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Volume 37 Issue 19 • Aug 30 - Sept 5, 2007
now in our 37th season

"Who Ain't a Caddy?"

by Robert P. Barsanti

The air cooled this morning.  We woke without fog in the window or sweat on the pillow, and the blinds were clattering against the window.  The spiders have come out in battalions to claim their corners of the rooms, meanwhile the streets are at half full, the Gulfstreams have left, the harbor is emptying, and they are playing tennis in New York.  Labor Day has shuffled into view.

Labor Day comes painted white; it is the saddest mile marker on the calendar.  Summer ends, Congress returns, school starts, and we have to put the white shoes away for the year.  Usually, it comes with the last barbecue of the season, just before the t-shirts and shorts go back into the plastic boxes and we line up the business for the winter.

Labor Day, of course, was designated to celebrate the advances of organized Labor.  It is one of the few holidays on the calendar that have not been marked by uprisings, revolutions, or “strife” as Gompers would say.  We should set our paper plates down for a moment in honor of the weekend, the 40-hour week, and overtime.  For most Nantucket workers haven’t seen any of that in months.

Work on Nantucket has changed in the last twenty years.  In the past, you kept a list of your clients on wax paper on the passenger seat, the invoices tucked onto the dashboard, and you tried to keep to a schedule which changed every time you went around the Rotary or got coffee.  For six weeks, you had college kids to do the scut work, but you couldn’t let them leave for lunch.  Around the middle of August, a terrible epidemic would hit the nation’s nursing home population and they would all leave, in black, for various funerals.  You got to the answering machine or the wife around five o’clock, listened for any pressing emergencies, and then settled into watch the Red Sox bullpen implode in a spout of sharp singles, walks, and three-run homers.  Now, the cell phone, e-mail, and the fax machine come chattering.  The off-island crews come in the morning, the Equadoran and Bolivian crews are here all year; there are fewer clients who pay much better, but expect much more.  Sundays, evenings, and even early morning coffee have gone the way of Congdon’s and the Dreamland. 

Today, it seems harder out here for most workers.  The entry level wages at Stop and Shop (and for most of the rest of the island) are at the same spot they were seven years ago.  The Inquirer and Mirror has one-third the help wanted ads as it did in 2000, but rent, gas, and all of the other bills that come in small envelopes are larger.  The money is tight enough that several of my colleagues took the summer to reacquaint themselves with the life of a caddy.  Four hours trailing one or two men around the golf course, watching for the errant duck hook, acting deferential, wearing the jumpsuit, and hoping for a good tip.  I had spent more than a few summers hauling two large golf bags from ball to ball, enjoying the sun in the rough, and holding the flagstick so that my shadow didn’t fall on the ball.  I know that life.

We have become an island of caddies and caretakers.  Islanders have long since sold off the icons of the island for cold cash and warm hopes.  Congdon’s, the Dreamland, the Pacific Bank, and most of the harbor has been passed around so that what we once owned, we rent.  We sold the golf course and now can only caddy.

As Ishmael would say, “Who ain’t a caddy, answer me that?”  The caddy holds the bag of the lawyer.  The lawyer holds the bag of the CEO.  The CEO holds the bag for his wife and so the circle continues.  The trick isn’t in accepting that you are a caddy, it is in recognizing that everyone else is as well.  No one gets to be the Yertel the Turtle (The Marvelous He) for very long.  We all stand on a stack of turtles who bear our weight politely and with hope.  Only a fool misses the man standing with his golf bag.

In the past, the man holding the golf bag, the drink tray, or the trash can may have been your neighbor or a fishing buddy.  We were once an island of millionaires mowing the lawns of billionaires.  Father, son, and grandson rode the Miles Reis trucks from house to house.  Good nature, respect, and a friendly wave helped ease the way through all sorts of troubles.  Recently, summer folk have built estates walled in by ten-foot hedges, visit exclusive clubs for lunch and dinner, and never see another man who doesn’t have a Hedge fund.  On the other hand, the generations who haul trash now come from Brazil, Equador, and Latvia.  They live ten to a room, share a bathroom with several families, and wire their money home instead of spending it at the Box.  I spent an amusing five minutes the other night listening to a Jamaican bartender explain to an Estonian waitress how to make Mexican coffee in order to serve a Connecticut madam.  The divide between rich and poor, server and served has yawned apart this summer.  In the far gloaming distance, you can forget about the bags we all have to carry. 

Labor Day should be a day when we see those silent men and women in the shadows, and then see the shadows around ourselves as well.  At our best, we all labor for each other, no matter which way the money flows.  Once, the end of summer was announced by staff dinners.  You could keep the summer staff an extra week or two if you could dangle a dinner at the Langueduc or a party at Smith’s Point in front of them.  It was a great way to let the money flow the other way, and, acknowledge the debt we owe for the labor we receive.  Steak and lobster are an excellent way to do that.

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