Meet Randy Polumbo, Plum Island's closest neighbor
Updated: Nov 26
What is it like to be Plum Island’s closest neighbor? We went to find out at Orient Point Lighthouse, locally known as Coffeepot, where we met its owner, Randy Polumbo. The artist and builder welcomed us at the lighthouse that sits on a bunch of rocks a little less than a mile from Plum Island’s shore. As it turns out, being so close to the mysterious island is spooky and reassuring at the same time. And sparkling, too – just look at the pictures! In our interview, Randy also reveals how he got his own private lighthouse – and why he refuses to keep it all to himself.
Randy, what is it like to be Plum Island’s closest neighbor?
It had been explained to me that the island is a high security area and that it was important to stay away. And early on, while I was here at the lighthouse, cleaning up mold, dead birds and lead paint, I got a call on my cell phone from someone and they said: “We’re calling you from Plum Island. We understand that you’re active at the lighthouse. And it would be good if we each had each other’s phone numbers in case one of us needs a hand or is in trouble.” And I said: “Well, that’s incredible. I feel so much better to have your number. And I’ll do anything I can to help you. But I’m a little worried: There’s no parity in our situations. Because you have a bunch of institutional buildings, a hospital, a fire station, a fleet of ferries and military vessels and so on. And I have some baling wire, some duct tape and a BFA degree from art school.” They laughed and said: “Well, we’ll see you around.”
What does it feel like to be next to such a mysterious island?
There are a lot of dark places the imagination could go at night if you are here all by yourself. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole, a wormhole, or maybe a hell hole, depending if it’s storming or the fog comes in and you can’t see your hand next to your head out on the terrace. On the other hand, a lighthouse provides great peace, because of the saltwater and the incredible grounding: You are in a giant metal structure that is sunken into the earth and into rock. So you probably couldn’t be in a more energy-diffusing environment. And yes, it also is very solitary and the mind can play tricks on you. But I don’t feel anything threatening from it. I think the number one cause of death for lighthouse keepers is having to get off the rock immediately, no matter what.
Did you research all that before you bought the lighthouse?
I actually had no intention of buying a lighthouse. I was looking for giant, obsolete fuel tanks because I wanted to make something out of these weird, riveted fuel tanks that I was hoarding. So I scoured government auction sites, and I clicked on the lighthouse because it was cylindrical and under 5,000 dollars. Then I just kept going back to it, I’d say I got low-grade obsessed with it. I soon realized that 5,000 was just the minimum first bid. I ended up paying a bigger deposit just to come for a tour. And then I saw it: full of congealed mold and cauliflowers of weird, noxious stuff, and dead birds everywhere. And yet, it was gloriously, spectacularly beautiful. I wanted it to stay the way it was. So I only cleaned up everything that is poisonous to humans and then put a nontoxic, clear coating over it so it could be washed. And then I started to invite people to come here and do strange things that maybe you wouldn’t do anywhere else, or to let this environment be a sensory accelerator for whatever they are interested in.
When you think of a privately owned island or lighthouse, the emphasis if often on “private” – meaning no one else can go there. Why is it important for you to share this place?
I guess it’s important to share it for different reasons. It may sound hokey, but one of the best joys in life, I think, is giving away things that could be great. My favorite spiritual practice is sharing. It’s like the golden rule of karma: If something is wonderful and you are fortunate to have it in your life, then it should be spread around. Another reason for me to share this space is this: A little bit of lighthouse goes a long way. I don’t think I would want to be here every day, but it’s amazing to be here for two or three days. It completely resets your clock. You are in salt, in iron, surrounded by the sky, maybe getting struck by lightning all day long if there is a rainstorm. It feels almost like getting charged like a magnet. It is an experience that many people want to experience, so they should get to experience it. And it is so incredible to see what people do during their residencies here. While I don’t make them send a report or donate a piece to the project or anything, I often catch a glimpse of what they have been doing. They’ll leave me a note or they’ll send me a beautiful drawing. And I get to see the wonder that happens here. That makes me incredibly happy.
Why and how to share a space is also a big part of the discussion about the future of Plum Island. What is your take on that?
I would love to see Plum Island become an open source habitat for everyone. And not a casino or a private club or whatever. There have been so many non-inclusive things discussed for it, and it is in large part unspoiled and amazing. So I would love to see that happen.