Islander's Blog

Archive for November, 2008

There in Times of Need

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

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I cannot think of anything more discouraging then not being able to put food on the table, especially if you have children. Not being able to sit down at the kitchen table and share a plate of hot food must magnify every small problem in your day. And even here on our little island, some of our neighbors face that sad daily reality.

In a small basement room, in the St. Paul’s Parish House, Kevin Dugan chips away at hunger one bag of groceries and one smile at a time. This is the Nantucket Emergency Food Pantry. You stop by, fill out a small form with your name, address and phone number, and one of the people who help him run the pantry will hand you a bag of groceries. Simple as that.

“The key is to keep it all simple,” he said. “This is an emergency food kitchen and when you come here you do not need the food next week, you need it today. You want to leave with food, not three pounds of paperwork. Sometimes people make things complicated, but we need to keep this simple.”

On this rainy afternoon, a few days before Thanksgiving, he is asking about milk. Does someone need milk, or cheese? Do they need a turkey for the holiday? Dugan is a big man, with a friendly demeanor and a wide smile. He began volunteering at the pantry when it was run by John Maury, who was a bigger-than-life kind of guy.

“I asked him one day if he needed a volunteer,” Dugan said. “He said sure, but he made it clear that if I said I wanted to help out he expected me to show up. I showed up. I enjoyed it. I eventually took over running it.”

The closest Dugan gets to introspection is to shrug and say, “It was very gratifying, you know? It still is.” People need food, the food pantry has food. He does not treat it like a big deal, although if you are hungry it is a very big deal.

One day a group of kids from a kindergarten class stopped by the pantry on a field trip. He asked them if they thought that on Nantucket everyone has plenty of money. They all agreed it was so. He asked them if they thought anyone went to bed hungry the night before. He asked them if everyone they knew had a good breakfast that morning. They all answered yes, no, yes, in that automatic way of responding.

Duggan shrugs at the story. “They were just kids. They didn’t really understand.” He has a habit of stopping short and letting you finish the thought. There are plenty of grown-ups who think the same way. Do people go to bed hungry on Nantucket? The answer is yes, of course, even before this financial meltdown we find ourselves in the middle of these days.

“There are some really great builders on this island who now have nothing to do because of the economy,” said Dugan. “It’s not their fault. It is easy to get a little down on your luck and need a hand.”

Even if the economy gets better, there is always somebody who needs that helping hand. People get sick and can’t work. People lose their jobs. You can get food at the pantry up to six times a year, to tide you over.

Dugan’s day job is at Visitor Services, so it is not hard to find him.

“For better or worse I have sort of become the face of the food pantry,” he said. “People see me on the street and offer to help, although right now we are in pretty good shape. Or they tell me about someone who might not be doing so well.”

The food pantry is run as part of the Interfaith Council. They look to be well stocked for Thanksgiving, but Christmas is on the way and after that a long winter. They happily accept your donations. You very rarely see examples of it anymore, but Dugan and his volunteers are doing God’s work with a smile.
– John Stanton

The Auto Industry and Main Street

Monday, November 24th, 2008

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Bill Tornovish is a man who does not waste time fooling himself. He has run the auto dealership on Polpis Road for six years. Before that he ran it alongside his dad, Bill Sr., since 1988. The place is still named after his grandfather, Don Allen. In 1967 Bill’s grandfather, along with his dad and uncles, bought the place from Harry Gordon.

When you have been selling cars for that long, and listening to your father and uncles talk about it for even longer, you understand the cold calculus of the business.

Last week you could not turn on the television or look at a newspaper without seeing a sea of talking heads giving their opinions on whether the federal government should bail out the big players in the American auto industry. But here on Main Street, or more to the point on Polpis Road, there in no bailout coming.

Tornorvish has seen good times and bad times over the last 20 years, as the economy went through its ups and downs. His family has always managed to pull Don Allen Ford through. He says that these times are as bad as anything he has seen come before.

He is the kind of guy who knows how to do business and how to take care of his customers. As a matter of disclosure, I would probably not be driving my old truck if he had not helped me find the right one at the right financing.

