Winter Warmth

Jenny Scarborough

You don't see many strangers on the streets of Ocracoke at this time of year.

So you gotta ask: who's buying all the condoms?

Trade is brisk at the gas station, which seems to be the venue of choice for those in need of a prophylactic. They report selling at least one box per day.

"We've got quite the selection," noted Eve Ferris from her post at the counter. The names could be printed on heart-shaped candies: gents, midnight, fire & ice, rough rider, sweetheart, bareback, temptation.

Winter Warmth

Some have called it the aisle of shame, but one grizzled local hunter was emphatic: "That's not the aisle of shame. That's the aisle of safety." Then his buddy suggested they head up to the north end to share some "quiet time" together.

The aisle of safety in the Variety Store is right next to the fresh produce. In the gas station, condoms are next to the shower caps. One stop shopping. How handy.

"Men are not ashamed about it," said gas station manager Laurie Death. "In this day and age, no one is. I'm impressed by how many young people are buying them."

"It goes through like any other product. We don't discuss it, though there is that curiosity," said Laurie's husband, Sean.

Islanders seem to be more furtive about purchasing condoms from the Variety Store. The Variety Store is where you're more likely to run into someone more respectable than yourself, or your Mom.

"People are discreet about it," said cashier Debbie Jenkins. "They kind of pile their groceries around the box."

Kathy Hutchinson orders the pharmaceuticals, and said that while during the tourist season she has a hard time keeping KY Jelly in stock, it's been over a month since she last ordered condoms.

"Half the time they just steal one out of the box," said Kathy. "That's not saying a whole lot for their self. Just take the whole damn box." 

Maybe this cold snap will help sales. One woman (who made it abundantly clear, several times, that in no way whatsoever was her name to be associated with this article) pointed out that it is often about this time of year when she finds herself mulling lifes important questions, such as, "Who is there to shack up with that given any other circumstances I wouldn't shack up with?"

Winter Warmth

"How's your sex life now?" the always inquisitive Ocracoke Current wanted to know.

"That's going to be a short conversation."

Ocracoke can be a tricky place to maintain any semblance of privacy. Don't pretend that when you're out scudding around you don't notice whose car is parked where. If it's curiosity enough, you might mention it to a friend.

"You can't sneeze without somebody on the other side of the island saying, 'gesundheit,'" observed long time resident Sherry Atkinson. "You know it's true."

A local woman shared that her teenaged self once bought a pregnancy test for a friend, and by the time she made it home, an off island family member had called to ask her about it. Now, she recognizes the phone call "was probably more out of concern than anything," though at the time it felt like an invasion.

Word got around in the 1990s that Sherry is the soul of discretion, and she has purchased an estimated 25 pregnancy tests over the past several decades. "If I got pregnant it wouldn't be a virgin birth, but it would be a miracle," said Sherry, who is a lesbian. "I've never bought one for me. It's always to keep my dear friends from being talked about."

Sherry has plunked home pregnancy tests on the counter, in front of God and everybody, for both married and single women who didn't want to be the subject of speculative gossip. Still, you never know who is watching, and at times, evasive tactics were employed: She'd stash the test in a prearranged location, to be retrieved later.

With insurance co-pay or enrollment in the MAP program, having a pregnancy test at Ocracoke Health Center "may work out to be cheaper than buying a pregnancy test, and also more discreet," said Dr. Erin Baker. Remarkably, "No one has ever asked me for condoms."

The Health Center provides many options for family planning, and while there is no big bowl of free rubbers at the door, prophylactics are available through the Hyde Health Department. The clinic counsels both teens and adults about preventing STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Young people are educated about their birth control options and will likely receive advice in this vein: "Love your body, and make sure you will feel good about your choices the next day," said Dr. Baker. She also emphasizes that condoms won't last in your wallet if you're hanging out at the beach, and they won't last in your car, as they are heat sensitive.

In North Carolina, as in many other states, minors are considered emancipated when it comes to medical needs involving pregnancy, STDs and mental health. The Ocracoke Health Center guarantees confidentiality for people under 18 who want to discuss sex, sexual abuse, depression, or any issue at all.

"We have an open door policy," said Dr. Baker.

The Health Center's doors are open during business hours, Monday through Friday, though exciting opportunities can arise at any time.

"I worry about some of my male friends who get around. I tell them, 'Your willy is going to fall off,'" said Sherry, who, along with everyone else interviewed for this article, suggested that local bars should consider condom vending machines.

"Bar bathrooms really, really should have a way of doing that. That would be my professional recommendation," concurs Dr. Baker.

Gaffer's owner Scott MacNally said they would love to provide that service, but that some of his clients have a tendency to vandalize the bathrooms, and they have not found a different, discreet place to put a machine.

You can always order personal products on the internet, but making the bold choice to support a local business could confer surprising benefits.

"There's that fit older man who's always riding his bike. He never has shoes on," noted another woman insisting on anonymity. "I thought, 'holy hotness,' the first time I saw him." She later happened upon this practitioner of safe sex in an island store, "buying a box of magnums, and like, an orange." She chuckled, deeply and appreciatively. "It gave me a new perspective on this dude."


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