by Robert P. Barsanti
He is one of us. He stood at the checkout line at the Stop and Shop with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, a gallon of 2% milk, and a box of Cheerios. The cashier spoke to the woman in the next aisle in something like patois. The women laughed.
“Speak goddam English!” he barked.
They stared at him.
“You are on Nantucket. Speak the language.”
Then, the moment slipped downhill. Threats. Anger. Spit. Fingers.
He was confronted by other shoppers. He was warned. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted. And he persisted out to his pickup truck with threats of shootings and deportations. Then, the Stop and Shop “Patriot” left in a squeal of tires.
He is a thinner version of me: middle aged, white, islander t-shirt, and work boots. Yet, here he was unloading on someone else working eight hours on her feet. Angry, insulted, and empowered; he let loose.
Sometimes, you need to see yourself from afar. Sometimes you need to see yourself as others see you. Perhaps he did this. Perhaps, he saw himself as a brave crusader confronting the infidels. In the story of our lives, we always see ourselves as beset and misunderstood heroes fighting against overwhelming odds. We all fly the trench in the X-wing fighter, looking to drop a photon torpedo into an exhaust port and destroy the Death Star. When he went over and spoke to his kids, I suspect he told them about how he resisted and stood up for the Islander Way. He blew up the Jamaican Death Star that was threatening us all, he told them.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
We have our own stories and our own truths. Our Nantucket, in the current moment, has lines for $5 cups of coffee, poor families sharing one room while rich families share twenty, and ICE scaring the workers. Money turns the pages; I made this much renting out a bedroom on AirBnB, I had to pay this much to staff my t-shirt store, and I had to pay twenty bucks for a burger. These seem to be the stories of the new Nantucket.
I have my own stories of Nantucket; we are different from those on the mainland. I would like to think, and can almost believe, that Nantucketers are cut from a different cloth than everyone who lives on the other side of the water. In my own mythology, Nantucketers are hard working, insular, and protective; “no seats reserved for the mighty.”
If I were to tell my story of the island, I would tell the story of the Coopers. Thirty-one-year-old Arthur Cooper, his wife Mary, and their children came to the island in 1822 after escaping slavery in Virginia. They moved into a small house on Angola Street, in the shadow of the windmill and very much in New Guinea. Although Nantucket has abolished slavery, it hadn’t done the same for racism or segregation. Poor people lived in one part of time, rich people lived in another, and work remained hard everywhere. 1822 was at the beginning of another boom time in whaling, as the great spinning herds of sperm whales were being hunted, killed, and boiled down in the Pacific. Herman Melville still waddled about in knickers, New Bedford had just begun to send ships out, and the Inquirer had begun publishing.
Arthur Cooper and his wife were, to a segment of the mainland population, not so much as free people, as they were run-away dogs or, as the newspaper commented “Two legged cattle.” Three slave catchers came from Boston in order to bring the Coopers back to Virginia. Word quickly spread, an alarm was called, and a large crowd of African-Americans met the “gentlemanly looking” off-islanders on Angola Street. Threats and weapons appeared. As did the Quakers. George Washington, an African American unaware of the irony of his name, awakened Macy, Coffin, Mitchell, Folger, and Gardner.
They appeared on Angola Street in the early morning. Several of them “labored” with the slave catchers out front, while Gardner whisked the Coopers out the back door. Then, the ship owners hosted the Coopers in one house and then another, until the three off-islanders got back on a boat and returned to America. Arthur and Mary Cooper lived, and died, on-island.
Eliza King, their daughter died in 1902 and their house was sold and moved to Jetties Beach. Their land became a garden, then a farm, and is now one of those million dollar summer houses with hydrangea, landscapers, and an au pair.
I would like to think of myself as Oliver Gardner. I want to be helping the family down the back stairs and into a cart before bringing them to my house for safety. Failing that, I could also be Gilbert Coffin, arguing and laboring by the front door while the escape was being effected out the back. In a more sober moment, I could also be someone angry and upset in the front yard, swearing out great vengeance and furious anger upon the pompous off-islanders in their cockade hats and badges.
The truth is that I would, more likely, be the Coopers. Years have taught me not to see myself as some grand rich hero, but rather as some small scared man looking to survive; more likely to be Arthur Cooper than Sylvanus Macy. Terrified, frozen, and hopeless; looking on for the well wishes of the well-to-do and the courage of the common for my salvation.
But I wouldn’t be the slave catcher Griffiths.
As a nation, and as an island, we are having a moment in the early morning on Angola Street. More than the stories we imagine ourselves in, we are what we do when the moment comes. When the knock comes to the door, language drops away like clothing and leaves us naked to the world. Did we stand? Did we help? Did we hurt? Did we hide? Or did we try to hide in authority?
Today, the moment came for the Stop and Shop “Patriot.” Tomorrow, it will come for you.