~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~
At the corner of Pleasant and Main Street, near the Three Bricks and in the shadow of the Hadwen House, a Silver Yukon took the privilege of making an unsignalled right turn in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and touched the horn as she startled. I backed up. She backed up, smiled, waved a considerate apology, and went on her way to her tennis lesson.
You can make whatever lesson you would like from our encounter. One, she was on her phone–flinging angry birds or snap-chatting or directing a drone strike in Pakistan–so she didn’t nudge her directional or see an ugly blue Volvo station wagon far below her hood. Two, the streets on Nantucket were designed for horses and carts ladened down with barrels of whale oil, not Orca-sized cars. Three, I shouldn’t leave the house to go and get donuts on a July morning. If I insisted on a dozen sugar-covered Downyflake specials, I should bike for them, save the environment and my waistline.
All of us were wrong, in one way or another. The truly righteous are living underground and eating lichens, all the rest of us have to make do with out venal sins as best we can.
July creeps at us in a line of cars. Nantucket is a delightful place, and we have let far too many people know it. We have sold them houses that we built in pastures and farmyards, and now, in the heat and humidity of the twenty-first century, all of those taxpayers, employers, and clients come for the rest that we promised them. Nobody should be surprised.
Living, and driving, on Nantucket requires an entirely different set of skills and attitudes than the mainland prizes. Off-island, you drive isolated in your car. You follow the instructions spelled out in sign or, in truly difficult moments, in that little blue book you got from the Registry when you were sixteen. A traffic cop always exists to instruct you, whether he is in front of you or not. The roads are wider, with better signage and turning lanes; a directional isn’t as crucial when you have pulled over into a special lane and slowed to a stop.
More to the point, your car is even more isolated and isolating than it used to be. Almost every car has been sealed into silence, and then filled with the digital companionship of Beyonce, Kanye, or Golden Earring. With Bluetooth, you don’t even have to listen to the radio. The car will play your same favorite hundred songs over and over again without interruption from someone else’s taste or algorithm. Casey Kasem waves at you from the sidewalk, and the traffic is updated on Waze. Our cars are extensions of our phones; soon some genius will hook up our blinkers to an app and the connection will be complete.
Unfortunately, Nantucket roads and drivers look back on the nineteenth century fondly. They require more attention than our phones can afford and the rules that govern. Islander Interactions don’t follow the rules and privileges that either the algorithms, your father, or the State Police recognize. Driving on Nantucket requires not only keeping your eyes on the narrow streets, but on the eyes of everyone else behind the wheel. Can she see me? Will she let me go? Did she put her phone down? I have found that the best safety device on island is an open window. If the driver and passenger windows are open, the fog won’t build up on them, and I can connect to the world. I can hear the bicyclist heaving behind the hedge, the mother with her jog stroller, and the cement mixer lumbering up the road. More importantly, I can signal to the other cars. With my window down, I can gesture the bicycle to pass in front of me, point out which of the five roads I will be taking at the five way stop signs, and wave thanks to the kind souls who let me through the intersection.
Driving, and living, on Nantucket requires interaction with everyone else, not isolation. The great irony of island living is that you come out here to get away from everyone else and find yourself more tightly connected to others than before. If you want to get away from everybody, you probably should move to Manhattan and enjoy the privileges of an anonymous city.
In the isolation of the mainland, you can operate safely and politely within rules, either clearly expressed or implied. You don’t stare. You don’t point. You don’t man-spread on the subway bench. Out here, without the benefit of clearly expressed rules, we have to get by with consideration. Consideration happens when you see yourself in other places, at other stools, behind other wheels. To be considerate requires the Atticus Finch set of footwear; you have to walk around in someone else’s flip-flops (or heels) for a while.
Unfortunately, we live in an age of privilege. Those of us who have seen the winds of winter feel that we have the privilege of ownership and residence; we know things and we know people and we are known. In a phrase: “We live here.” At the same time, many of our visitors feel that they have the privilege of money and birth. They have bought a membership in the Nantucket Club and, as the ad said, “Membership has its privileges.” Privilege, in short, is about assessing how you are different from other people, while consideration acknowledges that you aren’t all that different after all.
Privilege asserts while consideration defers. The island, small and jammed as it is, forces you to remember that we are all brothers from another mother, whether we are the Millennial on the beach or the Boomer on the Adirondack chair. Both are on top of the sand for this one moment, enjoying the July sun. Better than the alternative.