by Robert P. Barsanti
After heavy wind, thunderstorms, and two rounds of cancelled ferries, we were sitting in each others laps on the boat headed back to Hyannis on a Sunday night. The weekend had risen, crashed, and washed up the beach with most of my fellow passengers. They had not planned on the glamour or excitement of the slow boat on the way back. Nor did they count on the absence of a velvet rope. We sat where we could on the inside, and where we had to on the outside.
Jennifer, Becky, and three of their friends had joined me at a table; they slid in together and pushed me up against the window. They were quite, quite “yar” (as Katherine Hepburn might put it.). They travelled with colorful overnight bags, leather briefcases, and without men. And they wore fun shoes; bright red clogs, glowing white and rhinestone bedecked sandals, and one pair of leopard print espadrilles. Otherwise, the party clothes were stowed away and the polar fleece and jeans were out for the crossing. While there was conversation, computers were opened, highlighters appeared, and books uncracked as soon as we passed Brant Point.
And then Chad the Bartender appeared. He carried a fedora, wore a Vineyard Vines pink pastel shirt (now available at Target), and a pair of baby blue chinos decorated with red cups and white ping pong balls. He found a pretext to begin a conversation, and then he began to work. He worked particularly hard on the woman in leopard print shoes. No she didn’t want a drink. No she didn’t want something from the snack bar. No, she didn’t want to go outside. She deflected, she eye-rolled, she glanced at her companions, and she sent every conceivable message a young woman could send without using my hot coffee (which she would have been welcome to).
As we pulled into Hyannis, Chad the Bartender made one final attempt at a phone number before withdrawing into the damp and the dark. The young women glanced at each other, put their work away, and prepared to return to their lives. It must be exhausting.
I have been a young man. The nature of young men is a difficult sort of pudding: they are dense, they are lonely, and they are full of raisins. All of this radiates out of them when they are not huddled with other young men. So it was with me when I was Chad’s age. However, I was much more keen to hear the sounds of rejection as it rallied and ricocheted off of my forehead. I wouldn’t have approached the table without an invitation, perhaps not even then.
The pants, the shirt, the hat were another matter entirely. As an islander, I had to wonder what weather he had sat through that afternoon. Further, as he was getting on our floating bus station, I wondered what he thought he might be dressing up for on the boat. I have travelled many times, back and forth, and I haven’t seen many Ivy League Frat Parties break out-or at least not the ones that would appear in a Vineyard Vines catalogue.
Further, I didn’t know who he thought he would impress. Becky and her friends at my table wore their shoes for each other—they marked themselves with them. But Chad did not have a lacrosse team of fellows to sink into, all with their sharp hats and party-themed pants. Perhaps he had been abandoned by a yacht—or perhaps that was the story he wanted to tell. If I were to find him on Instagram, I would not be surprised. The Influencers are everywhere.
When we travel, we can pretend to be our best selves. I once knew a wonderful woman who lived off a trust fund, but preferred to keep everything in a 63 liter REI backpack and would wash her underwear in the sink. The person she wanted to be was a stripped-down, bad-smelling, individualist and not the grand-daughter of a bank’s client. Out on the south island of New Zealand, she wasn’t going to trip over any of her mother’s friends, lawyers, or trustees. No one was going to strip her costume off and proclaim her a fraud. She contained multitudes, as do we all.
In the last few years, our visitors have decided that they are Gatsby—or at least one of his party guests. America has always worshipped the plutocrats and Nantucket is their Valhalla.
A bartender who wears black pants, white shirt, and a black bow ties decides that, for this weekend, he will live the life of a Tufts frat boy. He will smirk at the world under his fedora, confident that there is a party waiting for him and his pants. Chad will be welcomed, back slapped, and loved. He walks onto a stage, in a play of his own making, unsure of the stage set or the other actors.
Society has set the island up for this. First, our phones connect us to the world; we want the world to know we are on Nantucket with the swells and the Patriots. Chad no longer takes a selfie inside the Figawi tent; instead he narrates a five minute video of getting dressed, then another video of getting into the tent. He can make himself the star of his own show. The more audacious his show, the more the audience will click and subscribe.
Second, AirBnB and others have made the island a destination for shortterm visitors. Thirty years ago, Chad might have come to the island looking for some shifts at 21 Federal and some time on the beach. Perhaps a few years later, when the testosterone fog dissipates, he might build a house in Tom Nevers and settle in. But we don’t have those jobs for him, nor do we have the housing, or the time. So, he comes for the weekend and the party. Then he leaves.
Nantucket, at our best, has been more of a society than an island. Living on a sand dune, cheek to jowl, means a tolerance and a blindness to the differences of wealth and status. The championship winning coach reads on the next towel and he does not want to be in your selfie. The Honduran landscaper may order drinks from your bar that night.
To enjoy Nantucket, you need to have a longer relationship with it. You need to feel the fog and damp seep into your bones before you can feel the warmth of the August sun. Chad the Bartender will miss that these days. Hopefully, Becky and her friends won’t.