low beach prone to flooding and accompanying marsh to the high cliffs of sand found along the North Shore where thin twisting pot-hole infested roads are punctuated by hidden palaces.
With a nod to the crowded section of the island, there is only one primary road that links the south and north ferries. I was stuck in traffic for a moment and wondered if this would be much like the crawl out to Montauk. Thankfully, it was not. As the season is not busy, the traffic was that of oil delivery trucks, a garbage truck, and the darting dualies and vans of the aforementioned contractors. Shelter Island still managed to ‘represent’ its New England roots since there were also dirt lanes here and there that reminded me of Vermont and the western lands of the Berkshires. At one point, I had to back up a ways in order to let the UPS truck through.
After some aimless site seeing, I stopped in town in order to get a bowl of chowder. There is no point visiting any of Long Island without some sampling of chowder. At the cafe was a number of those large contractor guys and working behind the counter a small woman who spoke Spanish with an Ecuadorian accent. The talk in the place was of adding fixtures, removing drop ceilings, and setting a footing before the ground froze. Across from the cafe was a hardware store, and it seemed I discovered some number of residents of the island that do not afford their own help but perhaps rely on that supposed Yankee Ingenuity and lots of duct tape.
Sadly, I was just passing through and had no further time to explore. I needed to return to the Big Island, and leave behind this island to float out there between so many worlds. The north ferry is a little less than the south ferry and docks in Greenport, so-called I assume because it is green and a port. I hadn’t time to travel those last few miles out to Orient but turned my rented car west. In no time I had passed the farms and vineyards, and after Riverhead, the road widened to a familiar many lanes, traffic increased and the larger the highway became the slower we went. The malls, plazas, and Geography of Nowhere sprang up. As I became immobilized in traffic, I thought back to standing on the beach of Shelter Island, the call of the gulls, the constant and autumn wind in my ears, and my little time away, outside of the storm.