In my nearly 23 years practicing dentistry on Shelter Island, there was one thing that surely gave me more pleasure than any other thing I can suggest. It was the people I had the privilege of caring for, and the people I got to know.
Over the last 27 years, I have seen too many of them pass from this life, each one a loss, each one adding to a feeling that the Shelter Island I once knew has been left to memory alone. The weight of that realization is all but unbearable. I got to know many splendid people, and many characters among them, the people who put the strands of colors in the weave of the fabric of this unique place, and made life on Shelter Island just that much more extraordinary. And so it was once more in my reading of the death of Doug Warner last month, that came a rush of recall, and once again that sense that things will never be the same.
I had, in my career, the great fortune to live close to where I worked, but I always found it very difficult to transition from home to work in the space of about three minutes. It was just too abrupt for me, and I remedied that problem by stopping every morning at Fedi’s on my way. Doug Warner was generally the first person to greet me, every single workday of my life on Shelter Island. Rare was the day that I did not pull open that front door to find him standing at his cash resister, in gray slacks, hard black oxfords, a crisp white shirt and a white apron slung from his neck and hanging to his knees. And every morning he greeted me as Dr. Moran. He would have it no other way.
But Doug had a reputation as well. He demanded a great deal from himself, and from the people who worked for him. He had a work ethic that has become too rare. But people also knew that Doug Warner didn’t suffer a fool easily, nor did he have anything kind to say about triflers, the self-entitled or incompetents of any kind. I saw him go off on people in the store on more than one occasion.
I recall specifically, maybe 15 years ago, one of those very busy Shelter Island summer Saturdays, when the weekenders packed into Fedi’s, loading up sandwiches for the beach and getting groceries. After standing on a line of what must have been 20 people, a woman I did not recognize walked up to the register, picked up a copy of the Reporter and handed Doug a credit card. Doug took the paper from her hand, pointed at the door and simply said, “Get out.” I somehow fought back an almost overwhelming urge to applaud.
But Doug knew what community meant; he knew he was needed, that his care and generosity were depended on. You would never hear about any of it from Doug; he was a kind and a humble man, and that was to a fault. But don’t cross him or aggravate him for no good reason.
Doug Warner could let tear in ways that would make a longshoreman blush. After I walked in and said hello each morning about 7:45, I went straight back to the meat counter, where they dispensed cup after cup of hot coffee. Whomever was there working, his daughter Susie or the hard-working people he hired, the coffee was poured and placed up on the counter of the meat case where sat a quart of milk and packets of sugar. There’s your coffee, do what you want with it.
While that was being attended to, the counter person would be getting a bagel or roll, however you wanted it. The people at the back started making up my order as soon as they saw me come through the door. I liked that. But I confess, it also made me wonder about myself.
Every once in a while a small catastrophe would happen when someone, in reaching for sugar or for a lid, would knock over the milk, and as further proof of the laws of physics, all that milk would run down the back and the front of the glass case. It was an unholy mess and whomever was behind the counter would leap in every direction to clean it all up as fast as possible before Doug took notice. It made him nothing less than furious and he would let out a rumbling, volcanic series of expletives that left none in the bag. There were a number of occasions when I was standing there when some unfortunate soul committed that ultimate sin, and every time I would tell them to leave, to leave the coffee, and flee the store as fast as possible. It would not be wise to wait around to find out why. I considered my actions a merciful intercession in someone else’s tragedy and, sensing the sincerity and urgent tone of my suggestion, they usually left, and quickly.
But there was that one day that still haunts my every sip of coffee. That day, it was I who dumped the milk, and not one with a spit left in the bottom, but a fresh quart that glugged and gushed a torrent. While I spoke my contrition, the poor woman behind the counter raced to clean it up. After she had gotten most of it, Doug wandered back and saw the tail-end of the mess and went into the predictable tirade, one which might have brought me to tears or to my knees, without my determination to retain what was left of my dignity. I said nothing more, but took my breakfast and left for the register. Doug said nothing about it and the strained silence between us made me more than miserable. For days, I thought about it, and finally decided that I needed to make sure Doug really understood just how sorry I felt.
After about a week, I screwed up my fortitude and went in and told Doug face-to-face, man-to-milk-spiller, all of my regret.
Doug said, “I didn’t know it was you who did that. Don’t worry about it.”
I thought at once that this might have been one of the pivotal moments of my life, then I started to think I was embellishing it a bit too much. Now, with the benefit of years, I don’t think so. Perhaps a good life is not defined by its great moments, but of a collection of little kindnesses, and of doing things the way they should be done. Period. No shirking, no excuses. I have thought a lot about Doug Warner over the years, and watched with sadness as he painfully weakened, but never abandoned his post. I admired him even more. I grew to consider Doug a friend, one I looked up to, and I will always remember him with an absolutely genuine fondness. Now, there is one less of that sort of man on Shelter Island, and in the world, at a time when we need many more of them.
What can be done but to pause to indulge memory, and be grateful? Up here in New Hampshire, they don’t know from bagels with a schmear. I have had to learn to live with that reality, and I am doing O.K.
And I still drink my coffee black.
Dan Moran was Poet Laureate of Suffolk County from 2005 to 2007. He left the Island in 2009 to accept a faculty position at Boston University’s School of Dental Medicine and now lives in New Hampshire.