Nantucket Essays

Lessons of Nantucket

by Robert P. Barsanti

The neighbors have arrived.

They brought their dogs.

The Golden Retrievers came racing in from both sides, clashed in our yard, and then went dashing after each other in a joyful chase for suburban dominance. Their owners slid the sliding glass doors shut.

We all like dogs, and we know how they can behave. It doesn’t surprise me, or anyone in my house, that the dogs like to run around and have found lots of good things to smell and eat in our backyard. We have been dumping clam shells and rotted scallops behind the wall for months. If their dogs want them, they can have at them.

The neighbors have put spotlights on their house with motion detectors. Then they draw the curtains and turn on the air-conditioners. So if the marauders and vandals come in the evening, they can have light for their tools and their owners won’t hear a thing. The lights react particularly well to fog. They switch on and off all night. With an audible click.

Usually this will go on for about two weeks. The neighbors will leave their garbage for the seagulls to pick through, will host parties with Rihanna into the small hours, and will come staggering through the hedges at least once. And then, just as I am contemplating freezing balls of bacon fat and peanut butter for the winter (with gravel), the behavior stops. The lights go out around ten o’clock. Rihanna uses her ear phones. Nobody staggers past the driveway.

I don’t think anything magical has happened. I don’t think anyone has gone to the neighbors with a list, a stern look, and the words “Now, see here, my good man…” on his lips. I think Nantucket happened.

My neighbors are from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Newton. Their worlds operate under certain rules of physics which do not apply to the island. Off-island, everyone passes each other inside BMW’s and Kia’s. They glance over the steering wheel, nod from the front seat, but never quite acknowledge that there is anything connecting the two people that a good goose of the accelerator won’t cure. They won’t see their neighbors at the Starbucks or at the SubWay or even at the Whole Foods on Saturday when they have the organic wine tasting. Nor will they meet at Kiwanis or at the Fireman’s Breakfast or even at church on Sunday morning. They go from house to car to office to car to house without anything but a nod at the stop sign at the end Golfview Drive.

In short, they live in a world governed by rights. They have rights to the trash, rights to the dog walk, and rights to the front yard. They live in gated communities with binders full of rules and regulations. Traffic lights and stop signs govern their interactions with each other, whether they are in automobiles or not. This decorum seems rooted in politeness—“We’ll just let them sort this out themselves”— but really comes from a sort of selfishness. I don’t want their drama: I have enough drama of my own.

Now they come to the island, without binders full of duties and requirements. Instead of those rules, comes consideration. They can stand on the accelerator as often as they’d like, they aren’t going to get past ‘Sconset. And, at the end of the day, they still come back to their houses with their neighbors. They see us at the beach and at the Stop and Shop, at Hatch’s and at the hospital, and it occurs to them that they can’t really avoid us. We will witness the drama, be it in their backyard or at the Seagrille. It’s all there.

And we can’t avoid our neighbors. I can’t break their windows this January with my peanut butter rat-bombs because I will see them every day this summer. I will know what brought the swamp to their reclaimed oak flooring and their granite counter tops. I will know what brought the contractors out next April and will feel ever so ashamed when I see them in the grocery store with Skippy Peanut Butter in my basket. Just as the accelerator can’t free my neighbor, the calendar can’t free me. I have no car to hide in either, nor any hedge to hide behind. We both stand naked in our outdoor showers.

That’s Nantucket.

It’s a common wealth, joint stock society where we cannibals must look out for these christians. And vice versa. We both need each other for a summer free from drama. They will want to pick blackberries with their friends. We will want to park our cars in the driveway. Off island, their rights would be ennumerated and assumed. Here, we should consider what it must be like in the other house right now, at two in the morning, when Rihanna is back at it again.

I feel the guilty pull of the common wealth when I see the bicyclists going the wrong way. This weekend, two women, well into their cups, went rolling the wrong way down Main Street on a tandem. They stopped every ten yards, giggled, then rolled for another painful ten yards, before coming to a hard stop and giggling again. Eventually, the spectators pointed out the traffic laws, and the women went teetering back to the tent.

While I never rode a tandem or wore heels that high, I certainly tooled my Univega at high speeds up the one-way streets near Five Corners until I nearly planted myself in the hood of my Department Head. She didn’t need to say anything. I was able to figure out the traffic rules myself. So, I forgive the drunken girls and hope that they are able to learn the lessons of Nantucket faster than I did.

Articles by Date from 2012