Town Traffic
Nantucket Essays

U-Boat Commander

by Robert P. Barsantie

One recent morning, the good fishermen of Madaket woke up to a Land Rover Discovery. It was discovered off the end of the Jackson Point Ramp, in eight feet of the North Atlantic. The owner described it as stolen. And sunk.

Such is the summer.

While a lot can be said about the U-Boat commander, we can’t say that it is a surprise. Cars, from Chappaquiddick on to the East, have found themselves deep in the Atlantic more than their drivers’ manuals recommend. Ford 350’s slip in the surf off of Nobadeer, Jeep’s become awash on the way up to Great Point, and Fortieth Pole claims a four-wheeled victim almost every Sunday.

I choose to blame television. If you watch enough television, you watch these wonderful ads where some car goes cruising along the beach, picking up plastic, saving the turtles, and splashing through the surf. All of us, entranced by the pleasure of stomping in puddles, come to an island where you can drive on the beaches. With the promise of advertising, who wouldn’t want to send their Kia splashing through the waves?

Nantucket redecorates and rearranges itself for its new summer visitors. We mow the lawns, trim the hedges, and plant more houses where we can. The island distributes pictures, brochures, and guides across the country and, with remarkable effect, the visitors come flocking every summer. The acquisitions lawyer from Herndon comes up for two weeks, re-directs many of his billable hours to a realtor, and finds his BMW stymied amid the rolling stops on Main Street.

The island has changed over the last fifty years. We have deeper wine cellars, greener golf courses, and plusher beds than we have ever had. For our most discerning guests and members, the island offers five stars in almost everything. We have upgraded all of our amenities.

Save for the streets.

Nantucket, the town, was laid out before whaling became a thing. Travel one mile uphill from the harbor, and the farming history of the island created the paths and roads that cross most of the sand. Only two roads, Milestone and Surfside, owe their creation to railroad tracks.

In July, the streets that were laid out for steam engines and buggies start loading up with Jeeps, Land Rovers, and landscapers with impossibly long trailers. In July, we live smack dab in the middle of an economics textbook. We are the gridlocked “Tragedy of the Commons.” Someone should call the realtor and complain.

I am sympathetic. Nantucket was not designed for the mass of people who arrive in early July. The cell phone circuits clog, the water pressure drops, and previously idle intersections stack up with cars. Greed, bad planning, and Yankee stubbornness have created jammed parking lots and slow-moving automotive clots. Had we built the island with an eye towards tourism, as Disney World was, we would have colorcoded parking areas, open-topped courtesy shuttles, and cartoon characters picking up the trash from Main Street. Goofy and Pluto would bag your dog’s poop at Tuppancy Links.

Instead, Nantucket developed as an intimate island where, for six weeks, the population quadruples and the milk runs out. As a result, it does not run on the usual written (or unwritten) rules of society. Instead, it operates on consideration.

In mainland America, rules make for an orderly society. We take a number at the deli and wait our turn. We keep in our lane, we shop with our eyes down, and we try not to stare. We have traffic lights and traffic cops and traffic signs that instruct us when it is our turn to go. The rules insure that we don’t need to know anything about the car in front of us, the lady in the other line, or the other diners. They might be drivers, shoppers, or customers, but they aren’t real people.

On-island, the real people are everywhere. The well-fed fellow at the stop sign is the same fellow in line at the Bake Shop and is also the Eucharistic minister at the church (or your landlord). Rules work in a nameless society, but out here the labels slip off and the names stick out. We “know who you are” in your office or at the country club, and we know who you are at the hostess stand. We won’t forget who you are now. Especially if you are a U-Boat commander.

Therefore, instead of rules, Nantucketers make do with consideration. Those who were born here walk Main Street with the assumption that whatever they do, and whatever they are wearing, will get reported back to Mom before the next boat. You learn to consider the response before you consider blasting your car horn.

Consideration means standing in someone else’s shoes and deciding that you would rather not be stepping in Ben the Wonder Dog’s poop. It means coming into an intersection and looking at the other drivers’ faces. It means waving, gesturing, and letting someone else go, even if she got to the stop sign a split second after you did. She will be making your coffee in about five minutes.

Nantucket goes against our national culture. As a nation, we have become a velvet rope jungle of brass nameplates, member’s only dining rooms, and kitchen entrances. The “rules” force us to cluster by shoes, shirts, and cell-phones. On the mainland, we can ignore rivers of people who work in the same building, live in the same city, and drive the same streets. Not our kind, dear. Just look forward.

On Nantucket, however, the land is too mixed and the population too small to let the velvet ropes of class and cash control everything. You might have swindled Bitcoin, rode Tesla to the top, and own the course record, but you still have to wait in line for doughnuts. The stop signs speak, the parking lots whisper, and the cobblestones mutter the same thing: you’re not as important as you think you are. (Even if you were, in fact, born here.)

Articles by Date from 2012