These days he watches the scenes in Washington, D.C. unfold. He sees the auto industry CEOs hammered for flying to a Congressional hearing in their private jets. It was a combination of Capitol Hill grandstanding and poor public-relations judgment.

“I think they got blindsided in D.C.,” he said. “They just did what they do every day. But they didn’t go there with a plan and that was a mistake.”

Congressional committees are the sideshows of government. The real problem came weeks before, when news of the credit crisis sent Wall Street into convulsions. One morning he was watching it on MSNBC and the next morning there were e-mails from Ford detailing how they were going to tighten up their credit policy.

“They had a video conference and dealers were up in arms,” he said. “But there was nothing we could do. The credit crunch is really the problem and that is reflected in sales. Ford is looking three years down the road, but I’m looking three months down the road.”

Credit, of course, is how you buy a car. Until this all happened, you could buy a car for no money down and pay for it with financing that did not require equity.

“It seemed like overnight the credit was stopped,” he said.

When it becomes more and more difficult for your customers to get that credit, you lose business. When you lose enough business you begin to think in terms of what it will take to keep the doors open. There is no getting around it.

“October and November are generally pretty good months for us,” he said. “And there are people who buy a car around New Year’s, or who buy a car every two years or so, or who buy the newest thing on the market. But now everyone is looking long-term at this economy and asking themselves how long will it last.”

It is not just the car business, of course, but if there is a canary in this coal mine it might be car sales. Tornovish said he gets e-mail from other dealerships and they all are having the same problems. He turns on the news and watches stories about car dealerships closing their doors.

“I’m nervous as hell right now and looking at my options,” he said. “Our service area is busy, but that can’t carry us. We already had to lay off some employees for the first time. You cut people’s hours to try and save their jobs. You cut way back on the money you spend on advertising.”

This is a business that has gone out of its way to be part of the community. The Booster’s Club, the Boy Scouts, or one of any number of nonprofit groups, have always known they could turn to the folks at Don Allen Ford. They have raffled off cars to raise money for the hospital and the Rotary Club.

Community is not just an idea for guys like this; it is something you do. When times are good you chip in.

In a small town it is not just the name on the sign of a business, not some national chain, that is threatened with going under, but your friends and neighbors. You know what it all really means. It is not just some story you saw on the national news. It is not about how Ford or GM is doing, but about how a guy you have known for years is doing.

Tornovish knows that there is enough bad news to go around. His business will pick up when real estate begins to sell again, and when contractors begin filing building permits, or if the scallop season is better than expected. His business will pick up when everybody’s business picks up. Until then you try to hold on any way you can.

“I feel like I have to find a solution real quick,” he said. “Right now I do not see any real answer. But I keep looking. I need to find one before Christmas, or I need to make more decisions.”
– John Stanton

Differences of opinion

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008

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My brother agrees with me on almost nothing. It has been that way since we were little boys.

You can see it in the paths we took. He was the neighborhood tough guy. And I was, well, not. He served his country as a Special Forces sergeant, while I went off to college. Although I do seem to recall that the circumstances were less patriotic and more of a young man looking for a new roll of the dice.

He is the kind of man who named his bulldog after a senior master sergeant of his acquaintance named O’Malley. My Lab is named after a long dead blues singer.

He is conservative where I am liberal. He voted for John McCain, or at least said he was going to, and I voted for Obama. His arguments generally hinge on the idea that if I do not agree with him, I must not be able to grasp an essential part of the equation. He may be right, who knows?

How heated do out disagreements get? He took me to dinner for my 50th birthday, to a local bar and grill where we have been hanging out since we were old enough to buy a beer and where our father hung out before us. Before our steaks were even brought to the table, we got into an argument that escalated to us both on our feet and ready to continue the discussion in, let’s just say, a non-verbal way.

Fortunately, the waitress brought the steaks and the idea of two middle-aged men having a fistfight in a local tavern seemed silly enough that we sat back down.

We do, however, agree on the important things. We agree that you look someone in the eye when you tell them what you think. We agree that you stand by your word. He has raised three fine sons, one off in college already, and the importance of family is something we agree on.

