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Volume 38 Issue 5 • May 29 - June 4, 2008
now in our 38th season

Found on Nantucket

by Robert P. Barsanti

I lose things.

I lose keys.  I lose wallets.  I lose iPods and pens and projects that took my students hours to make but only seconds for me to misplace.  I have left bank cards in ATM’s, books in cabs, and cups of coffee on the roof of the car.  A day does not pass when I do not grieve the loss of some slight, but necessary accessory.

Like a lot of chronic bumblers, I have developed a series of coping skills.  One technique requires that I buy something more expensive than usual, with the theory that I won’t lose pens if I think about how much I paid for one.  The heavy fountain pen sits in my pocket and reminds of its presence, then shouts out its absence.

On the other hand, I also buy some things that cost so much less than they should, because I will lose it anyway.  I bought my cellphone fully intending on losing it in the ocean, at a pool, or on the tenth hole.  Like any regular duffer, I go through the golf course of my afternoon prepared to lose my Titleists and my Nokias.

Last week, while off-island, I lost three tickets to the second big bucket popcorn movie of the summer.  One moment, they were nestled between the George Washington twins in my wallet, and the next they had vanished into the high grass of my afternoon.  At the ticket window, I negotiated with the night manager for the multiplex 16, but he would not budge.  Even though he saw the receipt and the debit card charge on his screen, he could not issue me three more tickets.  It was simply not permitted; he showed me the rules that he would break.  They were printed on a red tabbed, laminated page in his “Register Clerk’s Operating Manual.”  However, if I used my Regal Crown Club Rewards Card, I could get a free small popcorn and a free small soda with this new purchase.

Within 24 hours, I lost another ticket.

I remember buying it.  I stood soaking wet, in the dark, in a boat terminal while the clerk, Susan, gently explained to me that I could buy a ticket, but I couldn’t park with them because the power was out and they couldn’t use their computers.  I remember standing in the lightless downpour with the management trainees from Fidelity, the junior lawyers from Low, Ball, and Lynch, and the future M.B.A.s in their wet wool blazers discussed where the best Appletini is on island.  I put the tickets between the two George’s and asked them to take better care this time, then I stood while the future captains of industry held lacrosse practice at the bar.  When I left the boat, I found that the Georges hadn’t been any better at guarding a boat ticket than a movie ticket.  So I went to another ticket counter, hat and debit card in hand.

And was greeted by name.  And a smile.  And a laugh.  Perhaps she was laughing at me, soaked as I was, weighed down with luggage, and scowling at the frat house hullabaloo of my trip.  But I have grown to an age where laughter, either with me or at me is better than the world weary stare of a binder stooge.  She reprinted my lost ticket, patted me on the back, and sent me back into the Deke house of South Wharf on Memorial Day weekend.

God may protect the fools, but Nantucket has protected me.  The island has let me leave my keys in my car, keep the front door unlocked, and put my baseball hat on a fence post.  It has returned sand wedges, credit cards, and even a computer.  It has taken my word for it far more times than I deserve, and keeps seeing me and my bumbling ways with a smile.

I think, down deep, this is the secret of the island’s continuing success.  We don’t see the people who step up to the counter as consumers and clients but as you and me.  You might lose your ticket as easily as I might lose mine.  I wouldn’t want you to be cruel to me, so why should I be cruel to you?  Empathy oozes through both sides of the transaction.  On one side, a customer will be willing to pay more or tip more because they feel for the difficulty the shop has out here on our little sandbar.  On the other, the clerk may add an extra whale eye or two for the kids or print a new ticket for the soaked traveler.  It is, as Ishmael said, a “joint-stock world”; we all need to pay it forward.

Off-island, corporations and businesses can’t allow empathy in their business model.  They train their staff in professionalism and train cameras on the registers to ensure it.  The same generosity of spirit that builds loyal customers on-island becomes “leakage” in a corporate memo and a metric in a vice president’s strategic plan.  Somewhere a corporate trainer will take the video of my asking for three new movie tickets and make it into a role-play.

At the core of professionalism is a profound distrust in human beings.  The corporation cannot and will not trust humans to have human interactions with one another.  So, instead, it produces binders, videos, and trainers to vacuum out the empathy and replace it with fear.  You can either fear that  someone will rob you or fear that you will lose your job.

As summer comes, as gas prices dance higher, and as Wall Street drops lower, the tourists will continue to return to the island.  Many come for the Appletinis. But they come back because the bartender remembers their names, the taxi driver remembers where they live, and the ticket agent will reprint their lost tickets.  In years to come, they marry, have families, and rent by the month in an island where they are more than credit card numbers and potential thieves.  They will come back, over and over, to a world that does not need to be locked and where little, including names, is ever lost.

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