Nantucket Essays

Replacing Island Fun and Folly

by Robert P. Barsanti

The carnival used to come here. Sometime in the middle of July, the rides would come over on the freight boat in the middle of the night, assemble at the Steamship Wharf, and then parade out to the field in Tom Nevers. It was not quite the Great Parade of the Elephants through Queens to Madison Square Garden, but if you had children of a certain age, the appearance, construction, and opening of the carnival marked one of the peaks of summer. As the guy with the wallet, I was not a huge fan of the carnival. I could blow a hundred dollars in a half hour in exchange for a bunch of photos and a greasy napkin: five dollars a ride is a steep tax.

Of course, ten years later, I have lost the napkin but I still have the pictures. And they aren’t worth the hundred dollars they cost, but that’s okay. The smiles on the Trucks, or the Train Station or Sizzler are beaming and fresh. We would push to get out to Tom Nevers by five o’clock to miss the big crowds and then slip out while my wallet still had some bacon in it.

The People of Nantucket welcomed the carnival. All of those folks whom I bounced into in the Stop and Shop in February came out to Tom Nevers for the Fried Dough. We smiled at each other, admired our tans, and walked on in case Amy Poehler was out with her kids tonight as well.

But it hasn’t been back for several years now. The boys are older and are less likely to be entertained on the Gator as they were back then, but the darkness of the south shore could still use the neon lights of a carnival and the swing of the ferris wheel. We have lost the folly of the carnival, and we have replaced it with….a yoga festival?

In our slow progression from One Crazy Summer to a Plutocrats Playground, we have slowly dropped the folly and foolishness and replaced it with focus and fitness. Not too long ago, the events of a Nantucket summer began with Figawi, then Ironman, the Carnival, the Waiter/Waitress race, Airband, then finished with the Madequecham Jam and the Demo Derby. All of those events have been torn out by the roots and supplanted with the hardy perennials of auctions and auditions for Hedge Funders Households. Wine festival, Garden Festival, Yoga Festival, Antique Show: all come with platinum level branding opportunities, velvet ropes, and professionalism. And in that press for sponsorships and investment, we lost the fun and folly. We don’t hand out red cups anymore, just business cards. The Figawi logo has spun its telescope. Apparently, we know where we are now.

Nantucket has changed…summer has changed…American society has changed. On one hand, the island no longer has the public drunken celebrations of the past. On the other hand, the primary summer events are shielded by hedges, velvet ropes, and valets. The gray-headed grandparents of the island came here when folly and foolishness were at high tide. Their grandchildren can’t leap off the Straight Wharf roof into harbor, they are trying to get externships in China and Costa Rica. They can’t come to the island to paint and wait tables, the rooms they would have rented are on AirBnB for $600 a night.

I suppose this makes for a more civil island. The Vice President of Strategic Investment will not bother the police department with noise complaints, other than an early lawn mower or coffee grinder. Mister and Mrs. J. Attorney Esquire won’t put a noise complaint on your VRBO review. Now, the beach parties are catered with white tablecloths and iced wine buckets. We are becoming our Instagram stories; we can make the money go hush. Unfortunately, all of this civility means that there isn’t any more fried dough on island.

I did get my share of fried dough recently in an unusual place: Italy. My Aunt and Uncle took me to a sagra in Gazzo where we celebrated the famous frogs legs of the area. Or other people did. I made due with gnocchi and white wine. A sagra is a well-organized block party each town (or parish) puts on for one weekend a summer. Each night, three things happen at the sagra: a carnival like amusement park opens, dinner is served, and dancing goes deep into the night. At the one in Gazzo, we walked through a “Luna Park” that had a ferris wheel, a tilt-a-whirl, the Gator, and bumper cars. The food was served in a tent the size of two football fields and lined with tables and benches. You ordered your food and wine on a check sheet, waited for your number to be called and then sat down next to somebody else. Afterwards, a band (with accordion) played dance tunes and the couples foxtrotted in a circle until deep into the night. When we left at eleven, the grandparents were still dancing. They would keep going until the band stopped at two in the morning.

The sagra did not have a “Platinum Patron Level” with transportation to and from, a special table with a special meal, and a velvet rope. As such, they are not monetizing the event properly and are missing an opportunity for full contribution. On the other hand, a sagra welcomes everyone, has a place for everyone, and leaves a happy residue (for all but the frogs).

Nantucket has very few things left that welcome everyone, from hedge funders to hedge trimmers. We can’t have a sagra: no one could make any money off of it. We can no longer just look at each other and be happy to be on God’s Favorite Sand Dune. We can’t wander from midway to ferris wheel to fried dough in one large group of islanders—paying ridiculous prices, but…

Instead of a carnival, we only having the serving, the served, and a velvet rope.

Articles by Date from 2012