Essential Nantucket

by Robert P. Barsanti

In September, the Members have arrived. They may have dawdled through the summer in Florida or Colorado, but now when the Albies are schooling, the wind is fresh, and the crowds have gone, they have flown up, settled in, and are enjoying the evening on their porches. For everyone else, Labor Day is that cruelest of holidays, when school and office call just as the island is at its best. The corn, the tomatoes, the surf, the sky—everything peaks just as the summer people are leaving. For the Members, their sunlit time has come.

The harbor remains full. The Hinckleys and Herreshoffs motor in and dock, or if they are truly massive, moor in the outer harbor off of Coatue. The masts and brightwork glint in the setting sun, as the beaches burnish in the fading light.

In that island light, I stood on the porch of Sayle’s waiting for my fried clams. Across the street, the yacht club was slowly filling for the evening soiree. The tent was up on the lawn, the social spacing was out, and cocktails were served. Hurricane lamps and a spray of tealights, lit up the tent in the fading evening light. The Range Rovers, the Mercedes, the Yukons were sliding in, off-loading the Members, and gently rolling off to a parking lot.

The harbor had fallen to low tide, and down the beach near the creeks a man, a woman, and a little girl stripped to their swimsuits. The shadows stretched across the water, while the houses on Monomoy winked in the setting sun. He put the little girl on his shoulders and she put a Stop and Shop bag on hers. They proceeded to walk into the water for fifty yards or so until they came to a small sailboat. He put the little girl on board, then he swung the groceries on board. then he pulled himself aboard, and the helped the woman up. They were careful, practiced, and ordinary. I’m sure they did this twice a day.

In September, the Members assert their privilege. The houses in Sconset, Monomoy, and on Lincoln Circle are mowed, primped, and lit up. Cisco, while not in full August crowd, still has groups of ten or fifteen sun-worshippers circled around blankets and coolers. The golf courses, the tennis courts, even the bike paths remain busy. The casual visitor can make the mistake that, in September, this is an island for the Members, and membership has its privilege.

But it isn’t. Nantucket has always been a poor man’s island. The most important folks out here were not the captains, the owners, or the visitors: they were the workers. Because we are Americans who view the rich as especially skilled, gifted, and lucky, our eyes go to the well-lit and graceful figures under the tent. Our eyes skip over the dozens working in the shadows, feeding, cleaning, and caring for the Members. We used to joke that, on Nantucket, “millionaires mow the lawns of billionaires.”

I don’t think that joke works now.

Going all the way back to early whaling, poor people came to the island in the hopes of making a buck. If they came out here, and if they worked hard and if they got lucky, they might make their fortune on a whale ship. In our recent history, carpenters and painters would rent a place until they had enough money to buy a piece of land. Then, using sweat equity, luck, and some missing lumber from a job site, would build a little house. You rented it out in the summer, sold it for more money than you ever thought you could get, and rode the Nantucket elevator up.

But the elevator stopped working years ago. Now, the essential workers on Nantucket are families living in basements, storage units, and cars. They are riding six to a car to the job site. They are dropping their kids off to an apartment. They are sending their money home. The essential workers of Nantucket get any work they can, put their back into it, and disappear into a Friday night with a roll of cash in their pockets. They wait for low tide, then walk out to two sleeping bags in a sailboat.

Unless they are particularly fortunate, the essential workers will not be getting loans for a building lot. They don’t have checking accounts, mortgage payments, or social security numbers. But they drive, they mow, they paint. More than a few of the contractors on-island watch them work from the safety of their pickup trucks.

Our current plague has cast a surgical light on the divisions in this country. Those of us who are the owners and employers have had houses to hide in, jobs we can do on a phone, and Netflix to keep us entertained. Our essential workers do not have those privileges. They need to ride the mowers, hide from officials, and hope their luck holds. For most of the summer, the island feared that the New York mogul, with a positive test, would fly out to his house, and infect the Summer. Or that the entitled Chads, taking a Covid year off, would party with their impervious ignorance and close Cisco for a month.

But with our most recent spike, the true danger revealed itself. The rich remained in the light, but the poor hid in the infected dark. The positive tests come from painters, landscapers, and cleaners. The essential workers live and work in a Petri dish. Once among a basement of cleaners or a storage unit full of painters, the virus will metastasize. The catalyst, fear, will stop the tracing and send the sick to work. And then we will all be in line at the hospital.

The island has always depended more on the people we don’t watch rather than the people we do. The unimportant people of Nantucket, the essential people of Nantucket, live and work in the shadows. Their names do not grace the membership lists, the tennis flights, or the reservation lists. None of those bright names carved into the plaques would be here if it wasn’t for dozens of essential workers laboring in the dark. But perhaps, in the future, we can make sure that we can welcome them into our light.