Life-Threatening Tour of a Maine Island
The tour that Cory gave me of the Greater GSI Area was brief, thorough, and life-threatening. Cory did that Warp-Factor-Nine thing again, skidding the Bronco around town like a demented laser beam. A charming ditty ran through my mind: This is the island that is filled with the people who eat the geese that are killed by the gravel that is slung by the tires that are spun like a dervish beneath the wheels of the Bronco.
Officially, this dollop of land in the Atlantic is called Grand Seal Island. People from the mainland read their maps and call it that — but only until they meet any of the people who live here, people whose sense of humor, charm, wit, and basic human decency has been strained out of them like oil from a herring. They’ll correct you first chance they get — it’s GSI, you damn fool — and they’ll never let you forget that you got it wrong. They’ll take your bewilderment as evidence that despite your enrollment in some fancy-schmancy Eastern liberal-arts university, despite your canvas backpack and your Gore-Tex impregnated boots, despite the fact that you’ve never had to earn the bread on your table by working long, hard days and frigid, dangerous nights hauling foul-smelling fish out of an oil-slicked ocean, ripping the guts out of the fish, tossing the guts into the water and the fish into the hold, and never getting the two mixed up — you’re basically just a horse’s ass.
So take it from me: The island is GSI. But the town is still called “Grand Seal Island.” Cory said so. Right after I screwed it up and she called me a damn fool.
Cory drove me around GSI, narrating along the way in her standard linguistic style that falls somewhere between a command and a grunt — but that would never be confused with the fluidity of actual dialogue.
“The town,” she said, gesturing with her left hand. Her right hand was busy fussing with the radio dial, and the steering was being accomplished with uncertain success by her knees. She found a station that featured Newfoundland fisherman’s shanties — “I’s the boy that builds the boat, and I’s the boy that drives her” and all that — and then leaned against the Bronco’s door, making no serious attempt to take over the steering duties with the appendages that were actually designed for the task. “Grand Seal Island. Founded 1624 by a group of fishermen from Scotland, Wales, and Portugal, unless you believe all that horseshit about the place first being occupied by the Micmacs or the Picts or the Red Paint People or the Aztecs or something.”
I made a mental note to talk with her sometime about the fact that several Native groups were here long before the Eurofishermen, but this didn’t seem like quite the right time to bring it up. She went on to explain, as she navigated the northern end of the island without the benefit of the tires actually touching the ground, that the town was only half the story. The other half, I figured out on my own, is where the fun is.
The island of GSI is kind of oval in shape, and the town lies at the northern tip. At the southern tip is The Village. Cory didn’t take me there. Instead, she drove me around the town like it was the only life on this hunk of Atlantic rock. She pointed out the old fish cannery, which was closed down about a decade ago. She pointed out the old Navy docks, which were closed down about three decades ago. She pointed out Old Mr. Bell, who had closed down about an hour ago, after his third rum-and-Coke of the evening.
I saw the Pop’n’Squeak, a convenience store that also serves microwave pizza and soft-serve ice cream. It’s run by Floyd Houlton, a thirtysomething Cory describes as “the sort of driftwood that you wish would just drift right back out again.” The Pop’n’Squeak is open 24/7, which Cory explained means that it’s open about twenty-four days a year, for seven hours at a time.
I saw the town library, which boasts nearly 1,000 books. Mostly paperbacks. Mostly romance novels and detective thrillers. Mostly missing their front covers, because some bookstore somewhere returned the covers as proof that the books weren’t sold and so reclaimed the money from the publisher. It’s got to be the only public library on the planet dealing in hot books.
I saw the radio station — WGSI, “Your Beautiful Island of Easy Listening.” It shares a tiny grey shack with GSI Escape, the island’s only travel agency — “specializing in ferry schedules from all the major carriers,” according to the sign in its window. The one-and-only floor of this hovel also holds a little apartment that houses Rex “the Codfather” Stone, the radio station’s only DJ and the travel agency’s only travel agent. Whenever a customer stops by the travel agency, Rex pops “Stairway to Heaven” into the station’s tape drive and totters across the room to make a sale.
But mostly, I saw houses. They’re piled up near the waterfront like piglets at a trough, and they come in three colors only: white, grey, and the occasional natural wood. Every house has strong wooden shutters, and these come in black or green only. Off in Newfoundland, just a bawdy ferry ride to the east, the houses shimmer in flaming red, neon blue, deep green, and sunshine yellow. Those people know how to paint a house. On GSI, it seems that a hint of robin’s-egg blue on the trim would get you branded as a sexually promiscuous troublemaking Communist with questionable taste.
The houses lack anything like yards, because grass actually requires soil to grow, so they are surrounded on all sides by piles of lobster pots, monofilament nets with cork floats, rotting oars and other random boat parts, and dried, brownish seaweed that appears to be highly addictive to one particular species of black fly. As you walk along, the dead seaweed crunching under your feet like pretzels, the flies swarm up angrily, bite you on the ankles to teach you an important lesson about the foolishness of disturbing flies, and then settle right down again to continue their narcotic little love fests.
There are a few cars in town, but they are mostly devoted to the critical task of returning iron oxide and axle grease to the sand beneath them. People mostly walk around — the whole downtown stretches for just a few blocks in any direction — and whoever has a big load to haul can ask Floyd for permission to use the island’s only shopping cart. There’s a small grocery store in town, attached to the library, but it stopped providing shopping carts years ago because Floyd kept stealing them. Now Floyd has only one working model left, and asking him for the chance to use it is a lot like asking Elvis for the keys to the Cadillac.
And that’s pretty much the extent of the town of Grand Seal Island. It’s like God, in a benevolent gesture designed to make the rest of the planet cheery and interesting, swept up half the dullness in the world and used it to make this town. The rocks are grey, the sky is grey, the buildings are grey, and the people are grey. It’s like boredom condenses in the fog and takes physical shape on this spot. It’s like Tedium and Monotony shacked up one night, had the most mechanical, perfunctory, and uninspired sex imaginable, and later on gave birth to Grand Seal Island. It’s like—
Oh, hell. You get the picture. I can’t wait to spend some serious time down in The Village. I want to work in some top-shelf partying before the shelling starts. The American warship circled the island a while ago and headed for the harbor.
—Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment—Gemstone: I’ve spent some time on Grand Seal Island, and I must say it’s a great deal more intriguing than Donovan Graham suggests. I’ll bet he will find a lot of interesting things to write about once he gets to know the people better.
Comment—Leonardo: Power to the people, Gem.
Comment—George Reynolds: What the hell does that mean, Leo?
Comment—Kate Fisher, editor: Well put, Gemstone. Van—are you listening?
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.