Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on January 25, 2018
When I step out of the house with my three-year old hound for her afternoon constitutional, she makes a beeline for the North Ferry, a half-mile distant. What makes Mabel run?
Mabel’s impulse is the same as the one that creates a traffic jam at the arriving ferries in summer — to greet the other members of her pack.
She’s not crazy about strangers, but for those who arrive at the North Ferry slips she makes an exception.
They used to call it “the daddy ferry,” the boat that arrived every summer Friday evening around eight, carrying the fathers who took the 5:40 from Penn Station to join their families for the weekend.
In summer, when the ferry brings boatloads of strangers, it’s easy to forget that on a cold January day you may be especially glad to see what comes off the boat. The first boat of the day brings the amazon.com truck, a modern-day Wells Fargo wagon with packages for people all over the Island.
Later boats bring the people who work at the library, the IGA, the post office, and wave after wave of construction workers, landscapers, plumbers, accountants and teachers.
The North Ferry is contemplating the purchase of another ferry for the fleet, and when that new boat joins The Islander, The Menantic and The Manhansett, it will need a name. The naming of a vital piece of civic infrastructure is an important event in any community.
Let’s not mess it up.
Naming things is tricky. For example, when my husband and I were just married, another young couple in our apartment building who had just had a baby posted a sheet of yellow lined paper and a pencil in the elevator, inviting anyone to suggest a name for their precious newborn.
This was before the days of crowdsourcing and drawing on “the hive,” but the outcome was just as full of flame and chaos as any internet outburst. The names scribbled on the elevator wall ranged from the silly — someone suggested “Baby” — to the profane. I think someone suggested “Fred,” but the child was female.
In 2016, an internet poll was conducted in the U.K. to select a name to christen a newly-built vessel for polar exploration, and the people spoke clearly and overwhelmingly that the new boat should be christened the RSS Boaty McBoatface. Also placing very high in the voting was, RSS It’s Bloody Cold Here.
Horrified by what they had unleashed, the British authorities could not bring themselves to name the vessel something so ridiculous, and instead named it the RSS Sir David Attenborough, saving Boaty McBoatface for a remote-controlled vessel carried by the larger ship.
In November, Sydney, Australia accepted the results of an internet poll, and named their new harbor vessel Ferry McFerryface when that name won the vote fair and square.
And last fall, when New York needed names for five new ferries, New York City public school second graders were polled, resulting in the good ships McShiny, Friendship Express, Sunset Crossing, Urban Journey, Waves of Wonder and Lunchbox.
Three years ago, when we had to pick a name for the ladylike black beagle-mix puppy who came to us from a shelter on the Tennessee/Arkansas border, we knew she needed a Southern-sounding name.
Mabel sounded old-fashioned and civilized. The association with the old song about table manners had me singing, “Mabel, Mabel, strong and able, keep your dewclaws off the table,” and hoping she would have better habits than our last dog. She has more than lived up to her moniker.
I’ve helped name two children, three dogs, four cars and one boat. I don’t minimize the difficulty involved. But I think it works better if the people doing the naming have a permanent connection to the thing being named. If we do get a new ferry, I hope it is christened with a name chosen by people who care for it, and who understand the vital part it will play in the life and history of Shelter Island.
Mabel doesn’t mind what name ends up painted on the pilot house of the new ferry. As long as it continues to bring her kennelmates across the water, she’ll trot down the hill to meet the boat with a heart full of doggish joy.