Nantucket Essays

Drive Like Mike

• by Robert P. Barsanti •

Six of them were standing in the middle of a sand parking lot near Fat Ladies Beach. Mom was wearing a mom-like swim suit, but everyone else was wearing something from some company that made competitive yoga outfits. There were sunglasses, and bags, and chairs, and a cute little cooler that could hold two wine bottles and six diet busting grapes. The sun was bright, the air was clear, the surf was roaring, and I am sure the six of them had a wonderful day and would soon have an equally wonderful night.

But they would not move.

I was behind the wheel of a fifteen year old Toyota without a shock absorber and with a belt that stayed together for the children and screamed loud enough for everyone to know. My reverse lights glowed with demoniac lust in their sunglasses. My boon companion rolled down the window and asked them, politely, if they would move so we could back out. With apologies and embarrassed smiles, they shifted over to another part of the sand parking lot where they promptly blocked a Jeep from entering.

The six women did not intend to be rude. They did not spot the rusted, green, wailing hulk of a car and decide that the only way to keep that beast off the beach was to shun it. Nor do I think that they were so chuckle-headed as not to believe that they were in the way. Instead, I believe that the world that the six of them were in somehow excluded everyone else. They were in a bubble of their own.

I have been off-island long enough to know and understand these bubbles. You can’t walk down the central passage at any major mall and not isolate yourself and your companions from everyone else. You don’t make eye contact, you avoid bumping into people, and you act as if you are not aware of anyone else’s drama. Standing in the Food Court at the Galleria, you want to create privacy by not looking and not listening. If Mom and Dad instructs their son “to eat the goddam pizza with a knife and fork” the last thing son, father, or you need is to offer correct dining tips.

Our electronics make the bubble portable and battery powered. On a bike or on a bench, we stare down at Candy Crush, drop the bass, and wait for our good friends to “like” the selfie in the street. Like a paper toilet seat cover, the bubble protects and sanitizes. Many times in the messy parts of my life I would like to be protected and sanitized; walking through the Stop and Shop at mid-day on the Fourth of July helps me really appreciate the whiskey tenor of Jimmy Buffet in Hawaii.

Off-island, the key to understanding every other person arises from imagining everyone in a car on a well-constructed and signed road. We all drive up Elm Street until the light turns red, when we all stop. We slip into the turning lane if we want to take a left turn across traffic. We keep within ten miles of the speed limit. We “use yah blinkah.” And we drive around in sealed bubbles that won’t let in a bird song, a police siren, or the roar of a crashing meteor. Should we hear anything outside the 68 degree, tinted bubble, we turn up Beyoncé and continue on.

Nantucket does not follow American driving laws. We have no stop lights, we let the hedges and azaleas cover the street signs, and we won’t repaint the roads because it costs too much. As a result, Nantucketers have a much simpler driving code: consideration. In order to drive this way, you have to look at the eyes of the other drivers, you have to signal out the window, and you have to wave. In July, when the roads are cluttered with American drivers who are trying to follow non-existent rules, all of the intersections are ceased with idle and still cars. By August, when the rule book is back in the glove compartment and you can see the whites of the driver’s eyes, the intersection flow like a fat man’s aorta. In the best of summer times, the four- and five-way stop signs slow to a crawl; the only way to make them worse is to put a policeman in the middle to direct traffic.

Consideration does not require white gloves and whistles. Instead, you need to pop the bubble, roll down the window, and yank the earbuds out. Instead of ignoring everyone around you, you have to consider them and imagine what they want. You can’t let your daughter sit in the middle of Main Street while you politely let her tantrum blow away. Instead, you need to look up at the Miles Reis trash truck waiting on lovely Desdymoana and swing her up on your hip. Even if your American Seasons dinner was Olympian, you don’t get to saunter up the Center of Centre Street. Follow in the footsteps of The Great Diners who came before you and use the sidewalk. Dumping your empty beer cans in the sand means someone has to clean up after you.

Nantucketers don’t do rules well. We trespass on other people’s land, we drive on the beaches, and we build things we shouldn’t. But we try to use consideration. We try to look at the people washing dishes, driving taxis, or walking down the beach and think, for a moment, what it must be like to be in their shoes. Because, more often than not, we have been in their shoes.

A local contractor, of some repute for his skills and his hair, is known for his driving. When you “drive like Mike,” you let other cars into the intersection, you stop for the pedestrians, and you drop the two fingered wave on just about everyone you pass. You drive, in short, as if you were being paid by the hour and had already clocked in. But he smiles as he waves and we smile back. Because we see and we notice and we appreciate it.

Articles by Date from 2012