Monday, April 13, 2009

A Nantucket Elegy

My friend Richard came to Nantucket in 1990, intending to stay for the weekend. He’s been here ever since. He’s leaving now, though. He can’t afford to stay, but he’s no longer even sure that he wants to.

He’s been complaining for years, summer complaints mostly. The old familiar litany: the mopeds, the crowds, the fleas, the ticks and the parking tickets. The traffic, the prices, the noise. But in the last few years a new gripe has started to overshadow all the others, the sum of all his other complaints.

The rich people.

They’ve been driving him crazy. “Leather pants!” he’ll say out of nowhere one day. “Why are they wearing leather pants in July?”

“They just wander around … eating ice cream,” he told me last summer, so comically aghast that I had to laugh.

But I know how he felt. They drive me crazy, too -- seeing them in their blue blazers, their wives in absurd high heels teetering next to them, heading for The Pearl or Straight Wharf on summer nights, belligerently out of place on the casual, cobblestone streets. They sicken me, browbeating clerks in the fancy stores; they make me laugh, screaming at airline counter people because of their delayed flights, demanding that they fix the fog. “This is outrageous,” I heard one of them muttering as he stalked the terminal floor. “I have meetings in New York!”

But most of all I hate what they’re doing to the island. The rich people can’t get into Sankaty Golf club so they build their own, devouring most of the open land at the east end of the island; they can’t get into the Yacht club, so now they’re taking over the last public access boat yard and turning it into their private playground. They’re pickled in their privileges, gobbling everything in sight, smearing their stink on everything clean.

Maybe I’m just jealous. OK, I am jealous. I’m no Marxist. I want their stuff, their Mercedes and their house and most of all their leisure, their free time – their freedom. They flaunt the things I want and may never have, so I’d be nuts not to resent them.

But there’s more to it than that. The rich people decided they liked Nantucket. They made it into their new toy. They've added it to their collections (It has pride of place now on their ominous bumper sticker: "Fiji, St. Martin, Capri, Nantucket") The force of their money rolled across the island very much the way it does on their own properties when bulldozers and backhoes and fifty trucks of dirt and dozens of landscapers sweep into the beech plum and scrub oak and obliterate it, burying it under five acres of perfect lawn, hot house trees and flower beds, a state-of-the-art sprinkler system and a couple of tons of raked crushed shell driveway. The lawns are beautiful, but the plant food and weed killers are contaminating our harbor and our aquifer.

Nantucket used to be a sleepy old money resort where east coast aristocrats came to fish and drink gin and tonics on the porch. Now it's becoming a place where new-minted millionaires come to spend their money and show off. It's a middle-class place now, and all the upwardly mobile middle-class housewives with unlimited amounts of money to spend have to preen and strut. Every old house has to be gutted and remade in the image of the Restoration Hardware catalogue and last month’s Architectural Digest layout. You can’t compete with your friends by leaving things the same. If they spend sixty thousand dollars on new kitchen, you have to spend a hundred.I asked a yacht owner once what the point of those opulent floating mansions was. “Same as everything else,” the man had said with a shrug. “Mine’s bigger than yours.”

So the houses get bigger and the cars get bigger, and the wives’ hair gets bigger and so do their bust lines. The property values get bigger and the sub-divisions get bigger and the real estate offices get bigger and you wind up living in the world’s biggest gated community. No, not quite: it's a moated community, actually, with thirty miles of Nantucket sound between you and the ordinary people who can’t afford two hundred dollar dinners two thousand dollar Wolff ranges and five dollar ice cream cones.

They still come of course, the day-trippers who pecked around the edges and bought t-shirts, but they don’t matter. They're an unavoidable irritant, like the sea-gulls, diving for garbage on the beach.

The old people, who remember a different Nantucket, a quiet, run-down leisurely place, are slowly dying out. Their kids are cashing in, turning pristine moorlands into “estate assets” whose “returns” have to be “maximized.” Soon only the new people will be left. My father told me once that it takes about twenty years of concentrated development to ruin a place.

Nantucket’s twenty years are just about up.

I hope they finish with the island soon, these reeling hedge fund geniuses, these fast food franchise moguls, and leave it to its new depression, its bottomed-out real estate market, the mansions rotting in the uncut grass, the ruined aftermath of their toxic fleeting infatuation with an untouched place.

The worst part of it all is having to admit that Nantucket is not paradise. That hurts. It seemed like paradise for so long, that’s why so many of us moved here, the way immigrants first came to America itself, looking for a better life. So it’s particularly bitter to realize that Nantucket is just one more small town with all the usual squabbles and pettiness, one more piece of land to be developed, one more patch of green to be poisoned with human waste.

And yet … it’s so beautiful. Even after decades of intense exploitation, even if the beauty has an ironic edge, even if it’s temporary and at risk. It’s just so beautiful.

Perhaps Richard is lucky in a way. He’s moving back to the land of highways and fast food and shopping malls. There will be no dissonance between what he sees around him and the way he lives, no constant sense of loss and disillusion.

It may be easier, after all, living in a place that never had a chance to be paradise, a place that will never be paradise lost.

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