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Volume 39 Issue 1 • April 23 - May 6, 2009 now in our 39th season

The Debts of Our Neighbors

by Robert P. Barsanti

I am not good with cars.  I have owned several and all of them had the loyalty of a prom date.  We settled for each other early on, with the hope that we would both be good bargains.  I hoped the car was worth more than I paid for it.  The car probably hoped that I would value it more than my wallet showed. We went to the prom, hoping for the best out of each other.  But the night would get old, the car would become bored with my lack of attention and then slip off after midnight and leave me stranded by the side of the road.

We disappointed each other.  I was neither regular nor thoughtful in  maintenance or fueling.  For the cars’ part, they stopped being loyal, crossed their arms, pouted, and stopped moving.  The passive aggressive silence between us grew and grew.

I once owned a great Jeep: it was a red, six cylinder golf cart.  Loyally and gamely, it attacked the beaches and the backroads with brio.  I would slalom the mountain roads, marathon down to Dallas, and zip over hill and dale.  Towards the end of it’s days, a cooler propped up the driver’s seat, the bumpers were dented, and the rug smelled like a greenhouse.  It loved me.  I loved it.  But I believed that  love would fill the gas tank when my wallet didn’t.

Love ran out one April morning on the Polpis Road at twenty minutes to homeroom.   It sputtered a few seconds, and then fell to an eerie silence.  The jeep rolled into an idle driveway and came to silent rest.  The spring fogs had risen up from the marshes and moors, but only six feet off the ground.  The first clutch of daffodils had grown, bloomed, and now swung low as the second cluster pushed out of the newly green grass.  A male and female mallard landed in a noisy flutter, then waddled down the yellow line as if they were the first two some off the tee at Bushwood.  The fog sucked the noise from the air, leaving only the ticking of both my dashboard clock and my career. 

At which point Hamilton Heard, friend to ducks and itinerant English teachers, pulled his Mercedes out of Fulling Mill Road and stopped before he startled the waddeling twosome.  I waved to him, he welcomed me into the front seat, and we proceeded on to the high school.  As it turns out, Hammy knew a thing or two about pouty, needy, passive-aggressive automobiles.  He had at least one of his own;  his fire engine broke down routinely in the Daffodil Parade.  He also relied on the friendliness of neighbors to bring the big machine to the side of the road, fix it or tow it, and get it out to Sconset.  We laughed at the faithlessness of machines, of high school, and of the fogs of Nantucket.  Then he dropped me off in the back door and I appeared before the students, no more flustered than I was any other morning.

I was disgustingly regular in my reliance on the good nature of my neighbors.  I have had people push my car out of intersections, haul me out of Olympic Diving puddles, drive to get me gasoline, retrieve lost bags that fell out the back, and, once, push me to a start.  After each rescue, I sheepishly shook their hands and watched them drive away while my own car was now insolently purring.

So after a few years, I became a good Samaritan as well.  I will stop beside the lost bicyclists, make phone calls for the broken down, and give rides to the stranded.  I know what it is like.  I know how much I owe.  My karmic debt needs any sort of eroding that I could get.  Like a two-ton boulder, it will take many, many raindrops to wear away.    My debt to my neighbors will last longer than most mortgages and student loans.

It’s more than just the guilt of being a debtor, of course.  I also love being the creditor; I love being the guy who slows, rolls the window down, and says “What can I do?” I have stood alongside a dead car on a cold evening many, many times.  I have been that guy, problem-solving in the dark with a bad check and a quick smile.  I prefer to be the other guy, in the driver’s seat.  I prefer to be the guy who can be generous, who can be thoughtful, and who remembers when driving to work wasn’t easy.

All those years ago, Hammie gave me more than the gift of a ride in his Mercedes sedan.  He got me off the road and to school and back to the career.  He also acknowledged that I was worth stopping for, worth going out of his way, and worth loaning me some islander credit.  To him, I mattered and I counted.  For my part, I paid him as well.  I gave him his good deed for the day.  He was useful.  He did something meaningful; he alleviated suffering and made my life easier. 

I don’t know what he did on that April morning in his office.  He may have sold another house to a Lehman brothers banker.  He may have played three hundred hands of pider, Klondike, and marble solitaire.  He may have had a nice lunch, a gentle nap, and a slow ride back home that night.  But if he had to be called into account for his work that day, he could say he was of use.  He helped me.  I gave him that and he accepted it, free and easy.

Because life out here these days isn’t easy.  Money is tight, opportunities have shipped off, and the path forward lies to the right of Brant Point.  The real estate stopped getting sold so the builders stopped building and the movers stopped moving, the decoraters stopped decorating, the landscapers stopped landscaping, and the bartenders stopped pouring drinks for all of us.  The bills inch away from the silent telephone, and we stare at them both.  We whisper a prayer, turn the key in the ignition one more time, hoping for it to finally catch. 

On this island, someone will come by.  Someone will push the papers over, make room on the passenger seat, and bring us back with a can of gas.  On this island, someone will be of use. 

It will be me.

It will be you.

It will be us.

It is the one thing that makes us who we are.  Without our houses, without our cars, without our surf rods, golf clubs, checkbooks and without our jobs, we still have each other.  Always did.  Always will.  We can help.

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