I went to St. Paul’s Fair last week with the youngest of the tribe. Within minutes he had acquired a Red Sox batting helmet for fifteen dollars less than any other island price. He found old school friends in their new playground and led them through the sand and the woodchips while his father ate littlenecks under the calendar blue sky. Sure enough, several of my school friends found me there. They were also accompanied by their own curly haired tribesmen and were deep in paperbacks, art, or doughnuts. We sat at the tables, drank coffee, and watched the children weave in and out of the crowd. The old friends flattered me by remembering old stories and I did my best to return the favor. They were living well, in comfortable houses and leading meaningful lives off-island. After six clams and twenty minutes, my youngest needed to compete in ring tosses and squirt gun races, so I was pulled away. I waved my old friends off with “See you later.”
I hate farewells.
Possibly the reason I stay on Nantucket for all of these years is that I never want to lose people. Instead, I would like them all to be in a Green Room of my very own Tonight Show. Then, when the music swells, they can come out from behind the curtain, wave at the audience and sit with me for a few minutes. We can varnish the past in laughter before they get on with their latest project and success. Then, after ten minutes of amusing banter, the lights will go down and we lean close to each other and laugh in an intimate way, before the screen fades.
One of the great pleasures of the summer comes from repetition. So much of each summer repeats what the summer before held. Certain guests come at certain times, be they fish, friends, or fruit. Mid-July is far too early for corn or for tomatoes, but the blueberries have come out. The berry pickers slip into their favorite bushes and pull out the Tupperware for breads and pancakes. My former principal, and several former colleagues come with the blueberries, but leave by the tomatoes.
In mid-July, St. Paul’s will have their fair. They will block off Fair Street so that face painting and the dunking booth can fill the parking spaces. St. Mary’s will also block off a street so that a crosswalk can become a bowling alley and the pavement can be a putting green. In the last two years, tamales have been added to the St. Mary’s Fair and tools have been added to St. Paul’s, but they remain islands out of time. I am sure that if I were to visit either Fair ten years ago, or ten years into the future, I would recognize both.
The Carnival also comes in these early weeks of summer. The Gator and the Octopus come off the boat right after the one hundredth person looks up from his coffee and asks “When does that carnival arrive?” The trucks arrive, the rides set up in Tom Nevers in the shadow of a rolling surf, and then we are on the Sizzler again. The Ferris Wheel doesn’t come any more, the painted mirrors on the midway change, and the ticket count keeps going up, but it remains the same carnival, with the same workers year to year. By the end of two weeks, when all of the island parents are tired of handing over families of twenty dollar bills, the carnival will slip off onto the freight boats. One July is the same as another July, adjusted for inflation and fuel costs.
For me, the Carnival is one large homecoming party. Students reappear, with kids, after a year of silence and work. They walk the grounds still in their Carharts and Dunhams, towed behind one or two curly haired monsters. While I hold a five dollar rocket launcher and he holds a giant inflated hammer, we fill each other in on the Carny news of the year: “We’re building a house”, “we’re expecting another”, “my brother is straightening himself out, thanks for asking.” After we exchange alumni news and notes, both of us smile as we get towed away. See you later.
By happy, childish accident, the boys and I tripped across the exact same carnival in my old hometown this spring. While the “Truck Stop” and the “Teacups” looked a little odd in my junior high school parking lot, it was nonetheless the same rides with the same operators. I handed over my tickets by the Truck Ride and was met by one of my old classmates. We compared children, parents, and friends, lamented the dead, welcomed the young, and parted with a “See you later.”
There will be a point when there are no more “laters.” Everyone goes to the Carnival one last time and then life moves on. I don’t see all of my students on the midway. Many of them have moved to New Bedford, New Hampshire or other new carnivals. Some have given up on all of that and stay in front of their TV’s. And for some, the “See you laters” ended too soon in a hospital room or a roadway.
But there is no need for a farewell. We should always hope to see our people again; you are who they remember you to be. Our modern American life flings us as far as our paychecks will fly, whether it be to the Berkshires or to Berkeley. We can’t come back to much in our lives, it doesn’t repeat so much as disappear. Kids get older, jobs end, and the moving van pulls into a new city. I leave the St. Mary’s Fair and the Carnival with the same thought, year after year. I want to come back. I want to see these people again and I want to hear the Carny news one more time.
[Photo credit: Michael Falco, www.michaelfalco.com]