Nantucket Essays


by Robert P. Barsanti

My son has spent much of his summer elbow deep in mayonnaise, mustard, and meatballs. He has been apprenticed into the family trade down at Henry’s Jr. and has been feeding the working people of Nantucket one sandwich at a time. He has learned the special proprietary code of the order slip. He has figured out how many Nectars he can put in one sandwich bag. And he has mastered how to listen to a customer who expected meatball with extra provolone, but who received a veggie on a gluten free wrap.

One afternoon last week, just after the lunch rush, an older man (a college dean) came to the counter. “I used to work for your grandparents. I had about as much fun as you’re having.” The Hope for the Future, smeared in condiments and sweat, smiled politely at the comment, but nodded. The dean left a big tip.

After work, we went out to the beaches behind Bartlett’s. People spend millions of dollars for houses out here for a good reason. And that good reason was touched by flecks of cloud in a bowl of Carolina blue. It rolled into the shore, climbed up on a sandbar, and then tumbled up to the beach. The afternoon rang slowly in the pebbles of the receding waves.

We came to the beach at around three-thirty. The early birds had had enough sun by then, and had left either for Cisco Brewers or a warm shower. The rest of the families were measuring the time they had left and imagining a swordfish steak on the grill.

The ocean water had not warmed enough for the Florida millionaires to feel comfortable, but for the rest of us, it washed away the grit, grime, and mayo of a long day. A chill caught your breath in the first few seconds, then your skin adjusted and everything settled in fine. Twenty yards off shore, the Atlantic had graced us with the first sandbar of July. The tide swirled over it, but you could body surf in to the shore.

As we rode the waves, the families drifted off the beach until the after noon revealed the group that we had settled next to. Thirty teenagers, just out of St. Alban’s School, lay out on towels. Time let them play and be golden.

When I am exposed to that much youth, the old man inside starts muttering. The young men were shirtless, fully tanned, and muscled; they sported sunglasses worth more than my first car; they wore board shorts that extended down to the middle of their kneecaps. They did not have work shirts or farmer’s tans. The young women wore bikinis where the tops had the modesty of jog bras, but the bottoms were more Brazilian than basic. Their sunscreen routine had yet to keep up with their fashion sense; three of them had sunburns that would provide a difficult ride home to Dad’s compound.

Yet, for all of the bright and shiny privilege wrapped around them, they were remarkably well behaved. No beer, no wine, no warm and spicy herbal scents; no Frisbee heroes flying over the sand and cheerleaders to urge them on. They played music, but not loud and not boorish— they even asked if it was too loud for us. All in all, they celebrated an envious good time of sunburned privilege. I was not so well behaved. My memory remains fresh enough to shame me. Years ago, when time washed warm around me as well, I brought my Muse bouncers to the beach on Sunday with a keg and four speakers in the back of a pick up truck. When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish. I grabbed my privilege and danced the fandango. I didn’t ask anyone if my music was too loud, I made sure it was.

So there is hope for the future.

These graduates are young and green. They believe that their dreams are rights; they know exactly who they are, exactly where they are going, and how much it is going to cost. This perfect day, this wonderful sandbar, these playful and gentle waves were not the gift of sheer meteorological luck, but a divine signal. My son, prince of the cold cuts and condiments, probably felt it too. It isn’t so much a privilege of money (although who else can host thirty high school graduates in July on Nantucket?) but a privilege of youth.

Age grinds away privilege, even for St. Alban’s grads. The tides of change shift for all of us, the sand bar disappears below you, and the waves turn cold, then gray, then brown. Fear of the sea is the beginning of wisdom. I don’t want my son to be forever young. Instead, he should know unfairness, so he can appreciate justice when it arrives. He should suffer betrayal, so he will be loyal past when loyalty is expected. He should be lonely so that he can be good company. But, a father wishes for this to come gently. Let the sea grow cold slowly.

After riding the waves, we settled into our chairs and let the sun slip and the pale moon rise in the lavender evening. He was deep into his summer reading, and I was ripping through something foolish while the beach emptied. The fishing trawlers deep off-shore winked red and green. Two seals swam by us, headed east for stripers and blues. When he looked up and saw the evening, we closed the chairs and walked back up to the parking lot. The young graduates remained on the sand.

In the early evening, when the visitors are elsewhere and the line is short, we stopped for Watermelon Creams at the Juice Bar. I was happy to see he, also, left a big tip.

Articles by Date from 2012