When you enter our state, there are "Welcome to Maryland" signs that feature the slogan "Enjoy your visit." I always smile when I see these signs, because they're passively aggressively rude. It's like Maryland is saying "Look, tourism is a clean industry and we have mountains and beaches and a cool waterfront capital city, so why don't you come and hang out for a bit, and then go ahead and head back to wherever the hell you came from so we don't have to provide any government services for you." Maryland wants to date you, maybe have a one-night stand, but not marry you.
Over a year ago when I started renting a cottage on Tilghman Island, MD (slogan: "Life begins where the road ends.") I was a total outsider. In any well-established niche community, especially an island with a drawbridge, renters are looked down upon, and of course tourists are mocked. But I was busy writing a novel, so I didn't pay much attention to the social circles, if there were any, on the island. I thought their slogan was adorable and funny since roughly 80-90 percent of islanders are retirees. It was certainly more inspiring than the possibly more accurate "Come here and have a nice sunset view till you die."
But then one day I got into a conversation with the neighbor across the fence. I was watering the landlords' corn while they were away; he was watering his tomatoes. I said I was writing a book, he mentioned his wife was in a book club, and before you knew it, I was leading a book discussion at her house on 50 Shades of Grey. They'd picked it as a monthly selection and the hostess was too embarrassed to discuss it. The club consists of women mostly in their 60s. Somehow, I got added to the list and ended up in the Tilghman Island Book Club, and it's been one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. They've become my 14 moms; I absolutely love them. They let me feel like I'm a part of the island; they invite me to social events at their houses, taught me to kayak, worked with me to start a book exchange for the kids on the island when there wasn't a library anymore. They're truly some of the best people I've ever met in this world.
As a fortysomething raising four kids, I don't really fit in. Some of the women are full-time islanders and some are weekenders. Some work full time, some are retired. I don't fit into any of the categories, and although I'm paranoid they'll kick me out of the club if my book comes out and is a flop (the only reason I can think of for their hospitality is their hope that my book will be released next year and become a best seller, and since it's too slutty for them to discuss, they need me around to discuss it), they all seem to like me.
Unlike a tourist or a weekender, I prefer to spend time on the island during the week. Weekends in summer are too crowded for me. I don't like waiting in a line (okay, behind two people) at the Tilghman Island Country Store (my fave spot on the island). The restaurants are more crowded. Crab prices are high on weekends; on Monday and Tuesday you get them for $1 a crab. I am spoiled by having my sea glass hunting beach to myself; all the houses along the beach are empty during the week. Tourists wait for the light to turn green when the drawbridge comes back down; islanders just go when the barriers go up. Islanders always, always wave to each other; many from their decorated golf carts.
The only good thing I see about tourists on the island is the same thing Maryland sees: the money. The four-mile-long Tilghman Island has four restaurants and three inns (most run by gays, lucky for us), three shops, and two non-profits (Phillips Wharf Environmental Center and the T.I. Watermen's Museum); all are dependent on tourist dollars. So I hope those goddamn people are spending money. I want these places to be open so I can still get delicious food and homemade ice cream and vintage books and scratch-made jams and pastries and The New York Times the TI Country Store holds for me on Sundays. (For the record, there's also a take-out place where I won't go anymore because the owner said one of the most racist things I've ever heard about our President to me; I used to like the cheesesteaks from there, but the one I got that day just tasted like ignorance, so I haven't gone back.)
Really, I'm just part of the problem now. I'm someone who bitches about tourists. The tourists whine about the lack of cell signal on the island, I have bittersweet feelings about the cell tower that's about to be built; I'm going to miss the excuse not to talk to people on the phone, something I hate anyway. I'm not rude to island visitors; again, I want them to support local businesses, and I appreciate their love for the place where the road ends. Like a litmus test, I believe you can tell how cool a person is by whether or not they fall in love with this little island time has mostly forgotten.
Mary McCarthy (@marymac) took this photo of the crab from her Tilghman Island dock, but then let him go from the trap because he hadn't brought 11 of his friends.