photo by Tom Griswold
Nantucket Essays

Finding America in the Moonlight

by Robert P. Barsanti

At four in the morning, a sliver of a moon rises out of the mists of the Atlantic. It hangs over Cliff Road, obscured by a bank of clouds, then illuminating the elms, oaks, and eaves. In the purple night, the road contains rabbits, deer, and moonlight.

I have been acquainted with the night. Either the times of my life or the times of our country bring me out of bed, into the kitchen, and awash in the light of the refrigerator. I can no longer fool myself into thinking I can just go back to bed, count sheep, and drift back into dreams. I am vexed by the darkness. So, instead of amusing myself on a screen, I drove off to look for America in the moonlight.

At four in the morning, some houses on Cliff Road are lit. The kitchen has a light on over the stove, a lamp glows on a staircase, or a spotlight shines on a deck. Nobody is awake, though. None of the Cliff Road denizens are putting their work clothes on in the bruise-colored dawn. If they are here, they dream in their air-conditioned, 1000 thread count luxurious night.

Downtown, two taxis and an Uber are lined up by the Pacific Club. There might be fares slipping off the yachts in the silent morning, carrying their shoes. There might be a chef or a dishwasher who had to stay late. There might be a fare.

I knew the two taxi drivers, but not the Uber. We talked. He had brought his Nissan Rogue over two days ago. Last year, he said, he made almost $12,000 over Fourth of July week. I asked “Where was he going to sleep?” He patted the roof of the car. I wished him well.

At the Stop and Shop, both sets of doors were open as a crew re-stocked the shelves. They pulled the pallets of fruit in and set up the grapes, apples, strawberries in the electric dark. Twenty or so cars dotted the parking lot; most seemed empty—the drivers had gone into the Chicken Box before being drunkenly flung out into the night. But work vans were tucked into shadowy corners, with cardboard covering the windows. Pickup trucks lined the back row, three with sleepers fully reclined. I turned off my lights until I was back on the road.

On the Polpis Road, one lone bicyclist pedaled out to work in Sconset. He was practiced and equipped with a helmet and lights fore and aft; this wasn’t the first time he had pedaled to work before the dawn. The deer darted out of his way as he followed the moonlight.

Out on Baxter Road, a painting crew filled a house with light as they finished the interior coat. You could hear the seconds tick by in the rush of blowers and the tick of the heat lamps. The rest of the road slept to the lullaby of the sprinklers. I turned back to town.

At the high school, a sole fire truck silently flashed through the intersection and sedately rolled out to Surfside. Somewhere an alarm had tripped and they rolled without the benefit of paramedics, police, or speed. I followed at a distance until they turned right and headed to the hostel. Nothing was burning tonight.

No parties remained at Nobadeer. The airport was lit for a landing, but no planes were in sight or in earshot. Out to sea, just before the horizon, seven trawlers crawled to the west. Their decks were lit and, even at this distance, the winches labored. Squid, perhaps. Not cod, not haddock, not any of the other species that have been stripped off of the bottom of the Atlantic. They were fishermen though, full of hope, pulling wages out of the ocean. If squid pays, squid it would be.

We can only see America clearly in the moonlight. America is not flags, bunting, and fireworks. We have been fooled into believing that sunlight and streetlights illuminate the true nature of our country: the summer house afloat in a pond of hydrangea and roses, the Weber Genesis 20 burger grill, the smiling sun-burned children dancing on the Belgian block at Cisco Brewers. Instead, the real America works in the early morning moonlight. America hopes to have a big week driving, hopes to finish painting this room by dawn, hopes to catch enough squid. America hopes.

At our best, we bet on ourselves in America. We put our time and money down on a chance, and we try to make it work. We follow the moonlight. Nothing is more American than signing up with a sharkish company like Uber, spending your own money to bring your car over on the boat, then hoping in the blueblack dawn for a fare. Everyone who was awake at four in the morning, except me, was betting on themselves and hoping.

Not everyone believes in that hope. Many want to build walls and cages. Others just want to grab as much as they can grab in the bright noontime sun and hold on. They will poison that hope, leech it, drain it, and walk away counting their money. But the believers are in the parking lot, in tents, and on the boats, betting on themselves.

As the dawn grew, the moon faded. The dog walkers emerged with their sensible sneakers and green poop bags. The runners and riders started exercising on the bike paths. The trucks and cars awoke and rolled to the boat. The moon hid behind a bank of clouds, and then faded in the expansive blue. The day swung into action. Golfers and sailors and tennis players and surfers and fishermen headed out into the sunlight.

The true Americans remain, full of hope and caffeine, working in the background and following the moonlight.

Articles by Date from 2012