Why tell you all of this? This blog was not my idea, but I am involved in it now and would like to see if it can rise above the generally low level of discourse I sometimes see out on the Net.

But it will not be my words that determine that, they are only a jumping-off point for your words.

The button on the end of these little vignettes says, “Join the conversation.” It does not say, “send us a note if you agree with the writer.”

I wrote a blog recently about my surprise at the level of vitriol and inarticulate anger that I sometimes find on the web. Maybe it should not surprise me. It has even slopped over onto this little blog.

This blog is not a book, it is meant as a discussion. It works best if one story leads to someone else’s story. It works best of we disagree enough to kick ideas around.
Whether I am right or wrong on a subject is not the point here. These blogs are just my observations. I welcome yours.

But if we fall into the muck of name-calling behind the mask of an anonymous cyber handle, it will all be a waste of time.

If I can make it through Thanksgiving next week sitting next to a man who disagrees with me on almost everything political, and walk away with good feelings, then this blog can be a place where actual ideas find a home.
– John Stanton is a writer and filmmaker on Nantucket.

Tradition

Friday, November 21st, 2008

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There are two factors at the heart of all great rivalries. The first is the notion of two places who believe themselves to be very different, even when outsiders would see similarities.

Harvard and Yale. Red Sox and Yankees. Two tiny islands off Cape Cod.

The second factor is tradition. Vito Capizzo came here as a young coach. He had spent his college days playing for the legendary Bear Bryant, on an Alabama team quarterbacked by a kid from Pennsylvania coal country named Joe Namath.

He taught the kids in this small town a way to beat the kids from bigger towns. In return they gave him all they had to give. The result was tradition.

He became the kind of coach that your father and maybe your uncles also played for, in a town so small that every boy in school needed to show up for practice if that coach was going to be able to put a team on the field. Times have changed, but Vito is still on the sidelines trying to find a way to steal a win from bigger schools and stronger teams.

The reason grown men and women rally around such teams is that they can see that their sons, or their neighbors’ sons, have dedicated themselves to something. That is where pride comes from.
One Saturday afternoon, earlier this fall, I was waiting in line to grab a couple of hot dogs, after the Whalers had lost a football game. I ran into two women my own age, both parents, who asked me about the game and shrugged when I told them about the loss.

They were happy to tell me that they were soccer parents, in a tone that made their disdain for football clear. Which on top of being a silly way for adults to act, misses the point entirely.
In the end, of course, high school sports breaks down to small groups of kids, trying to do their best, to win at a game. Isn’t that what we try to teach our own kids? Work hard, focus, sacrifice for a goal, dedicate yourself to a team? And make no mistake, parents who establish those ideals in their sons and daughters make things much easier on coaches.

The soccer team and the field hockey team had wonderful seasons, championship seasons. They are working on their own traditions.

Saturday afternoon’s tradition will belong to the football team. A Whaler team that has not won a single game will face a Martha’s Vineyard team that is 9-1 and has owned the Island Cup for the last five seasons.

They will win or they will lose, but if they leave it all on the field they will become part of the tradition.
John Stanton is a writer and a filmmaker on Nantucket.

One day all the syrup was gone

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

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My friend Sarah says that one of the first things expected to be pushed to the brink of extinction because of global warming are maple trees. Changes in the weather, it seems, are already beginning to mean that the maples are beginning to produce less sap.

She had what sounded like a perfectly sound scientific explanation for this, being an actual scientist, but that meant nothing to me. What struck me was the idea that the price of maple syrup will go up, until it is a luxury item. She estimated that my grandkids might see maple syrup as something they have only on special occasions, on Christmas morning maybe, or something that only rich people eat.

My daughter once asked me what a carbon copy was. She was reading a book in which two characters were said to be in many ways carbon copies of each other. The word meant nothing to her. Explaining it to her made me feel the changes I had lived through. Admittedly a very small change.

