Islander's Blog

Archive for October, 2008

Thoughts on a Windy Night

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

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The wind woke me up. It does that sometimes, howling off the water and across this flat little island. When I moved here for good, some 20 years ago, the sound of the foghorn and the whistle of the day’s last boat leaving for the mainland, made this place seem even further away from the mainland than it is.

I had not arrived because I loved this place, unlike so many people. I had arrived for a more personal reason, and for the first five years argued for her to go back to Boston with me, or at least Providence. Even today, I am still someone who values the people I have gotten to know far more than the natural beauty of the place.

Still, the wind woke me.

I went downstairs, poured a Jameson’s, and sat at the kitchen table. It has already been one of those autumns that carries with it the feeling of a cold winter to follow, and not in the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” sense. We are heading into a winter filled with our discontent.

Commercial scallopers are anxious about the season, after the waders and rake folks came up empty for the most part. Builders are finding jobs scarce. You can almost see the bills beginning to pile up all over the island.

In the old days, people understood that you might not be able to find work in the winter, and trusted that you would make up those bills when you could. But now the bills mostly carry off-island addresses.

The pain from Wall Street is felt by all ages. The elderly people who bought into an assisted-living project called Sherburne Commons may now find themselves cleaned out financially and without a place to live.

Who needs Halloween in this frightening economy?

Still, we have been broke before. Did it just take less money to get by then? Are we used to a different lifestyle, with more expensive expectations, these days? Can you be broke and get by these days, or does simply getting by leave you broke?

My first job here was as a carpenter’s helper, shingling houses mostly. I worked with people I knew and, for the most part, liked. Every Friday I cashed a check for $250. I took some of it and had a few beers with the guys. I went home and tossed the rest of it on the table to pay bills. I felt like I was in fat city. That was not long ago, but it feels as if everything has changed.

The runaway cost of living had something to do with it. That springs from rising property rates, I guess, and sky-high rents for restaurants, who try to make up the difference on the menu.

On a trip back to my old neighborhood I went to have something to eat with one of my brothers. We went to a local bar and grill. A steak, French fries, and a simple salad cost $14. My brother complained the price had gone up. I could not tell if he was kidding. I reminded him that the price of a Nantucket hamburger begins at around $8.

Last Sunday afternoon several football games were on television screens of all sizes at The Chicken Box. There were free hot dogs in the steamer. I was talking to a friend about the Brady-less Patriots and then about the bad economy. He has lived here at least as long as me.

He said something that nobody wants to say out loud. “Maybe we all just got used to having things too good,” he said.

Maybe. I sat at the kitchen table late last night and listened to the wind and finished my whiskey. I thought about whether our expectations got ahead of us. I thought about whether we can ever go back to a simpler time, when living here was not so connected to how much we earned.

I decided that we will find out some of the answers this winter. I went back to bed.
John Stanton is a writer and filmmaker living on Nantucket.

Walter and Steve

Monday, October 27th, 2008

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Walter Beinecke called it enlightened self-interest, the idea that whatever was good for Nantucket was good for his business. In the 1970s, his business was buying up a great deal of downtown. He liked to say it is better to serve steak and wine to 50 people for $20, than to serve hot dogs and beer to 100 people for $5.

Stephen Karp now owns the properties that Beinecke once used to remake Nantucket into his own business model. He has taken the equation a step further. The new ideal seems to be that it is better to serve gourmet food to 25 people for $1,000 each.

One large order of self-interest, hold the enlightenment.

Lost in both equations is the guy who just wants to buy a hot dog not only for himself but for his wife and kids. Ignored by the bean-counter mentality is the guy who wants to enjoy a little time eating a meal in a place where most of the people at other tables know him, and where the atmosphere is so relaxed that the people who don’t know anybody feel like they know everybody.

Walter and Steve left the Atlantic Café’s wing night out of their equations. Walter is said to have hinted at it. Certainly, he had an affection for this place. Not everybody cared to be the object of that affection, and people took to wearing “Ban the B” and “No Man is an Island” buttons. Today what counts to downtown’s largest landlord seems to be a pure and simple return on investment.

A friend of mine who understands business much better than I ever will, likes to say that people are in business to make money and that is all. Let the chips fall where they may. Nothing personal.
What is good for the bottom line, however, is not always good for community. One wonders why Steve does not take a page from Walter’s book and at least pretend to care.

John O’Connor stood in front of the A.C. one afternoon last week, at the intersection of business and community. He is a man who has always seemed born into the bartending trade. After doing just that at the A.C., he bought the joint. For 19 years John and his wife Kate have run a classic island place.
It is the kind of place where you take your kid for lunch when they are in elementary school, they meet their friends for wing night there during high school, and they stop by to hang out when they turn 21. They serve food at the A.C., but mostly they fill the need for shared moments. Just a few moments over a couple of beers and a sandwich, to read the newspaper and maybe strike up a conversation.

