By Margaret Payne
Is it worth it, leaving the island? No. Emphatically no. If you can’t find what you need on the island, which means if you can’t find it at the grocery store, the drugstore, the hardware store, the consignment furniture store, the consignment clothing boutique, a yard sale or, better yet, at the Exchange, where even rich people poke around in garbage, you don’t need it. Because I promise you that if you leave the island to shop, you will return a day or two later with a $36 spatula. Back home, as you pull craft-paper-wrapped purchases from bags labeled Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table and Restoration Hardware, you will be flabbergasted to discover that you spent $36 on a pancake turner.
Two days ago, in the big city, it seemed a perfectly reasonable purchase. I had searched three kitchen stores and, armed with discount coupons, even Macy’s housewares department for just the right spatula at just the right price to turn pancakes just so. It couldn’t be one of those heat -resistant plastic spatulas. Eventually their blades melt and curl. And it couldn’t be a wimpy spatula with a plastic handle. Those fall apart, and they look tacky in the tool jar. The spatula must have heft, and it must be stainless, and the blade must be wide enough to flip a four-inch pancake. Only the $36 spatula measured up.
As I stood at the checkout counter at Williams-Sonoma, sipping hot, mulled apple cider while debating whether to spend $36 on a spatula, a 50-something man in a jaunty brown fedora walked by, noticed me holding the spatula, and remarked, “Those are wonderful spatulas. I have two, and I abuse them. I use them for everything.” That did it. The scales tipped to spatula. My friend Sarena believes the man in the jaunty brown fedora was a “plant,” set there to encourage reluctant shoppers. I like to think the cider was spiked.
But, now, back on the island, back to reality, as the sixth wind-storm in a little more than a week revs up in the grey light outside my kitchen window, I am resigned to a long morning at the laptop, composing an apologia to defend my purchase of a $36 spatula. I’m leaning toward a long-range perspective, with an emphasis on durability. The gorgeous, made-in-Italy, “DUE BUOI” (the two bulls logo is beautifully etched onto the blade) spatula will last a lifetime, perhaps two or three. At mid-century, my children or grandchildren will flip pancakes with this spatula and perhaps remember me fondly. In the meantime, I’m confident that I will grow to appreciate my spatula as I turn pancakes that don’t droop, as they would from a wimpy spatula, but rather sit pertly on the blade, like bosoms in a push-up bra. I also plan to use my $36 spatula to lift cookies from cookie sheets and turn chops and eggplant slices in sauté pans and serve manicotti and enchiladas from casseroles and move or lift anything that requires an exquisitely tapered 4 x 5 inch stainless steel blade. On the DUE BUOI website, I learned that Due Buoi has been making knives and other exquisite tools since 1884, and if I desire, as a collector, I can also purchase a nine-inch stiletto etched with the same, impressive, two bulls logo.
The sad story of my previous spatula, which this $36 spatula replaces, is that it was inherited from the kitchen of my most recent ex-husband. After 20 years use in his kitchen, which for 18 short months was also my kitchen, and then my subsequent three kitchens, the blade of the spatula separated from handle at the weld that joined the two. My new $36, made-in-Italy, DUE BUOI spatula has no weld. Rather, it is “forged.” The blade narrows to a thrice-riveted, heavy-duty handle like that of the finest knives. The $36 dollar spatula will last. Still, I feel guilty about it. It will take another storm-tossed, sheet-tangling night to justify the presence of this Lamborghini of a spatula in the humble jar of tools to the left of my $5,000 AGA stove, the story of which is another very long justification.
The reason for my three-day, pre-holiday (the words “pre-holiday” are another impetus for reckless spending) trip to the city was that the little bank where I am a part-time teller, located at the corner of Lovers Lane and Main Street, in the three-street village of Eastsound, on an island with less than 5,000 year-round residents, won the “cup” for the most productive branch in the eight-state, 150-branch company, edging out even the mother-ship downtown Seattle branch by two points.
