Shelter Island Safe

Written By: Abigail Field

Shelter Island gave me confidence and security in the way that only bare feet, unlocked doors, and unsupervised free play can. Pre-Guiliani New York City, my school-year childhood home, taught me much about life: risk is everywhere, and so is opportunity; the planet is full of people, most of whom neither look nor talk like me; most people are good, but some are not. So watch out, pay attention, take care.

It was not safe, and the echoes of that time remain as to this day. I avoid walking under scaffolding because a bogeyman might lurk in its shadows; at night I walk the outer edge of sidewalks, so if I need to dash into the street to escape, I can; I avoid eye contact with strangers so innately I often don’t even notice the people, beyond knowing they are there and automatically monitoring them for any sign they may be a threat.

Shelter Island time was care-free, and connected to the planet far more than people. Each spring, on some April Friday night, we’d arrive at our Yellow House, turn the kitchen door knob and walk in. Nothing would have been touched since we pulled the door closed behind us the previous November, and walked away without locking it. Well, not touched by humans; there was no hope of keeping out all the insects. It was too old a farmhouse for that.

Warm weekends and all summer my brother and I played with each other and neighborhood kids, did stuff, had fun—all the childhood play that is forever romanticized as innocent and pure. My Dad didn’t worry as my brother and I walked to the mini-beach down the street, used a seine net, played in the water. He didn’t worry as we rode our bikes around the neighborhood, or to the tuck shop. We played thousands of innings of whiffle ball without supervision. Sure, Dad played with us, took us to the beach, mini-golf, tennis, the movies. We spent time together in the garden, growing vegetables, and in the bay and on the shore, clamming for hard shells and steamers. But the important point is this: at any given moment on most days, Dad didn’t really know precisely where we were, or what we were up to. Nor could he easily check; cordless phones weren’t around, forget cell phones, forget smart phones and their where-is-my-kid? apps. We were safe, and we knew it. The city was dangerous; the city taught us to pay attention and take care; the city made us capable. But Shelter Island was safe, so we could be free.

I returned to the Yellow House to live year round in my mid-thirties after 12 years mostly absent, with my husband, infant daughter, and two dogs. Some things had changed, but to me, the essence had not. Sure, the island had become more economically stratified, with much richer people moving to the island than back in my day. But it was still a lacuna of serenity in the larger sea of chaos that is life. I quickly discovered what my husband, a Shelter Island native, had warned me: year round living on the rock was not for me (or him.) We decided to move to the North Fork by the time my daughter started school.

Living here—which in general I love—I encountered a broader societal change I do not: Some people are paranoid, particularly about their children’s safety. Not that the paranoia is a North Fork thing; I encounter it everywhere. I was just hoping that in the obviously safe communities out here people would not have succumbed to it.

No, child snatchers do not lurk everywhere. While good data is surprisingly hard to come by, child abductions by strangers appear to number in the hundreds annually, nationwide. [] Rounding up, assume it happens to a thousand children—a thousand too many, of course. Currently, America is home to some 74 million kids. That means any one kid has a 0.000135% chance of being snatched in an entire year. And yet someone called the cops when I left my seven year old and five year old in my car when I went into the grocery store. Our pit bull was in the car too—I dare a stranger to open my car’s door when she’s on guard duty—and the windows were down—no chance for overheating. Nothing was going to happen to my kids. The cop recognized that, and didn’t ticket me.

The fear does not come from actual experience; every parent I talk to has memories like mine, of endless unsupervised hours. I blame the 24-hr news cycle of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ for distorting everyone’s perception of risk. The paranoia is so intense, and so widespread, people are pushing back with free range parenting. [] Real threats do exist: substance abuse; car accidents; peer pressure. These risks are common enough we all know families affected by them. But the nightmares of cable news are more like lotto mega jackpots. Odds are extremely good you’ve never met a winner, because there’s so few.

We need to be clear about the ways the world is risky, and calm down about the ways it isn’t. When our homes are places like Shelter Island, the North Fork, and so many other places in America, we need to know them for what they are: fundamentally safe.