John and Kate are business people who enjoy being part of the community as much as they enjoy making money. Wing night, prime rib night, charity events, they are only the beginning. They run a bar and grill that is a comfortable mix of regulars and tourists, parents and kids, old people having lunch and working guys grabbing a sandwich and a beer. That kind of place does not happen by accident.

One reader of this blog described the A.C. perfectly, as a place where the raw fall and winter weather fell away the moment you opened the door and stepped inside. She is not the only one who feels that way and who wonders where they will go now to find that warmth.

And when a place like that is forced to close its doors, even those among us who have never walked into the place are touched. Because things in town cannot help to be different without that informal gathering place.

There is a sociologist named Ray Oldenburg who writes about the need for those places where we can in his words, “construct the infrastructures of human relationship.” I take that to simply mean the everyday chance to rub shoulders with your neighbors.

If I have written about Oldenberg’s ideas before, it is only because the changes in life here sometimes seem like a movie based on his work. One of his ideas is that when certain places become a strand in the fabric of community, it has less to do with the building itself and more to do with the merchants who run it.

Oldenberg writes about the importance of “mom-and-pop” business owners who personally know the people who walk in the door, who understand the arc of their lives, and who give a damn about the place where they do business.

In the case of local restaurants, he says that too often they are replaced by places “where turnover is high and ‘wasting time’ with customers in discouraged. No matter how bad the weather, letting people in the door before the appointed time is unthinkable and so is adjusting the menu to local tastes.”

I’ve got hard cash to bet on which kind of place will someday be in business where the A.C. is now. Not too long ago the Tap Room at the J.C. House was a great place to wander into on a cold winter day. Then that place changed hands. It will never again be what it once was. Those same hands are pushing out the A.C.

The question is, what can any of us do about it?
–John Stanton is a filmmaker and writer on Nantucket.

Waterfront News

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

A steady stream of fishing boats arrived today. Three at the Town Pier and three at Straight Wharf. All western rigs . . . Photos here.
Martie Mack writes the Nantucket Waterfront News column.

Waterfront News

Friday, October 24th, 2008

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There was an interesting ship here during the recent blow. She was a torpedo weapons recovery vessel or TWR. I have never seen her here before and had no idea what she was used for. After consulting with Captain Tobey Leske and Captain Blair Perkins, I learned what she was and what her mission is. Click here for more info. Click here for photos.
Martie Mack
Martie Mack writes the Nantucket Waterfront News blog.

Politics and other four-letter words

Friday, October 24th, 2008

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Years ago I worked an internship at a place called The Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning political think-tank, that in those days was run out of an old brownstone on Capitol Hill. I was part of a program called The National Journalism Center, whose stated task was to put young conservatives into journalism.

This was before the emergence of right-wing screamers like Ann Coulter, who years later would be a fellow graduate of that very same program, lowered the level of rational political debate. This was even before FOX News. Ronald Reagan had just unpacked his bags at the White House. A Moonie-run newspaper called The Washington Times was the darling of conservatives.

I always wondered how I got in. I was raised to be a good FDR Democrat by my grandparents, in a neighborhood where people went to mass on Sunday, served their country, took the civil-service exam, supported their union, and voted Democrat. I do not even remember meeting a Republican until college.

But there I was, being lectured to by conservative academics during the day and learning how to sip martinis and talk about the liberal media in the evening. I was a spy in the house of love. The experience left me unable to look at national politics any other way than through the fun-house lens of my youthful experience. With that in mind . . .

• Why has it become standard operating procedure to end political commercials with those insipid tags. “My name is (fill in the blank, and mostly they truly are blanks) and I approve of this message.” Can’t we just assume you approved of it, since your campaign paid for it?

• There should be some sort of bad political karma when you use the same tactics of the people who successfully used the politics of slime against you in your last campaign.

• I get angry at the cynical idea that running for president needs to involve a strategy where very smart people count on their fellow Americans being dumb enough to fall for it. This is the plan, make no mistake.

• For a while I was thinking that racism was actually not going to rear its ugly head. That was before Colin Powell went on “Meet the Press” and endorsed Obama. The next morning I had not even finished my coffee when someone I am working with on a project called. We spoke about the project and because he is a Republican I mentioned Powell. He was quick to tell me it was a black thing.

• Can we all start with the assumption that whoever becomes the next president will raise taxes? You didn’t really believe Dick Cheney when he said that the war would pay for itself through Iraqi oil sales, did you? So now the bill is due and you can add the Wall Street bailout to the tab. Exactly how do you think we pay for those things?