As our prize, we received two free nights in a luxury Seattle hotel, were feted for dinner in a swanky waterfront restaurant, were handed gift cards to Nordstrom and a little spending cash in envelopes discretely bearing our names. We even got free ferry tickets for the ride back home. With my gift certificate, I bought my daughter a snappy new car coat and myself a nicely-cut jacket to wear to work. With my spending money, I paid for two nights parking at the hotel. But because I was discombobulated by the dazzle of the city — the blocks and blocks of skyscrapers and glittering stores, the dim and suggestive interior of the Alibi Room, the hundreds of interesting looking people on the streets, the Chanel counter at Nordstrom — I forgot my old jacket at the hotel, for a net gain of zero in the jacket department.
In 2002, I took my two daughters to Paris for Christmas. I sold the wedding ring from the husband of the broken spatula to pay for three round trip tickets. It was a marvelous trip. Paris at Christmas is sepia colored, the city’s best and truest color, a Robert Doisneau photograph of a man bending a woman in a kiss near the Hotel de Ville. Under the cavernous glass vault of the Gare du Nord, travelers lugged suitcases with the determination of ants, intent on home. In the Marais and the Ile de la Cite, the cobbled streets lay puddled with rain, reflecting a zillion white lights. At 5:00 p.m., hundreds of exquisitely dressed women spilled into the streets, intent on last-minute shopping. At seven, they trundled home in boots and spike heels, three bags under each arm, one of which most certainly contained a Buche de Noel.
I mention Paris because the trip to Seattle reminded me of that Paris trip seven years ago. The same dark skies, impending rain, the lights of the city, the wonderful human activity. Like I did for the Paris trip, I invited my daughters to shop and stay with me at the hotel. Kate arrived midday Saturday. After we bought the car coat and jacket, I treated her to lunch at the store café and purchased the equivalent of a small corner of a compact of pressed powder (“la poudre”) from the Chanel counter before the gift card balance all too suddenly rang up zero. I have no justification for the $44 purchase of pressed powder except for a couple of red spots on my chin.
Just yesterday, at my window at the bank, a small, sensible, brown-haired woman withdrew $300 cash and sighed, “I can’t go off the island without spending $300.” Three hundred dollars is getting off easy! I could spend $300 at Costco alone. Who can resist pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes? For the “cup” weekend, I had two nights free hotel, a gift card to Nordstrom, free pocket money, a free ferry ticket home, didn’t go near Costco, and still spent over $300. The first purchase — the spatula — was the gateway drug. After the spatula, not even $44 for a two-inch compact of pressed powder seemed outrageous. After all, I had two small red spots on my chin (“le menton”). I needed “la poudre.” And so forth and so on until I may as well have been blowing “la poudre” through hundred-dollar bills.
On the island, I guard my money. I don’t exactly stash it under the mattress, but I don’t spend it either. With each pitiful bank-teller’s payday, I watch my balance increase in small but dependable increments. Days, even weeks, go by without shopping. When I’m on the island, I don’t need much. I’ve got sky and water and mountains and trees and plenty to keep me busy with the house and garden and boat. And on the island there’s nothing much to buy. As a treat, and to improve my mind during the long nights of winter, I order an occasional book or CD from Amazon. That’s about it. Currently, I’m saving for seven yards of $58-a-cubic-yard compost to enhance the soil in my vegetable gardens. Whoop de doo.
A trip to the Exchange — a sort of hippy-dippy, last-stop-before-the-dump, stuff-you-don’t-want trading post — satisfies most islanders’ acquisitive spirits. My trip before last was a bonanza. I scored a long-desired 56th edition (1983) of Chapman Piloting: Seamanship and Small Boat Handling; a slightly worn copy of Stephen Colgate’s excellent Fundamentals of Sailing, Racing, and Cruising (1978); the wonderfully-encyclopedic Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch (1988); and a black cotton western shirt with pearly black snaps on the pockets and front closure. Major score! All this in exchange for a half-dozen already-been-read New Yorkers and three dollars to assuage my guilt at getting so much for so little. At other times I leave empty handed, or give more than I get.
