The Customer Is Always Right On Matinicus
My season has ended. The big steel display rack is down, and there are no more wee dark hours with Hobart the mixer and the BBC on the radio. This time of year, I bake a round for my regular neighbors every couple of weeks, and things are considerably less structured. I love my summer business, but there is no denying that even when living life means being surrounded by cinnamon rolls, doing the bakery thing is absolutely work.
During the summer, my bakery customers are sure they know me. They know my name and assume that means I know theirs. They will not have had any reason to tell me their name, as one need not have such a dialogue when the whole relationship revolves around buying a loaf of Steel-cut Oat and a cookie, but they do not realize that. One summer connects with the next in the vacationer’s mind, as if only a few days had passed between; naturally I should remember that they like their Italian style without the seeds, or the iced coffee without ice, or their bread sliced, please, although I generally advise against it. Smile.
There are a few, though, who inadvertently point out why the bakery is work as opposed to a sort of obligatory, slightly remunerative hobby. They are the public which every tradesman, every retailer, every artisan must bear. Thankfully, on Matinicus, these high-maintenance customers are rare, and they fall into just a few easily stereotyped categories. Hey, they do it to us all summer; why may I not stoop to a bit of reciprocal stereotyping myself? I know, I know — to pigeonhole anybody is the pit of ignorance. Forgive me.
Let us just for chuckles examine the behavior of one category of clientele. The folks I have in mind would really rather be on Martha’s Vineyard. They are a tribal sort, traveling in an expansive band, conscious of the difference between their own kind and the locals. They hold themselves in rather high esteem, having accrued numerous graduate degrees and having owned more than a few lovely vessels in their day, sure with all proper terminology and always the best for the brightwork. They know a savage when they see one. Their clothing likely costs more than my automobile, but never diverges from the uniform — shorts, stripes, new sweater around the shoulders, all navy and khaki like the prep school that made them what they are today. (Yes, I get to say that if I want to. Our daughter is at Phillips Exeter, running a repair shop out of her room in Bancroft Hall. We have all sorts of fun on Parent’s Weekend.)
Is this you? I mean no offense, but do consider one thing. This island, this crazy little kitchen bakery, this sadly neglected lawn and industrial-park dooryard, is my home. I go nowhere else for the winter, excepting if you buy enough carbohydrates while on vacation to send me hiking for a week or two next March. Spare me the theatrical startle, the wide eyes, the step backward when I answer your question straight-faced about living here all year. To my neighbors: it is no joke; I have really, truly heard it: “What? People actually LIVE here in the WINTER?”
Anyway, this large, rambling group wends its way from Matinicus harbor up the hill, the three-quarters of a mile to my place in the middle of the island (I call it Kansas, with respect to my knowledge of harbor gossip). Within the group there are naturally the fast hikers (they eat their vegetables) and the chatty strollers. (These are the women in hair-sparing sun visors who will ask to sit after that long hill, and might whine and sigh when I say I have no seating. At least women will eventually understand; sometimes the preppier men, of a certain confidence and status, will make themselves at home right in the way, pulling up a milk crate right in the doorway to indicate their hearty authenticity while still being rude as all heck because I said I could offer no seating, and no, sir, you are not somehow the exception). Last of all, in ambles grandfather, the patriarch, slowly. He is very likely the only one with no concern for the crease of his clothes. I like him already.
They may or may not have noticed the one-room school; they very likely will not have noticed the power station, as that sort of thing is not on their radar. They will ask about the school, of course, and intend only a cursory, glancing reference to the quaint anachronism that is a one-room school, but I will be suckered in, as our school is one of my favorite subjects, and I will talk for seemingly hours (and don’t even start with me about that “quaint anachronism” bit).
They have as yet bought nothing from my bakery, though, despite having perhaps asked me questions for fifteen or twenty minutes, because they are busy doing three things: taking inventory out loud (“Oh look! You have ginger cookies. Look! You have sticky buns. Oh, and blueberry coffee cake…”); answering their own questions about the island, firmly and incorrectly (if you want me to tell you how the power company works, shut up and listen so I can. I don’t care if you DO have a degree in engineering — you asked me the question); and waiting, reverently, for grampa to get here. The slowest walker in the large, amoebic group is the only one with authority to decide whether it’ll be anadama or oatmeal bread for later. I am not kidding.
They will, in the end, purchase no bread. The men will look hungrily at the fresh loaves, at the cookies and such, but one of the women will point out quite clearly, in the crisp, stern voice of the teacher she probably once was, that they don’t need bread. They still have some left aboard the boat. Again, her words: “We don’t NEED bread.”
Oh, for cryin’ out loud, lady, you’re on vacation. This isn’t about NEEDING anything. Does this place look like Stop and Shop to you? A few slices of week-old store bread in the galley should not prevent your husband from having a treat for lunch. Don’t you want a cinnamon bun? No. These are the descendants of the Pilgrims, registered and well-bred, and they know it, and boy, don’t we all. They take pride in their parsimony, their precision, and their minimalist housekeeping. The truth comes out, that they only walked up here for the walk, a random destination, a bit of island sightseeing. No eagerness for whoopie pies, root beer, hot chocolate, doughnuts fried in lard, or anything else so … unnecessary. The Massachusetts Puritan heritage wins out. One woman will decide that she would like a bottle of drinking water. Then, she will admit that she does not need the whole bottle. Her companion will offer to share it. They will, seriously, share the small cost between them, and down the road they will all go, six or seven summer sailors sharing one liter of Poland Spring, and half an hour of my day.
Give me a sternman or a little kid any day. They come up here in mind to buy white sugar.
Eva Murray writes, bakes, carps, and heckles on Matinicus Island. All year.