• In the greatest country in the world, should kids go to bed hungry? Should kids be able to go to the doctor when we get sick? Should kids be able to go to sleep with a roof over their heads? Providing those things has always seemed to me to be the very least we can do as a nation. Does that make me a socialist?
– John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker on Nantucket.

Nantucket Waterfront News

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

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I went to the meeting yesterday at the Maria Mitchell Association. There were 6 commercial scallopers there. Also in attendance were Robert Kennedy, Frank Dutra, Whitey Willauer and a few civilians.

It was agreed upon that the Shellfish Association draft a letter voicing the fishermen’s concerns and send it to the State Biologist, Michael Hickey. The letter to Hickey will ask him to leave things alone this season and not change any size law to the raised annual growth rings on the scallops we will be harvesting this year.

There is an emergency SHAB meeting scheduled for Tuesday, October 28 to discuss all of this with Dave Fronzuto and Jeff Mercer (our new Town Biologist) along with the members of SHAB.

If you are a commercial scalloper, please find the time to come to the meeting.

Martie Mack
– (Martie Mack writes the Nantucket Waterfront News blog. Click here to take a look.)

Nirvana Blues

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

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I saw the ghost of Walter Beinecke the other day. No, it was not during one of those bogus ghost walks. He was part of the standing-room-only crowd in the Great Hall at the Atheneum, as a panel of experts talked about the future of downtown.

The Urban Land Institute came, saw, and offered its considered insights. It was all good stuff. There was talk about traffic patterns and about the move toward mid-island, talk of special events that might draw people downtown and help stimulate a creative economy.

There were the inevitable comparisons to places like Aspen. There was the inevitable talk of a street layout and architectural plans that are modeled on something planners sometimes call “The New Urbanism,” which incorporates ideas like putting housing above storefronts.

I remember Beinecke talking about some of the same things. One panel member even called downtown the island’s front door and chance to make a first impression. There was talk of this island as a place of living history. All Beinecke golden oldies.

The next day I was talking to a friend of mine. He had wanted to take part in things, offer his opinion. But he found that he did not have anything to say. He decided he is generally happy with life here. There are small things he might change, if he woke up one day to find he was emperor, but on any given weekday he is more then reasonably happy.

The thing is that in the late 1970s he was sure that this island had gone to hell never to return. The main reason? A fern bar appeared in the place of an old-time watering hole. So he left. Then he came back. Now he shrugs at the changes. He is mostly happy with life here. The fern bar was called the Atlantic Café, and now is as local a place as you can find.

The golden age of Nantucket depends on when you arrived. A good rule of thumb for his place is that it takes most people about five years of living here to begin using the phrase, “It used to be so different here.”

I wonder sometimes if we suffer from the nirvana blues. Life is good but it feels like something is missing, something we cannot quite put our collective finger on.

The ULI panel had some interesting ideas and insights. They also had some ideas and insights that let you know they had just come around Brant Point.

ReMain Nantucket has given itself an interesting and difficult task. At the center of their task is a simple answer – the third place. It is a phrase that means those places that are someplace between home and work. They are places we stop in on a regular basis to rub shoulders with our neighbors, if only for a few moments of small talk.

A couple of places like that downtown and things begin to change for the better. Knowing the answer, of course, is the easy part. Working out the equation to get to that answer is the hard part.
– John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker and writer on Nantucket

A different kind of chill

Monday, October 20th, 2008

The weather shifted and all of a sudden it was late autumn, complete with high wind and low temperatures. It was cold enough at the Whaler field hockey game that layers of sweaters and jackets were required and gloves were optional.

Maybe the chilly weather and the dwindling evenings were just waiting for the Red Sox to fall a couple of runs short of a World Series bid. Terry Francona said it best in the Boston Globe. You win or you begin picking out your Halloween costume.

We sat at the kitchen table with a note pad, deciding which windows and doors needed to be weather-proofed and whether we should begin pricing a new furnace. And then we talked about dead-bolts and whether the cops needed a budget increase so they could hire a few more patrolmen.

There is a different kind of chill in the air this October. Word that a serial rapist might be on the loose is all anybody can talk about. So we get dead-bolts installed on our doors. We keep an eye out for anything unusual, ready to call the cops. We keep our cell phones and a baseball bat handy. We add this to the list of changes to life on this island.

More than a few people have told me how upset they are that they have to lock their doors. I always thought that was a sort of throw-away line taken from the gauzy memories of a golden small-town past. But all week people kept using the fact that they have to lock their doors as a sure sign things have changed here.

