The brighter side of Hilton Head

After a few days here, I’ve discovered that there are actually two Hilton Head Islands. There’s the one that the tourists experience, a place with beautiful beaches, where everyone rents a bike and pedals, smiling, along the miles of bike paths. There are gourmet restaurants and gourmet grocery stores and many liquor stores. There are rambling little shopping malls full of clever little boutiques selling clothing and jewelry and souvenirs.

The zoning in this Hilton Head is so tightly scripted that Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s and Wendy’s have tasteful little wooden signs, and their parking lots are full of trees and bushes that hide the storefronts. Yesterday, I turned off the highway into a parking lot with a Staples sign, but then got lost in the landscaping and took 10 minutes to find the store!

What’s been fun, over the past few days, is finding the other Hilton Head, the one with all the local color. This is the local color you find when you run around solving engine problems, plumbing problems, electrical problems, and mechanical problems.

Of course, while solving such problems, you need an appropriate lunch stop. For me, that means either Mexican food or diner food. On Saturday, when Barry lamented that he was hungry, I quickly turned into a gas station where I’d seen a taqueria bus, and we ordered beef and chorizo tacos in lousy Spanish. Yesterday, we ended up at Harold’s Diner, a no-nonsense lunch counter with vinyl-covered stools, chrome trim, and paper towels for napkins. The male to female ratio was 5 to 1, just the thing to put me in the mood to deal with plumbing fittings.

Today’s choice was a hybrid — a Mexican diner full of construction workers slurping tacos while watching a dramatic soap opera on the TV. At least, I think it was dramatic, since it was in Spanish, and all the construction workers were riveted to it.

One thing I’m realizing is that Hilton Head is actually a pretty small town, with a permanent population of 40,000. That figure includes a lot of people who retired here from somewhere else in order to shop in the clever little boutiques — if you subtract them out, the number of colorful local people is much smaller. And every time I meet one of them, they know all the others.

At the auto parts store, I met Tommy, the fastest-talking southerner I’ve ever heard. He has an extremely sarcastic sense of humor, so you can’t tell if he’s being nice or mean. Tommy told me to talk with a fellow named Buddy about the exhaust insulation I needed. He then reeled Buddy’s phone number right off the top of his head — which surprised me, until I found out they’re brothers.

Later, I stopped to chat with Billy, on the shrimp boat. Billy, who calls me Miss Margaret, knows both Tommy and Buddy — he grew up with them. He told me to go see Buddy right away, saying “He’s got a spool of that insulation right on his work bench for ya’.”

I hesitated a little, because we had already hired a mechanic named Kevin, and I didn’t want to waste Buddy’s time.

Billy reassured me, saying that I didn’t have to hire Buddy, just talk to him. “You know the difference between being committed and being involved?” he asked me. “When you sit down to a plate of bacon and eggs, the chicken was involved, but the pig was committed!” We laughed and laughed.

Buddy works in a giant boat shed, about 100 feet from where I’ve been parking our car. I had no idea he was so close.

When Barry and I walked up to the boatyard, Buddy turned out to look just like Tommy. I made the mistake of commenting on the resemblance, though, and he threatened to kick me out of the shop!

Buddy is just as sarcastic as his brother, so I don’t know if he was serious. At least he talks more slowly, so I can understand him about 90 percent of the time (as opposed to 50 percent with Tommy!). He gave us a really good deal on the insulation, while making fun of us the entire time for only using 10 feet of the giant roll.

In three days’ time, we’ll be casting off our lines and heading north to Beaufort, NC, the place my Dad deliberately misspells “Bow-furt.” But in this week aboard s/v Flutterby, I’ve grown attached, and now I’m really going to miss this island.

If history had played out a little differently, my family could be just as entrenched on Hilton Head as Tommy and Buddy’s. Instead, my parents left the area in 1965. The property they owned here would be worth millions now, but shopping in expensive little boutiques is not our style. We’re more likely to hang around shrimp boats and auto parts stores.

And if I hang around Hilton Head Island much longer, I’ll become local color myself — and then you can all call me Miss Margaret.