Nantucket Essays

It’s a Small Island

~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~

The ocean has bestowed some special gifts on Fisherman’s Beach this summer. Sometime over the spring, the currents off shore shifted and built up a flat, gently sloping beach. So, in July, you can walk out thirty yards into the water and still be only two feet deep in the Atlantic. On this particular day in early July, more gifts came in from the sea. Somewhere, off to our southwest, deep sea swells came into this world and then came up to the shore, only to momentarily tower head high before collapsing onto this long beach. The clouds had cleared, the sun burned, and the sea didn’t so much as roll as toppled and crashed onto the beach.

The boys spent hours getting bumped, boiled, and beaten in the surf. They rose to the top of the waves, then settled behind the rolling crest, or they ducked under the white, pounding foam to pop up on the other side. And, as is the peculiar direction of one of my sons, he placed himself so as to receive the apex of the waves’ power, which then swept and rolled him into the shore. When he left the water, he was swaddled in pounds of sand.

He wasn’t alone. The beach was as full as a July beach can be. We sat in our polite little clumps, arrayed with boogie boards, umbrellas, and Kadima paddles. No radios blasted Miley, Tay-Tay, or Fifty Cent. The dogs were settled under their masters’ chairs and lapped from discreet water bowls. The one percent successfully resisted fencing off a fifty-yard section and setting up bottle service. If incivility was to be found, it came on the occasional whiff of a cigar.

Nantucket cannot function without civility. We do not have the highways, fences, and hedges of Long Island, nor do we have the laws, parking lots, beach walls of Hampton Beach. Instead, we live on an island that can support one tenth of the people lucky enough to wake up here on a summer day. The roads, paths, and beaches cannot survive the aggressive assertion of rights and privilege that the rest of the country likes to wave back and forth. On island, you do well if you assume you are a houseguest overstaying your invitation because the weather is so beautiful. The richest capitalists on Wall Street find themselves taking turns and considering others on a Nantucket beach.

After several hours in the surf, we collected our gear and trooped back up to the car. In the small parking lot, we had gotten lucky with a slot that backed up to the prickers and the poison ivy. While we loaded the gear and the sand into the back, a silver Hummer with NJ plates waited nearby. He wasn’t waiting for a parking place. By that time in the afternoon, several slots were open. However, he was blocking the traffic pattern. Someone pointed this out to him, at which point, he surrendered to public perception of a Hummer with New Jersey plates and reversed into a Toyota sedan. He rolled forward, looked back, and reversed again into the fifteen year old car. Now sure of our attention, he accelerated out of the parking lot and out towards Surfside Road.

We can imagine what happens next. He drives on through the Surfside stop sign, barrels though Five Corners, rolls into downtown, and is stopped dead at the water’s edge. Then, someone dear calls him from the Fisherman’s Lot and wonders where he has gotten himself to? It’s a small island, and it gets a lot smaller if you are a jerk.

For that reason, the jerks don’t last long out here. On the mainland, you can always leave the scene of the crime. On Nantucket, you circle back to it over and over again. Not only will the silver Hummer be visible throughout the island, so will the Toyota sedan. They will wait together for ice cream and for donuts. They will park at the Stop and Shop. They may even attend steak night at Sankaty together. Were he back in Paramus, he could drive away into the safe anonymity of the highway and the mall. On Nantucket, all roads lead back to the rotary.

Nonetheless, it takes a certain amount of time for the jerks to realize that they have to change or leave. And, in that certain amount of time, the island has to show some patience and some fortitude. The island has a learning curve. I spent my first months on Nantucket biking the wrong way on one way streets until someone pulled me aside in the faculty room and hit me with the “Could we have a word…” You can’t come to a five-way stop sign and just barrel through unless you want to wind up under a Marine Home Center truck. The man you cut in front at the Juice Bar will be serving you clam chowder in an hour. And the man whom you cut off in the parking lot will be looking to hire a house painter, like you, tomorrow. No matter how much money or how long you have lived here, it remains a small island. Anonymity is the first thing to go (right after a twenty dollar bill).

Eventually, the long arc of island living bends to civility. Even the Fourth of July celebrates it. No matter how expensive your hat, how well you know the firemen, or how fine your bloomers, you will get soaked on Main Street. The blessings of the island, the richness of our water table, and the narrowness of the street demands it.

Even the 6,000 drunken revelers at Nobadeer on the Fourth showed how well they can learn the ways of the island. On Sunday, July Fifth, the Clean Team showed up to what has historically been a fantastic wreck only to find most of the trash safely piled up in dumpsters. If the millennial ravers can clean up for themselves, there must be hope for the rest of us, even if we own a silver Hummer from New Jersey.

Articles by Date from 2012