by Robert P. Barsanti
The Least Terns are hatching. Residents of the Endangered Species List, the Least Terns get special fencing, some observers, and the path to Great Point blocked. The birds are delicate and fragile things that swoop and dart in constellations over the water. It happens every year. Drivers in Ford 150s, in Expeditions, and in Discoveries find themselves flummoxed at the gatehouse in Wauwinet when someone does not know Who-I-Am. That happens every year, too.
For as much as the Connecticut Fishermen and the New York Dads would like to complain, the birds are protected by federal law. The men’s joy at being indulgent hosts or even hungry fisherman fades in front of the legal jeopardy driving over (or near) those birds would bring. At a more basic level, the surfcasting masters and barbecue ninjas have been told and notified. Their worst instincts have been identified.
We don’t live in a world where the Trustees could just put up a sign and trust that that the Greater Beach Driving Public could just let it go. Out here, on this island, is a man who paid $80,000 for a car just so he could have the thrill of driving the five or so miles over deep sand ruts. If his right to drive interferes with the terns privileges, that conflict is unfortunate.
American society seats each of us in a driver’s seat, behind a windshield, to a Taylor Swift soundtrack. Sixty percent of Americans feel lonely consistently—we feel isolated, disconnected, and ignored. Then we go driving. With the windows up, the air conditioning on, and the Spotify algorithm finding the perfect Smashmouth song for this moment, we wonder why we are so alone.
I used to think that car stupidity was a problem for this time of year, before people became used to the strange culture of Nantucket. 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 color-coded parking areas, open topped courtesy shuttles, and cartoon characters picking up the trash from Main Street. Perhaps if the billionaires can continue to amass and curate the island, they can improve the experience.
However, the summer visitors come here for shorter and shorter periods. Months became weeks became days became a weekend. They don’t have time to learn about the island before they are back on the highway. They never learn consideration.
On mainland America, we live as we drive. There are lanes, there are signs, there are rules. As long as you are in the correct lane in that eight-lane road, no horns will honk and no emotions will rise. The car behind us will never see us again; they may remember our bumper stickers for a few seconds, then the light will change and we will drive into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot and they will drive on to their destiny.
Nantucket is different; it is too small. Even in July, when AirBnB has stuffed vacationers into garages and attics, we don’t have enough cars to allow anonymity. If you drunkenly sideswipe five cars on Federal Street, you will probably be found soon. And after that, every time you go to the grocery store, someone will offer you driving lessons or give you the name of a mechanic who could install a big rubber belt around your car. All of your anonymity ends at the body shop.
So, you can’t drive about Nantucket with the impunity you could in Newton. The best answer is not to turn the music up, wear sunglasses, and just keep driving. Instead, you should roll your window down, stick your arm out, and prepare to wave.
Rules work in an anonymous society. Out here, where everyone knows your name, consideration makes everything work. We know you. We remember the guy who didn’t tip, the woman who shot through Five Corners, the Dad who left their flashers on in the handicapped slot so he could pick up another bottle of Patron for the boat. We will see you again, and we will remember. Your car will not hide you. Your life will work better if you figure out that Nantucket is a small place, no matter how long the line of traffic is.
In addition to the return of the terns and the striped bass, July brings back the Downyflake Dance. Every ten minutes, some poor car finds itself stuck where it can’t go forward, it can’t park, and it can’t go backwards. Waze and the Spotify algorithm has no solution to this. Instead, the Master of the Universe $80,000 SUV will need to have open windows, a waving hand, and consideration. You can only get out of the lot if the twenty year old Toyota Camry lets you. You have to be nice.
I feel some pity for the Masters of the Universe who picked up a seven million dollar investment with the understanding that the velvet ropes of the mainland would continue to shelter them on our over-crowded and over-loved island. You may have the corner office, you may have bankrupted Peru, you may own the course record, but you still have to wait in line for Morning Buns and Downyflake Donuts. We know who you are. The buns will be ready in a half hour.
The Fourth of July corrects us. Our founding document does not begin “I, the rich man,” but declares “We the people.” On the Fourth, the four-wheel personal extensions of wealth, privilege, and taste (with all of the rights and privileges appertaining thereto) are banned from downtown. If you want to wander the cobblestones, dunk a kid, and pose for a selfie, you can’t do it in a well-armored bubble of air-conditioning and your personal soundtrack. You are going to have to bounce and jostle with the rest of “We the People,” even if you do pay them.
Nantucket is a much better place when it is populated by terns and plovers that dart, zip, and crest over the cliffs and waves. With consideration and a wave, we are the island we like to think we are. And, if you are lucky, someone will wave you through.