by Robert P. Barsanti
Labor Day has crept upon us, tardy and idle. It slips up after the great tide of summer tourism has turned. Nobadeer has opened up, the waves are available at Cisco, and the surf fisherman can reclaim Madaket. Across the island, the traffic has eased. The weekdays remain crowded with pickups and vans, but you can make left hand turns on the weekends.
The retired will happily accept the gift of September. Without the requirements of meetings, punch clocks, and classrooms, they enjoy warm water, crowds of bluefish, and empty golf courses. At night, the restaurants have tables. In the morning, the lines for the donuts are short. Of course, it takes some good fortune and a better investment banker to take your September on Nantucket, but if you can, there may be no better place to do it.
Labor Day has also, traditionally, been the high point of the “Staff Dinner” season. In the familiar past, employers would reward those staff members who made it through the vagaries and vandals of August into the smooth waters of September. They would take them out for whale watches or buy them expensive dinners or throw a beach party. In my early years working in the bars and dance houses of the island, the staff dinner was a way to insure that those faithful, trustworthy, and sober workers would think about you next May and come out for another season of dishwashing and house painting.
The primary audience for these dinners wasn’t the college junior who made his way out here with ten frat brothers, but the surfers. The surfers may live onisland, may share an apartment with three others, and may be available next May when the season opens. Better to have a good report with the lineup off of Nobadeer than a pleasant mention in some college newspaper.
The staff dinner faded away, but it is making its way back into favor. Store owners and contractors have re-learned lessons that had slipped: quality workers are very rare and the customers can be virulent and painful. Add Covid to the mix and we have a summer like this one, where the island has plenty of visitors but not enough workers. We have the Day, but we don’t have the Labor.
Our plan of “Let’s Grow Faster, and it will all work out” seems to have hit a snag. On one hand, the island did more than a billion dollars in real estate deals by August. On the other hand, we don’t have enough nurses, teachers, cops, firemen, lifeguards, or D.P.W. workers. We have become the libertarian paradise, where the pot holes grow, drunks can speed, and the hospital is a blood pressure cuff and a helicopter pad.
Moreover, since Covid, people have a different idea about the way that they spend their waking hours. I came to teaching in the hazy glare of “Find something you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your lives.” It meant that I was finding something to love at ten o’clock at night over the essays, on Saturdays in front of the photocopier, and over the summer in one desk or another. I didn’t have time to work because I was so busy with my “love.” Perhaps spending all that time arm-deep in photocopiers wasn’t the healthiest thing for me.
Work, especially out here on God’s favorite sandbar, has spread to fill as many waking hours as it can stain. The reality of an expensive island meant working three jobs to pay for one life. The economy of land and sand accelerates far beyond our ability to keep up. But as that life on-island has become more fantastic and unrealistic, the sprinting pace begins to lose its allure. And the foothold out here has become less secure no matter what we earn.
In that space, where the future gallops past at the investment speed of Goldman Sachs, perhaps the wisest family investment isn’t in power tools, but in surf boards. Our hands could hold toys instead of tools. Our days could have more hours that aren’t (or shouldn’t) be billable. If we drop one client and pick up one surfcasting rod, everyone in our lives will thank us for it.
Today, in the masked and distant era that we now live in, workers seem to be taking a more sensible approach to the workplace. Some sandwich shops are closed on Sunday, and other stores are closed by five in the evening. The “End of the Season Sale” is coming around Labor Day this year, not Halloween or Christmas. All this free time means the lineup has a few more surfers and the Broad Street restaurants have fewer servers.
After all, Labor Day celebrates the victory of the carpenter, the millworker, and the waitress. Working people, at the cost of blood and pain, won eight-hour workdays. In that victory, a balance was famously struck: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” On-island, we have given up that victory in exchange for another yard, another building plot, another tip. And that won’t be enough.
Labor Day comes every year, with it comes the gift of September. The water remains warm, the tuna are feeding, and the bicycle paths have emptied. Nantucket enters that special time when the warmth of the summer remains in the water and the air, while the busy-ness of the summer has shifted to the highways and airports of the mainland. The retirees, who worked hard for most of their lives, are enjoying the back nine. Perhaps, for once, we should learn from our elders, close the shop, and wet a line.
I think we all could agree that today would be a good time for a nice dinner.