Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Long Way Home

I remember visiting Nantucket in 1979, walking down Main Street. Cool, interesting-looking people greeted each other in the cross walks, or chatted by the Compass Rose sign on Washington Street. The sign is a circle with the distances from Nantucket to everywhere else inscribed around the circumference – east to Portugal, west to Hawaii, north to Quebec, south to Buenos Aires. There should have been a small marker for me at the bottom; I felt so distant from this closed convivial world.

I grew up in cities. In New York, where such chance encounters were rare; and Los Angeles, where you moved sealed in separate cars and never saw anyone, except at assigned destinations. Nantucket reminded me of a big college dormitory and made me nostalgic for the ease and adventure of those casual friendships and romances. There was even a phrase current on the island at that time: “See you around the campus.”

It was a remote idyll for me. Adult life as I knew it seemed designed to keep people apart or at least put formal barriers between them. There were protocols and routines and strategies. Phone calls and dates. Activities had to be planned. Appointments had to be made. On Nantucket, it seemed as though you just stopped your car to chat with someone going the opposite way, while two amused and lengthening lines of cars settled in patiently behind you. No one honked. No one was in that much of a hurry.

When I moved here four years later it was more or less against my will and I felt no remnant of that collegiate bonhomie. Just the opposite, in fact. I worked with a bunch of troglodyte carpenters all day, and came home to a crying baby and an angry wife. We had no friends and no chance of making any. Workmen called Nantucket “The Rock”, a reference to Alacatraz that I heartily endorsed. For years I told people I was just visiting; I was sure my writing career would take off and I’d be gone. There’s a passage from my Nantucket mystery novel Owners that captures this feeling perfectly. My character, Cindy Henderson, is being tempted to leave the island (and her husband) by an old high school flame who has become a movie director. He has appeared at her door with a bunch of flowers and two plane tickets.

He held out his hand and all the constraints of her life seemed to rise up and choke her. She was trapped in this petty panopticon town, in her puny, unaccomplished life, stumbling towards middle age. Mark Toland was the natural adversary of this gray world. He could wreck it so easily.
And what did he offer in its place? Glamour, excitement, celebrity, warm winters and ripe oranges. A sunlit David Hockney world of pale blue swimming pools and cool Mexican tile. An Architectural Digest world of dinners on the patio with views of the city lights, brilliant nights of conversation with the people she glimpsed in People magazine, cashmere against the desert chill; palm trees and Bougainvillea among the faint smells of cut grass and eucalyptus.
Nantucket would shrink to a crumb of land on the far end of the map, a second rate film festival, a cage with an unlocked door that she had stepped away from so easily one winter afternoon.

No movie directors were courting me, but that world certainly was. Of course it’s pretty much impossible to succeed in Hollywood while painting houses 60 hours a week three thousand miles away; it might have been impossible under any circumstances. And so I stayed on Nantucket. We had another kid, I went off on my own as a contractor. Writing became my hobby. I told myself I’d try L.A. when the kids were out of high school. But by then I was almost fifty. The odds seemed daunting, the benefits of success, increasingly ephemeral. I had come to enjoy my little scribblings. I had a lot of books I wanted to write, and not much time left to get them all done. Pitching movies I didn’t want to write anyway to a bunch twenty-year old studio executives began to seem like an idiotic waste of time.

So, once again, I stayed on Nantucket.

I had my first inkling that things were changing when I worked a paint job off-island. I walked into a Boston hardware store and was quietly startled by the experience. I didn’t know where to find anything I needed, but that was the least of it. I wasn’t welcome behind the counter. No one who worked in the store knew me; all of the customers were strangers. That hadn’t happened in years. Normally when I go into Marine Home Center, I greet everyone who works there, grab some stir sticks from under the counter, hit on a carpenter I know for a job, discuss a recalcitrant customer with a painter friend, help an acquaintance choose the right gloss for their trim. There are occasional unexpected reunions, complete with hugs and reminiscences. I see old customers, old friends, old crew members. I’ve signed on for local plays by the rosin paper shed and pitched screenplays to local b-list movie actors over the caulk bins. It’s more of a social club than a store, but it took a trip to an Ace hardware outlet in Brookline to make me realize it.

And it’s not just the Marine paint department. When I paddle out to go surfing I see my friend who’s supposed to replace a gutter for me but only wants to talk about when our writers’ group is meeting next. I see his old girlfriend (she’s tiling the new house next door) and all my son’s friends and the guy who shaped my surfboard and the old school longboarder with the earring who it turns out was married to the girl who ran our local literary magazine back in the day. It’s a dense weave of social interactions, so unlike the chilly, territorial world of surfing in Los Angeles.

When I went into the hospital for a minor operation last year, the doctor had operated on me on several occasions and saved one of my fingers after a bad job site accident; the receiving nurse was the mother of my son’s girlfriend; the floor nurse had been our baby sitter fifteen years before. It couldn’t have been more intimate or comforting. I didn’t need three hours in a Boston hospital emergency room for comparison.

It all came home to me last week when I stopped my car on Broad Street to chat with a friend. Cars lined up amiably behind us (All the impatient New Yorkers were gone for the year), and I realized as I gunned the engine again, that I had become one of the people I envied so much on my first visit. This was my town now. It’s claustrophobic sometimes but it’s good and healthy and nourishing, too -- like the Atlantic sea air and the first taste of the scallops in November. I live here and so do my friends and acquaintances and my ex-wife and my ex-girlfriends; my old bosses and employees. We stop and talk on the street and if some tourist pauses to listen and wonder how he might find his way into this closed circle, I could tell him: it’s easy. Just move here, planning to leave, take a job you expect to walk away from for something more glamorous as soon as your ship comes in, while you ride the real ships, “the big ships of the Steamship Authority”, the Nobska and then the Nantucket and the Uncateena and finally the Eagle, in and out back and forth in every season; raise some kids go to the band concerts and the high school plays and finally the graduations and let the dense briny truth of human community rise around you like the tide.

It takes twenty years. But they go by fast.