by Robert P. Barsanti
Sunday broke into a red sky at morning. At five in the morning, the sun poked through a hole in the fog over Monomoy and lit up the Pacific Bank on Main Street. I thought I was alone on Main Street for this singular sight, but the D.P.W. truck rounded the corner, started emptying the barrels and re-lining them with plastic bags.
The worker’s hour comes at five in the morning. They come into town. Some come in from the harbor; you can see them, like crabs, walking in the shallow harbor water from the boats, with back-packs of dry clothes over their heads. They are biking into town in work shirts, prepping for breakfast, baking the rolls, and hoping off the steps. On my early morning drive out Milestone Road, a young woman in a Bartlett’s shirt was striding down the Bike Path, miles from the farm.
Afterwards, by six in the morning, the dogs are out. Boys and men are following the puppos from post to bush, in search of the right spot to make their mark on the world. The runners catch and sing to the sun, two by two in righteous exercise. The old men have gathered around a table at the Downyflake, eating the usual and waiting for their coffee to be refilled. Then, at seven, the grandparents lead the sleepy children to the muffins and coffee. By that time, the workers have punched in and have moved into their third hour of work. The D.P.W. have emptied the trash cans in Sconset before the first tennis ball is served. From there, I imagine, they head to the beach.
So much depends on a yellow pickup truck, loaded with garbage. They move with deliberate speed, never stopping, from barrel to barrel, full to empty, corner to corner. They worked in accustomed silence; nothing needed to be said. The same route and routine day to day, month to month, year to year.
They are essential. Not many will come to town for the fantastic Bistecca Ai Ferri if the streets had several days’ worth of rotting garbage. Nobadeer has a whole different atmosphere with a week of beer cans and pizza boxes heaped up. Realtors, innkeepers, and surf instructors all depend on a yellow pickup truck making its rounds in the morning.
Telemarketers are not essential. Neither are corporate lawyers, hedge fund managers, public relations consultants, and realtors. If we suddenly eliminated all of those jobs, the nation would take little note nor long remember what the Bridgewater Fund did or what the three key rules for brand management are. On the other hand, if we fire the trash collectors, we would hire them back by noon.
Yet, our island has made some strange economic decisions. The grand whirling Zoroasters of Capitalism have decreed—and we have accepted—that the people with the most important jobs get paid the least. Teachers, trash men, nurses, and the parking lot attendants of the Steamship all have jobs that are essential, but we pay them all less than the Sommelier at the Great Point Yacht Club. The more important you are to the general welfare, the less you will make. If you work an essential job, society puts a job satisfaction total on your paycheck. Somehow plumbers have figured out how to monetize this. When your need for a plumber is overflowing, they show up and negotiate the value of their work immediately. And you pay with a smile on your face and a flourish on the check.
The end result of our cock-eyed capitalism has been fish slapping us all summer. Over this island, advertising executives, bankers, and management consultants are waking up to a late morning brunch while the early morning workers have been slipping away to less foggy environments. We need to hire cops. We need to hire nurses. We need to hire teachers. We need to hire firefighters. We don’t need to hire Client Success Managers and Curators at jewelry stores. In five years, Nantucket will have one old cop, one old fireman, and a crowd of sommeliers, diamond curators, and Client Experience Consultants staring at a rotting dumpster in an alley.
My son and I have been touring colleges over the summer. Almost all of the schools we have visited have included a stop in the Career Services Office but not in the gym or in the cafeteria. The school wants to connect its graduates to careers seamlessly; the catch phrase is to “Design your Future.” They have counselors appointed for each student during freshman year, which will put them in global, research, and internship opportunities. Every single Dad on the tour loves the miasma of money and satisfaction that gets pumped out of these buildings. Including me.
I doubt that they offer any externships to the D.P.W. But they should.
A moment of cold reflection ruins the happy hubris of “Design Your Future.” Your future comes to you in quiet moments of luck and hard decisions made at the kitchen table in the early morning. By the time we hit forty, we realize that we are living a future we did not design. Perhaps it is better than we hoped, perhaps it is worse, but it is almost definitely not what we imagined when we were 21. Life drops you off the table. Every forty-year-old knows that bouncing is a much better skill than soaring.
Even if he can’t really “Design his Future,” I do want my son to have meaningful work. Meaningful work is a job that can be explained to a sixyear- old in the moments before recess and snack time. “Mommy helps cure sick people.” Or “Daddy cleans the trash from downtown.” If Sunday night is not painful, you are doing meaningful work. If you can talk straight for ten minutes without screaming about what you did today, you are doing meaningful work. If you are mending the world, you are doing meaningful work.
If his work comes on the back of a D.P.W. truck at five thirty in the morning, so be it. The world rests on his shoulders. “If a man is called to be a street sweeper … He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” Far better than the hedge funds.