I once met a woman old enough to remember when the automobile was new. This was in a place called Bluefield, West Virginia. She remembered when coal was king and her life was filled with prosperity. When we talked, the mines and the small coal companies had mostly closed, and unemployment was rampant. She figured she would leave her small part of this earth in hard times.
Her life had taken her through a time when she saw a man walk on the moon. Henry Ford to Neil Armstrong, the Model T to the lunar module. That is seeing things change.

And now, maple syrup. The changes we seem destined to witness have more to do with loss. Maybe it is just that we have learned somehow to take the advances for granted, so that only the losses count.

Global warming was not the only change people were talking about this week. You do not have to be an economist to see the ripples of the recent Wall Street mess.

There is an almost personal trickle-down economy here. When money is tight, building slows down, less people have cash in their pockets and so merchants feel the pinch. People begin to lose their jobs. On top of it all the scallop season is marked with heated arguments over just how many scallops can be fished out of the harbor.

You go for a couple of beers and the economy is the topic of conversation at the bar, and even the bar owner stops to talk about it. People talk about it while stretching at the gym. You notice that there seem to be less trucks on the roads and less people at the Stop & Shop. Conversations are already in the air about what cuts to make at the high school.

There is a general feeling that we will all feel the cold this winter, that the face of this island will change. And now the possibility of losing that most comforting of condiments forever.

Maple syrup seems like the least of out worries in the face of hard economic times. But the point is that islanders will remember just how resilient they have always been. Everyone will tighten our belts and make it through the winter.

It is very easy to live here when times are good, easier than it is to live most places. And it is very difficult to live here when times are bad, more difficult than most places. But a bad economy does not last forever.

So take a moment on a rainy Sunday morning for pancakes and bacon and an egg, all of it dripping in real Vermont maple syrup. While you still have the time.
– John Stanton

Intelligent Discourse?

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

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Does the Internet lead to bad manners? I began to wonder about it last week, when a friend called asking if I had seen the Sunday Boston Globe story about the two rapes. I had not. He suggested I look it up online.

Like most Boston Globe stories that take place out here in the provinces, there were problems in tone. Over the years Globe reporters dispatched to the island have left their office on Morrissey Boulevard with the headline already in their heads and simply filled in the blanks.

The facts are generally correct, but the hole in the story is the lack of a true understanding of this place. Probably the same thing that people in Maine notice in stories about their hometowns.

The last one was about the rat population here, as if for some reason there should be no rats on Nantucket even though they are everywhere else. Or as if it had become a public health problem. Or as if this were some big news that nobody knew about before. Such stories seem like a waste of editorial space, but what do I know?

Nantucket has a very definite image on the mainland, which is no less frustrating for being true three months of the year. But in general this was just a story about something I already knew about. I told my friend as much and he suggested I scroll down to the readers’ comments.

These days you can e-mail in a comment on newspaper stories. Often stories carry not only the reporter’s byline on the top, but a little slug with his e-mail on the bottom. This is supposed to allow for two-way communication with the readers.

In fact, you can do the very same thing after reading this blog, which has opened my eyes to how it can work to expand the conversation. So far, so good. Then I read the comments at the end of the Globe story.

The first few were filled with the sort of uninformed assumptions that you often see in this sort of Internet back-and-forth. The kind of thing some well-meaning, know-it-all might say in person, thinking he was being helpful. There were a couple of pithy comments urging us all to “sell now before housing values fall any further.”

Then there was this: “Perhaps the most over-rated place in the world. I have been to Nantucket and could never understand the big attraction. It some ways with all the exclusivity and pretentiousness, it is satisfying to see its demise.”

There were a handful of the usual undocumented immigrant screeds. There were a handful of screeds calling islanders “liberal commies” who have our heads buried in the sand.

There was the political argument that began with this statement: “You’d think there would be enough rich people in Nantucket to get pissed off, demand action, ramp up police presence.” It then went on to place the evil that is rape squarely where it belongs. On property taxes.

Then there were the garden-variety, mean-spirited comments like this one: “Let’s see, we’re supposed to feel sorry for the residents of Nantucket because they have to live like everyone else? By locking their doors and being more aware of their surroundings? Poor people! Welcome to the real world!”

