Nantucket Essays

What, to a Dishwasher, is the Fourth of July?

• by Robert P. Barsanti •

Before the Fourth of July rush began, I was lucky enough to sneak my car onto the last run of the Eagle. Nantucket residents get hit up for all sorts of fees and bills, but the residency program at the Steamship gives back a bit. Once you are here, on-island, and you sign up, the travel between home and America gets a lot simpler and cheaper. The parking lot attendants of the sea directed my old car into a space between a Stop and Shop truck and a lumber hauler, gave me the thumbs up, and moved on into the electric night to park the Lexus behind me.

July rises up, mighty and dreadful, on the docks in Hyannis. The flood swells in 18 wheelers, vans, and Land Rovers stacked with bicycles and kayaks. The island rides on an invisible dark wave, that comes in the middle of the night, stocks the Stop and Shop with grapes, tomatoes, and gluten free brownies, then turns around and heads back out to sea. In July, when the island hosts 50,000 wine drinking, sandwich eating, and beach chair sitting visitors, that 18-wheel tide flows hard and fast through the night. And, luckily, there was room to tuck one old Volvo into the rushing current.

Once away from the lights of Hyannis, the sky descends and the years wash away. When the last front blew the fog and humidity away, the stars returned in a July storm. All of the familiar constellations have added stars and texture in the clear air. I tried to identify all the summer constellations that I knew, but all of the other, dimmer stars confused my eyes. I could find Cassiopeia, the Dipper, and Cygnus, but Sagittarius hid his face in a crowd of stars. The Milky Way stretched horizon to horizon; rich and deep in the sky. Cobblestones and cedar shingles remind us of the past, but nothing drops the weight of the years like the huge vault of stars. Stand on the deck of a rocking ship in all that ancient light, and the little matchstick of your own life looks pretty small.

My grandfather stood in this light. He travelled back and forth from Ellis Island to Italy, accompanying uncles, cousins, and more than a few bottles of wine. Politically, he and his brother Adolphus were on the wrong side of history, but he found his way in America. He washed dishes and peeled potatoes at Anthony’s Pier Four in Boston amid many other Italians. He took English classes with a former upstairs maid, who then married him, and he made his way in America until he was a restauranteur, country club member, and proud home owner on the right side of town. He stood under these skies, on the same ocean, and on another rocking deck.

What, to a dishwasher, is the Fourth of July? It certainly wasn’t a day off. Money needed to be made, children needed to be fed, and the bus came at the same time it always did. But it was better than what he had. There was trouble, there was bias, there were “No Italian Need Apply” but there was a path forward where if you worked hard, made the money, and then kept working, you could find yourself in a nice house with kids in college and money in the bank. Both of my grandfathers swam up on a column of sweat: they dragged their future with them.

Today, we live in a second Gilded Age, where hedge fund managers have putting greens copied from Augusta National in the backyard. We live in an age when the well-off can spend millions holding back the ocean for their fifth home. We live in a time when a college education costs more than a house and is even more necessary. We live in a time when hope can be an expensive and painful luxury.

Yet, the rest of the world comes to America. They come legally and illegally. They overstay their visas or they hide or they line up in an incredible line for citizenship and still they come. They sit on this ferry, in families and in work groups, and they stare around. Perhaps someone has a deck of cards, or a phone, or a paper bag of food. The snack bar sells more rice and beans than it sells clam chowder. Later, they will move into the basement of a crowded little house and grab some sleep before they have to mow lawns, or clean rooms, or wash dishes. There’s work and there’s a bed, and they come. Just as we always have.

They cause the same problems they always have on island. The town dock remains stained with squid ink and the ponds get fished out because no one charges you for the food you catch. The hospital, the police, and the schools care for far more of them than their budgets anticipated. They take all of the cheapest jobs, then push costs downward for everyone. They send their paychecks back home, then bring the rest of the family up into Nantucket, then sleep three to a bed. The steamship comes to the island six times a day, all summer, and each trip brings more.

Most of the people who come to Nantucket on planes and high speed ferries, envision the island as a restaurant where they walk in, study the specials, sit down, and enjoy a nice meal. The view is lovely, the staff is gracious, and the drinks are cold. But most of the people who come to the island on the slow boat and sleep on the benches inside, see the island as kitchen where the orders come in, food is made, and the dishes need to be cleaned. At the end of the night, the tips are divided up, and the time clock gets punched, even on the Fourth of July.

So, when we stand downtown in the spray of the great water fight, we celebrate this dual freedom. Those men not only fought and died in all of those wars so that all of us “residents” could live free, have the day off, and stand on Main Street under the spray of an aerial fire hose.   They also died for all of the poor folks, sleeping in basements, eating beans and washing dishes for the promise of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness; a promise made on the Fourth of July.

Articles by Date from 2012