by Robert P. Barsanti
Two days ago, we cancelled a beach party. We had one of those days that only happens on Nantucket or in Maine. In the center of the island, or in town, or anywhere more than one hundred yards from the beach, the air hung and dripped. Hot, humid, and still: the air packed around you. But, over the tops of the bushes and just on the horizon were fingers of white fog. Once you got within one hundred yards of the beach, the temperature dropped and the sun faded into gray. In that short space of leaving the car and your sandals, people put on sweat shirts, wrapped themselves up in towels, and used their umbrellas as windbreaks.
Still, when I cancelled the party, the beach held a few hundred people. They were circled in beach chairs, wine in hand, children in view (mostly), and towels spread for a long afternoon. Bikinis jumped into the puny surf. Sweat shirts played kadima. Surf shorts cast into the dim, and fishless, water. They would not have cancelled anything.
Of course, they don’t live here. They paid more than a few thousand dollars to rent a house for the week and to bring the kids and friends and cars over. They prepared for the afternoon on the beach, and a little fog wasn’t going to stop anything. Besides, it might burn off.
For an islander, this was not a beach day. This was a day to stay inside and watch the Sox or prune the hedge, or, perhaps, brave the traffic and pick up the groceries. Nantucketers are aware of the ocean, the same way that New Yorkers are aware of the Museum of Modern Art. They know where it is, and they have crossed the threshold, but only with visitors. The ocean borders us, but most of our lives happen within, not on, those borders. I had lawns to mow, closets to clean, and those dump runs. The Beach? “Must be nice.”
We live too close to see how fortunate we are. Ask an islander about July, and they will flash on traffic. For ten months a year, we can zip from one side of town to the other only slightly slower than the speed of a wish.
Then, in the summer, the traffic backs up from Caton Circle, up Quaker Lane, to Pleasant Street as far as the windmill, and then to the school (or five corners). We are all there: pickup trucks, UPS, landscapers with trailers, Yukons, Range Rovers, a Model T, and a red Ford 1968 Mustang that was having trouble with its idle. Why venture out in that, again?
At a deeper level, we take the ocean for granted. We could go at any time, so if the day is too cold or too windy, even by the barest measure, we’ll put it off. If the entire island population were to be moved to Fitchburg for a year, our memories of the ocean would grow robust. Our return to the sands would be thunderous and life affirming.
So when you ask a visitor about July, their minds take them back to that afternoon at Nobadeer when the waves were perfect on the sandbar, the kids had fun, and the wine was cold. Sitting in the kitchen back in a snowy Ho- Ho-Kus, they look at the framed picture of the kids and their boogie boards and they wish themselves back on Nobadeer sand. They don’t have similar thoughts about the Milestone Rotary.
They are right. We don’t have the perspective to see it. We don’t have the right beach stickers to get to Singing Sands or Lucy Vincent. We don’t have to get up extra early to get to Cahoon Hollow or Marconi Beach, nor do we have to fight the green heads up Crane’s Beach. Compared to every single beach in New England, Nantucket’s are a dream. The water is warm, the surf is exciting, and the parking is easy. And if you don’t like one beach, you can just keep going until you find the one you like: this is only true out here.
Life on the beach mesmerizes you. The waves roll in, the tide rolls out. The tide rolls in, the waves bounce out. Every day, every year, the beach looks the same: sand, wave, air. Surfside Beach looks the same in 2019 as it did in 1919; the people are different as is the land. And it is the land that concerns and worries the islanders. Stop signs, rotaries, and subdivisions won’t affect the beach, but they will affect the people on the beach, where they sleep, how they eat, and whether they will come back. We no longer have Thirty Acres, The Opera House, The Skipper, nor do we have many of the people who dropped their hard-earned money there. We want our visitors to not only enjoy this trip to the island, but the next ten before they buy the house and entertain the grandchildren.
One recent morning I happened upon Boy Scouts from Acton, Massachusetts. Thirty of them pedaled away from the camp, through the rotary, up South Water Street, over the cobblestones, and out to Brant Point Light. The lights still burned on their bikes. They wore “get up early clothes”—sweatpants and t-shirts. Dawn hadn’t heaved herself up from the horizon and the fog line, but the light graced Coatue, Wauwinet, and Great Point. The tide rushed out of the harbor and into the flashing light of the buoys. No planes, no boats, no cars; some of the young men were casting out into the water while others just sat on the beach and watched the day unfold. The scoutmaster told me that they came down every year and pedaled the island. Acton, I told him, was a pretty nice community and this trip must be expensive. “But it is refreshing here” he said.
Let’s keep it that way.