It went downhill from there. The point is not that people were indulging in Nantucket-bashing. Some comments actually had a point, and some reminded others commenting that this was, after all, a story of two horrible crimes.

But most of them were filled with enough vitriol that if you went on like that in public people would cross the street to avoid you. If you began to loudly spew some of these comments in your local bar, you might get punched in the mouth or shut off by the bartender, and possibly both.

So what is it about the Internet? Is it the anonymity that makes people forget to keep a civil tongue in their heads? Could it be that this experiment of a two-way conversation with readers is flawed?

I have always liked to say that the best stories come from average people. But those responses to the Globe story made me realize something. I was wrong. Good stories do not come from average people.

I realized that where I have always gone for stories was to people who I respected. Maybe because they had a clear understanding of the world around them and their place in it. Maybe because they shouldered hard times with dignity. Maybe because they added something to their community and asked nothing in return.

Some of them have walked the halls of power or academia and not allowed it to go to their heads; some worked with their hands and saw themselves as simply working people. None of them were average. Wherever you find those qualities they are not average.

In the end I can not get over the idea that there is something important in looking a man in the eye when you are trying to gauge the worth of his opinion. Isn’t that one of the reasons we choose to live in a small town? And maybe that is what the Internet lacks. A filter for all the noise.
 John Stanton

Thoughts on Veterans Day

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

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An ocean liner was sunk by a German submarine off Nantucket. This was in the fall of 1916. The United States would not even be a combatant in World War I for eight more months.

Asked later why he did not take a route through the shoals, a route that might have shielded him from the attack, the ship’s captain said the risk of being sunk by the U-boat was less than the risk of wrecking his ship on the shoals. By the time that German submarine had finished poaching in the waters some 40 miles south of here, it had sunk six ships. Twenty-eight survivors were taken to Nantucket for treatment.

One report said the Germans allowed crews to get into the lifeboats and begin rowing for the Nantucket Lightship before they began firing on the ships.

I read someplace recently that World War I is a very good lens to look at the world since then, especially the way decisions were made defining the map of the Middle East that still echo today. A European thought process for a Middle Eastern world.

Veterans Day, of course, began as Armistice Day, and commemorated the dead who littered the battlefields of what was called The Great War.

An islander named Charles Chadwick fought in that war. Outside the French town of Verdun he found himself caught on open ground in the middle of a German artillery barrage. When he came back home, he was very forthcoming in telling his story to the newspaper.

“I was standing by a ledge at about 20 minutes to 11 o’clock, wondering had I better make my way along, and a shell burst near by me and I knew no more. I recall opening my eyes once or twice and seeing stars overhead, but the day and night must have passed before the stretcher-bearers found me.

I was sent to the hospital in Bordeaux, and for two days and two nights I could not close my eyes. I imagined I was going through all sorts of things – falling from high buildings, etc. I would lie down and cry for hours, for what I do not know. I was in the hospital when the armistice was signed.”

Mrs. Morris L. Parrish spent summers living on Cliff Road, but spent parts of 1917 and 1918 as a nurse working in a field hospital in France. Her tour began in high spirits. In a letter home she described the thrill of witnessing an aerial battle between two biplanes. On April 20, 1918, she wrote a much different letter drenched in the horrors of war.

“Is it really possible that somewhere there is laughter and happiness? Do you know that the dead are stacked up in the hills, and somewhere in that muddle of legs, arms, and heads is perhaps your dear one? It is all true.”

It is a letter from someone who has looked in the face of horror in a way that no military medals (she was awarded the French Legion of Honor) can make better.

As I was looking up those passages, a friend of mine phoned. When he heard what I was doing, he remembered the Thanksgiving Day in 1967 when his aunt found out that her son was not coming home from Vietnam.

Another Vietnam veteran once allowed me to point a camera at him, while he remembered the war. At one point he told a story about a kid who was killed next to him during a firefight. That is what he called him as he told the story, the kid. As he was finishing the story he choked up, struck by the fact that the kid would be an old man in his 60s today.

