by Robert P. Barsanti
The clouds washed away before dawn, and the sun looked over us for once this April. Spring visits, but leaves the engine running. Winter remains in the front bedroom, although he has worn out his welcome. Almost every Winter morning begins under the racing clouds from the northeast, the damp gusts, and the slap of white caps in the harbor. But Spring visited today, with a warm humid wash out of the southwest, bright sunlight, and the twitches of branches, leaves, and yards. It will move in…later. Can’t be sure. Just looking for now.
On this bright April morning, we took one of our Young Men to breakfast downtown. We knew everyone in the restaurant, they all knew us, and we would probably all still be there long after the hollandaise sauce coagulated and the restaurant closed. We were dressed for winter. All of us had known the island long enough not to trust it; we wore coats, polar fleece, and boots on a morning when the skies were clear as the eye of God.
One of the men at a table near ours tried to get my son’s eye. When the Young Man finally looked up from the menu he had seen fifty times before, our neighbor grabbed his gaze, scooted over, and whispered “I’ve got my eyes on you.” Then he pointed at his eyes, and then the young man’s. We all laughed, eventually.
In September, all of the seniors at Nantucket High School step onto a stage they will only leave when Dr Lepore hands them a diploma and they get to fadeout into the future. Throughout the winter, they get asked about the football team, their grades, and their colleges. Junior Miss never ended, it just expanded to include the full year and the entire senior class.
Which is fine. The island looks on its young with a fervent and fragile love. We have lost enough of them to darkness and chemistry to finally realize how delicate and frail youth can be. The world we are handing to them doesn’t hold the promise and the hope of the one that we were handed. Granted, the young will not be sent to Vietnam or France with a rifle and a prayer. But the dredges are no longer full of scallops and the lines are not heavy with bluefish. Instead, the ferries are full of plumbers and carpenters and the moors have someone else’s house. The ice caps and the middle class have both melted while their parents watched and did nothing. When we look at the seniors, we look at eighteen-year-olds who can’t live the American Graffiti youth that we knew; they don’t get to follow the Dead for a year or hitchhike through Europe. They have to be sharper, faster, and luckier than we were. They have resumes that are on point.
As islanders, we watch and notice and put it away on a post-it on the dashboard. Not only the high school students, but we watch everyone else. I would like to believe we watch out of care and not jealousy or envy, but we watch nonetheless. Once in my youth, when the electric heat in the house I was renting sent the bill spiraling, I crashed into the electric company and vented my opinions about a $600 electric bill, and then heard about that from students, teachers, department head, principal, and superintendent. The eyes are everywhere.
The eyes watched the Stop and Shop for a week or so. With two corporate chain markets on-island—both Stop and Shop—the strike put a hitch in all of the usual plans and highlighted, once again, how isolating thirty miles of ocean can be. If I lived in Rehoboth, Market Basket, Star Market, Shaws, and even Whole Foods can sell me Honey-of-a-Ham, Cadbury’s Eggs, and Friskies with glee. But out here, the Stop and Shop offered you the essentials: milk, cat food, and diapers. The strike took us out of the accustomed patterns and made us consider.
So we watched. Like most Nantucket businesses, many of the workers came from off-island and lived in employee housing. When the strike dropped, they hopped on a boat and went home. The picket line remained for those workers who still call Nantucket home. We knew them. They didn’t have houses with water views, Criss Crafts tied up in the Boat Basin, or vacations on St. Somewhere. They were us.
And for some, they weren’t. The Produce Manager and the rest of U.F.C.W. had time-travelled from another era beyond disruption and Uber, when workers could count on guaranteed health care and retirement plans. The stockers and the slicers don’t have newer pick up trucks than the contractors, but they aren’t as afraid of the emergency room. So they were watched, as everyone else does, with both care and envy.
In this particular strike, at this particular moment on-island, not many would cross the line. To buy Mr. Snuffles his Fancy Feast, you had to align yourself with a Dutch multinational and its shareholders. All of the usual corporate spittle about greedy union bosses rattled like pennies in a tip jar. We will take the stockholders’ money and build them a summer mansion in Quaise while in the financial fog of LLC’s and trusts, but we won’t do business in front of our neighbors and family. Those who did took to social media to explain themselves. Those who did not cross the line accounted themselves well and dropped off more donuts for the strikers.
The future veers and wanders away. The next generation may not have a bike store, car dealership, or sandwich shop to support and lift children and grandchildren. The ocean warms, the wind picks up, and the bankers wobble and totter along the curb. We have stood by as the Pacific National Bank was sold, Main Street moved off-island, and Nantucket Electric stopped the generators. Those jobs leave for the weekend and come back over Monday on the fast ferry.
We watch and hope and root for them and try not to worry. The sun illuminates all of us, all of us with familiar names and faces, and informs us. And, perhaps, calls us to act.