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The End of Something

Column: 
Late summer beach

Sometime last week, while I was busy throwing children at Jetties or losing golf balls at Skinners, the tide turned.  Summer, which has been flooding the island for months, had come to slack water, and then, the boats swung on their moorings, and summer ebbed. 

In the morning, the chill slipped in the screen doors and open windows and then slept on the sofa. The traffic on Crooked Lane has slowed, as have the terminal backups on Quaker Lane and Sparks Avenue.  The bluefish and stripers are back and rising.  The college kids have left suddenly and the owners are back behind the counter, throwing out jokes and shrugging at the line.  The high school kids have discovered their summer reading and their Spark Notes as football and soccer double sessions loom just outside the harbor. 

The final big events of the summer fall in these weeks.  The Demo Derby reintroduces the islanders to each other, generally at high speed and in reverse.   The Sand Castle contest fills the waterline at Jetties while Race Week glides over the sound.  Then the boats and the sand architects take their place on the outgoing tide.

Summer does not end with a crash and a cocktail party.  Rather, it slowly fades out until the parking spaces return to Main Street and the sidewalks and breakfast counters fill with familiar faces.  The college kids leave their jobs with t-shirts and hangovers sometime in mid-August.  Then, as Labor Day approaches, the families leave and go back to cubicles and classrooms.  During late September, the Jupiter Island crowd tips the tennis pro, calls the caretaker, and drifts back down to Florida.  The Weddings and Weekenders dribble out around Columbus Day and, by Halloween, the island is left to us.  And we are worried.

All change is gradual, but the realization is sudden.  The tide shifts sometime while we are busy with our cell phones and our sandwiches, and then, when we look up, the water and the hours are racing out of the harbor. Recently, the Taxi Driving Wise Men and the Barstool Prophets have noticed that the tide is running out on the tourism boom.  The real estate listings back up for months and the asking price slips downward.  The boat carries fewer passengers and the restaurants seat fewer diners.  Empty hotel rooms, empty rental houses, and empty stores dot the island like so many beached boats.  The taxis and the barstools cluck and fret with worry.

They are right. The age of t-shirts, ice cream, and day-trippers has drawn to a close.  In addition, the age of bringing the family for two weeks on the beach is also drawing to an end.

The bills have come due.  The sewer bill stands in the doorway, followed by ones for trash, gas, electricity, health care, and food.  Nevermind the spec house gambles, over-charged credit cards, and adjustable rate mortgages that brought Hummers and jet skis.  Whoever is here in ten years will have to bring those expensive guests in and make them comfortable.

One constant in the history of the island is change.  The beaches and the sands shift constantly; Sankaty wears away and becomes Tom Nevers.  Cisco wears away and becomes Tuckernuck.  Fortunes grow and melt, families come and go, and houses rise and fall.  A rich man’s house will be a barn in a hundred years and a barn will become a rich man’s house. 

I spent several days last week weighing down a bench at the Oldest House.  The tour buses drove by, the visitors come up and get a tour through the building, but it is a quiet place by and large.  The house was built by people who thought the wealth of the island would lie in wool, not oil.  Those days, the island had more sheep than people and more people than trees; the world Jethro looked out on every morning was a bare Scottish golf course.  Then, as whaling became profitable, the house was bought by the Paddocks.  They built a secondary dwelling, rented a room to a whaling captain, and put 20 people up there.  The men were out at the beach or away on boats, the hill was a commune for Amazonian Quakers.  Then, as whaling faded and the Paddocks faded as well, the oldest house became a barn.  Finally, in the late nineteenth century, the Coffins bought it, “restored” and retired it to spending its next century collecting tourists' footprints and photographs. 

The house has seen sheds, barns, gables, and radical surgery at the back.  The land around the house has seen roads, farms, gardens, and a Native American landfill.  The trees have grown up around the house, including one of the last remnants of the island’s silk industry, a large mulberry tree in the front yard.

The prophets and wise men stood in this yard and clucked many times.  Jethro Coffin saw the wool trade failing and he moved his family off island.  George Turner saw the demand for his barrels fall and switched over to farming.  Now, we see fewer tourists walking through and driving past.  What will become of us as the tide goes out?

The other great constant in the history of the island is community.  No matter what has happened, from fire to drought to war to depression to boom, there has always been an “us.”  We have learned how to walk together, gone to school together, married each other, worked with each other, left and finally returned to the island.  Rich or poor, young or old, we stop by for a visit, wave on the street, and connect.

Our new age features people who live on vast glaciers of wealth; they have names like Chappy, Biff, and Janette.  They have wine cellars and air-conditioning.  They bring chefs and have catered meals at their houses.  They give each other monogrammed loot bags for housewarming presents after they fly in on a chartered plane from Amagansett.  And still, they make a community.  They visit the neighbors, stop in for a cup of coffee and for a gossip and philosophy omelet, then re-connect. Chappy and Melissa are not so different from Jethro and Mary.  Or from you and me.

The Boom sets, the Boom also rises, but we endure forever.  The community of Nantucket has remained throughout all those changes.  Be it Native American, Quaker, or Capitalist, Nantucketers look to each other and their neighbors.  The buildings don’t make Nantucket a small town in the sea, the people do. 

Were life to send me elsewhere for the rest of my life, I would not miss the Oldest House, the cobblestones, or the mansions on Baxter Road.  Other places have oceans, moors, and cedar shingles.  I would miss all of my neighbors and I would hold them in my heart, free from time and tide, and build my own Nantucket there.

Bob Barsanti's novel, Milestone Road, was published last summer.  His previously published book of essays about Nantucket, Sand in My Shoes, is available here.

Read his recent post on the attempted sale of part of Boy Scout Camp Richard is here.