A few weeks ago I ran into a guy I worked with a couple of years ago building houses. When we worked together his son had just completed Marine Corps training and was heading to Iraq. There was good news now. The kid had made it home finally and was out of the Marines. His father could not stop smiling about it.

Wars are begun by nations, but in the end wars are frighteningly personal. And so on Veterans Day I read about the geopolitical consequences of World War I, but I thought about the everyday consequences of any war and about another president who thinks he has the answer. I wondered if there even is an answer.
– John Stanton is a writer and filmmaker living on Nantucket.

Witness to Power

Monday, November 10th, 2008

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She has been there, standing in that shadow between the idea and the reality, between a candidate winning the campaign and leading the free world.

“You do not quite believe it. You think, is this guy really going to be president of the United States? You think, am I really going to be in this position of power? We all grow up thinking that there is a ‘they’ who run things and work on these big problems. It is a very strange feeling to realize one day that ‘they’ is you.”’

Nancy Soderberg was part of Bill Clinton’s transition team in 1992, when he went from a semi-obscure governor to president. She was the transition team’s point person on foreign policy.
Her parents are Lars and Nancy, former summer residents who have become part of the island community.

It seemed like a good time to get on the phone with her, as Barak Obama prepares to be the next man to sit behind the desk at the oval office.

“The day after the election the whole world starts calling,” she said. “Europe, South Africa, Haiti, whatever the crisis of the day is.”

It is a very American thing, this transition of power and the idea of a president-elect waiting in the wings for more than two months to take over. Obama, of course, is not yet the president. We only have one president at a time, and until Jan. 20 that man is George W. Bush.

“Obama really cannot get involved in problems yet,” said Soderberg. “it is all about taking phone calls and sending out a strong message right now. The most important thing is to get his team in place. If you make a mistake on your inner circle, it hurts your agenda.”

Clinton made a mistake like that. He chose a Wisconsin congressman named Les Aspen as his Secretary of Defense and he did not work out. After the “Blackhawk Down” affair in Somalia he was forced to step down.

“Obama can’t afford that sort of thing happening with the country in the middle of a war,” she said. “But he ran an incredibly disciplined campaign and he is running the transition the same way.”

Soderberg said that getting a handle on our current economic crisis will be his first foreign policy challenge.

“He needs to send the world the message that he is on top of it, that he is surrounding himself with the best economic minds available, and that he can lead us out of it,” she said. “Without getting our economic house in order, he will never get ahead of foreign-policy issues.”

Those issues include winding down the war in Iraq and getting American troops out. Soderberg is not a fan of timetables, saying they lean toward politics and not toward military strategy. And that is not to mention the war in Afghanistan, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the increasingly aggressive leadership in Russia.

“It is clear that Russia is moving toward a more centrally-controlled autocratic state,” said Soderberg, who after working in the Clinton Administration worked for the International Crisis Group. “They are flexing their muscles and looking to take a more powerful regional role. We ignored them for much of the last eight years.”

What happened over those last eight years, she said, will make successful foreign policy more difficult.

“There has been unprecedented spikes in anti-American feelings since 2003. Who today would build a Statue of Liberty like the students did during the Tiananmen Square protests? We need to get back on the path where people will follow us, where we can inspire. The good news is the world is hungry for that kind of leadership.”

These days you can find Soderberg teaching at a small college in Florida, the sort of place where kids from working-class families work the night shift so they can pay for classes. She opens their horizons to the possibility of working in Washington, D.C.

“It is an awe-inspiring feeling,” she said about her own days in Washington. “I don’t care who you are, the shift from the private sector to having the full power of the United States government behind you is dramatic.”

“The strangest thing is when it all becomes normal. You are in that 24-hour bubble, in the motorcade and flying around in Air Force One. It is almost inevitable that people get arrogant. You begin to forget it’s the office and not you. It is tough to walk away from that, but it really gets to be that the healthiest thing you can do is walk away.”

She gets her politics fix these days locally, a level she has never played on before, working on a Democratic County Committee in Florida. It is a long way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but politics is politics.

“Local politics can be fascinating, she said with a laugh. “Plus, this is Florida. They play mean down here.”

