Nantucket Essays

Privilege Wears Waders

~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~

The tide was draining out of Madaket Harbor in the early afternoon under the incandescent winter sun. Safe in waders, six of us stood in the cold water that lapped around our waists. Aware of the present danger and recent past, we watched each other, but from a distance. I dragged along the floating basket and my rake. I drew the it over the bottom, then pulled up a soup of dead grass, crabs, and scallops. Before the tide turned, I had filled my basket, as had my silent and distant colleagues. We trudged out of the water into the quiet air.

“Still great, is it?”

“Still great.” I answered.

I came to the island thirty years ago in a hungry winter. A math teacher took the rookies out one afternoon, with a rake and a basket, and showed us how you could always eat well on this island, for the cost of a license and a wet bottom. Then, over Bud bar bottles and the Patriots game, we shucked them, ate a few raw, then deep fried the rest in beer and corn meal. That afternoon was underlined by saws and hammers down his street, but highlighted by the same unblinking winter sun. The scallops disappeared, then the Bud, then the sun.

That winter, we also took a weekend and re-roofed his mother’s house. She lived on Pleasant Street, in a house that had been a farm house back when Nantucket grew more than tennis courts, flag sticks, and three dollar ears of corn. On a Saturday when the Canadian high was parked directly over the island and the air didn’t drop below fifty-five, the six of us climbed up a ladder and learned how to strip shingles. We cleared the roof by midafternoon, prepped it, then on Sunday, while Johnny Most called the game between Larry Bird and the Knicks, we hammered new shingles on. Our over-educated hands somehow created a leak proof surface that lasted until they tore it all down with a backhoe.

The math teacher is gone now. Everyone who was with me on that roof has either become a permanent island resident under the soil or has moved off-island and into different lives. The scallops they eat come from a freezer or a kitchen. His house we re-roofed got knocked down about ten years ago and four others sprouted up on a street that only resembled his driveway.

Ironically, his mailbox remains. I remember, of course. I do my best remembering with a glass, a fork, and tartar sauce, but I remember, nonetheless. The past was great. At moments, the past is still present in an upstairs room. It waits for us to find time. In that January moment, we climb back up the stairs, throw open the door, and leap back into that time and bounce on the bed. Memory is the curse of age; it brings back old friends and old places, when the light was the same, the wind had eased, and we stood in a silence underlined by Cessnas. Today, the airplanes have gone, but the crowded silence remains.

In that upstairs room are the acres of land you could have scraped together the cash for, the houses you could have built, the marriages you could have had. In the cold light of today, the past can be a line of badly erased mistakes and empty regrets. Eventually, we all bury our mistakes. But close your eyes. The years return from a regretful dark and those ghosts rise for new answers to a winter Sunday afternoon. The ocean knows no calendar and the wind has no clock. As long as I don’t look in the mirror, the years are only rumors and fears.

Age is restless, regretful, and wrong. To stand on a beach in Madaket, gaze across this small shallow elbow of the gray Atlantic to Tuckernuck and beyond, and to remember everything you no longer have is to forget everything you still carry. America is full of people who never pulled their dinner out of the ocean, shucked it on a board, then ate it raw. Privilege wears waders.

I cleaned the scallops on the deck at the back of my house. The shells and guts I walked into neighbor’s yard and dumped in his vegetable garden. I don’t think he will come from Manhattan and fingerprint the shells. I hoped he would think of it as payment for the houseguests of August.

Across the street, a crew was busy building six bedrooms, four full baths and two kitchens for someone from Connecticut. They had arrived early on Sunday morning, started up at eight, and were now going strong into the sinking light of the afternoon. Six of them spoke shouted Spanish to each other.

I knew what it meant to be building on a Sunday. In our reduced present, Sundays are quiet. But in our great and fortunate past, Sunday was the day of favors. On Sunday, I would paint your house if you would wire mine. The foundation for the house I stood on right now was poured on a Sunday and I had repaid that with several Sundays of brushwork. It had been a privilege of the time.

And that time is gone. It left with the cheap land, the electric company, and Hank the Bank. The next year looms in the raw windy damp of January. It is putting in a new sewer system to Madaket, building a new school, and a new fire house. The future is hungry, the future works hard, and the future is working on someone else’s house.

I have lived a life of uncommon privilege and common luxury. The winter sunset spills red over the island and washes against the purple clouds. In the growing violet dusk, a full moon shines over Sconset and sends its moonshadow over the moors. The five o’clock ferry blew one short note on entering the harbor. Inside, the boys were engaged in tactical digital battle, the television played the news, and, sometime tonight, a paycheck would hit my checking account. Tonight held scallops, and beer, and hot water. The past holds no such privilege or luxury. And the future might not.

Articles by Date from 2012