Nantucket Essay by Robert Barsanti
Nantucket Essays

A Youth Spent with Travis McGee

~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~

The dump has many treasures. I have found many toys and shirts in the shed, and I have one son who will take almost every VHS tape he can find away from it. The tree does not grow far from the apple. I am one to walk out of the shed with three or four books at a time. I may even read them.

Take It or Leave It contains a depressing number of books. In my time, books lined the walls of your house in some sort of order and you were a sad and ignorant embarrassment if you didn’t own a bookcase or two. People owned bookcases to pretend that they had read all of the books. Alas, my time has passed by and taken the newspaper, the magazine, and the crossword along with it. When I see the lines and lines of books filling the shelves at the dump, I imagine some energetic middle-aged Chad is busy cleaning out Grandpa’s shelves so he can hang a seventy-inch plasma TV against the wall and watch golf. The times change, and we change with them.

I had a privileged childhood. I know that now. The years slowly educate you. In age, you lose those things you assumed would always exist, and, in your sad and expensive wisdom, you reach back to a time when you didn’t know how lucky you were.

The privilege of my youth was time, and I spent it reading. In the summer months, when I could have been working in the tobacco fields like my grandfather or in the sandwich shop like my son, I sat on a beach chair and read.

I spent my youth on Travis McGee. Oh, I read others. At one point, I had read all of the James Bond series, Adam Hall, John LeCarre (whom I didn’t understand), and Alistair MacLean. For all of the valuable time I was spending, I wasn’t buying tenderloin but hamburger. I was a connoisseur of fine airport trash.

My father tried to get me to read Arundel by Kenneth Roberts, but it was far too educated for me. I had, however, what every young man needs; an indulgent uncle. My Uncle James was a Roman Catholic Priest in Boston in what proved to be a dangerous and painful time for the holy order. He was cool. He took me to a Jackson Browne concert and to the Pink Panther movies. When he came to our house, he would bring Cool Ranch Doritos and Mad Magazine. Sometime in my middle school years, he slipped mysteries in to my hands and then the books of John D. MacDonald and his boat bum hero.

Travis McGee was a man of his time, who, typically, thought of himself outside of his time. He wasn’t a detective exactly. He was a salvage consultant who collected 50% of the worth of the lost item as a fee. He liked young women in bikinis, Plymouth Gin, and rare beef tenderloin. The Modern American Consensus does not approve of bachelor knight errants who live in conspicuous consumption, but adolescent boys in suburbia did. He embodied a certain male privilege, from his houseboat The Busted Flush to his blue Rolls Royce pick up truck, “Miss Agnes.” He, like all of the heroes of the seventies, could have been played by Alan Alda or Jack Nicholson; irresistible to women, highly skilled, and an utter disregard for authority.

In the new millennium, we can no longer emulate such a life ironically. But I was not weighed down with such scruples in high school. Who wouldn’t want to take your retirement in installments, handle a gun and a bonefish, and put the boat out to sea when the moment struck? I bought all of the books in used bookstores, then read them over and over until I had frittered my summer days away.

Just like Puff the Magic Dragon, Travis McGee slipped into the past. But heroes never leave. They remain just where they always were, and even if you can’t get down to Fort Lauderdale this year, they remain on the houseboat tied up at the slip. Then, when life shows you her teeth, the oncologist is calling, and you find yourself staring out the back door at three in the morning, heroes stop in with a beer, a smile, and a familiar plan.

Years later, after college and graduate school, after my mother and my uncle, I found myself back at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, with T. McGee on the Busted Flush. My mother-in-law was portioning out her remaining time into novels. She wanted good ones and, since I have a degree in that sort of thing, I needed to provide them. So, I welcomed Travis McGee into her life. The beach bum had aged, and the writing that I had enjoyed so much didn’t hold up next to the rest of the literature my graduate degree had pressed into me. But, the carpe diem soliloquies and the hard cynical words for the rapacious land developers struck an even louder bell out here among the realtors and the contractors. Out of his place and his time, Travis still knew what to do. They spent her time well.

I still have the books, although they do not fill any shelves in my house. Instead, they sit in a cardboard box in the basement, next to some unused pots and an extra box of liquor. My shelves contain more practical works, and my hours hold more professional pursuits.

We measure our days in coffee cups, our months in pay checks, and our years in children. A meter runs and ticks through its numbers, as the electricity, the cable, the cell-phone, and the bar tab build. You have to pay for every hour, one way or another. The privilege of reading is an expensive privilege indeed, even if your books come from the dump.

In our new millennium, we can no longer afford sitting silent for long summer hours in a beach chair with a book. The world is always updating. The privilege of my youth was time, and I spent it reading. I paid for a retreat in Florida, in Fort Lauderdale. Travis McGee will always be there, even if I never pick up the books again. We can drink gin and tonics, damn the latest developments in Surfside and Sconset, and find a way to somehow recover what was lost. And keep 50%.

Articles by Date from 2012