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From Author

Perry Garfinkel

ZipUSA: 02557 On Assignment

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From Photographer

Cary Wolinsky

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Cary Wolinsky (top) and Shane Young


ZipUSA: 02557

Field Notes From Author
Perry Garfinkel
Best Worst Quirkiest
    For more than 60 years Isabel Powell—everyone calls her Bell—has spent part of the summer in the cottage she once shared with her former husband, the late New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. At 94, Bell has earned the right to be very selective about whom she chooses to spend her time with. It took recommendations from Della Hardman, a columnist for the Vineyard Gazette, and Police chief Joe Carter to get me an audience with Her Highness.  And I don't use that title with disrespect. The woman oozes royalty.  She is bright, charming, witty, and streetwise. 
    I met her on her porch, where she usually holds court, bearing gifts I knew she would value: one bottle of Clamato juice and another of good vodka.  Her Bloody Marys are famous, and I don't think she'd hate me for divulging a secret ingredient: oregano.
    Rocker to rocker, I listened to her pontificate on race relations, education, and how the Vineyard had changed over the years.  In the midst of a busy schedule of interviews stacked one after the other, time stopped for a while. I could have retired my tape recorder and soaked in her radiance for eternity.

    Sometimes working in paradise can feel like purgatory. While everyone else on this gloriously beautiful island enjoyed the beaches, tennis, sailing, clamming, and barbecues, I ran around fully clothed in the middle of a heat wave, shackled with daypack and notebooks, maps, camera, a pocketful of Post-its with phone numbers scribbled on them, and pens in every available pocket. It was one of the hottest periods I could remember, with air so thick you could cut it.
    One afternoon I stole some time to grab a lobster roll from one of my favorite stands. Then I drove to the end of a remote dirt road deep in a wooded section behind a rather working-class residential area (as unscenic a setting as you can imagine) to sit alone in my air-conditioned car and chow down on my lunch. All I wanted was to stay in that cool car. 

    Unlike science fiction writer Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, I was a stranger in a familiar land. I have lived on Martha's Vineyard full time since 1997, and I knew a lot of African Americans through my work and friendship network. But I had no idea how many others I didn't know who summered there.
    I went to parts of the island I didn't know existed.  A couple of times I looked up and asked myself, Where am I?, and I had to look at a map.  On an island where you feel as though you drive the same roads so often you could do it blindfolded, looking at a map is comparable to needing a compass to get from your bed to your bathroom in the middle of the night. 
    At the end of the assignment I was reminded of the story of the elephant and the ten blind men. Each man felt a different part of the animal's body, and each described a wholly different beast. This experience taught me you can never know everything about something (or someone!) you think you know well.

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