Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 40 Issue 11 • July 15-21, 2010
now in our 40th season


by Robert P.Barsanti

The grass is burning.

Nature has been generous with the sun this spring and early summer.  The ocean has warmed to mid-August bathwater, the roses are bubbling over the fences, and the cars leave a dusty wake on the dirt roads.  The island has a sunburn.  The berries, the corn, the tomatoes, even the hydrangea shrink from the surfeit of sun.  Two solid days of rain, or even a few good nights of drizzle is what they need next.

For a moment on Saturday it looked like we would finally get it.  On the mainland, a line of thunderstorms rolled down from New Hampshire dropping inches of rain.  From the south, a storm off of New Jersey spun water spouts came rising.  The radar saw lines of red and orange converging like cavalry on our island outpost.  And then….they rolled past, out to sea, and left the ghost of a drizzle behind.  At nine a.m., the towels were slightly damp on the line.  By noon, the lawn continued to burn.

Those of us without the benefit of roots and petals should be doing pretty well these days; so far, it has been a Chamber of Commerce summer.  The summer traffic has dwindled to an annoyance, parking places appear regularly on Main Street, the lines are reasonable (save for ice cream) and even the surfers at Cisco have been well behaved and cheery.  For the first time in ten years, I haven’t seen anyone drive the wrong way down Main Street. We have had a tremendous July.

My favorite bartender, Dave, doesn’t quite feel the same way.  Years ago, before Bartlett Road was paved and when Thirty Acres was more than an address, we labored together.  I worked the door while he tended the bar.  In that pleasant past, a line of twenty to thirty people would line up in the parking lot, then let me quiz them on their ID, before giving me five dollars cover charge.  Dave and three others mixed Grape Crushes and Seabreezes at the front bar.  At the end of those July nights, when the cases were reloaded and the cigarette smoke had been flushed out, he would ring out the register and count out hundreds of dollars in tips.

Tonight he just had me, and I don’t tip that well.

If you live on Nantucket, the line between waiter and realtor is thin.  You work at whatever is going to pay the bank; as a result, you bang nails, make drinks, clean toilets, deliver mail, clean scallops, or bake Morning Glory muffins.  David gave up college for a job painting houses, which led to carpentry, which brought him to contracting, which settled  into caretaking interrupted by evenings bartending and waiting tables.  He could always make more cash if he just worked harder at the next job.  Over the years, his hard work has brought him a house (since sold), a car (now dinged), nice vacations, and a collection of idle surfboards.  Expertise and a degree have less value out here than work shoes and the good sense to know when the getting is good.

The most powerful word in America is “Next!”  We believe in moving on.  We wake up, look around, take a sense of where the sun is and then look into the next yard.  In half a breath, you dismiss the past, spot the future and take control of the tiller. Nantucketers, historically, bark this word out.  If whaling doesn’t work, grab some seals.  If mining doesn’t pan, sell coffee.  If one store fails in Haverhill, open another on Sixth Avenue.  If whaleships lose money, start a steamship company.  Nantucket parents send their kids to college then rent their rooms out.  When the kids come back, Mom and Dad give them a broom, a hammer, and a t-shirt.  At every meal, they ask their young the same question “What are we going to do next?”

Underneath this merry chase, the island remains constant. Next season, next year, and the next job all happen inside this circle of sand. You could believe that the gray lady has made a covenant with you; if you remain flexible, work twelve hours a day, and swallow your pride in slow moving martyrdom, she will give you the keys to the kingdom.  You get the sun, the surf, and another summer. All of your tomorrows will be yesterdays.  Everybody else has to go back to Needham.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s gone.  For Dave, and for most of the professional Nantucketers, next may indeed be in Needham. The huge bar crowds of the eighties and nineties and dried up and shrunk to cocktail parties and thirty packs.  Restaurants have more creditors than customers and carpenters are only hammering the table.  For some, hope blossoms in this fine weather we have been having, as well as in the mainland steam.  They will come in a week, in a month or perhaps they will come next year, when the economy is better. The beaches, the street, the air will eventually pull them back. If we can hold off the creditors for another couple of weeks, if we can sell that land, if I can pick up another job, we will be fine.  It will rain soon.  Unfortunately, the gray lady makes no guarantees: past history does not insure future performance.

For others, a Nantucket summer means wanting what you have instead of getting what you want. When you are always asking for what’s next, you ignore what you have.  The island doesn’t make a deal with you, you make your own deal with her; you decide what you will give up in order to stand at Great Point on an August morning with a 42-inch striped bass in one hand.  You may have to forego a corner office, a four-bedroom, three-bath cape in a good suburb, and your competitive Nordic ski career, but you should at least enjoy what you traded that in for.

You traded it in for an evening on the Maddaquet Admiralty porch with a bucket of freshly dug Tuckernuck quahogs, an ice cold beverage, good company, and the unimpeded view of another July sun settling into a green flash on the horizon.  After that, you’ll see what comes next.


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