When I first moved to the island, I left a half dozen pairs of size-seven, designer-brand, high-heeled shoes from a former life. I wish I had been there to see the face of the Cinderella whose feet they fit. But a trip to the Exchange is almost always interesting, not just for the junk but for the ambiance of poking through garbage with your neighbors. And if you change your mind about the moldy lawn chairs you lugged home last week, you can trade them this week for the rusting doctor’s scale you think you can’t live without, no receipt required. The Exchange is the island’s version of six degrees of separation realized through the sweater you cast off Sunday only to see on the back of your neighbor Monday.
And the crazy spending is only the first reason not to leave the island. Crazy driving is the second — not just that of the maniac mainlanders but the knucklehead islanders as well. I was barely five minutes and only two miles from the ferry on my last trip to the mainland before I had a wreck. Let me explain. Because gas on the island is one dollar more a gallon than on the mainland, islanders try to fill up on the mainland. The 7-11 store two miles from the ferry landing is the first cheap gas. If you can make it eight miles further on the fumes in your tank, you can gas up at the rez. And if you’ve got a gallon or two to spare, there’s a Costco at the 20-mile mark, where you can also drop $300 on groceries. If I don’t leave the island, a tank of gas lasts me four or five months — no kidding. I walk to work, to the library, to the post office, the grocery store, to church. The only places I drive to are the Exchange and to check on the boat, a 16-mile round trip once every week or two.
Because I was so out of practice at gassing up, my last fill being July and this being late November, I drove to the wrong side of the pump at the 7-Eleven. To correct my mistake, I pulled past the pump and backed into the parking area at the side of the store, to come at the pump from the other side. I looked. I really did. No cars in the parking area. So imagine my surprise when I felt a bump on my rear fender and looked around to find a truck behind me.
I leaped out of my truck to ask the teen-aged female driver of the other truck, “Where did you come from?!” She must have felt stupid for pulling in behind a backing vehicle, for by way of answer, she replied, “Don’t worry, the dent popped out of the door. It’s nothing.” Whoa. My lucky day. Her move was nutty, but I was at fault. I should have seen the truck. As my son Forrest says, “Mirrors don’t lie.”
Fifty-seven–square-mile Orcas Island has no stoplights, two or three dozen stop signs, and two-lane roads with a maximum speed of 40 mph in a couple of spots. The island experiences what you might call traffic only in the summer, at predictable three-hour intervals, when the ferry spits out 100 cars loaded with kayaks, bikes, kids, dogs, sleeping bags, hotdogs and marshmallows. The line of cars snakes around the horseshoe shape of the island at 30 miles an hour, heading to Moran State Park and points between.
If you live on the island for even a short time, you forget how to negotiate stoplights and change lanes at 60 mph, and for god’s sake, you forget how to park. If you’ve lived here a long time, you are terrified to drive on the mainland. Those young and foolhardy enough to leave will ask, “Anything you need at Costco?” And although you feel guilty about speaking up — imagine the effort to load all that crap into and out of the cart, much less the car — you say, “I could use some pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes, and if you have room, could you pick up some toilet paper and a bag of dog food.”
But the most important reason not to leave the island is simply because you don’t want to. You moved here to get away from it all — the getting and spending, the cement and suburbs, the traffic and your most recent job or boyfriend or both. If your family and friends want to see you, they can come here. After all, the island is a destination. People come from all over the country to ooh and aah at the magnificent view of islands and sea and sky and mountains from the 2,400-foot summit of Mt. Constitution, to camp and swim at the lakes, to hike the hills, to kayak the waters, to marvel at the whales, to bike the country roads, to eat locally-grown food served by young women without bras, to sleep, to read, to make love, oftentimes in that order. If your friends and family don’t want to wait two hours in the ferry line, they can park and walk on. You will be happy to pick them up on the other side.
Still, you’re not narrow-minded. You can see the other guy’s point of view. You concede that it’s selfish to expect everyone to come to you. So you agree to trips off island at Thanksgiving, Christmas, then again in April to assist your daughter with her first child, which, incidentally, is your first grandchild. But that’s it. You have to draw a line.
