Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nantucket Snapshot: An Innocent Off-Islander Snoops Around a Storied Island.

The message to me was unmistakeable: disappear.

It came from my wife Barbara and her sister Janet who was visiting for several days. They wanted to do what two women want to do. A guy – in this case, me -- is simply in the way.

So I disappeared – to Nantucket. Here I'm on the boat approaching Nantucket. Between you and me, I went willingly. I'm not wild about being redundant. And it was okay with me if I missed out on such things as shopping and four-hour conversations.

On the storied island, I filled gaps: about Nantucket; about a longtime friend, Bill Murray, who lives on the island year-round and with whom I hung out; and, a little surprising, about myself. Bill is also known as Surfer Bill, a story in itself, and henceforth referred to as such for reasons that will become clear.

I had been to Nantucket several times before, but this time was different. Now I didn't troop mindlessly around gawking and snapping the usual pictures. I wanted to understand better what makes modern Nantucket, located 30 miles off Cape Cod, so one-of-a-kind.

The island is shown here in a NASA satellite image. Nantucket means “faraway island” in the language of early Indian residents. It is surely that, at least in my infantile measurement of distance. But what else, exactly, is Nantucket?

It apparently is John Luttman, shown here. Surfer Bill and I met him one morning in the Bean, a downtown expresso coffee shop and hangout. He was sitting there in a corner playing a word game and we struck up a conversation.

“I never saw a guy with two ponytails, one in front and one in back,” I said.

He stroked his front ponytail. “It works. Did you hear the one about ....?” And he proceeded to tell a joke too bad to repeat, one of several he reeled off. After chatting a while, we left. I came back about about 3:30 and found him still there in the same spot, this time playing his word game with a young man.

“Shouldn't you be working?” I asked.

John had told us earlier that he was a handyman who did “everything.” Surfer Bill said that he sees him all the time around the island painting houses.

“Who says I have to work?” he said, without looking up from the game board. “Hey, I have a joke for you, but I have to tell you outside. It's too dirty for in here.”

I begged off.

Outside, I asked Surfer Bill if it was okay with the owners for somebody to sit there all day playing games. “I guess so. I see him in here all the time and nobody ever bothers him.” Pretty easygoing owners, I would say. But then again, John Luttman certainly adds color to the place.

Now my friend Surfer Bill. He's 63 and started coming to Nantucket summers as a teen with his Connecticut parents, who rented a place. He embraced the Nantucket summer lifestyle, especially the surfing. At 17, he tooled around the island in a extended 1950 Cadillac ambulance. And when he was sure there were no police around, he used the ambulance siren to clear the road. Outta the way for Surfer Bill!

Today Surfer Bill is a year-round resident and homeowner on Nantucket. He lives with his wife Tracy and two young-adult children, Margaret and Tyler. He's a maker of fine furniture and an all-around skilled craftsman. He did much of the extensive renovation on his home.

I've known Surfer Bill for well over 20 years, ever since his wife Tracy, with whom I worked at a publishing company in Middletown, CT, introduced us. “You know,” she said to me one day, “I think you and my husband would hit it off. You have a similar sense of humor.” By that she meant, I'm sure, humor that is offbeat and not always appreciated in genteel company.

Anyway, Tracy deftly palmed me off on her poor husband. For many years now, Surfer Bill and I have been co-conspiritors in staving off full adulthood. He is a closet beach bum. I am ... well, this is not about me. He was and is a dedicated surfer. He recently returned from a Panama surfing vacation with Margaret.

What I did not know was that he was famous for his surfing – well known enough around the island to earn the nickname Surfer Bill. This was news to me. He has always been just plain Bill to me. I found out the truth purely by accident.

We were at the Whaling Museum when he ran into an admirer from 1963. “Surfer Bill,” the man exclaimed excitedly. While the two talked old times, I took in some of Nantucket's whaling past.

Afterwards, I said, “I didn't know they called you Surfer Bill.” I implied that he has not been fully honest with me about his past. So to remind him of the cover-up, I now call him “Surfer Bill.”

At the Whaling Museum, we got a great look at Nantucket's glorious past as the world's whaling titan of the seas in the 1840's. In the main hall is the skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale along with a whaling boat with harpoons and gear used in hunting down these giants of the sea.

Nantucket had some 80 rigs sailing the far seas, sometimes for years at a time, hunting sperm whales for their oil and spermacetti (head matter used in the making of candles). The whalers brought back oil enough to jumpstart Nantucket from an isolated sheep-farming nowhere into a dazzingly prosperous island with worldwide economic power.

As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick:

“And thus have these naked Nantucketers, issuing from their antihill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders.” Melville wrote that Nantucketers ruled “two-thirds of this terraqueous globe,” and that “the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.”

