Picnic
Nantucket Essays

No Seats Reserved for the Mighty

• by Robert P. Barsanti •

PicnicThrough a happy accident, I spent ten days on Kauai.  Hawaii is everything Elvis promised us it would be: beautiful flowers, great surf, and barbecue.  We spent days in a different ocean and nights under unfamiliar stars.  By the end of our stay, all that was strange had become familiar.  We sat under gigantic Monkey Pod trees, ate mangos and pineapples, and watched the chickens scratch up bugs in the red dirt.  The Hawaiian rhythms and tides settled in for a few moments before we stepped back on a jet and flew ten hours back to New England.

Nantucket is no Kauai.  While we don’t have that warm water and the palm trees, they don’t have the moors and the long sand beaches.   They have luaus and hula dancers, we have Quaker meetings and selectmen.  Yet, both islands swell with visitors and host a population of middle class islanders working to keep those visitors amused, well-fed, and pleased.

Those middle class Hawaiians love to picnic.  Most scenic vistas, parks, and even parking lots sported long metal tables and even larger families.  They come with coolers, gas grills, and well-used plastic glasses.  Even in the fog at the top of a cliff face, they sat around the grill and ate sweet and sour pork, then waited for the few seconds for the fog to lift so that they could spy the bottom of the Na’pali canyons.

Picnics make sense.  The family gets together away from the house, the television, and the internet.  Nobody is trying to win any Chamber of Commerce awards for wicker baskets and champagne flutes; instead most of the meals I saw began and ended in Tupperware and coolers.  If the kids wanted to chase the chickens and stare at the ocean, they could.  Further, every meal has a million dollar view.  You could eat a baloney sandwich on Wonder bread and have a better dinner view than you would eating Ahi at the Hyatt.  You could enjoy the parks and the natural beauty without a six hour hike or a realtor.

Any non-Hawaiian picnic would enjoy the same virtues.  The picnic table at Children’s Beach has families having meals at it all summer.  Like the tables in Hawaii, this table offers a great view of the water, a chance for the little engines to run hot, and an affordable price.  Unlike the islands in the Pacific, the fog rolls in and dampens the spirits and the sandwiches.  Somehow, we also need more chickens to eat the bugs and fewer seagulls to steal donuts and Pringles.

We don’t have many public picnic tables on Nantucket; somehow the spirit of the island has moved beyond that.  The dark and skeptical part of me believes that picnic tables encourage people to make their own meals and not buy them from snack bars and food trucks.  Our town fathers can’t encourage people to do things that somehow don’t involve wallets and purses; we want our visitors to eat in restaurants three times a day.  At the same time, The D.P.W. Management may have also put the kibosh on the tables.  Each table generates garbage, which would require a can, a truck driving around emptying them a few times a week, and a line in the budget.  From the state of some of the trash cans on Main Street, keeping up with the trash isn’t always a priority.

When I get into an even darker funk, I blame the rich.  As an island, we tied our fortunes to the multimillionaires a long time ago.  They build private clubs, eat in private dining rooms, and enjoy a private “nature” inside their walls and hedges.  Granting their wishes puts food on our tables, pickup trucks in our driveways, and teachers in the schools.  Many islanders wince at offending their caretaking and catering jobs; nobody wants to rock the boat and lose a paycheck.  Non-member families sitting at a picnic table at the Oldest House, Madaket Beach, or at Sankaty Light might pollute the view and offend the Platinum Circle donors.

When I emerge from the darkness, I have to admit that islanders may not have the civic virtues needed for picnic tables.  They would need to be long enough and chained down so that some industrious member of our island brotherhood wouldn’t pick one up and put it in the back of his F350.  If we have people who fish the ponds empty and leave the Town Dock black with squid ink, we have people who will go out of their way to steal a picnic table.  Further, our own local chapter of Red Cup Nation would tag them with a silver gang sign or burn their initials into the seats (Trevor was here!).  Finally, the tables might not be used; packing a cooler is too hard when you can just let the kids graze in the fridge or get a pizza delivered.

Nonetheless, we should have more picnic tables on this island.  We should have them at every Land Bank property, NHA site, and any piece of land held in common.  Too much of what we do out here prizes private property and not common good.  A picnic table walks us, gently, to the idea that all of us are in this together.  There are no seats reserved for the mighty at a picnic table.

Further, most of the island is held in common; it is open for all of us.  A meal outside, whether it be beans and rice or lobster salad, brings us together on an equal footing.  You need no maitre d’, no velvet rope, and no tip for a sandwich, chips, and a Dr. Pepper at a table.   You get to eat on the benches because you got there first.  The kids can run around the mill for a half hour without damaging it and they won’t block the view of the sunset out at Pocomo Point.

Most of us chose to live on Nantucket because of Nantucket, just as most of those who chose to live on Kauai did so because of the beauty of Kauai.  We tolerate the traffic, the high prices, and the fog so that we can have a quiet evening on the beach at Cisco washed in the orange glow of the sunset.  Both Hawaiians and Nantucketers go to bed at night believing that they live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Why not put a few picnic tables around so that people could eat there?