I have never lived any place where you would let the door go unlocked. I have lived in apartments where you have two locks on the door and when people visit they say, “Only two?” I understand the peace of mind of a good dead-bolt.

The other chill in the air is the whispered talk that the cretin behind these attacks is one of “them.” You know, them. The other. In days past, the role of “the other” was played on this island by, well, us. Unless you were born here, you were once “the other.”

Those days when “the others” were merely Hippie kids now take on the air of nostalgia, although it was seen as enough of a problem that a set of “anti-hippie” bylaws were quickly enacted.

These days you don’t hardly qualify as “the other” if you were born in this country. These days people talk about immigration laws and I.C.E. agents when they talk about “the other.”

But these people are our neighbors. Irish, Jamaicans, El Salvadorans and Bulgarians are our neighbors now. They are not the reason you need to lock your doors. They are our neighbors even if one of them did this. Crime is caused by criminals, and heinous crimes like rape are caused by sick criminals. Crime is a problem, but it is not an immigrant problem.

The problem is that most of us do not know these neighbors. There is the obvious language problem. There is the instinct of people from someplace else to stay with their own and create little underground communities.

“The other” have always been hard to know. But somehow we should try. Not because we are afraid. Small-town life does not lose its luster when we have to lock our doors. The center of small-town life is knowing our neighbors. A locked door should be a habit we teach our kids, even after the cops catch this creep.

– John Stanton

Yesterday and Today

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

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I found a photo of my pal Del Wynn at the dump. Del has been dead now for too many years and is someone I miss with great frequency. He would have liked the idea that I just happened to look down as I was tossing my trash into a bin and there it was, protected in a plastic jacket. I think it was something that was made up for a fundraiser we threw at the Muse when he was battling Lou Gehrig’s Disease a few years ago.

The photo shows him after one of the road races that he loved so much. In all the time I knew him, Del never told me whether he was a good runner or not. He could talk for a long time about the fun he had rubbing shoulders with the likes of Billy Rogers and Joan Benoit Samuelson. He had more than a few stories about our mutual friend, running guru and legendary Boston bartender Tommy Leonard.
Del liked two things about running. He liked the actual physical feeling of running and he liked the fellowship he found at races. In the late 1970s, road running was a very laid back affair. And he would often shake his head at today’s running world.

Del’s photo showed up just as the people from a group called the Urban Land Institute arrived on island. They are the guests of ReMain Nantucket, here to help them focus their mission. They are gathering input to try and put together a strategy to shore up a sense of community along Main Street. They should all be given this photo of Del Wynn.

That is not because I think the hippie days of the early 1970s are any sort of ideal. I do not. It is to remind them that the only reason to chase community is the desire for fellowship. It is a word that seems out of place these days, like something you might hear in church, but it is at the center of this thing we call community.

The problem with ideas like fellowship and community is that their meaning depends on whom you ask. The tides wash over this place and change our perceptions, until we are not sure whose hazy past we should keep in mind as we try to go forward.
– By John Stanton

The World Writ Small

Friday, October 10th, 2008

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A neighbor of mine likes to say that this island is simply the rest of the world writ small. If I have mentioned that before, it is because local news stories make it pop into my head. This week it is the awful news that another woman was raped in her own home. We are the rest of the world writ small indeed.

An attack like that resonates in a small community. It dredges up emotions. First, our hearts go out to the victim. We can never understand the pain and anger she must be suffering.

The second emotion is fear. People begin talking about getting a gun, about getting new locks on the doors, dead-bolts, asking what the cops are doing to catch this creep. People begin wondering if a sexual attack is July is related to this week’s attack.

The fear of crime expands itself into larger sociological rumblings. It begins with this sentence: Once there was a time when we did not have to lock our doors. And it quickly morphs into this sentence: When “they” began moving here things began to change.

It is a very slippery slope to begin thinking that way. Fear of “the other” makes us take our eye off the ball. The focus should stay on finding out who did this awful thing and bringing him to justice. The larger issue of immigration, or eulogies for how things used to be here, just serves to blur that focus.

Community is not just a nice notion that centers around getting together with like-minded neighbors on some sunny Sunday afternoon. Community is a challenge.

That challenge requires the heavy lifting of living shoulder to shoulder with people with whom we appear to have nothing in common. Very often it is a challenge that involves the police to sort things out.

In the end we trust that law enforcement will deal with the bad guys in any part of the community, leaving us with the chance to slowly find some common ground.

And so the people who complain that our island has changed are right. It has changed. We must now lock our doors and windows, worry about strangers, be smart about the chances we take.

We are now like every place else. We are the larger world writ small. But we have always been that. What makes this place different is that what happens to one of us still has small echoes in all of us. That is something to hold onto.
– John Stanton