Bell, Surf & Peepers

Sun, 05/20/2012 - 1:01pm

May comes in a sudden flash. One day the greening land is verdant, the long days are filled with golden light. Grass is cut and the sweet smell of it fills the air.
The sun rises early, the daylight precedes it, vanquishing the night, leaving a white moon hanging in a pre-dawn blue sky. Mist lifts up from the ponds and swamps and low, wet places, defining the spring landscape. In the morning, yet, but well after sunrise, when it seems clear and sunny, the air is filled with moisture.
Along the road the maple seedlings that sprout every spring are unfurling their new leaves. They last until they are felled by the mower’s blade, often after they have been coated by summer’s dust. Every year I want to mark them and drape yellow tape around them, giving them at least a season’s chance, but I never remember. I am always surprised not to find the bank where they grow dotted with pits, empty holes where the baby trees had stood. No one seems to notice them, or to want them or to want to protect them.
It is quiet at night. There are no noises of motors, vehicles moving, no clattering of metal from the transfer station more than a mile distance across the north end of the island. There are no boats passing by, the rumble of their engines wafting on the scant breeze, and none of the generators of the big fishing vessels that lay off the Mansion Beach last winter. At night what little wind there is abates and the clanging of the bell as its buoy rises and falls on the gentle swell of the ocean drifts over the land; the rolling rumble of the surf seems louder, more enveloping, as though it is closer and closer every week; the peepers sing their spring song.
In the day, people are about, college kids on end-of-year jaunts, and on weekends, a few visitors who seem more than they are after a quiet winter. Shops are opening, new paint is still being applied, hammers ring, summer is on its way.
The other day I first noticed newsprint put up in the windows of a shop that is currently vacant, with “to let” signs in the same windows.
I grew up on Block Island. It was all the things visitors saw, remote and removed, a place out of time, slow, simple. It was many other things they did not see when they returned home in winter, when this place was a romantic memory.
Lester Dodge willed to the town the land upon which the library, dedicated to the memory of Uriah, his father, stands, together with a substantial monetary gift, the foundation of the funding for the  building. He included, as well, a prohibition against the storage of tar barrels on the land.
Lester’s house, an old Cape, stood on that land, its gable end to the street. It was razed to make room for the library.
Before Lester died he saw the fortunes of the town slipping away. The National Hotel on the corner, next door to his modest house, had been a grand building, with two tiers of porches, in its earlier life. The simpler structure we all know, the one built over a single winter to replace the first, destroyed by fire one July night, stood great and looming over the harbor toward the end of Lester’s life. It was no longer the National, with a ballroom occupying a portion of its first floor, but a threat of a big wooden box. He said he walked around it every night before going to bed, afraid it would meet the same fate as its predecessor.
I do not remember exactly when, but it stood closed for a few years as its neighbor to the north, the Surf, had earlier and does, again, today. The National survived and slowly came back, as owners changed and changed again, the earthen bank that had risen to the porch lattice cut away, space for shops created against the stone foundation. The ballroom disappeared, reconfigured into several spaces; the grand cupola was rebuilt, raised in great ceremony and affixed the roof.
Sometimes, I think we cling to older names of buildings because they were for so long not much of anything. The cottage with the newsprint in the windows, always intriguing with its little porch, but just an adjunct to the building next door, a place that had had — and might in the future might have — an identity of its own.
A ground floor or a second or third story of buildings along the Front Street might have been vacant, the bakery that used to be, the fraternal society hall that used to be, a string of smaller buildings with false fronts, frontier facades that disappeared decades ago.
Businesses have always come and gone; we recall the summer three fortune tellers arrived, none seeming to have the clairvoyance to realize the market would be flooded. Over time, a barber shop became a fast food place became an elegant little store, a bicycle rental turned to take-out lunches, all manner of enterprises come and go.
I’ve heard several times that the restaurant in New Harbor, one of the oldest, will not open this summer [2009], which triggers another string of memories of decades of failed attempts to make successful the place next door. This year [2009] there seem to be more for rent signs; maybe back in the years I first recall no one even bothered, the prospects were so few. It has been a while since the energy and joy of the spring has been tempered by the possibility of emptiness. The equinox wind did not blow fair.
Four years later [2012] the Surf is preparing to open, the little shop with the newspapered windows is an active office and if there are any rumors of the New Harbor I’ve not heard them.
This column was originally published in 2009.