Nantucket Essays

Couch Surfing

by Robert P. Barsanti

essay9In late June, Nantucket sets us apart.  For the rest of the country, and the state, the first burns of summer arise.  The air builds a curtain of water, the heat pins everyone and everything down, and the clouds ascend into towers of thunder.  Our visitors get on the boat in sweat-stained tanktops and dirty shorts, then freeze as soon as the boat clears Hyannis harbor and the wind starts up.  By the time they reach Steamship Wharf, they have raided their luggage for sweatshirts and polar fleece.

At this early date, the full summer towers on the horizon, but it has yet to drift over the sound.  We are preparing for it.  The new taxi drivers are learning the street names and the parking rules.  The landscapers are learning how to drive the big pick-ups through the rotaries.  The waitresses and waiters are trying to decide who can sit in what tables and how do we bill them on our new computers.  Generally, as they get the bugs out, the new workers are very nice.  They are saying “Please,” “Thank You,” and “Would you like another cup of coffee?”  The hard reality of July hasn’t changed the rules for seating or hardened the servers.  Instead, everyone is trying their best and following what the owner told them, no matter how insane or thick-headed those rules are.

When you are a guest, you have to spend a week or two learning the basic ways of the island.  It takes a while to figure out where to buy food, where to spend the night, and where to find your friends later.  The roads are a riddle, the driver’s an enigma, and the whole island is shrouded in mystery.  No one ever solves the riddles or parses the enigma; we all just get used to the island and accept it.

At the hard social core of the island, two sorts of people live on Nantucket: owners and renters.  For most of the year, the two groups are interchangeable.  The grimiest and most besalted bench sitter might be a renter.  The cleanest, palest, and most dynamic young sprite could be an owner.  But, at the end of May, the classes separate.  Winter rentals come to a close and the owners, with sad and understanding eyes, evict their winter tenants for a few months.  Some of them leave the island, some of them find new homes for the summer, some of them pitch tents in the moors and hope nobody looks too closely.  One math teacher I worked with spent the month living in his car.

Some of us become short-term house guests.  You beg for a sofa and a parking place, promise that it will only be for a week or so, and then you put on your best behavior and scramble.  Wake up early, wash the dishes, take the last shower, hide the dirty clothes, and it’s never a bad idea to make dinner.

The school year overlaps the summer schedule in the fall and spring.  Right around now, my landlords would politely usher me out of their houses and apartments while the school doors were still open and accepting students.  So, I pursued the gypsy life.   Friends opened their children’s bedrooms to me (and shunted the kids off to couches and basements).  I mowed grass (badly), washed dishes, made conversation, and tried to make myself both invisible and useful.

It’s a hateful existence when you are beholden to the good wishes of others.  You wear a jacket of imposition every day and every day it grows just a little bit tighter. You eat someone else’s food, shower in someone else’s bathroom and breathe someone else’s air.  The gypsy life relies on charity and on peanut butter that isn’t quite yours.

When you take a step back, we all live on charity.  Everything that we think we own, from our houses to our underwear has been lent to us.  As we fade, everything, Santa Tie and key chain, gets handed off to the next generation.  Our parents left all of this stuff piled up in the garage and we have it now.

As the birthdays keep accumulating and equity builds, the roles turn.  This weekend I found myself hosting the gypsies of my own.  The memories of the sofa and the shower  are still fresh in my mind.  I packed the refrigerator with soda, piled up the Pop-tarts and tried to make as much space for them as possible.

And it was fine.  The two young teachers disappeared into the evening and re-appeared at the owl time of morning.  They drifted their car into the parking space, slipped through the door and slept the silent sleep of the young.  I lay awake listening to their silent movements, though I didn’t turn on the light.  The young are from another country.  They do things differently there.

In the morning, I woke up before they did and scrambled ten eggs, toasted a package of  English muffins, and broiled a side of bacon.  They woke to the bacon, appeared, and ate.  The stories trickled out and spilled onto the table, although the dam held behind their eyes.  I once lived the stories they held back; they don’t need to tell me what I remember so well.

They will eventually go.  Someone will find two beds in a basement or they will head off to Maine to work at a summer camp.  Every houseguest leaves something behind, be it underwear, a book, or just memories.  And every host pushes something into the hands of the departing so that we will be remembered.