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Nantucket
Essays
Volume 40 Issue 16 • August 19-25, 2010
now in our 40th season

Rules of Consideration

by Robert P.Barsanti

She had Pennsylvania plates on her new Volvo station wagon.  In the Downyflake parking lot, she moved two car-lengths in and faced the grill of a Ford 350.  Behind the Ford was a beaten Isuzu Trooper, behind the Trooper was a green Defender 90.  And behind him, was me.  Faced with this array of American driving wealth, she did that most American of things; she laid on the horn.  This didn’t help.

That night, I passed momentarily through a restaurant that could seat 35 on a good night.  On this very good night, the tables were full, the bar was jammed, and the powerful HE was there with the four kids, the wife, and two others at 8:30 at night.  The sunburned guests and children made a “red rover” wall just inside the door and separated the room into two distinct sections.  The hostess was trying to explain that there was no way they could be seated that night.  “Do you know who I am?” he said.  This, also, didn’t help. 

The next morning, I came to a stop at Five Corners.  A very polite man, in a candy apple red Jeep was just in front of me.  At each of the other four streets, a car or van waited.  He waited and looked.  One of the other drivers gestured to him.  He waved back.  Then he waited.  Someone else gestured.  He waved back and pointed again.  Finally, another car zipped through the intersection, and all of the others followed apace.  Flustered, he yelled out  “It wasn’t his turn.”  Not helping. 

I am sympathetic.  Nantucket is a very different place from anywhere on the mainland.  The rules don’t apply here.  We, who have spent a great deal of time on island, don’t realize the culture shock and the learning curve that recent arrivals need to work through.  Our common sense is not their common sense.  What works in New Canaan definitely does not work out here.

Nantucket was not designed for the mass of people who arrive in early August.  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.  Goofy and Pluto would bag your dog’s poop at Tuppancy Links.

Instead, Nantucket developed as an intimate island where, for six weeks, the population quadruples and the milk runs out.  As a result, it does not run on the usual written (or unwritten) rules of society.  Instead, it operates on consideration.

In mainland America, rules make for an orderly society.  We take a number at the deli and wait our turn.  We keep in our lane, we shop with our eyes down, and we try not to stare. We have traffic lights and traffic cops and traffic signs that instruct us when it is our turn to go.  The rules insure that we don’t need to know anything about the car in front of us, the lady in the other line, or the other diners.  They might be drivers, shoppers, or customers, but they aren’t real people.

On island, the real people are everywhere.  The well-fed fellow at the stop sign is the same fellow in line at the Bake Shoppe and is also the Eucharistic minister at the church (or your landlord).  Rules work in a nameless society, but out here the labels slip off and the names stick out.  We “know who you are” in your office or at the country club, and we know who you are at the hostess stand.  We won’t forget who you are now.

Therefore, instead of rules, Nantucketers make do with consideration.  Those who were born here walk Main Street with the assumption that whatever they do, and whatever they are wearing, will get reported back to Mom before the next boat.  You learn to consider the response before you consider blasting your car horn.  Consideration means standing in someone else’s shoes and deciding that you would rather not be stepping in Ben the Wonder Dog’s poop.  It means coming into an intersection and looking at the other drivers’ faces.  It means waving, gesturing, and letting someone else go, even if she got to the stop sign a split second after you did.  She will be making your coffee in about five minutes.

Nantucket goes against our national culture.  As a nation, we have become a velvet rope jungle of brass nameplates, member’s only dining rooms, and kitchen entrances.  The mall has an admission office, the neighborhood has a cover charge, and the playground has an initiation fee.  The “rules” force us to cluster by shoes, shirts, and cell-phones. On the mainland, we can ignore rivers of people that work in the same building, live in the same city, and drive the same streets.  Not our kind, dear.  Just look forward.

On Nantucket, however, the land is too mixed and the population too small to let the velvet ropes of class and cash control everything.  You might have swindled Bear Stearns, crashed Lehman Brothers, and own the course record, but you still have to wait in line for doughnuts.  The stop signs speak, the parking lots whisper, and the cobblestones mutter the same thing; you’re not as important as you think you are.  (Even if you were, in fact, born here.)

On Monday morning, the boys and I were listening to those very words in the line at the Bake Shop.  In front of us, a nanny and her three charges were having a hard time finding the right cookies.  Eyes were rolled, sighs were heard, and the line built out the door.  The fidgeting hopped from child to child to parent until the correct, non-broken, cinnamon diamonds were selected, wrapped, and placed in a white bag.  The nanny gave a nod of thanks to all concerned, then ushered her ducklings out the door.  My boys, now hopping with anticipation ordered their sweets quickly, grabbed the bag and dashed for the car.   The blessings of consideration were upon them, in the form of extra Whale’s eyes.

 

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