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Volume 37 Issue 8 • June 14 - 20, 2007 now in our 37th season

Where Everyone Konws Your Name

by Robert P. Barsanti

You can’t see Nantucket from the mainland.  Unlike the Vineyard, it doesn’t hang right off shore so close that a sunfish or a particularly energetic swimmer could dream of paddling over for lunch before heading back with the tide.  From Falmouth, you can see the lights in the summer, the houses along East Chop, and the traffic backing up on State Road in Oak Bluffs. 

Even from Chatham, Nantucket only is visible in the imagination or memory or some combination of the two.  Mainlanders remember what it was like when they last visited the Old Mill and Henry’s, but their memories radiate with age.  If they never crossed the Sound, they might imagine a place where Kerry, Lamar, and Jack Welch wear their swimsuits and wait in line at the market for kippered herring in cream.

To those Americans, the island becomes an imaginary place, where the normal social rules of silence, averted glances, and isolation have been chucked into the dumpster.  Instead, our Neverland runs on first names, compassion and pixie dust.  We believe it.  Out here, Nantucket’s “specialness” has become faith and dogma.  We want the island to be a better place where neighbors can talk to neighbors, preferably before they take a bulldozer to all of the blueberry and blackberry bushes on their property. 

All weekend, I saw folks who had drunk the Kool-Aid.  The Clean Team was walking the Madaket Bike Path.  They picked up old trash bags, empty cans, and the occasional thesis paper hidden in the beach plums and bamboo.  At Tom Nevers’ Playground, a diaper bag sat at the top of a picnic table, waiting for the forgetful father to come back and pick it up.  Near Mitchell’s, I saw a set of keys on the bench, placed smack dab in the middle where all eyes were attracted to it.  We must live in an exceptional place, where a set of car keys would sit out in plain sight, waiting for the rightful owner to pick them up.  So many things make Nantucket exceptional, from the beaches to the moors to the Chief waving on the road; those patient and waiting keys are its most remarkable feature. 

Natives are not the only true believers.  Our recent summer arrivals, the membership of Nantucket Golf Club, Westmoor, and Great Harbor Yacht Club drink the same Kool-Aid.  They put on fundraising and charitable events throughout the summer, including a golf tournament that raises enough money to fund most of the pre-schools on island and to send two graduates to college on a free ride.  Rich and poor, young and old, we cross the water to live in the world that we would like to see.  I want to live in a place where doors don’t need locks, phones are answered by people, and you drive with one hand while waving with the other. 

And I am willing to pay for that dream.  I am willing to pay exorbitant prices not only to get things shipped here, but to employ my friends.  I am willing to sacrifice the comfortable mask of anonymity.  I am willing to patiently endure the angry parent because he will still come at 9:00 on Friday night to restart my furnace.  I see all of those sacrifices as worth it, not because I want to live in a place where the surf report is important.  I want to live in a place where everybody knows your name. 

After a few years, those who hire on island seem to forget about the sacrifices necessary in order to become one of the Lost Boys.  At this point, whenever I read about a “nationwide search,” I know that it will finish in a disaster, either for the town or the newbie.  Too many of our “managers” think that they were hired to solve a problem.  In order to solve the problem, they figure they should avoid the on-island rubes and know-nothings, and hire someone with “real” qualifications.  The newbie comes ashore with his resume, recommendations, and good ideas then runs into the dream of Nantucket and all of the costs of that dream.  Then she leaves.  You have to pay a lot more than money to work out here.

First, you have to work all the time.  Off-island, you can be a doctor with regular hours and rounds.  The patients visit Monday through Friday, with a half-day on Wednesday for golf.  Out here, your patients will call you at home and roust you for a prescription.  They will line up at the back door at the end of office hours for a quick word.  These folks aren’t just patients:  they are your daughter’s music teacher, your wife’s best friend, or the guy who was supposed to come to fix the leak in the roof.  Every relationship is a personal one, none are professional.

Second, you are on a stage as soon as you walk out of your house.  Friends, enemies, and strangers will wave to you from your car and will wonder why you are wearing jeans.  You can’t get blotto at the Box and become invisible.  Instead, you will become the Paul Bunyan legend.  Early in my teaching career, I worked as a bouncer.  On a slow Thursday night, I graded vocabulary quizzes on the back bar accompanied by three pie-eyed ladies.  On Friday morning, I learned that all three were mothers of students who complained to the principal about my grading papers at a bar.  Someone is always watching.

Third, money will be tight.  Even if you are a realtor selling acres of air conditioning or the star plumber of the catwalk, the money will not come in as regular as the bills will.  Nor will you have time to do all of the billing and paperwork that you need to.  And, even when the money sprays in a torrent, around the corner of the calendar comes the storm, or the collapse, or the fire that will take it all away.

Finally, you will need to forgive.  The Yates Gas guys will have to go into a house and turn off the gas on a family.  They could have small kids or they could have crack pipes on the window sills, but they will be on the island with you.  Their son will play football with your son.   Out here, you can have very few enemies.  Enemies, once made, tend to play golf with your boss and write letters to the paper.  At the least, they turn out to be the dental hygienist with the floss in her fingers. 

Everyone who hires, be it principal or postal worker, should sit down and read “Hiring With Nantucket in Mind.”  The most qualified, the cheapest, or the most experienced aren’t necessarily the first qualities you need in an employee.  Rather, they need to believe.  They need to believe so much in the dream of Nantucket that they will be willing to work 80 hours a week and see their family in pictures.  They need to give up closing doors and drawing shades.  They need to fear the coming financial waterspout and they need to hold their tongue until it bleeds. 

But, if you can do all that, you could leave your car keys on the park bench in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon.

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