by Robert P. Barsanti
“Do you want a piece of me?”
He did not look tasty.
He was well over seventy, bald, with a gray Van Dyke beard, a yellow Vineyard Vines shirt, and a visor. He was standing behind the hood of his white-and-gold Mercedes SUV. His wife had just backed into a Jeep and was ready to drive away until they saw me. I had started recording the two of them.
His wife grabbed a piece of paper, wrote on it, and tucked it onto the windshield wiper of the nudged car. They accelerated out of the farm stand parking lot with fingers raised.
When I worry about the fate of the world, I am comforted by the traffic on island.
The island wasn’t really made for cars. Most of the streets were designed for horses, carts, and adventurous pedestrians who could navigate a rolling sidewalk as well as they could a rolling deck. In the mechanical years, the island has adapted fitfully to the presence of cars, but it would be better, really, if everyone would just drive twenty-year-old jeeps, complete with dings, dents, and Nobadeer racing stripes. The parking lots make a lot more sense in a 1995 Wrangler than they do in a 2021 Yukon.
On the other hand, America was built for cars. The towns spread out into minimalls and parking lots, with turning lanes, timed traffic lights, and drive-thru lanes. The death of the shopping mall and the rise of delivery services only reinforces that. You don’t have to walk past Banana Republic and Newbury Street Comics in order to stand in a food court, with all of those others, and get an Orange Julius. Now, Americans can sit at home, avoid all of the other people in the mall, and have someone else’s car deliver their Mango Pineapple Premium Fruit Smoothie to their front doors.
Americans live in bubbles. They drive with the windows up, the air conditioning buzzing, the directions screen flashing, and Spotify playing the music you remember from forty years ago (as per their algorithm). Screens once popped down from the ceiling, but now the passengers carry their own devices, with their own music, videos, and digital friends. The car bubble now multiplies into one for each passenger.
This sanity-saving technology saves you on the MassPike when you are stuck between exits 8 and 9 behind a Market Basket truck and a thousand other souls creeping past the construction. Unfortunately, that same technology and its corresponding mindset cripples you on Nantucket.
Driving on Nantucket requires consideration and communication. Rules are broken with the wave of a hand. Permission is given with a glance. Because the island wasn’t build with an eye to cars, everyone who drives out here has to have the empathy of a Kindergarten teacher at recess. Everyone is their own traffic cop. We wave people through the intersection ahead of us, we wave to thank the people behind us, we park with an eye for the people around us. We break out of our bubbles.
Nantucketers don’t develop consideration out of some sense of altruism or some higher purpose. No: it’s because we know that the guy we cut off in traffic is the same guy we will beg to come on a Sunday afternoon and unplug the toilets. The women we wave in front of us at Five Corners will be the lady who needs thirty bouquets for her granddaughter’s wedding in October. And the woman in the jeep who blocks four cars in while she picks up sugar donuts will be the same woman who didn’t deflate her tires before she drove onto Nobadeer. “It’s a mutual joint stock world in all meridians; we Nantucketers must help out these Americans.”
This summer has been congested. The blame doesn’t entirely lie with the Planning Board, the short term renters, or the ferries. July has been a damp, cool, and beach-lite month. More visitors, faced with a house full of dry towels and folded swim suits, have gone for a quick drive and have wound up piled up on Old South Road or on Surfside Road in front of the high school. But, in spite of that, the drivers keep their windows open while they steer with the right and signal with the left. It’s hard to believe that same good fellowship could happen on Route 9 in Newton.
Happily, consideration spreads from the cars. One of the pleasant minor stories on-island involve lost-and-found items. A pair of surfboards was left on the beach, but they were tucked away and returned the next day. Debit cards are left at the Box and picked up the next day. My favorite stories involve lost phones. Unlike the lost dories and surfboards, some lost soul hopes for the return of $1500 worth of digital tether and, generally, gets it: “I lost my phone somewhere between Cliff Road and Fortieth…”
Consideration leads to bad habits for some of us. I leave phones, keys, and wallets in some of the strangest places, only to recover them with an apologetic smile and a handshake. Last week, I found myself lost without a pink pen. The pen is pink, so I won’t lose it. So, it failed me. I checked the bank, the drug store, the grocery store, and the car (three times) before I found it on the driving range out at Miacomet. No, I don’t know why I thought I needed a pink fountain pen at a driving range. But the island, in a vast network of consideration for absent minded and the dim, left it in the pro shop.
America is full of challenges. We have too many people who think that biology is a faith, that wealth is a right, and that guns are permission. But while the drivers are waving to each other at Five Corners, I will still have some hope.