Codger’s Column: Perfect Island

Of all Town Councilman Paul Shepherd’s gnomic sayings, Codger’s favorite is this: “When people describe the Shelter Island that should be, it is usually the Shelter Island they saw when they first arrived.”

It’s a brilliant line, wise in its implications, and the key to further reflection. How did that first image of this new place shape your dream? There’s always been more than one Shelter Island of the mind.

Were you part of a family of fisherfolk, builders, landscapers? Did you grow up in a cash economy or handle the accounts for the B&B, the store, the restaurant? Did you come of age golfing at the Gardiner’s Bay Country Club with the beloved pro, Bob DeStefano Sr. as another dad? Did you celebrate middle-age kayaking with your kids off the dock of your second home? Imagine your different images of the Island’s future.

More specifically, who would you be voting for in the current election?

Money, class and old school ties have always figured into elections, but this one seems the most complicated in Codger’s Shelter Island memory. The furiously pumped controversy over short-term rental regulations seems to overshadow everything, but is it really the main issue or a cover-up for a money grab? And how does it explain the recent profane shouting attacks at the Pharmacy and the recycling center; the sudden intolerance for opposition candidates passing out pamphlets in front of the IGA, and those letters to the editor seemingly written from Weimar or hell?

Following the Shepherd aphorism, what could possibly have been going on when this Angry Cohort arrived on Shelter Island? Was it the day after the Rev. Paul Wancura was murdered near Shell Beach?

When enslaved Africans first came to shore at Sylvester Manor? That’s a little hyperbolic, even for Codger, but what else could possibly have been so traumatic as to unleash this fury on a usually civil town? Are these nasty neighbors part of the so-called coarsening of American politics and discourse in general, a trickle-down from Washington? Or are they a reflection of the long-simmering national resentment against economic and social inequality?

Codger thinks a case can be made for both, separately and intertwined.

It was probably around the millennium when people began using the phrase, “It’ll be just Mexicans and millionaires,” to describe the Island’s future population. Real estate prices were rising, old houses were razed, old families were replaced with second-home owners, many of whom saw the Island as a seasonal respite from real life while others saw a chance to make the Island theirs, too, by joining and enriching civic and cultural groups.

Their contributions were significant, although understandably they were not as rooted as the all-season families. Their children did not go to school here or join the emergency services. The 10 years of Jim Dougherty’s supervisorship were marked by the snide line “Fifth District voters,” referring to an imaginary election district representing the upper West Side of Manhattan that often won an election with absentee ballots, which are counted last.

So here we are, on the brink of an election that seems far more contentious than it needs to be. The possibilities of positive action on such common needs as safer water, affordable housing, tick-disease prevention and treatment have been diverted by arguments over the regulation of barking dogs. When did you arrive on Shelter Island to make that a priority? In the dog days?

The worst part of it for Codger is trying to understand what people are thinking, beyond those unfortunate defaults of greed and hostility. Could it be the suspicion lingering from those old arrival images? For the past few weeks Codger has been pondering an issue with Chris Lewis, the former Town Board member who is now President of the Senior Citizens Foundation and arguably the smartest person on the Island. Both are rehabbing from hip surgery and have ponder time.

They couldn’t understand why the board was having so much trouble accepting the Foundation’s gift to the town of a new, bigger, better $85,000 bus with wheelchair access that will be able to transport seniors — as well as other Shelter Islanders — on more life enhancing trips. The towns’ financial responsibilities would be minimal. The Foundation wanted the town to pick up the salary of a part-time driver to augment the present crew — which would be partially offset by sale of the old bus — but it was not a deal breaker.

It seems to have worked out for now, but the sensibility of trust and community went missing for awhile, the will to help others without payback, to work together for something valuable that doesn’t have a political logo attached.

This year’s vote needs to be for the spirit of the bus. All aboard!