Because I venture off this island for so many different reasons, I get asked the usual questions on a fairly regular basis. To tackle the unanswerable question “How many people live on that island?” one more time feels like once more too many, but then again, the inquiry is fair, and not intended to sound like a broken record. Most people don’t deserve my face-palm and expression of anguish, or the 12-month population sine-curve analogy that sounds like a math lesson, or a wise-ass “100, plus or minus 75.” They just want to know if it’s thousands of people, sidewalks and everything, or that one lonely palm tree. Are we talking Bainbridge Island or Robinson Crusoe? As we enjoy our free lunch at whatever event I am attending, be it Dump School or Parents’ Weekend or Emergency Training or Art Camp, the idle chatter of my table-mates —which inevitably turns to my island’s metrics — ought not cause me to sputter so. My interrogators intend no harm. They are friendly and earnest. Alright, 22 miles, roughly. 29 years. Three kids in school. 50 to 70 cents a kilowatt hour, depending on the price of Diesel fuel. 32 ferries a year. 1,600 feet. 60 bucks each way. I dunno, right now, maybe five bucks a pound. The last census came up with 75, if I remember right. Three. One. None. Zero. Nada.

By the way, I’d advise anyone to take the Internet with a grain of salt should you feel the need to look up island data. Matinicus is roughly two miles long, maybe a bit more, end to end, and I’d say, ballpark, a mile wide at the widest point — and it is by no means a rectangle. An informational sidebar by Wikipedia indicates that Matinicus is a strong 106 square miles in size. If 2 x 1 = 106 these days, I need to take arithmetic over again. Perhaps they include all the surrounding ocean so as to encompass a few of the nearby ledges, privately owned islands, and bird sanctuaries. Such a number could, however, give the casual researcher a misguided impression.

As would that census number. In 2000, the census made us out to be a community of 51. In 2010, they got 75. We have not seen a roughly 50% increase in residents; quite the contrary, fewer spend the entire winter here each year for various entirely legitimate reasons including aching knees, construction jobs, kids in high school, and the Super Bowl. It’s just a matter of who happens to be around when the poor census folks show up. That number is not particularly meaningful. Many islanders come and go more than you’d think. I sure do; that’s how I end up where I get asked all those questions.

Some of my bakery customers, here by yacht for a few hours in July, ask technical questions they deem insightful but for which in fact they do not wish detailed answers. Rather than sticking with the always-reliable, “I’ll have six donuts, a loaf of whole wheat, and a root beer,” they feel the need to sound like an insider, and so will make inquiries geared to paint them as being deeply immersed in local culture (which they are not; those who are deeply immersed in local culture generally just want the donuts, not the chatter). I, being a big sucker, then commence a 40-minute lecture on rural electrification, or in defense of the specialized pedagogy of the multi-age classroom, with schematics, supporting documents, and alphabetized citations. The visitors look at me sadly, a bit hurt to be hectored so, because all they really wanted was to educate me on why we should be installing wind turbines, or how sea-level rise must be particularly obvious to us as we take our daily walks. 

It might be easier if they would just come to the door and begin with, “Would you mind terribly standing still for a few minutes while I tell you everything I know, suspect, or imagine about your island before I buy this cookie?”

It has been suggested by someone far smarter than me that a large, red-crayon notice should be posted facing into my work area, invisible to the bakery customers, for me alone to see every day, reading: “THEY DON’T REALLY CARE HOW THE POWER COMPANY WORKS!”

Anyway, my point was that it is me who is in the wrong, taking all of this too seriously. I needn’t be getting the old hackles up, as some folks are genuinely interested in this admittedly unusual place on at least a superficial level. Although they wouldn’t care to hear too much detail about microwave telephone technology, or why “the ferry” means something entirely different from “the passenger boat,” they aren’t out of line in asking how many people live here.

It’s just that nobody knows.