At the Whaling Museum, which was originally a candle factory, Surfer Bill and I heard a narrator tell the bleak story of the Essex. It was a Nantucket whaling ship that was repeatedly rammmed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale that the whalers had harpooned. After 94 days drifting in three small boats, after unspeakable suffering and horrors – including cannibalism -- there were only a few survivors. One of them told the Essex's story to Herman Melville and it became the inspiration for his classic novel, Moby Dick.

The storyteller told us afterwards that he has lived on Nantucket for 27 years, but was not a native. “I'm a wash-ashore,” he said. In the Nantucket heritage hierarchy, native-borns are the highest. Next highest are year-round wash-ashores. Then come summer resident wash-ashores. At the bottom are off-islanders like me. I remind Surfer Bill that, though a member of the permanent residentiariat, he is still “only” a wash-ashore.

At the height of Nantucket's whaling supremacy, the island boomed. The torrents of money that flowed into Nantucket, mostly from England, spawned island merchants. Soon the island had five wharves, dozens of candle factories, bustling shipyards, and shops catering to the lastest decorating and fashion whims of prominent island ladies.

Fortunes were made. Grand homes rose along the the cobbled streets of Nantucket town. Many of these stately homes still stand and number about 800, according to the Nantucket Historical Association. A walk around Nantucket town is to stroll through history, with home after home displaying names and stories of original owners.

But Nantucket's whole economy was built on one thing: whaling. With the invention of kerosene and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, demand for whale oil and candle power dried up almost overnight. On top of that, came the Great fire of 1846, which destroyed a third of the town. Then the California Gold rush siphoned off hordes of young men, as did the Civil War.

By 1870, Nantucket barely cast a shadow of its former self. As people fled the island, the population plunged to a third of what it was. There were lots of widows and fatherless children. Grand homes sunk into disrepair and sank in value. With income cut to near nothing, no taxes could be collected. Nantucket sank into debt. The decline was swift and thorough. This photo from 1870 captured a Nantucket street scene when the island was at a low point.

It was not until the 1880's that a replacement for the whaling industry began to emerge: tourism. Tourism is to Nantucket today what whaling was in its heyday. The population of Nantucket is about 10,000, or about that of a small town. But during the summer tourist season, the population swells to up to 50,000.

The fine shops are back, but this time instead of catering to the ladies of whaling fortunes, they cater to the new elite: free-spending women tourists. The photo shows the wares offered at a typical Centre Street shop, not exactly appealing to the male of the species.

I said to Surfer Bill, “You know, walking down Centre Street, I see nothing but shop after shop catering to women. As a man, I definitely feel underappreciated. Is this my imagination?”

His reply was of classic simplicity: “They're the ones spending the money.”

I did a little research. I found out that Centre Street used to be called “Petticoat Row” because of the many women who owned and operated the shops that lined the street. In other words, today's Centre Street has simply reverted back to what it was in the old days: run by and for women.

Nantucket is a feminine paradise. A good case could be made that it is also a feminist one. According to the official 2009 Nantucket Official Guide, “women traditionally ran the town of Nantucket, as their husbands traveled the seas for years at a time.” It seem that they still do.

I went up to a women sweeping the sidewalk in one of the Centre Street Shops. “Hi. I'm writing about Nantucket. Is it my imagination or is my masculinity at risk on this street. Every shop is about women.”

She giggled. “Well, I can't speak for your masculinity, but I will tell you that these three shops are all owned by men.”


She paused. “And they're not gay. They're straight.”

In other words, according to her, it may look like women are in charge, but men call the shots behind the scenes.

You can spend a fortune eating in Nantucket and not get much for your money. But I ate well in Nantucket, really well, mostly at Surfer Bill's. One night he prepared out-of-this-world Nantucket cod. Yummy. Another night, Tracy, after working all day, came home and whipped up a delicious Mexican meal.

For lunch, we went to “the best place to eat in town,” according to Surfer Bill: The Centre Street Bistro. For breakfast, we went to the “best bakery in town” to read The New York Times and munch on fresh-baked scones: Daily Bread. Prices at both are very reasonable.

Nantucket's history and traditions are rigorously protected. The entire island has been declared a National Historic Landmark. Building and zoning restrictions are among the nation's strictest. Though he believes the restrictions are necessary, Surfer Bill rolls his eyes when he recounts all the time-consuming hurdles he had to jump in renovating his home.

There was a recent hue and cry about the bricks being placed in some downtown area. They weren't completely faithful to traditional Nantucket bricks. And construction on a downtown open public area has been halted because the Zoning Commission was not competely happy with some of the materials being used. Here the right kind of bricks are being laid.

Lately, with the recession and fewer tourists, Nantucket shops are feeling it. Mitchell's Book Corner which has been a Main Street fixture for decades would have closed except for a financial savior stepping up. It was Wendy Schmidt, wife of the co-founder of Google. The Schmidts have a home on Nantucket. Thanks to Google money, a refurbished Mitchell's Book Corner has recently reopened for business.(Mitchell's honors the memory of Maria Mitchell, a native of Nantucket and America's first female professional astronomer. She discovered a comet and was a professor of astronomy at Vassar.)

