surf | Nantucket, MA
Nantucket Essays

Privilege of Surf

by Robert P. Barsanti

The storm missed.

It formed off the coast of North Carolina and, instead of following the time honored path of the Gulfstream, it hooked left over New Jersey and New York, leaving us with fog, a stiff breeze, and some rolling surf.

Without the turnover days of the past, filled with mowing, lobster shells, and empty wine bottles, I have found myself at the beach. Early in July, the water remains chilly enough to raise the foggy spirits and send them cartwheeling over the island, but warm enough for floating. With the passing storm and its echoing surf, nobody was floating for long.

Storm surf dominates. Its spray fills the air, the boiling white illuminates the beach, and the crashing waves command. With everything that fills the air today, from marching to bounties to infection, I enjoy the privilege of surf. I enjoy it so much that I slept sounder on the sand than I have for months.

I wasn’t alone. The island may be less than half full these days, but the surf beaches are close to July normal. The Jeeps, the Land Rovers, and the retro Broncos have been putting two wheels in the beach grass along the south shore. Out on the beach, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Greenwich Country Day spread in semicircular audiences to the rolling natural performance. “Spenser had come up from Houston. He was supposed to leave a week ago, but, y’know…”

Yes, I know.

Next to me, a semi-circle of women in bikinis enjoyed the sun. They had three consorts; one with gray hair, one with dark hair, and one in a tent with a diaper and a jumper. They had brought the equipment; coolers, chairs, tent, books, and kadima.

Dad picked up one paddle and a daughter picked up the other; they volleyed ten, twelve, twenty times in rhythm. Then, two of her sisters joined in. The husband was a good sport for a few minutes, embarrassing and abasing himself in front of Dad before returning to Jill Lepore’s latest. Dad, however, had become the Man in Full. He would, periodically, lob the ball high in the air, and wait for one bikini or another to keep the ball in the air. He had done this before. Many times.

He was silent, in that way Dads are when they don’t want to jinx it. Me too. You have to keep the ball in the air.

I had perspective. The umbrellas, the chairs, the tent, the Land Rover, the house on Meadowview Drive and the retirement had all been steps that led him to this one moment on the beach. He and his daughters, keeping the ball in the air. You have to enjoy the privilege of surf. One more moment, when we are all together and healthy and the steaks are marinating back home in pineapple, Worcestershire, and soy. Tik tok tik tok tik.

Privilege isn’t just wealth. Money alone did not bring them to this moment, although it helped. It not only bought the house and the accessories, it bought the time for everyone to come back to the beach. It bought the careers that could be put on hold or Zoomed on the Wifi from the guest bedroom. And it bought the good health that everyone, from diaper to Dad, enjoyed.

And it isn’t only race, although it also helped. As a white man, he was went to college and enjoyed fraternity shenanigans without being shot or arrested. He settled into a career, and then made the usual career mistakes without cost, and enjoyed a rise without the needles of prejudice. He worked hard, undoubtedly, and was rewarded for it with not only money, but those other invisible things that money carries in its pockets: mortgages, credit, health insurance, and stability. Four children is its own privilege.

The greatest privilege, the one that he and I enjoy, is time. Everyone on that beach had an afternoon in their lives to bear witness, be it from an afternoon away from the lawnmower or a summer in retirement. More than that, we lived in a time when the water was healthy, the air was clear, and you could buy Spanish truffle dusted potato chips and key lime pie on the drive home.

And, even though we live in the time of Covid, we also live in a time (and place) where science and prudence have bought this summer. This afternoon of beach and Kadima was earned by islanders staying in their homes, nurses administering tests, a governor’s restraint, and masks. Our freedom was earned with a collective sacrifice and surrender. Such as we are, we gave ourselves outright in April, May, and June. The beaches would be empty if the refrigerator trucks at the hospital were full. Dad wouldn’t be bringing his daughters to the island, nor would his daughters be bringing Dad.

The kadima ball will fall, and then the tent will be put away, cover ups will be found, and we all will head to dinner, then sleep, lulled to the murmuring privilege of surf. The beach reveals the central paradox of life on island. Each summer it is different: Each summer it is the same. The cliffs get steeper, the walk gets shorter, roads and houses are consumed, but at core, the surf, the water, and the sand itself remain the same. Somewhere, in that lucky Dad’s house, hides a Polaroid of all four girls in pigtails, rope bracelets, and sunburns on this same beach. The wheel turns and remains forever still.

The privilege of surf had flung us up onto this beach. It removes those years, those troubles, those advantages so that, on an afternoon, the moment hangs high in the air.

It won’t stay there long.

Articles by Date from 2012