Nantucket Essays

Better Angels

~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~

A friend of mine was pawing through the bike rack at Jetties Beach. Her son’s bike (a black and silver Trek) had been taken from the rack a few evenings previous and she was searching the racks in the hopes that it had been returned. Perhaps, she said, someone had taken it for a joy ride or was late for an appointment or just made a mistake. Perhaps, I thought, you never know. Since then, I have kept my eyes peeled for the bike, should it appear in a hedge or leaning up against the Juice Bar. I hope you keep your eyes peeled as well. And if you borrowed it, I hope you return it so a young man can go from washing dishes in one restaurant to washing dishes in another.

In the rest of the world, most mothers would not return to the bike rack with a bouquet of hope. Instead, they might donate a dope-slap to their son’s education, report the theft to the police, and see if they could recover any money from the bike lock manufacturer. The bike, they would assume, would be well on its way to the den of the bike sneak thieves, to be chopped up and sold on the Trek black market. To have a book stolen from you in Boston or Pittsfield would be to assume that the bad people in the world had somehow risen up and dinged you. Your trip around the CandyLand board got sent back ten squares by a bicycle thief.

I don’t think my friend is the only Pollyanna on the island; I don’t think she is the only one to leave the assumption that “some people are just bad” to the very last. In fact, most of the people who have found themselves bereft of a car, a bike, or a dinghy make the assumption that someone either borrowed it or they misplaced it. Once, many years ago, I left the Expresso Cafe to find my beaten and dirty Jeep missing and a note on a park bench telling me to have another cup of coffee. The jeep would be back in an hour. And it was.

Nantucket is a small island. It’s hard to take something away so that it will never be seen again. I don’t think there is a Serbian Bike Smuggling ring slowly and methodically filling up a trailer in Miacomet. The Black and Silver Trek is around here somewhere, even if it has been tossed into the bushes off of the Polpis Road. Moreover, even in the summer, Nantucket has a relatively small amount of people (compared to other islands, like Manhattan or Martha’s Vineyard). No one, not even a bike thief or a hedge fund manger, can stay anonymous for long. A boyfriend, a daughter, or even a roommate will notice when there is a new Trek in the front yard.

More to the point, Nantucket is a state of mind. When people move here, whether for a week, a summer, or for a lifetime, they are moving to a small town in the big ocean. They are leaving places where they have to key the security code in within the first fifteen seconds of returning home and moving to a place where you don’t (or can’t) lock the front door. In the rest of the world, you assume that anyone could rob, beat, or steal from you at any moment. Out here, we want to assume that people are better than that. If I get up from my blanket on the beach, nobody is going to pilfer my cooler, steal my thin wallet, or take my shoes. Most beaches on the island have collections of flip-flops and sneakers right near the entrance; who would think to steal our shoes? Who would think that our shoes might be stolen?

The better angels of our nature come here for quiet walks in the moors and some boogie boarding off of Cisco. They help fund the hospital, build the Boy’s and Girl’s Club, and protect hundreds of acres from development. They leave purses alone in convertibles, decorate the Christmas trees on Main Street, and drop their change into the tip jars, even if they only bought a muffin. In short, they want to believe the best in everyone, with the hope that if we believe hard enough, it may even become true.

The Angels have been to Stone Beach on the South Shore. In the recent past, one of them put up a bird house sized library: The Little Free Library. Inside, twenty books or so books wait for a hand to pick one up and bring it down to the surf with the blanket and the umbrella. Now, I am not going to grab The Madwoman in the Volvo or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for my beach reading, but someone else might. Moreover, the Angels are handy with power tools. They created a six person bench out of a log, sanded it, and varnished it to a high gloss. The bench makes no one richer, but it makes everybody better. You can pick up a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany and get a hundred pages in without getting your sandwich sandy.

The police, with their cold and sober view of human nature, would caution you to lock your doors, keep your keys with you, and keep your eyes on your flip flops. The island, they say, is full of the same sorts of people that you would find in Fall River, New Bedford, or Boston. Bad people do bad things out here, just as they do everywhere. They may be right, but I hope they aren’t. I would rather expect everyone to be honest than to suspect everyone of being a thief. Unfortunately, I may suffer for my optimism by losing a bike from a bike rack. I will continue to hope that the black and silver Trek will be returned by some well-meaning soul who needed a ride home.

Articles by Date from 2012