We countesses (real ones, like moi, or imagined, like many) usually are not accustomed to dreary airports like Athens, and as I sat in the hectic, loud departures lounge amidst the crush of humanity, I was lonely, somewhat depressed and missed my idyllic Nantucket, where I have been known to summer.
Then, gott sei Dank, I espied a well-dressed woman carrying one of Nantucket’s famed straw bags. I was so happy to see anyone from that island 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod that I rushed up to her and said, “Good afternoon! I’m from Nantucket, too. How are you?”
She turned and looked at me with an icy glaze. “I’m not from Nantucket,” she replied haughtily. “I’m from Sconset.”
I slunk way, thinking that she might think she’s more a citizen of Sconset on the eastern end of the island than the island itself — but Sconset is eroding into the Atlantic.
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That’s not the way Nantucketers usually are — even if they’re Wash-ashores like me rather than those who were born there. It’s famous for its beauty — there is no graffiti, no stoplights and nothing chi-chi like that other nearby intellectual island, or all about money like the Hamptons. In fact, Nantucket is the last place where one shows he or she has money — although there’s plenty of it. The island’s real estate, according to Forbes magazine, has the highest value of any in America. In high season, there are more landings at the tiny airport than at Logan in Boston — and most of them are of private jets that are then parked on the tarmac like huge seagulls. Then there are those famed straw Lighthouse baskets, so named because they were woven by sailors on whaling trips to pass away the time and which at auction can go for up to $115,000, while one of the island’s equally famous walking sticks can sell for $9,500. So money clearly isn’t a problem.
The thing is, Nantucket isn’t for everyone, especially those looking for a social whirlwind of parties and paparazzi moments. The island’s quirks are legend — including the fact that no one who isn’t born there can ever be anything but a “Wash-ashore.” One day I got so fed up with a local friend calling me that that I told him I’d start calling him a “Clamnik” if he didn’t stop. He laughed.
Sure, Nantucket has some of the finest 18th and 19th century New England architecture around and beautiful beaches, but Main Street is still cobblestoned, which can destroy people’s ankles as well as the springs of their cars. One can easily wander Main Street and see everything from a petite 11-year-old violinist playing Vivaldi to a woman in all black with a raven on her shoulder giving a ghost-walk tour. There are lots of tourist sights — beautiful churches and grand houses, but where else is there a life-saving museum?
The 15-mile-long and four-and-a-half-mile-wide island is covered with bicycle paths, but has anywhere else proposed raising money to buy wheelchair bicycles for the elderly so they can enjoy nature too?
And unlike those other islands, people on Nantucket are friendly. You can sit on a park bench eating an ice cream cone from The Juice Bar (which is so famous that even Princess Diana came over to the island for the day just to have one) and people will come up and strike up a conversation. Then there is the local hospital, quaintly called the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, where when you go in you actually feel like you’re going to come out again. The lobby is filled with about a hundred colored drawings by children, and the moment you walk in the staff asks if you need help. Nor is it some yokel’s clinic — the hospital is linked at the hip with Massachusetts General Hospital. And if the doctor knows you, when you try to pay for his services he’s likely to demur, saying simply, “Don’t pay me — just make a contribution to the hospital,” and sends his female patient off with a kiss on the cheek.
One of the hospital’s best diagnosticians — and the only surgeon on the island — is Dr. Timothy Lepore, who is one of Nantucket’s most famous characters. A sign in his waiting room proclaims him “The Wizard,” while one on the bathroom states, “The Door to the Pee Shooter.” When I go I always sit in his big fur-covered chair. Oh — and he has a pet hawk that, luckily, he keeps at home. I once asked him what he fed it and his nurse replied, “Road kill.”
As I sat in the hubbub of Athens airport I longed for the quiet of Quidnet overlooking the pond and the sea beyond, even though I had to admit that Nantucket’s Main Street at high season can sometimes feel as jammed in the summer, when the island’s usual population of 10,000 swells by 40,000 day-trippers and tourists. Those Wash-ashores desperate to appear like locals by donning a pair of shorts in Nantucket Red — a dusty rose shade — can be pushy, demanding and destructive even as the islanders depend upon them for their livelihoods. And that is causing a crisis of concern among the locals, whose ancestors in the early 20th century seriously proposed seceding from the United States.
While not going that far, one of the younger generation of locals, the very handsome Tobias Glidden, does believe Nantucket should become more self-sufficient in terms of food and energy by 2050, when climate change will have a serious impact on food production worldwide. The 24-year-old is the youngest selectman in the Nantucket government and his family has lived on the island for seven or eight generations, selling fish for five of them. Glidden, who’s also a brick layer, recently told the island’s magazine, N, “I’m part of the organism of Nantucket. I’ve become part of the island and the island is part of me. We are linked together.”
So many others, including me, feel the same way. The Algonquin Indians gave the island its name, which means “far away land.” And it’s far away in every way.