– John Stanton

Campaign Omens

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

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It was an omen. The Friday before election day, Halloween afternoon, he appeared, as if out of thin air. He had piles of black dreadlocks and was wearing a dress and a heavy coat. The combination gave him the look of a strange woman in a fairy tale, out in the chilly weather gathering wood for the fire. He was standing at the rotary, across the street from the newspaper, which is a classic place for candidates to stand and hold signs to raise their visibility.

His sign read: “Free Energy. And plenty of fish” on one side and “Scannell for U.S. Congress” on the other side. I drove past twice to see if I was reading that mystical message correctly.

Years ago Steve Scannell gained a bit of folk-hero status with an act of civil disobedience. Back then the town was in the middle of trying to get the state to hand over control of the island’s ponds. It had been tradition every spring and fall to open the ponds to the ocean, something legend has it was taught to the first white settlers on the island by the natives. The idea was to let certain fish in and out of the ponds, to keep the mosquito population low, and to “clean” them with an influx of salt water.

In the 1980s, for a reason I can only remember as the usual overzealous state interference with the local way of doing things, it became illegal to open the ponds without permission. Scannell took a shovel and time and time again went to work cutting a path between Sesachacha and Hummock ponds and the Atlantic Ocean, a job usually done with a big front-end loader.

The aim was to get arrested, which he usually did, and to draw attention to the issue of local control of the ponds. Whether he was directly responsible for any of the changes that followed, depends on who you ask. In any case, I had not seen him around in a few years and there he was at the rotary, indulging us all with a bit of street theater.

Like a lot of small towns, running for public office on Nantucket means standing at places like the traffic rotary, and the post office, and the dump, holding a sign much like Scannell’s sign. There are debates, meet-and-greets, newspaper interviews, press releases, fundraising, brochures, hands to shake, and many phone calls to voters – sometimes those computer-generated ones known as robo-calls. These days there is even something called an e-mail blast.

But without the signs and the volunteers who hold them, you might as well forget it. I am not sure why that is, but it seems to be true. Maybe people just need to see that you want their vote bad enough to stand out in the cold, or to ask your friends to do the same.

There is an old story about former Speaker of the House Tim O’Neill – who famously said all politics is local – asking his neighbor if she voted for him. She tells him she did not. He reminds her that he grew up next door. She’s known him all her life. As a boy he shoveled the snow off her sidewalk. Why didn’t he have her vote, of all people?

Her response is, “You didn’t knock on my door and ask me to vote for you.” Maybe for us, the dump and the rotary take the place of knocking on doors.

At 7 a.m. on election-day morning, the sidewalk across the street from the island’s one polling place was lined with signs. A guy I was chatting with offered the opinion that signs only matter in their absence.

“If you have signs they don’t really get you any more votes,” he said. “But if you don’t have signs you lose votes.” It was campaign wisdom you can’t find on MSNBC.

The guy was holding a McCain-Palin sign. I was holding a Madden for State Representative sign. I had wandered over to him with a box of donuts as a bipartisan offering, on a day when we needed both Democrats and Republicans to toss at least one vote to an Independent.

Maurice Gibbs was also holding a McCain sign. He told me that during his long and distinguished Navy service he had once met McCain’s father, who was an admiral. No amount of arguing about the issues can change the mind of a man who once served with a candidate’s father.

He decided it would be OK for me to stick a yard sign for my candidate into the ground near where he was standing. I took the donuts and walked down to the folks holding Democrat signs to see if I could get the same deal.

Later in the day I found myself standing next to Viola Howard. She is Cape Verdean. She was holding an Obama-Biden sign, and was very happy to have voted for a black man for President of the United States. She always figured that maybe her grandchildren would be able to do that, but never imagined that day would come for her.

The day had the feeling that we would all be telling somebody about this election years from now. A bunch of kids who had just voted for the first time were having their pictures taken in front of some people holding Obama signs.

