five corners | Nantucket, MA
Nantucket Essays


by Robert P. Barsanti

Summer came like a hangover. One night in June, the ocean hung over us in drops and drips. Then, in the morning, the sun shouted in through the drapes, the tiles got wet, and everything smelled stale. Outside, the growing world leapt at the light. Black-eyed Susans rose from the grass and bent their heads to the sun. The roses burst on the walls, and the hydrangea slowly began to inflate behind the fences. It seemed too soon and too late, but here it was in all its head-sore, cotton-mouthed July glory.

Compared to the mainland, we live bathed in glory. Some people work 51 weeks a year just to spend one week here, and those people who choose the week that the blazing summer came are the lucky 1%. When it hits 105 in Newton and Newburgh, they turn their lonely eyes to The Gray Lady. Here we are, on their screensavers and lock screens, with Brant Point Light and South Shore surf, Cisco Brewers, and Henry’s. They sit in traffic on 84, scroll through the available rentals on AirBnB and do the math. If they can get here, they will.

Unfortunately, our visitors don’t always realize that Nantucket is a part of America, but not the America they are used to. We live in an America without traffic lights, with rotaries, without turning lanes, and with stop signs. The rules are different here, and the learning curve is paved with cobblestones. On Friday evening, three young, slender, and blond women emerged from a Yukon on Main Street. They wore linen dresses that swooped and tied in all sorts of ironed, exciting, and expensive ways. And the three of them wore heels that were three inches high. They realized their danger in an instant. A sea of cobblestones rolled near a rolling beach of brick. They all held hands and wobbled to The Club Car. They would not make this mistake again.

A black Suburban, from the same home town as the Yukon, waited at Five Corners. All five streets were full and a line of bicycles crossed the intersection without pausing at the stop sign. In full air-conditioned, tinted window glory, the Suburban justice warrior leaned his vulgarian short fingers on the horn, spilling one of the young boys from his bike. We all waited for the family to collect themselves and move on before the Suburban blew forward to his Great Harbor dinner reservation.

The Suburban was correct, in one sense. The bicyclists did not have right-of-way; any State Trooper would have told them to stop at the sign and wait for their turn, as the rest of us had. However, the rules of the road don’t work so well on roads that are one-and-a-half cars wide. We, who have spent a great deal of time on island, don’t realize the culture shock and the learning curve that recent arrivals need to work through. Our common sense is not their common sense. What works in New Canaan definitely does not work out here.

Nantucket was not designed for the mass of people who arrive in summer. The cell phone circuits clog, the water pressure drops, and previously idle intersections stack up with cars. Greed, bad planning, and Yankee stubbornness have created jammed parking lots and slow-moving automotive clots. Had we built the island with an eye towards tourism, everyone would leave their cars in Hyannis and drive golf carts, beach buggie, and tandem bicycles.

Twenty years ago, before Nantucket became a case study for the “tragedy of the commons” lesson, we debated a proposal to limit the cars on-island. Every current car registered to the island would get a permit to drive on-island. The righteous, indignant, and freedom-loving voters at town meeting shouted this down as “un-American.” They were right. Nothing screams America like a millionaire stuck at Naushop in traffic on his way to town. America screams over and over.

In this mess of our own making, we cannot depend on anyone else to save us. The State Police won’t come in, nor will Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. We have met our savior and he is us.

Consideration must rule the road. Out here, you drive with your left hand while you steer with your right. You wave, you point, and you flash a thumbs up. In order to drive on Nantucket, you have to look into the eyes of the other drivers and see into their hopes and dreams for a moment. And they have to look into yours.

You can be anonymous in Needham and New Rochelle; your black Suburban will blend into all the other anonymous cars ripping along the freeways. On Nantucket, you are known. Be it the neighbor, the bartender, or your partners on the tennis court. You cannot run away from your arrogance on the roads.

While the clubs give the illusion that you can hide behind a velvet rope, you still will find yourself standing in line for ice cream, sitting on a beach, or on Old South Road. You might have swindled Bear Stearns, crashed Lehman Brothers, and own the course record, but you still have to wait in line for doughnuts. The stop signs speak, the parking lots whisper, and the cobblestones mutter the same thing; you’re not as important as you think you are. (Even if you were, in fact, born here.)

In the heat of July, when the rest of the world would love to come to Nantucket, perhaps you should revel that you are here already. Too many of us are here and too many of us want sandwiches and too many of us are heading to Nobadeer, but if you can drive with the air conditioning off, the driver’s window open, and an occasional wave, the experience will be better for everyone. Even if you are stuck on Old South Road.

Articles by Date from 2012