The Judge

~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~

As you get older, your life becomes a lab experiment for doctors and nurses and a math problem for bureaucrats and insurance executives. I go off-island, from time to time, to confer with the young people who pick at me like a frog transfixed to a tray. Generally, they don’t leave any marks, fold the skin back on my belly and send me back on my way with a candy. Unfortunately, my way sometimes pauses at the Marriot in Hyannis while the winds blow and the waves break. My career stalls for another day at the mall, another night in the hotel, and another sub in my classroom.

The sun does not warm substitute teachers. No breezes cool them, no doors open for them, and no trees shelter them. Their names disappear in a day. Substitute teachers come from two distinct pools of people. On one hand, young people take the job with the hope that their names and their energy will register in a vice-principal’s mind so that when a long term sub is needed, they get the call which will eventually lead to a job and a career. On the other hand, retirees come in for a quick eighty dollars, a trip outside the house, and some moments with the young. It is a thankless job.

But I thank the Judge. The Judge comes in with a newspaper, white velour outfit, a gold medallion, and sense of proportion. During the day, he completes the crossword, gets the kids to work on the Jumble, poaches a paperback from my collection and heads off to Miacomet at two-thirty. I don’t think he has a tee time.

The Judge has lived a life and, when the time comes, won’t get any change back from the Cashier. He dropped out of high school and got his GED, and then joined the police action in Korea. He returned, got married and had a full career in the New York Police Department through some exciting decades before retiring to Florida. Then he returned to New York as a history teacher, then as a high school principal. After five years of that, he moved north and became a Judge in New Lebanon before finally retiring to the island. He has over 8,000 hours underwater, teaches boating, likes to surf, and boasts of playing to a four handicap.

I am pretty sure he doesn’t teach my students, either anything I left or anything he came up with. He may model his fine velour ensembles and show them how to read a mystery, but not much more than that. He loves them, though, and will spin long stories about wrecked ships, New York gangsters, and a perfect left-hand break with the sharks at the New Smyrna Inlet. Even better, he does not lecture on the evils of vaccines and virtues of hemp. I learned from him, of course. Some things you can only learn when you are older, and the lesson often gets punctuated with a bruise or two; wisdom teaches you to listen better

The Judge is collecting retirement checks from the Army, from New York Police, and from a school system, as well as checks from Columbia County, New York, Nantucket Public Schools, and the irregular two dollar Nassau. He isn’t a title. He isn’t a career, he is a series of day jobs that keep him in scuba gear, children, and Pings.

“What do you do?” is the most American of questions. We label ourselves as our careers: I am a teacher, I am a doctor, I am an Indian chief. Our jobs become code for our personalities and habits. Early on, weekends and evenings disappear for the sake of the resume, the title, and the boss’s appreciation. After a decade, wisdom blooms like mold; a career is what your boss calls your job when he wants you to come in on Saturday. The only appreciation that career will see is printed on a pay check and lasts about as long.

In the bloom of that sad wisdom comes one other sprout; how much more rewarding it is to look down, than to look up. Your name will not last long in your superiors’ mouths or on their letterhead, but it will be remembered fondly by the people you helped. None of her Principals revered Helene Gilbody as a department head, but her students hold her in their hearts. Decades into the future, they will remember how to be your own best friend and what the Minister’s Black Veil looked like.

Careers are like chipmunks; they don’t often make it across the sound, and if they get here, they don’t last for long. Not many employers on the island respect a well-crafted status memo or a six sigma certification. The growth mindset might get you a job with a landscaper, but that is about it.

Instead, Nantucket is made for scramblers. Today, I am a roofer, tomorrow I pick tomatoes, and on the weekends I will be selling real estate from a borrowed car. The longer you live on this island, the more jobs you have had. If you get lucky, you get to have the Nantucket Tumble, where you employ someone for whom you once worked. But don’t let your pride fill; the island keeps tumbling and the checks will be signed by someone else’s hand soon enough. Today. I make sandwiches: tomorrow I am the sheriff. Today I am the fire chief: tomorrow I drive cab.

We see the winter coming. The Albies and the Brides are here for now, but the wind has shifted and the surfers are in their dry suits and the big boats have headed south. The houses on my street are growing dark; those who live to work go back to careers and executive washrooms. Nantucket demands that you work to live. I can’t be a vice president, or a H-R Director, or a C.E.O.

But I could be a Judge.