Nantucket Essays

Building Sets for a Two-Week Film

~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~

In the last week, we have had our share of rain out here on the outermost dune. Those tropical downpours that usually spend themselves in North Carolina or, at least, on the mainland, have slipped up a stalled front and dumped inches of rain. Out here, with all of the blessings of the twenty-first century, its hard to remember that geology is destiny.

We live on an odd little island. On one hand, you reach sand about three inches below the surface. On the other hand, you reach water a few more feet below that. The town fathers (the original realtors), in their wisdom, drained the marshes and swamps, then built farms, houses, roads, and developments on top of that. But the land and all of the surrounding hills remember the marsh that was once there. And when the rain comes down hard (or the tide comes in particularly high), the water returns to the former marsh. You can find the former ponds and streams with ease after a hard rain. Find the biggest puddles.

After a day of pumping out basements and garages, I returned home to find most of my neighbor’s house gone. The front wall of the ground floor remained, while the rest had been thrashed by a back hoe and dumped into a truck. Houses are fragile things. We build them and imagine solidity and eternity, but one back hoe and a distracted teenager can take it apart in hours. For years, it appears permanent, and in a day, the earth returns. We all live in sandcastles. They only end one way.

I walked behind the house and all its secrets were laid bare. The dining room and entryway had wooden paneling left on the one wall, the living room with its ivory paint remained, along with a whimsical rose colored wall-towall carpet. Roof, walls, ceiling, and the rest had made the trip to Madaket. The house had been built back in the twenties and had seen various rehabs with each succeeding owner, so I don’t know when the paneling or the carpeting had been installed. I am sure someone had insisted on it, picked out the colors, watched some workman install, and then enjoyed it for a few summers until the years ran out and the backhoe came in.

History will not miss a 1922 Gambrel house. No one will write a letter to the paper complaining about the loss of island history. In the last twenty years, the rental house lay too far from town for most and too far from the beach for others. When it was occupied, a large family parked several cars in the yard (no driveway) or a fraternity of friends had it for two weeks of barbecue and slip-and-slides. Several years ago, I spent one morning walking around the yard picking up red cups, empty beer bottles, and one tattered tent before a storm came to fling them all across the street. I believe I collected an abandoned hibachi and a beach chair for my troubles.

The times have changed and the visitors have changed with them. Summer rental houses have gone the way of the backhoe and the dump truck in the new millennium. This house had electric heat (!!), no insulation, and five bedrooms. If you had four or more kids and needed a place in August, you could have stayed across the street. There was once a time for that. July and August once held vacationing families that stayed for weeks or even months in rented, unheated houses. Dad the Dentist came down for long weekends, and the cousins came for a week and everyone got ice cream. Those times are gone. The house had not been rented for at least two years and certainly not been occupied by middle-class swarms of children. We have traded the children for retired golfers and their gardeners.

In our new times, this house sold for 1.6 million dollars and then was broken up and sent to the dump. We live in interesting times, when you can spend a lottery ticket winnings on a house only to tear it down and replace it by something on an architect’s hard drive. White posts on a porch, five bedroom, five-and-half baths, central AC, forced hot air, 16 x 30 private pool with large bluestone patio, gym, game room, reclaimed oak floors, gas fire place, marble counter tops with Wolf and SubZero appliances throughout. Outside, someone will hardscape and plant all sorts of odd little plants and shrubs, unroll a perfect little lawn, then get it manicured for the deer. You can find dozens of sandcastles just like it. All to be used two weeks a year. Someone, like me, will charge them good money to take care of it while they are away. God bless them and their accountants.

These are our times. We build movie sets for two week romantic films. When the filming begins in late July, the roses must bloom, the hydrangea must explode in blue (not pink), and the grass must match the height of the fairways at Oakmont. The stars will stand on their porches and wait for the grandchildren to arrive. They will pose for the calendar and then go back to the mainland for the rest of the film. As for us, we spend the summer mowing lawns for people still in New Jersey, washing windows that no one will look out of for weeks, and raking the sea shell driveway. We make our money tending to empty houses.

The times keep changing. On some future day in some future June, another backhoe will knock that house down for another new owner who wants something better for his movie. They will sell the Wolf and SubZero appliances at a yard sale, then the game room, the five baths, and even the blue stone patio will be out at the dump. Someone like me will get Spacely Space Sprockets to create the new plastic creation with Nantucket in mind.

Hopefully, they will bring their family with them.

Articles by Date from 2012