Nantucket Essays

Warmth of Privilege

by Robert P. Barsanti

We have had a run of beach days. A puddle of relatively cool and dry air has sat over New England and spilled out over the Atlantic to about a hundred miles south of the island. Sitting on the shore, the southern press of clouds massed and slid by on the southern horizon. The island lucked into a cool pocket, under light northern winds, through the end of the week and the weekend. 

Last Sunday, in particular, sat in the warmth of privilege. When you work on Nantucket, you have to make penance for taking Sunday off. Somewhere out there, money is drifting away into the ocean while the ice cream doesn’t get scooped, the hedge grows wild, and the sandwiches remain unmade. You need to say three Hail Mary’s and work a double shift on Friday if you want to get to the Pearly Gates of October. 

Our privilege extends up to and beyond the waterline. When we got to our beach, only five other cars had parked there at 11:30 in the morning. On every other beach on the East Coast, including on our beloved sister island, the cars would be lined up a hundred deep, with the right sticker on the right front bumper. The sun was warm, the water chill for the first thirty seconds, and the waves big enough to ride, but small enough to let the littles ride on Dad’s shoulders. No trash, no jellyfish, no seaweed. Over the Vineyard, fair weather puffs filled, and then fell apart as the blew over our the south shore. Underneath them, twenty or so fishing boats passed by, heading west. 

As the hours ticked by, the beach filled, but didn’t press, shove, or beg pardon. The same men who heaved the cardboard off the flatbeds at the dump on Saturday were lolling on the beach with their children a hundred yards to the east. They were still in work shirts and boots, but the kids waddled around under a tent, pushing the dump trucks and building. Just like Dad. 

The families from Westport and Weston were on the beach as well, also under tents, also with little children. The beach towels matched the beach tent, the beer was in YETI coolers instead of paper bags, and Tommy Bahama made their chairs. Still, the children had the same toys and made the same noises. 

Time hiccups at the beach. One beach day melts right into the other, one summer washes into another, and year sits on the bluff, watching the perpetually shifting horizon sit still. The beach marks the margin of our time, and at that margin, it always changes and never changes. Each wave brings a new splash of sand and water, and each wave pulls some back. But, on your elbows, looking over your toes, it remains as it has always been: sky, water, wave, beach. ou could be twelve, twentyfive, or seventy. Your toes change more than the beach does. You have to look closely to catch the time cutting across the years. My calendars are measured in swim suits, babies, and boy toys. 

This year, the toys of choice are stand-up paddle boards. For the testosterone poisoned, our fantasies infect our reality. Across the sand, Dads waved farewell to sweethearts and babies, adjusted their visors and branded microbrew hats and paddled through the knee-high waves to the lineup. Thirteen of them lined up one hundred yards offshore, like junior executives in the outfield of the company softball game. Eventually a wave would come in thigh high, and they would be off. Onshore, wine was poured, hats adjusted, and the snacks were disbursed. Time remains a stuttering flat circle: the toys were once boogie boards, inflatables, or Kadima. As we left, an oldtimer brought his favorite toy to Cisco, a surf fishing rod. 

A boy toy is anything that straps to the roof of the car—be it skis, kayaks, or stand-up paddle boards. My father enjoyed bicycles. When we came for the summer vacation, we came with five bicycles (two on both ends and one on the top) and most of our daily activities involved pedaling behind my father like a line of ducks. We would wrap our towels into tight rolls, strap them to our back racks, and pedal to the beach and then, with sand, sunburn, and chaffing, pedal back. One of our most memorable trips involved biking to see the sunset. The trip back was an adventure. 

Time only hiccups at the shore; its breathing remains. The island—in between the surfboards, boogie boards, and stand up paddles—has kept ticking. The trees loom, the privacy hedges thicken, and the squirrels have made an incursion. Fields become house lots become listings become traffic. 

The moon ticks across the daytime sky. At sunset, the families remain on the beach. The grills have come out, as have the pizza boxes and the blankets. In Madaket, you can’t get to the beach, except there are about ten groups clustered in the fading light of a spectacular July day. The paddle boards are propped up on the sand, the kids had s’mores, and the the sun painted pink and purple commas across the southern sky. In the fading light, another Dad made sure that the kids lights worked on their bikes, and the family pedaled the Madaket Bike Path and made sore memories. The child is the father of the man. 

I stayed on the bluff as the night slipped westward. The moon brightened, the western stars burned through the last wisps of cloud cover. On the horizon, the Point Judith Fleet, thirty strong, kept trawling. Boats full of lonely sons and fathers, ticking the tide throughout the night, emptying the net, throwing the trash fish over the side, and trawling again through the dawn, until the hold fills or the ice melts. 

Our Sundays sit in the warmth of privilege.

Articles by Date from 2012