There are no fast-food joints, not a single one. The only brand-name chain is a Stop&Shop supermarket. I did notice, however, that the name “Murray” appeared several times around Nantucket town. There was a Murray's clothing store, a Murray's liquor store and a Murray's sign, shown here, that may be wine-related.

Pointing this out to Surfer Bill, I said, “What's this? First I find out that your real name is Surfer Bill. Now are you going to tell me that you are also a closet mogul?”

“The stores were named after me.”

When that instantly bombed, he said, “Actually, it's a Portuguese family that owns all those places. They changed their name to Murray.” They apparently thought Murray would have more appeal than a Portuguese name.

Nantucket has a dress code. Tourists are told in no uncertain terms that appropriate dress is required downtown. They are instructed to reserve swimwear and flip-flops to “the beach where they belong.”

If you live on Nantucket, you don't spend much time in a car. Distances are short. Bill gets to wherever he has to go within minutes. His wife Tracy often rides her bike to her job at the Whaling Museum. Except for during the tourist season, there is no sitting in traffic in your car. And you don't have to lock your car. No one's going to break into it or steal it. How do you get a stolen car off the island?

For a tiny island, 14 miles long and 3.5 miles wide, Nantucket has an awful lot of open space. People here do not live on top of each other and this is true not just with the estates but throughout the island. There are no high-risers, period.

Within minutes of leaving downtown Nantucket, you are in the country. Fully 45% of Nantucket is preserved in its natural state where indiginous plants and animals thrive. It has vast open spaces, hidden forests, 55 miles of beaches, miles of hiking and biking trails. This is truly a little island with a great outdoors.

We went out to Bartlett's Farm, Nantucket's oldest and largest family farm, pictured here.The Bartlett family has been farming the same land for nearly 200 years, from the early 1800's. All it's fruits and vegetables are home-grown. The farm is especially known for its corn and tomatoes. Eighty percent of the farm's energy needs come from wind power.
One evening just before dusk, Surfer Bill, Tracy, Tyler, and I went out to Steps Beach to see if we could see the famous Nantucket Green Flash. This is the instantaneous explosion of green created at the moment the setting sun meets the water.

We waited. We waited. The sun descended. It descended. It met the water. “I saw it,” Tracy said excitedly. “I saw it.”

“I didn't see anything,” Surfer Bill said.

"I didn't see anything,” Tyler said.

“I didn't see anything,” I said.

“I saw it,” Tracy repeated.

That's the thing about the Nantucket Green Flash. Some see it and some do not. This time, Tracy was the annointed one.

Finally, something else I found out about the slippery Surfer Bill. We decided that I would join him for his 6 a.m.swim at the Nantucket High School pool. I've always been a strong swimmer. I toyed with the idea of challenging him to a race. My thought was that he should experience getting beat by a septuagenarian. And of course, I would be gracious in victory.

At the last minute, being a good guy, I decided not to humiliate him. We would just have a casual, friendly swim at our own pace. But as soon as we dove in, it was clear that something was terribly wrong. He began churning through the water like a human speedboat.

Thump! Thump! Thump! His arms slammed into the water like propellers and, as I did a very respectable breast-stroke, he left me in his wake. In no time at all, he was at the other end and back and was passing me like I was treading water!

What the hell is this? I knew Surfer Bill was a swimmer. We used to swim together in his pond at his Killingworth, CT home, but we did so like a couple of normal human beings. But this .. this was extreme swimming.

He kept this furious pace up for fifty minutes. He did 80 laps without letting up. You read that right, 80 laps. I did 15 or 20 and, having had enough, I stopped after 25 minutes. I took this photo of Surfer Bill right after he finished his extreme swim.

Then we went to the best bakery in town, Daily Bread, and Surfer Bill proceeded to complete The New York Times puzzle. As he was doing it, he asked me questions and I didn't know a single answer. He finally did it entirely on his own.

First the physical(swimming);then the mental (NYT puzzle); and I come in a poor second in both. “I'm not taking this sitting down, Surfer Bill,” I told him.

So long and keep moving.

For more on everyday Nantucket life, check out Nantucket Washashore Journal.

P.S. Surfer Bill: I must have made quite an impression in Nantucket. A boat has been named after me. Don't believe it? Have a look.

How long have you lived in Nantucket without having a boat named for you?

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At July 05, 2009 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story on Nantucket. An awful lot of history, Some that I knew, but most of it I didn't. Surprising for someone who was bnorn and spent a good part of his young life in Fall River. Great story.

At July 06, 2009 1:47 PM, Blogger Nantucket Washashore (aka Linda Sonnonstine Spery) said...

Thank you for the mention of my blog. It's been a real joy to write about year-round life on Nantucket for the past two years and I hope to continue in the years ahead. I enjoyed reading about your insights and observations about the island. I'd welcome the opportunity of meeting you if you come again to visit!


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