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Essay
Volume 39 Issue 10 • July 9-15, 2009
now in our 39th season

Island Driving

by Robert P. Barsanti

The fog and the rain finally ended last week, just before the Fourth of July.  This year, unlike so many in the past, the fireworks went off without a hitch at the sunset of a spectacular beach day. All day, we biked or boated around the island in the energy of a new found summer.  We molted out of our polar fleece and Gore-tex into the white and nubbly flesh of the new season.  By nightfall, thousands felt the itch and sting of the first sunburn of the season. Shorty after the sun set, the first of the gigantic fireworks dropped from the sky in a red and gold shower.  If you were clear of trees, buildings, and sleepy little boys, you could see the tops of the fireworks from four towns: Falmouth, Hyannis, Sandwich, and the Vineyard.

June promised summer, but July is delivering. Towels and swimsuits actually dry on lines and fence posts. The blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries lose their early season green and begin to deepen in color and flavor.  The cold bite of ocean water is fading to a momentary nip; the sandbars are slowly forming off the south shore for the surfers and boogie-boarders. They occasional pair of seals remain off shore, but even they retreat in the coming warmer water.  Freed of rain and fog, the air contains charcoal, roses, and the whiff of far off sunscreen.

At my house, the outdoor shower has stopped being a storage shed for  plastic chairs and recovered its first pleasure.  The outdoor shower is less of a cruel hoax and more of a gentle, illicit relief; you stand out there, hidden behind a few well placed wooden boards, and drop your swimsuit.  Then you, and your altogether, rinse the sand and salt off under the eyes of God, the gulls, and the forgiving glance of the neighbors.  May they never count the feet beneath the wall.

Even town has dropped its protective screens and covers.  The crowds have returned to the Juice Bar, the Gazebo, and the strip in the early evening.  After the silence of June, the giggling hubbub is as welcome to the town as buttercups.  The Cobbletones attract their crowds as does the welcome return of movies to South Water Street.  For these early weeks, even the traffic is a welcome return to form.

Of course, early season traffic is a lot like skiing in December; your chances of getting hit by someone from New Jersey are infinitely higher than it will be in a month. The learning curve is steep for our guests.   The off-island cars freeze at the mouth of the rotary before darting into the traffic right in front of the Reis garbage truck.  The gentlefolk from Connecticut scream at the five way stop signs.  The Bostonians look at beach parking as if they were parking on Ocean Ave in Southie during a snow storm; territory must be protected.  And the Monument.  All of our off-island guests come to the obelisk at the head of Main Street and stop for a moment of quiet contemplation of the island dead, and those who put a granite column in the way of their Escalade.

To understand their incoherent rage, you need to understand the “state of nature” the rest of the country drive in.  They are used to a “war of all against all” governed only by stop lights and turning lanes.  

In America, drivers seal themselves into cars.  The air-conditioning hums, the lights come up, the music plays, and you are in your own moving home.  You can scream, you can slam, you can text and your solitude and privacy remain complete.  Nothing breaks into your bubble, unless you permit it by rolling down the driver’s side window.  Today, with the addition of DVD players and dashboard computers, the world outside passes as if it were a Real World rerun playing silently in the corner.

If you only drove on island, this sort of travel seems a bit precious.  But, if you were to drive an Hobbesian hour to and from work in Chicopee, you might welcome the silence and singularity of American driving.  And if you were stuck in seven miles of traffic at the Sagamore Bridge or on Route 6, you would receive it like a sword from a lake.

Driving off-island depends on the understanding of clear rules, signals, and social contracts.  Driving on-island requires a Quaker faith in the benevolence of your fellow motorists.  First, everyone can see you behind the windshield.  They recognize you, they remember your parents, and they remember that evening they found you asleep on the bench downtown with a bottle of “Night Train.”   They forgive all of that, but they remember.  So, if you pick that moment to rant and rail, they will remember that too, and will mention it later.  If you park at the beach in a way that will block three other cars from leaving and prevent two other cars from parking, they will be sure to mention it to you at the grocery store.

Second, while there are not traffic lights on island, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t signals.  Some signals are as obvious as a wave  or as subtle as a nod, but they all take place within the front seat of the car. It never hurts to flash a “thank you” to another car.  

Driving on island is not governed by rights conferred to you by God and the State, but by the thousand kind acts done over the course of  the day.

By August, summer driving has taken on a familiar speed and harmony. Even in the tightest traffic, cars will move in a choreographed  dance.  The music may be slow, but it moves.  Up until the moment when a Summer Special takes charge of the intersection.

Driving on island is a lot like showering outdoors. It doesn’t require solitary privacy as much as it depends on the blind good will of the neighbors.  You can do as much as you’re willing to let the neighbors see and comment on.  And they know that your eyes are on them.

There is, however, only one hard and fast rule to island driving.  The monument is not a rotary.  It is a monument.  If you could drive to Hyannis, you can drive around a granite column.

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