I wrote this about 10 years ago, when setting up susannajsturgis.com, my first home on the web. On a recent rereading I was surprised to realize that most of it is still mostly true. I now have several virtual homes: this blog; my other blog, Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going; and Facebook, as well as susannajsturgis.com. And well, I’m still here.
The commercial version rhapsodizes about idyllic beaches, scenic harbors, charming B&Bs, historic sites, gracious dining — you get the idea. The somewhat jaded version emphasizes ticks, tularemia, moped accidents, pretentious restaurants, snarled traffic, hard-to-get ferry reservations, the price of gas, and a couple of the worst-managed towns in the state. Here I consider the real reasons why I haven’t (yet) moved to northern New England or upstate New York.
Look, Ma: No Keys!
In my D.C. days, I packed ten keys on my keychain. After a few months on the Vineyard, I’d stopped locking my bike; the car keys stayed in the ignition, and the only lock on my apartment was a skinny sliding bolt whose main purpose was to keep the door closed when the wind came up. Like many Vineyarders, I still don’t lock, and the truck keys rarely leave the truck, but the times are surely changing. Expensive security systems, and car alarms are more common than they were ten years ago. Used to be that when someone left their headlights on, you’d automatically open the door and turn them off. Then more people started locking their cars, and once I triggered someone’s car alarm. Now I restrain myself unless I recognize the car or the window’s open.
Most Vineyarders read one or both of the two weeklies, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. But your best sources for local news are (1) your friends and neighbors, and (2) your own eyes and ears. We’re all reporters and editors: we gather news, decide how credible our sources are, digest it, combine it with what we already know, and pass it on. A few well-placed individuals know everything worth knowing before anyone else does and can tell a good story besides; their acquaintance is worth cultivating. One newspaper editor has been heard to complain that we never vote the way his editorials tell us to. Here we don’t need an editor to tell which way the words blow.
Martha’s Vineyard provides all the ingredients for a writer to create her own continuing education workshop. Over the years, I’ve stage-managed and acted in local theater productions; edited, copyedited, written, and reviewed for a local newspaper; and volunteered, produced events, performed, and written press releases for a local coffeehouse (the late, still greatly missed Wintertide). I’ve had a front-row seat for an unending parade of shenanigans (and played minor roles in a few). There are frequent pop quizzes, all consisting of the same question: “Why the hell do you live there?” No credits, no degree, but the proof is in the writing, right?
Dogs go to work, dogs go to town, dogs go fishing — dogs go everywhere the board of health doesn’t say they can’t go. Rhodry has been helping me do my banking since he was old enough to be trusted on carpets. He makes biscuit withdrawals at each teller station; when we use the drive-up window, the canister brings a cookie for him, cash or a deposit slip for me. Delivery-truck drivers usually pack some dog treats along with the parcels. Rhodry knows this. Once I got a call from a neophyte driver. He was parked outside my front door; he said he had a parcel for me, but a big dog wouldn’t let him out of the van. I accepted the parcel and apologized for the dog.
When “casual Fridays” became popular in the urban workworld, I had a hard time grasping the concept. “Dress to impress” is still rare on Martha’s Vineyard, though it’s more common than it used to be. (Not to mention that since 1981 my workweek has been so irregular that Fridays and Mondays have no special significance.) Where hardly anyone wears tailored suits or designer dresses, people figure out other ways to decide what kind of person you are. I, like most people I know, get a good chunk of my wardrobe at the thrift shop.
The island has no stoplights. Two major intersections are four-way stops, and Five Corners, strategically located in the heart of Vineyard Haven, is a traffic planner’s nightmare. To make it more fun, many of the island’s secondary roads are rutted dirt and one-lane only. Driving on Martha’s Vineyard demands continual nonverbal negotiation, involving eye contact, hand waving, turn signals, and flashing headlights: Go ahead. Am I next? After you. I’ll back up. There’s someone behind me. I love it. Massachusetts drivers have a terrible reputation, but Martha’s Vineyard drivers are all right.
There are no parking meters on Martha’s Vineyard, and the only pay-to-park lot is at the Gay Head Cliffs. Most parking lots are cramped and irregularly shaped, and feature access from so many directions that you don’t know where to look first. The Stop & Shop lot, near the ferry dock, is like an ongoing game of musical chairs, without the music. So is the one across the street at the Vineyard Haven post office. One of the benefits of my current year-round rental is that I can walk to town in fifteen minutes.
Don Lyons got me playing the license plate game back when we both worked for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. The idea is to spot, on the island, license plates from all fifty states (I add D.C. because I used to live there) between January 1 and December 31. Each of us keeps a map, on which we record sightings by coloring in the states. Usually at least half the states are colored in by the end of January, but it’s a rare year that we spot all fifty. The perennial spoiler is North Dakota. One year Don’s wife Joni spotted a tour bus with North Dakota plates on a ferry bound for Vineyard Haven. She told Don. Don called the Steamship Authority and ascertained that there were tour buses leaving the island on the 3:45 from Oak Bluffs and the 4:00 from Vineyard Haven. Then he called me. Shortly before 3:45 our pickups passed each other near the Oak Bluffs terminal; I’d already been down to look, and I shook my head:nada. We hightailed it up the road to Vineyard Haven. There it was. Turns out the bus and all its passengers were from New Jersey, but the plate was North Dakota and that’s all that counts in this game.
The Land Bank
These days a unspectacular postage-stamp building lot can easily cost a couple hundred thou, but even a landless Vineyarder of modest means has free access to thousands of acres of conservation land and miles upon miles of trails and bike paths. The Land Bank isn’t responsible for all of these acres — the state-owned Manuel Correllus State Forest alone accounts for more than 5,100 of them — but it does manage many of the best, and with the fewest restrictions. The Land Bank is financed by a two percent tax on most real estate transactions. Just about the only good thing I can say about the island’s deranged real estate market is that the Land Bank gets two percent of those inflated prices.
Some newcomers swear before they’ve unpacked that they’re going to live here the rest of their lives. They usually don’t last long. Others come for a year, then they swear they’re just staying another winter, but they find a place for the summer and postpone their departure till fall, and so on and on. I’m one of the latter. For a while I called myself a lifer, but I reneged: when Y2K rolled around, I was again talking about leaving — when the novel’s done, when I’ve sold the novel, when the novel’s published . . . Now my deal is that I’ll stay as long as I can find housing. I lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. If the ship is sinking, likely I’m going down with it.