By Pat Garber
There was disbelief in the voice I heard at the other end of the phone. I had just made a call to Starfield’s Studio on the West Side of Buffalo, NY, and my cell phone’s home address showed up on the telephone. “Yes,” I answered tentatively, “I’m here in Buffalo, but Ocracoke is my home.”
“Wow! Ocracoke is one of my favorite places in the whole world, but it’s a long way from Buffalo. What are you doing up here?”
It was a long story, but Allen and I eventually got around to the reason for my call: I wanted to record some of my new songs at his studio. We reached an agreement, amidst more expressions of wonder that I actually lived on Ocracoke Island, and in the next few weeks we accomplished our project.
It is indeed a long way from Buffalo to Ocracoke, and what’s more, it’s a different world. I’m spending the four months of winter in my sister’s three-story, 100-year-old Victorian home, located in the center of town, surrounded by similar houses almost close enough to reach out and touch. It makes the windswept dunes, rippling saltmarshes and endless seascape at Ocracoke Island seem very distant, indeed.
It had not been in the plans. I had expected to be hunkered down at Marsh Haven, my little cottage overlooking the marshes of Pamlico Sound, for the winter. But we all know about “the best laid plans of mice and men…” My older sister Betsy’s diagnosis of cancer changed everything. So here I am, and grateful that I can be.
My sister’s neighborhood is proof of America’s portrayal as a “melting pot.” Molly, a first-generation Puerto Rican who lives next door, brings Betsy a pot of spicy Latino soup each week. Billy, a Tuscarora Indian who lives across the street, keeps her stairs and sidewalk shoveled. The duplex to the right is home to an African-American couple whose son helps drag the trash can to the street, and an Asian family who just moved in. Betsy’s old friend Mary Lee hails from a strong Polish community; her friend Anne from the Irish section; and my new friend Toni is first generation Italian. And then there’s Betsy and me, of course, descendants of English, German and Dutch ancestors, and Dixieland Southerners to boot.
Two blocks over, on Grant Street, ethnic shops advertise tattoos, camel and goat meat, dates, and, of all things, human hair. Burkas and head scarves are common wear here; the languages most often heard Burmese and North African. Almost all the nearby residents are refugees, having fled untold horrors in their homelands. I carry chocolate-nut energy bars in my bag when I walk there, in case I meet up with one of several homeless people who stand in front of the dollar store.
As I ponder all this, my boots bog down through four inches of newly fallen snow and a bitter wind rips the woolen scarf from my neck. I am taking my dogs out for their daily walk at a nearby park. Above us loom the towers of a huge labyrinth of Gothic brick buildings, formerly the psychiatric treament center, which once housed residents classified as mentally ill, from which, I’ve been told, eerie screams could be heard at night. I stop and chat with one of the residents who now live in a newer building, and who wants to pet my dogs. She seems very nice.
My sister is doing better now, responding well to her chemo, and I am making plans to return to Ocracoke.
It will be good to be home, ensconced again in the natural world I love, but I will miss my sister, the diverse people I have come to know, and this intriguing old city. (Though not, of course, the minus four degree reading on the thermometer this morning.)