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Volume 38 Issue 2 • April 24 - May 7, 2008
now in our 38th season

Faith and the Fishermen

by Robert P. Barsanti

The fishermen finally swung it.  They stood downtown and at the rotary in sou’westers and boots, held up giant plywood signs and plush catfish, and netted voters in the tide.  After years of voting turnout in the thirties, the fishermen pulled in 44% of the island to vote.  And most of them voted against the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund. 

The next time the Sconset folks want to get something voted on, they can save some money from the direct mail, robo-calls, and TV ads.  Instead, they should dress a guy up like a house and have him hold a sign and wave at the rotary.  They might get more success.

Nantucket elections have some time-honored traditions.  Many of the same people run for the same positions, April after April after April.  They gamely answer the same questions for the candidates “debate.”  They spend Saturday and Sunday mornings at the dump for the months of March and April, and they hand out bumper stickers and pins to their friends, children, and grandchildren.   The same words and the same pictures reappear in the newspaper placed on different pages.  From this we decide our fate.

When you take steps beyond these traditions, you run a risk.  Years ago, a prominent dentist ran for school committee with a giant sign in the back of a truck.  Doug Bennett, famously, stood at the rotary waving, smiling, and holding up any series of signs to get us all waving.  Other candidates embrace the phone tree, hold forth at televised meetings, and hand out personalized candies and bottle openers.  This year’s new innovation seems to be the road sign, perched on two spindly metal legs, waving with the blowing traffic. None of these innovations caught on; the voters and the candidates thought it was gimmicky and returned to the staid and the true.

On our little sand spit, we tend to vote for the folks we know over the folks we don’t.  We like our candidates the way we like our scallops, local and handpicked.  Positions don’t matter, voter records don’t matter, attendance doesn’t seem to matter.  Familiarity does.

When I go to the dump in the damp drizzle of a March morning, I see the candidates drifting about with cups of coffee and big pins.  My instinct is not to run up to them to find out how they are going to pay for the sewer treatment plant.  Instead, I chat with them all, pat the backs of my friends, and wish everyone good luck.  

In the best possible world, like-minded citizens who reflect our character and ideas govern our island.  They argue as we argue, fret as we fret, and then come to a compromise that we might grudgingly and soberly recognize as fair.  They were incubated in the Nantucketer’s view of the world and see it from our eyes.  They have breakfast at the Downyflake, coffee from Fast Forward, and after-work beers at the A.C.  We want them to keep the stoplights out, keep the commercial developments small, and use common sense, by gum.  Norman Rockwell should have painted us.

However, in a darker view, this leads to pettiness, feather-bedding, and a short-sightedness that sends us crashing into phone pole after phone pole.   We approve override after override because “we won’t pay for most of it.”  We make a series of short and painless steps that place us, in the end, in fairly desperate straits.  In the nineties, we believed that growth was good.  The subdivision metastasized across the scrub and the fields. We bought boats, plasma TV’s, condos in Florida, and jet skis.  Now, ten years later, the island finds itself looking up at several hundred million in associated costs.  Tourists are down, good jobs that will pay a mortgage have ebbed away, the schools need work, the Island Home needs work, and the bills keep compounding.  We are the people we have been waiting for.  And boy, are we pissed.

We keep having faith. Our first leap of faith comes from believing that our friend, the politician, is capable of getting out of the rain.   Seeing him standing at the dump throughout the month of March should give us pause.  Our second leap assumes that the problem can get fixed.  King Canute could not command the tides, nor can the selectmen command the markets.  The erosion of the Sconset bluff, or even the dredging of the cobbles may or may not do anything.  We have no idea:  we just have faith.   In my case, I have faith in a man wearing rain gear in the bright sunlight as he holds a plush toy.

You have to hope.  You have to hope that the woman who gave you the pin will do the things she says she will.  You have to hope that enough other people believe that too.  You have to hope that she can actually do something.  Or at the very least, that she won’t do something that will mess it all up.

Awash in a rising tide of bills, I still look forward.  When I vote, when I wear a pin, when I send in a check, or spend a morning knocking on doors, I am hoping for a better future.  Problems get solved, roads are paved, plants are protected and we lurch forward into a better future.  You don’t vote if you don’t believe it will make a difference.  Otherwise, you sit inside all day and yell at all the talking boxes.

In the midst of the election season, I had another experience with a fisherman.  On Jetties Beach, the winds of April swung down and plucked a Backyardigan’s ball from small hands and sent it bouncing out over the ocean.  The outgoing tide does not care much for the tears of a child.  Luckily, however, the scallopers do.  One boated motored over, intercepted the drifting ball, scooped it up and delivered it back to the beach and the boy. 

Faith is often misplaced, lost, and abused.  But if I have to believe and have hope, I choose to believe in the fishermen.  At least I know where I can find them.

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