The first vote I ever cast was for Jimmy Carter. He promised he would never lie to us, which after Nixon seemed like a good deal. He became the most honorable ex-president in history, worrying less about his legacy and library and more about building houses for poor people. Somehow I cannot see Bill Clinton or George W. doing that any time soon.

A childhood friend of mine, who once upon a time was one of the older kids in the neighborhood, called me on Monday night. He tried to remember his first vote, but could not quite remember the candidate. “I do remember that it was the Three-A’s election,” he said. “Acid, Amnesty and Abortion.”

During the 2004 election, a friend of mine who is involved in national politics ran into his own triplet problem when campaigning for John Kerry in South Carolina: Guns, God and Gays. This year did not seem to have it catchy and derisive alliteration. Maybe McCain’s people cold not find anything that rhymes with socialism.

On the Madden campaign, we had been making the argument for months that party affiliation is less important than the candidate himself. It was, of course, an argument whose roots were in the fact that Tim Madden, a life long Independent whose view on the issues lean heavily Democrat, had missed the deadline to change his party affiliation before tossing his hat into the ring.

Still, it is an argument that makes sense. Run for selectman and nobody cares if you are a Democrat or Republican. All they care about is whether they think you deserve a shot at running the town.
I have always thought that sort of local politics, where we vote for people we actually know, is the purest form of democracy. The same can be said for the one person/one vote style of Town Meeting, which, sadly, is in danger of being drained of all meaning right before our eyes through apathy.

But move your political ambitions up a notch and it is a different ballgame. Madden ran a write-in campaign to try to grab the Democratic nomination during the primary and fell just short. The loss meant that he would run in the general election as an Independent, what is sometimes called an un-enrolled candidate.

Voter common sense gets tangled up in party affiliations. That is especially true when your opponent takes every chance to publicly and loudly declare himself “a true Democrat.”

Handicapping this race was simple, and based on the odd geography of the district: two islands and part of one town on the Cape. Be the big winner on Nantucket, break even on Martha’s Vineyard, keep your fingers crossed in Falmouth.

When election day rolls around, all you can do is hope you have reached out to enough people. Tim started his day on the Vineyard, then took the boat to Falmouth, and in the early evening arrived home.

By the time the two of us stood alone in the dark, holding signs under a streetlight and trying to convince just a few more voters to fill in the circle next to his name, there was the strange feeling of knowing the die has been cast and all you can do now is go home and wait.

I was napping on the couch when the numbers began rolling in. If only a few of the many race horses I have bet on over the years had run their races as well, I would have a pocket full of cash. Just shy of 5,000 Nantucket votes, third place in Falmouth but not by much, and the town-by-town splits on the Vineyard played out perfectly.

Just before 11 p.m. it was clear Tim had won. We chatted on the phone for a few minutes. I hung up and cracked open one of those half-bottles of champagne and shared a glass with my wife.

On the television president-elect Barak Obama was making his acceptance speech. I thought about how wildly happy people like my grandmother had felt when JFK was elected. An Irish Catholic in the White House seemed like validation of your citizenship.

“Steerage to the White House in two generations.” I heard that over and over as a kid, and it gives me some small inkling of how much this new president will mean to African-Americans.

Earlier in the day I spoke with Geno Geng, just back from riding around in his tricked-out van and shooting video in Ohio and Florida. He told me about a midnight rally he had been to a few days ago.

“It as the strangest thing,” he said. “It was one in the morning, the crowd was huge, and it was filled with black people and white people, old and young, all kinds of people. And everybody was just so happy to be there.”

The talking heads on MSNBC were yammering about the need for Obama to “govern form the center” and generally trying to put a damper on the evening. It did not seem to be working. I though about the midnight rally Geno had seen. I thought for a very brief moment about Steve Scannell holding that crazy sign. Some very good omens, indeed.
– John Stanton

Waterfront News

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

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Well, everyone is just about ready for the big day of the start of commercial scalloping tomorrow. The nub issue was the talk of the waterfront today. We will learn our fate on that issue after the SHAB meeting on Tuesday, November fourth. I was down at the docks today and grabbed a few pictures. To take a look, click here.
Martie Mack writes the Nantucket Waterfront News blog.