Young people leave the island for college and jobs. If they can find work here, some return after college to raise families, as their parents did. The elderly leave the island to die. Because there are so few residents, the island offers only basic health care — a couple of clinics staffed by GPs and nurses — no specialists, no hospital. Islanders in need of special or emergency care must drive or be flown off the island. Two months ago, a customer at the bank, a jaunty old gal in a flannel shirt and jeans, announced with surprise, “I’ve just been to the doctor. He said I’m falling apart, and I’m not even 90!” She called the other day from California, where she’s living with her daughter.
For the elderly, the occasional trip off island to visit family morphs into regular trips to see doctors. Then one day they notice their daughter and son-in-law in the driveway with a U-Haul, ready to row them over the River Styx. “So we can look after you,” the kids assure. After a few months in the assisted living facility, the elderly find themselves in the hospital, followed in quick succession by the convalescent home and the crematorium. I’ve seen that slippery slope, and I’m not having it. I have a plan, not to cheat death — I’m not silly — but to stay put.
Medicine is a culture, just like Costco, only much less entertaining. I’ve never found pine nuts or sun-dried tomatoes at the doctor’s. On the mainland, because it was expected of me, I dutifully scheduled pap smears and mammograms, teeth cleanings and vision tests. Here on the island, I’ve forgotten about all that. I’m busy. I wake up at 6:00, make a few pancakes, and, depending on the season, read or write or putter in the garden. At 11:30, I walk briskly to my part-time job at the bank — my daily socialization — where I joke with my neighbors while I mess around with their money. At 5:00, I walk briskly back home and cook up dinner. In summer, I putter outside till dusk. In winter, I read by the fire. Summer and winter, I take a warm bath around 9:00, floss my teeth extra well, drop a calcium pill, and climb the stairs to bed at 10:00. Saturdays, I walk to town for groceries. Sundays, I attend the 8:00 a.m. service at the little white church by the bay and stay for tea in the parish hall. Sunday afternoons, I might drive to the Exchange, or, if the weather is nice, take a sail. Summer weekends, I make pancakes for family and friends who are up for a visit; then we drive to the top of Mt. Constitution to ooh and aah at the view.
I expect that, with some variation, the years will roll by this way, until early one morning in late October, 2039, as I’m bending to pick the last strawberry of the season, I feel a tightening in my chest. Sometime later, my dear friend Carol, coming through the gate to share the last of her peas, finds me face down in the dirt. But I was smart about this moment. Years earlier I negotiated a green burial in my backyard, six feet under the strawberries. I would have preferred one foot under, where I could do some good, but imagine the horror when the Labrador digs up Grandma.
My kids will inherit the house, of which they have beautiful memories, and after they dicker a while about the price, one will buy out the other two and move in with a family, promising the others — because Mother insisted — that they are always welcome for a visit. That first summer, the strawberry patch will go a little weedy, but the next year the berries will be so big and sweet and so many that it will be all they can do to keep up with them. It will continue that way year after year. My daughters and then their daughters will wake at dawn on summer mornings, and, as the sun rises a ribbon at a time, just like Emily Dickinson said it would, they will bend to lift serrated leaves in search of ripe, red treasure. Later my great-grandkids will descend the stairs to heap strawberries on their granola before heading off to the lake. On Saturdays, a special day, their father or grand-father will mix up sourdough pancakes using Great-Great Grandpa Payne’s starter, dating back nearly a century, to 1958, on Vashon Island. When the pancakes are bubbly on one side, he will flip them to the other with a sturdy Italian-made spatula. When they begin to smoke a little, he will gently lift the pancakes onto plates warm from the oven. At the breakfast table, where the sun is so bright the children must shield their eyes, they will pour real maple syrup on their pancakes while their mother chirps, “Take it easy on the syrup. It costs $40 a pint, even at Costco!” Over the syrup, they will spoon strawberries their mother and grandmother picked just an hour ago.
On those bright Saturday mornings my great-grandchildren won’t be thinking about much except how much they love sourdough pancakes with maple syrup and strawberries heaped on top. They certainly won’t be trying to justify why they spent $36 — almost $40 with tax — on a spatula. I took care of that back in 2009.
Copyright Margaret Payne 2010