The Responsibility of Privilege

by Robert P. Barsanti

It has gotten later in September. Downtown, the stores are closing earlier in the evening. Fewer clerks and salespeople wander the racks, and the man behind the register is a good bit older. He may be doing the crossword when you walk in, and he may not look up.

Each weekend, from now until Halloween, has teams of wedding partiers descending on the altars, dance floors, and bars, but they are gone by Monday night and the streets settle into a slow waltz. The corn is full, yellow, and may have a worm. The tomatoes, both red and purple, are heaped in bushels, lined on window sills, and consumed for lunch and dinner. Without a hurricane spinning up the coast, the south shore beaches have been calm, although the water contains seals, sunfish, and sharks.

Most of the Suburbans, Yukons, and Range Rovers have headed back to the schools and towns that they claim on the back windows. The Sturgeon Moon is upon us, and on its flood, many of the sailboats and motor cruisers head out. The gigantic boats remain, as their owners no longer worry about vacation days and school years. The Mirabella, The Northstar, The Podium.

I have no desire to join the yachtsmen at the end of the wharf. I will only trespass beyond the sign that bars me: “Yachtsmen and their Guests Only.” I assume life on a real boat is not like the one on TV.

The reality show “Below Deck” focuses on the emotional adventures and misadventures of a group of young people crewing a 100-foot-long yacht in the Mediterranean. Each show begins with the preparation of the crew, then the arrival of the guests, the various hijinks and travails of people paying $200,000 to rent a boat for a week, then the final justice of the captain divvying up the tip. The crew claw like sorority house dropouts, the guests sink into their privilege as if it were black silk sheets, and the Captain sits at the wheel like a substitute teacher with a cool hat.

“Below Deck” money connotes privilege, not responsibility. The guest can send back the soup for having onions in it, the wine for being too warm, and the inflatable slide for not being slick enough. The workers need to endure all of it because they hope for another reality tv slot somewhere else, and they want to get that tip at the end. The tip justifies every indignity and tantrum.

Some people view Nantucket this way.

I can see how the mistake gets made. As we enter wedding season, with forty or more blessed ceremonies each weekend, the island hosts one long country club party that starts with dresses and suits lined up on Brant Point and ends in the Ladies Room at the Chicken Box. The guests write checks with lots of zeroes for house rentals, catered lunches, and van rides to Cisco Brewers. Many of the waiters, musicians, and fishing guides are tanned, young, and beautiful. Their future careers may not involve carrying trays. During the wedding season, the island becomes the backdrop and workers the supporting characters in this weekend’s production of “Your Most Wonderful Day.” And if your Day isn’t, someone needs to pay.

From the perspective of the woman holding the Kate Spade checkbook, we are all “Yachties.” The caretakers, the bartenders, the cleaning staff are getting paid to execute the vision of “Your Special Day.” We may have our off-screen dramas, but they are not allowed to slip into the performance. Our silent agreement, between the one who gives and the one who takes, is that the tip supersedes and silences all.

But Nantucket is judging a long running argument among the wealthy. One side argues for privilege; my American Express card does not just buy a boat, a house, or a shirt, it also buys the freedom of indulgence. If I am buying a sandwich and the phone is busy, I can stand inside, amid twelve other hungry folks, and rant at the unfairness of a busy signal. The demand democracy of the phone has been denied; I cannot get what I want if you leave the receiver in the mixing bowl.

Responsibility speaks on the contrary side. Wealth, earned or found, conveys a responsibility to make the world better. The dance, the golf tournament, the dinner allow the wealthy to do something to help others. Solid citizens with sensible shoes may argue that Palliative Care at the hospital is more worthy than Community Sailing, but both agree with Saint Luke: To whom much is given, much is expected.

Nantucket would not be a Plutocrat’s playground were it not for the responsibility cashed in by others. No Land Bank, no Trustees of Reservations, no Jetties Beach, no Atheneum, no Historical Association, no Cottage Hospital: all of these organizations collected checks from people who knew they were the lucky sperm.

At the same time, I just cleaned out a rental house with holes punched in a wall, tile hammered from a bathroom, the door unhinged from an outdoor shower, and a “soiled” mattress. The deposit won’t come close to repairing all that was damaged. Yet they packed up their car, bagged up some garbage, and left. Bill me.

To be entitled is to live without witnesses. To be responsible, is to live for the witnesses.

To be entitled is to live outside of society and history. Nobody will remember, nobody will admit, nobody will say. To be responsible is to catch the eye of history and society. Someone will remember, someone will admit, someone will say. After sore education, we graduate into responsibility. The sins of the past resurface in a sad later.

Recently, two young men were hitting golf balls into Long Pond. Both were accomplished strikers of the ball. The two drives I witnessed soared, then slid gently sideways in a draw before splashing down. I came upon them from behind, with my boon companion. He went leaping and barking among his new friends and they, in turn, gave him the love and affection which he deserves but is too often denied. There was neither surprise, nor shame at being discovered. I asked them, as friendly as I could, if they were going to dive down and get the golf balls. They smiled and said
“Maybe later.”

Later comes sooner than we think.