Staying Alive on Block Island - Part One

IMG_2327 blog.jpg

So let me just start by saying that in my opinion, Block Island is the most peaceful place, the homiest, nicest place, the place where anyone is freest to roam and soak in all the wonderful things it offers.  But this story is not about that.  It’s about the fact that it is so easy for any of us to get smitten with all that wonderfulness that we run out and get hurt, really hurt, and occasionally killed.  I’m not exaggerating, unfortunately. 

Bill and I came here for years as visitors.  But we had to live here to hear the specific stories, and some of them are pretty terrible.  These are personal, private stories belonging to people who don't need to see them on the internet, so I won't share them here, but I want you to have enough information so that you can imagine them yourself, as I'm sure you can. 

Just so you know I’m not judging, I’ll start by telling you that I used to think that Block Island would be the perfect place for my father to drive when he could no longer drive on the mainland. In the winter, dogs and chickens can sleep in those roads… drivers can meet each other coming from opposite directions and stop for a ten minute conversation.  That’s when there are less than 1000 people on the island, most of them at home, pursuing that great maritime tradition of ordering stuff on the internet.  That’s what our roads can handle… just a few people, most of them not on the road.

Block Island has narrow little roads with virtually no shoulders.  In the summer, we have 12,000 to 15,000 people at any given time.  There is simply not enough room for all of the people who come here and rightly need to get around.  So now let’s talk about who those people are. 

There are workers, and let’s pretend it’s the middle of July.  So let’s say they are mowing lawns during the day, washing dishes at night, and cleaning houses on the weekends.  Let’s say they are living with a several other people in less than ideal conditions.  Let’s say they’ve already lost 10-15 pounds from working all the time and that they’ve been getting five hours of sleep a night, and that’s being optimistic.  So let’s say that’s group number one. 

Then there are full-time Block Islanders like me and part-time Islanders like you, who have come to the island with cars, and that’s group number two.  We come in all varieties, some of us stone cold sober, and some of us not so much. Some of us are older, like myself for example, and endowed with whatever lightening reflexes an older person may have.  Some of us are carrying nine people in the back seats of our vans or cars.  This includes our best friends and closest loved ones, which when we have a house on Block Island in the summer, can include everyone we’ve ever met.   I should mention as well, that a number of people in our cars might not wearing seat belts, because certain people have to sit on other people’s laps, because we’re not going far, and because of luggage and coolers and beach umbrellas and because of the dogs and all.

The third group is pedestrians.  The trouble with pedestrians is there is no place to put them.  The ferries come in and drop them off from Long Island, Point Judith, Newport, and New London to fill up the island just as fast as they possibly can.  So there they are, walking three abreast and stopping to take selfies on their cell phones.  They think this is not a problem on such a pretty country road, especially because you could easily go around them by taking your chances with whatever might be coming the other way.  The fourth group is the same group of people except that they are on bicycles.  There are variants within these groups as well…  groups of boy scouts, young children who have barely ridden bicycles before, ninja warrior bicycle guys, dressed like action figures and able to go completely around the island faster than anyone else because of the way they can zip in and out of traffic. 

Let’s say you’re a little distracted, because for the second time today, you are bringing a group back to catch the ferry, but your son's girlfriend's cousin realized at the last minute that she couldn’t find her medication.  And that delayed everything, but you still might make it as long as you rush, but now you realize you can only rush as fast as the slowest person who is in the middle of the road, and that could be a jogger or a bicycle or a moped or a group of people, sauntering along.   So you might frantically pass them, and that might gain you 200 yards, because as soon as you get by one group, there will be another group, immediately to follow.

And the fifth group is the people on mopeds.  Now, before I make my point about mopeds, let me tell you a story.  I was 25 years old and I had three weeks between the end of one job and the next one.   I hopped on a plane and took myself to Cozumel, Mexico.  I decided to rent a moped and drive around the island.  I had driven around to the rural side of the island.  It had taken most of the afternoon.  And that’s when I saw an old farmer, dressed in his white baggy cotton outfit with his big straw hat.  He was plowing his field behind an ox.  In any case, I thought this would make a good picture and I would have pulled to the side of the road, except that I didn’t know how. So I took a brief but hysterical tour through some bushes on this fellow’s farm, finally coming to a stop by heading directly into a thicket.  He and the ox raised their eyes and quietly considered me with an identical blank expression.  I would say they had seen people like me before.

Five minutes of practice was not enough on dry roads with no traffic, in daylight, when I was sober, young and fit and paying attention.  Two hours of practice was not enough.  But when people come to Block Island and rent a moped for themselves or for their children, they are often on mopeds for the first time in their lives.  They walk right off the ferry and pick one up.  They often get trained, right there in the street, for a few minutes, and then they launch directly into traffic. 

I have two suggestions for you about mopeds.  (1) If you are planning to rent a moped on Block Island, practice before you come, or come in the shoulder seasons, when there is no one else on the road.  (2) When you see a moped on the road in the summer on Block Island, especially if you're on a bicycle, pulling your beloved infant behind you in one of those little chariots, imagine the likely degree to which that moped is under control.

I used to work in India, and to tell the truth, I couldn't even cross the street there by myself.  Well, Block Island has everything in the road that they have in a city in India, except for cows and water buffaloes, and it's just about as crowded.

I wanted you to have a more specific picture, one that I didn't have until I lived here.   Please come - come with a car or on foot or by boat or any way you like.  Just be guided by this information.  May you and your loved ones be well and safe and happy.  May you and everyone else you care for and work so hard to bring here, have a wonderful, wonderful time.