Last Islanders

by Robert P. Barsanti

I woke up to dubstep. The Bulgarian Power Team who tend the realtor’s houses on our street had keyed up some Central European Trap Music to blast over the sound of the riding mowers and their earphones. They had pulled into one of the empty gravel driveways across the street, opened the gate on the trailer, sent the riding mowers out upon increasingly eccentric orbits, and then dropped the beat.

Thirty minutes later, they were gone.

About twenty years ago, lawn mowing became landscaping. One lawnmower sticking out of a trunk has been replaced by pickup trucks, and then trucks with trailers. Lawn mowing required a good hat, a few gas cans, and some oil. Landscaping needs a fleet, a greenhouse, and a degree. Lawn mowing was a cash side job that would keep your summer in beer and bluefish. Now, landscaping is a profession. God bless it, I know many on this island who pay the mortgage, feed the kids, and put their names on the side of a few trucks by virtue of this new profession.

Vito Capizzo died this week. While the New Yorker, Yankee Magazine, and the Globe will remember him for his exploits coaching football, I will also remember him for his lawn mowing. In my first years on-island, I rented a house from the Sylvia’s on Meadowview Road. Vito came by once every two weeks and mowed the lawn, whether it needed it or not. Then, he would heave the lawnmower into the back of his pickup and head off for another job.

His generation of islanders has been slipping away; it has always been thus. We work, we grow old, we die. This spring has included notable names, like Fee, Glowacki, and Burchell, but every spring, every month, every weekend finds the island losing someone who was our history in one way or another. But the passing of this cohort of islanders might mark the end of something else. They may be the last islanders.

During the great glory days of Whaler football, in the eighties and nineties, Vito dominated the fall. Crepe paper and balloons decorated the streets, the stands filled on Saturday afternoons, and the losing team was accompanied and serenaded down to the boat. Elementary school kids ran to the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs to play, while the majority of the males in the high school suited up for Saturday. The Super Bowl winning alumni played touch football on Sundays. Men wore varsity jackets into their forties. Whaler football (and cheerleading) was the chain that bound grandfathers to fathers to sons.

If you were a young man on this island and you wanted to succeed in the trades, you needed football more than you needed math, English, and woodshop. The connections made in that locker room plumbed many houses and shingled many roofs. Sweat was Collective Equity; the electrician may not pick up the phone if it was someone else, but if the other number connected to a Whaler, he would probably make room on a Sunday morning to wire a basement. The boats, houses, and fortunes of island tradesmen started on Vito’s gridiron.

Henry Fee had the same effect on the restaurants downtown. The cooks and waitresses at 21 Federal and the Club Car started making sandwiches and lobster pie at the Skipper. His workers spread out across the island, settled down, had families, and kept working.

Most of us do not mourn the dead. We mourn the living. We want to believe in the glorious lie; the world does not change very much. So much depends on our belief in that lie. We want the lie that millionaires mow the lawns of billionaires. We want to believe the world Vito lived in still exists, where a football coach by dint of hard work, luck, and lawnmowers could buy his house and some rental houses for income. We want to believe that the Guild of Whalers will build you success.

But lies wear out. We, the living, can’t make enough money to stay out here. We can’t do what the last islanders have done, we can’t get the mortgages, cut the deals, and mow the lawns. Without luck, wealth, and delusion, you can’t stay. No amount of sweat equity and inside knowledge can change that. And that is what we mourn. When the word came out that Vito had died, the local Whalers put out a call to meet at the football field. Thirty men showed up; the rest had already left on the boat for the night. Most of the members of the Guild of Whalers live in Mashpee now.

Henry, Phyllis, Mary, and Vito were the last islanders. They thrived out here when Nantucket was an island and not a hashtag. The banks’ investments ended at the beach, the houses were owned by people with first names you knew, and the offensive line would become the selectmen. America could only touch us with a plane, a boat, or a phone call. With enough fog in the air, it couldn’t touch us at all.

Nantucket is no longer that island. Our electricity, our finances, and our children travel back and forth from the mainland. The island hangs, wrapped and suspended in the international web of commerce and capitalism. It sways and wobbles from one “disruption” to another. The ferries slurped up the airlines, summer homes became investment properties, and AirBnB bled the inns. We are squeezed in a web by a million threads that we crafted and then wound around ourselves.

We would like to think that the island will continue on, as it always has. It will change again into something else. Another set of landscapers will take over for the Bulgarian Power Team. The fog will clear, the waves will break at Nobadeer, and the grass will grow. History belongs to the people who stay. However they do it.