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Summer comes early: Second homeowners arriving with relief and respect

Supervisor Gerry Siller: “Like most families we might not always like each other, but we do love each other and we always take care of one another.”

As a state of the town diagnosis, that home-page pronouncement seems to have resonated with both full-time local residents and second homeowners as the Island settled into a respectful, if wary response to the new normal.

Even as small communities across the country and the world were dealing — sometimes harshly — with a sudden influx of summer people out of season fleeing the coronavirus pandemics in their cities, this island, for all the occasional private grumbling, has been functioning on a high level of town leadership, senior services and daily maintenance.

“I think the town has handled things perfectly,” said Glenn Waddington, a retired South Ferry captain and former Town Board member. “Now we each need to work on our own emotional volatility. Put ourselves in other people’s shoes.

I saw somebody load up their cart at the IGA and I stopped myself from being angry, thinking, I get it, he doesn’t want to have to come back too soon.”

Putting ourselves in the shoes of others, which in the best of East End times can range from Timberland steel toes to Manolo Blahnik pumps, may not be so easy while negotiating the sometimes delicate dance between people demanding services and those supplying it.

“I understand the second homeowners are here by circumstances beyond their control,” said a 50-ish full-timer with a pre-existing medical condition, speaking anonymously, as did many interviewees, concerned with offending neighbors. “It’s the renters, and even day-trippers still coming out that bother me more. I’d like to see them self-govern a little better, especially on the beaches and the roads.

“On the other hand, things have been good. My partner and I need a lot of meds and the pharmacy has gone above and beyond. They come out and put them in the bed of the truck.”

Ana Patel, a former Outward Bound executive, is anxious to volunteer here once her family completes its 14-day quarantine. “I get the community’s concern over straining its resources,” she said. “We’re grateful for being able to feel so much safer here than in the city.”

Meanwhile, the Patels have reconstituted a version of their Brooklyn life on Stearns Point Road. Ana, co-editor of “Experiential Peacebuilding,” runs an international website and takes Pilates classes on Zoom with Suzette Smith. In another corner of the house, her 16-year-old son, Gallo, attends high school online, as do many local teenagers.

This is Gallo’s junior year, usually the make or break time for college, the semester to pull up grades, bolster extracurricular activities, retake the SAT’s, which have been cancelled. The highlights of his year — the Stuyvesant debate team, which had national championship aspirations, and an internship at the New York Historical Society — have also been turned off.

“But it is what it is, I’m glad to be here,” he said, appreciative of the 20K bike rides with his dad, Dar, a lawyer and artist, and the Zoom chats with friends still in the city. He feels sorry for the seniors who will be missing prom.

And then there’s Ari Brand, a 35-year-old classically-trained musician and actor who had been conducting children’s sing-a-longs in the city. Happy parents threw money into his guitar case. These days, he’s been conducting them on Instagram (happy parents throw the money into PayPal) from the Ram Island home of his in-laws, the writers Ann Banks and Peter Petre, which now also includes Ari’s wife, Cait, and their two small children.

Not all second-home owners have cobbled together Island versions of regular life. There’s a stage-four cancer patient who drives into the city for chemo every week or so, and then, if and when well enough, returns to isolation here until the next appointment. The feeling of Island renewal counter-acts the fear of exposure to the virus.

A 70-something second home-owner, while following stay-at-home rules, had been anxiously monitoring by phone the deteriorating health of a mid-90s fellow churchgoer, a full-time resident, until an ambulance was necessary. Arrangements were made for a spouse with dementia. All by phone.

There are daily unsung heroics and there are the small losses and annoyances. A retired town worker misses the daily chit-chat at the Post Office and at STARs Café. He wants to call the police when he drives past clumps of people on what he still calls Louie’s Beach. He thinks the beaches should be closed. He grumbles at the Land Rovers lined up for curbside service in front of Marie Eiffel’s Market.

“You have to look at something like that in a nuanced way,” said Jean Lawless, a retired yoga instructor and long-time Island activist. “O.K., that’s food for the rich. But there’s also paid work inside the different restaurants for people who really need it.”

Most people interviewed by the Reporter have gotten past the national and international debates over whether second homeowners have the “right” to strain resources and endanger an older and less wealthy population in return for paying property taxes that usually exceed their use of local services.

“It may be my right, but that doesn’t mean people don’t have their right to be resentful,” said Art Chang, a technology executive who has summered and week-ended on Ram Island with his family for 14 years. “This is all a stark reminder of inequality and how we have to do much more — broader health care, paid sick leave, an aggressive income tax.”

One 90-something full-time resident with cardiac and respiratory problems agreed, and added: “Look, New York is a killer, get out if you can, but be a citizen when you come here. Don’t be me, me, me. Be part of the community, volunteer, donate, follow the rules. We’re not the Hamptons, we’re special, we’re life-giving.

“I’m stunned by what’s happening, but I’m loving this time I have. I see deer in the backyard, robins everywhere, flowers my wife planted. Spring is coming and I want to be here for it.”