Getting to Know You
By Jason Shields
I left for awhile. We all do. It’s prerequisite of returning, whether as a part-timer or year-rounder. I’m not sure what we call people like me who’ve left and come back. Any suggestions?
There’s no shortage of names for other sorts. There are summer people, weekenders, rich folk, locals, and natives. These designations are bandied about the various groupings, making clear one commonality among all -our propensity for categorizing. Because it is important to know who is who and where one belongs.
Forty years ago it was like that, though the non-resident division was simply referred to as summer people here on Shelter Island. Opposite them were the year-rounders, who were further reduced to locals and west-enders. A local born on Shelter Island was a Harelegger.
Allow me an aside here: Shelter Islanders take a measure of pride in using the preposition “on” when referring to their town. North and South forkers can say they live on one or the other but ask them what town they’re from and they’re forced to use the more pedestrian “in.” From our point of view, it conveys an air of privilege and uniqueness. To others, it means we have to wait on a damn ferry line to get anywhere.
Getting back to the nomenclature, being a Hareleggers is akin to royalty. I met a young pregnant couple from the island who planned to have their child delivered naturally at their house. I learned they doubted they would be able to live on Shelter Island permanently. Property is just too expensive here, even in these post bubble-bursting times. So their Harelegger son or daughter won’t be able to enjoy the perks that come with the title. A potential prince priced out of his kingdom.
You off-islanders (yet another category) are asking, “What perks?” Well, imagine having the incontestable power to tell anyone, no matter how massive his hedge fund, he has no right to barricade the beachfront to his perversely gorgeous property? No right at all to erect a fence below the mean high water mark because everything below it is yours? Not yours solely, but belonging to all, though you, being a Harelegger can retort, “I was born here, that’s why.” That is, of course, if the fund manager is not one of your landscaping clients, in which case you were the one who installed the fence in the first place and should think twice before pissing him off.
For the record, I am not a Harelegger. And I would like to state here that the moniker’s etymology is sketchy. Some say it’s derived from off-islanders of surrounding towns commenting on how Shelter Islanders had to run like hares to catch the last ferry or face stranding. I disagree. Any Shelter Islander worth his salt would simply steal a boat from a dock and get home that way. Once within the boundaries of his sovereign nation, the insouciant Harelegger need not fear prosecution.
Bonnackers, Porters, Sag Harborites all treated Shelter Islanders contemptuously. Whether it was because they viewed us as mindless oafs or haughty snobs I don’t know. We retaliated in kind, sculpting clever phrases like, “Sag Harbor, where men are men and so are their women,” to even the score.
I must confess I am not a Harelegger but a west-ender, that is, a transplant with little hope of ever gaining full respect of the natives. However, I was blessed to have acquired some of the same skills as them, specifically how to procure sustenance from the water and the woods and how to make fun of weekenders and tourists. I know my way around the dump and call clerks and gas pump attendants by their first names, thus bolstering my superiority complex.
I am an islander but not a native. No, I am descended from summer people, my mother’s family, the Loconsolos, who began vacationing on the island in the early 1950s. Many natives believed every Italian was a mobster. Islanders, being recalcitrant and insular themselves, eventually showed deference to my grandfather and his brood. I say eventually because early in his seasonal residency his answer to the derogatory slurs uttered by water farers passing his house was to paint his dock pilings green, white and red.