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Essays
Volume 40 Issue 2 • May 6-12, 2010
now in our 40th season

Characters

by Robert P.Barsanti

The first of May brought with it a hot gust of southerwesterly wind, a clear sky, and the first down-payment on summer.  No one danced the Maypole (as far as I know) but the other pagan rites were followed.  Pale legs emerged from a dark and hairy winter.  Flip flops and sandals were formally welcomed, along with purple nail polish and toe rings.  The storm windows are pushed up and the fans emerged from the basement, where they were tucked in behind the rakes and snow shovels. We pulled the plastic patio furniture out of the blackberry bushes, hosed them down, sat down with a cold beverage, and watched the blue fog build up over the western horizon.

In the rest of the world, May Day has a rich and glorious history.  Germans dance into May on Walpurgis Night and welcome in the six warmer months.  In England, a great deal of silliness unfolds.  There is a May Queen, there is the Dance around the Maypole, and there is the ankle breaking leap from Magdalen Bridge in Oxford.  For most of the rest of the world, the silliness and license of the first day of summer get blended into the utilitarian seriousness of International Worker’s Day.  American unions began a strike on this day to bring about the 8 hour day and better working conditions.  May Day celebrates the ordinary foolishness of working people, whether in dance or in search of an eight hour day.

On Nantucket,  May Day brought Charlie Flanagan and the arrival of the first donuts from the Downyflake.  When we all met him in the faculty room, he would clear some space, expand his diaphragm and put melody to the air:  “Hooray, Hooray, the first of May, outdoor (sports) starts today.”  Amused and hungry, I grabbed a still warm sugar donut and went to fill the minds of my students with the chaste and temperate thoughts of Shakespeare and Donne.

Charlie Flanagan was a character of a genus that once grew on the island like the prickly pear and the scrub oak, but I fear has been fading off into the televised and googled future.  He was a man of good compass, who carried boxes of movie candy in his briefcase.  Charlie would fall into song as readily as he would walk into a room and his pleasant tenor would stop the most infernal and petty faculty room ambushes with the opening verses of “Danny Boy” or “Highland Lass.”  He loved cameras and computers; he didn’t tire of building them or leaving them half assembled.  He told jokes that would bring about laughter or, these days, several days worth of political correctness re-education.  In the spring, all of the high school seniors met Charlie in great seriousness as he guided them through the Pomp and Circumstance of graduation.  In short, he was singular and indelible; impossible to either forget or replace.

In my first years out here, the island had dozens of these men and women.  They rode their bikes to work.  They wore purple.  They wore no shoes.  They wore bow ties.  They wore pink pants.  They grew monstrous beards.  They shaved themselves bald.  They lived underground.  They lived onboard boats.  They wrote poetry.  They raised chickens.

The island attracted them as picnic baskets draw bears.  An island, by definition, is not connected to the rest of the world.  To these characters, the sound separated them from a nation of Gap stores, air conditioning, and smooth jazz.  If, like Ishmael, you somehow couldn’t find your place in the lodge of modern society, your seats were out here.

To be a character, you needn’t be insane or odd, you must be more alive than other people; you are the electric eel in the goldfish pond.  To the character, the beach grass speaks in iambic pentameter, the wind sings tenor, and the sun paints in oils.  Free from the mindset the marketers choose for them, the characters embed themselves in the sand, take their shoes off and begin flint-knapping. 
I suspect just about every car stuck on Route 93 right now has a character suppressed inside it.  The characters that made it to Nantucket were not somehow more idiosyncratic than anyone else.  They, like the lucky salmon, happened to make it all the way to the headwaters of odd.  The fellow behind the wheel of the late model Honda, listening to sports talk with Mike and Spike while sipping a Coolata, could go as wobbly and as eccentric as anyone else.  He hasn’t made it up the stream.
Off-island, he is held back by the anonymity and unfamiliarity of the crowd.  Should he choose to drive without his shirt, singing Mel Torme at the top of his lungs, his fellow drivers would eye him and move away.  Should he appear at his office with an eighteen-inch beard and without shoes, he would get a quiet word and several unprosperous marks on his quarterly personnel eval.  He could be as singular as Charlie, but the anonymous and suspicious world keeps that choice at bay and away.

Nantucket gives us that choice.  After several years of living with the Gray Lady, Main Street becomes as familiar to you as your living room.  The check-out girls at Hatch’s could be your sisters and the police officers could be your sons.  Anonymity falls from you like the first coat of paint or rotten shingles. You don’t need to put a tie and long pants on for strangers, because they are few, far between, and not staying long.   Awash in the familiarity and notoriety of home, you are free to write poetry on two by fours, surf on your lunch hour, and let your freak flag fly.

As the island has changed in the last ten years, the rot of anonymity has crossed the water and infested the hardwood.  Snooki and the girls of Jersey Shore and MTV inform the kids what to wear and what to say.  Facebook and texting amplify the crushing strength of peer pressure.

Most importantly, the island no longer has the security that it once held.  A good paycheck for the odd ladies of Island Women Construction was always one or two houses away.  Institutional jobs at the fire station, school, or banks lasted for forty years or more.  You grew up with your boss and you babysat your colleagues and underlings.  Charlie Flanagan worked with four people that he had had as students.  Now, your boss is just as likely to be an anonymous suit who listens to smooth jazz in his office and isn’t amused by the singing bank teller.  To him, people are paychecks, not names.  Stamping out oddities and character is Appendix E in the Employee Management Binder.

May Day remains a celebration of the barefoot carpenters and the purple ladies at the reception desk.  As a day for workers and for summer, the characters latent in all of us should be allowed to bloom.  The binders and the flow charts can fall to the ground or get sent to Bangalore.  On island, the characters bloom.  Let us dance around the may pole, throw flowers around, buy donuts and sing “Hooray, Hooray…”

 

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