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Essay
Volume 39 Issue 15 • August 13-19, 2009
now in our 39th season

Time & Tide

by Robert P. Barsanti

The fireworks for the Pops Concert were just barely visible from the Surfside parking lot.  If I parked close to the bike path, most of the high flying sparks popped up out of the scrub oak and pine, then burst over the road.  Meanwhile, to the east, a giant orange moon rose over Sconset and behind me, the Atlantic rolled on.  Without ten thousand others, celebrity MC’s, or orchestral Billy Joel, I was able to enjoy my sandwich.

The Pops Concert sits on the crossroads of the season.  At that one moment, for that one evening, the tide has come all of the way in.  

The houses on Cliff Road and Hulbert Ave now glow with life for the first time all summer.  The parking lots have filled, the cash registers sing, and the lines have formed for tomatoes.  In the next few days, college kids leave the grass of Ocean Avenue and Lincoln Circle and return to the fields of Trinity and Penn State.  Following them will be the families of high school athletes who return for double sessions, pre-season games, and the first days of classes.

This year, the outgoing tide takes more than the usual prep cooks and house painters.  Island families, with mortgages, history, and Whaler stickers on the rear window are also sliding off.   Long term nurses, bartenders, and landscapers are following spouses, paychecks, or families to Marion, Mattapoisett, and places beyond.  They don’t really understand how this happened.  Two years ago, the phone was ringing off the hook and now the only work that can be found is off a highway at a development in the middle of Plymouth, at a fraction of the price they once billed.  Inconceivable a month ago, and now, they throw their pennies at the lighthouse and hope for the best.

I watched the Red Sox lose in the company of a landscaper who had seen her last Friday on-island after four years.  She was charming, sad, and pale.  She had no work and had no future out here; her boyfriend was keeping the dream alive for a few more months until loneliness or debt sent him off as well.  For her, the new reality was in nursing school.  The pale landscaper didn’t see herself returning; no vacations, no honeymoon, no summer house in Quaise.  She loved her time, but her time was over.  She had graduated.

We have had many graduate from the island.  In the familiar past of Frank Conroy and the like, they come out for a few years, work, party, rent a bedroom, and then emerge back into America tanned and spent.  A few years later, they come back for their honeymoon to lead the beau around the museum of their past and teach him the mythology.  Then, finally, they rent, then buy, a little place and bring the kids for a couple weeks.

My pale landscaper, like many others, may never return.  She may go to Ohio, pick up an RN and a MRS, then slide into the happy suburban life she says she wants.  Ten years from now, she could be sitting at the Children’s Library in Streetsborough watching the lawn get mowed and not think of her years gardening for the overclass.  But, four years out here has done something to her, whether she likes it or not. The tides beat through her sleep.

I can see why she might be happy to go.  Skeptics can point to all of the negatives of island life.  The island has its share of imperious Escalades honking for corn and regal Range Rovers parading though the moors.  Off-island, the grocery stores will seem like Arab bazaars for bargain hunters, cheese burgers will cost less than movie tickets, and paychecks don’t bounce.  She will never again have to spruce up the Hydrangea for Thurston Howell’s summer fete or schlep a plate of bacon wrapped scallops through bored golfers. The cost of living on island has always been dear. All schooling, whether at Northwestern or Nantucket, costs something.  The cheapest educations just cost money, sweat, and coffee.

An education shifts the currents and shoals inside of you.  After four  years, and four winters, the way that she looks at her world has changed. She may not realize it until she wakes up one morning in November and hears the traffic on the 405 and mistakes it for breaking waves. Perhaps then, she will realize how much the sand has shifted.

She’ll miss the beach. Nobody plays hooky from work to go stare at the corn or watch the freeway.  But out here, the beach is reason enough.  It’s a walk, a bed, an entertainment, an exercise, and the anvil of God.  Every road and every path leads you to the shore.  Nantucket is rare in its collection of beaches, walking trails, and vistas; backyard wilderness is the most expensive treasure we have.  Our graduates will move to their new towns and look for those jewels.  When they see an empty field, they won’t immediately think of a Safeway, but a Sanford Farm.

For the only time in her life, my pale landscaper has also lived in a small town, where her friends, enemies, and old boyfriends wander the same streets and grocery aisles that she does.   Mistakes and bad memories need to buy milk and eggs, too.  Rage and intemperance grow best in the silent dark, not the loud bustle of the Chicken Box or the Stop and Shop.  Blood enemies won’t fix your plumbing on a Sunday or haul you out of the deep sand.  So, she has grown the calluses of civility and patience. When the dry cleaning is late, the car is out of gas, and credit card is declined, perhaps those calluses will save some poor clerk a tongue lashing.

Graduates of Nantucket life have lived in a place apart, where the mainland can only be seen by fireworks.  You can’t outrun your name to the next town or the next county.  Your good works and bad deeds don’t have to go far to find you.   Moreover, you always know how much you are worth out here.  Ringed by an infinite, watery line,  you can’t develop too many airs about your importance in the grand scheme of things.  In New York or Akron, you might climb a stack of turtles into the corner office, and proclaim yourself king of all your survey.  Out here, you’re just an ant on a hill.

Not only can’t you see the mainland from the island, you can’t see the  island from the mainland.  As soon as the boat pulls around Brant Point, those memories become exhibits, locked away from the ravages of time and capitalism.  Preston’s and the Atlantic Café are still open, The V.F.W. is in Tom Nevers, the mini-golf is by the airport, and the Skipper singers perform nightly.   Imagination will do its work, washing the dirt away and polishing up what once was.  The shoals have shifted forever and tide will, eventually, bring her and the other graduates back to a great orange moon rising over Sconset.

If only for a day.
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