Beyond the Horizon

•July 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I remember walking along the Vietnam Memorial Wall with my Dad, gliding my fingers along the carefully etched names and contemplating my faint reflection in the smooth, black granite. Being a child, I couldn’t quite grasp the paradox of that powerful place, the outward beauty of the monument and the horror it commemorates, those tens of thousands of my Dad’s peers who, through no fault of their own, were devoured by the flames of war, their lives ripped away in fiery moments of hatred.

And so, when I bought my Northwest Airlines ticket to Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi last week, I couldn’t help but marvel that I’m choosing to visit a country my father, and so many of his generation, with tortured consciences and trembling in fear, tried so exhaustively to avoid just a few short decades ago. Today, Vietnam is a traveler’s paradise of breathtaking scenery and fascinating cultures and I yearn to walk its crowded streets, still very much haunted by the ghosts of war, and try to understand the madness of its past.

My perception of the American conflict in Vietnam is a learned history of textbook facts, graphic memoirs, and history channel productions. I’ve read accounts of cratered hillsides blasted clear of life by sorties, glimpsed photographs of gruesome corpses sprawled in the roadside muck and watched footage of a hysterical child stumbling through the crossfire, her bare skin scorching beneath a vile coat of napalm.

Yet, for my father and his generation, these horrors are not just an impersonal examination of history, but the intimate memories of a reality that will never recede. It must have been truly unthinkable back then, amid such atrocity and uncertainty, to imagine Vietnam becoming a prime destination for a new generation of travelers. I can envision my father glued to the evening news in his college beach house, chain smoking Tareytons and suspiciously eyeing each flag-draped coffin on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base wondering if one evening he too would end up among them.

And as time marched on, the horrid flames of war that swept across those verdant, monsoonal jungles petered out only to be rekindled, decades later, in the arid, shifting dunes of my generation’s divisive war in Iraq. I, too, suspiciously eyed my dorm room television in March of 2003 as the squadron of American tanks revved their engines in the Kuwaiti desert, their deadly turrets pointing north toward Baghdad.

In the bloody years since, I’ve grappled to make sense of that tumultuous region, the jagged shrapnel of IED’s tearing through patrolling Humvees and the senseless acts of fanaticism that blast crowded markets into lifeless dust. Amid such grisly violence, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a sovereign Iraq stable enough for a young American backpacker to visit.

And yet, I’ll soon backpack through the former killing zone of Vietnam and contemplate a people who, much like their American counterparts, are still healing from the wounds of a gruesome past. I’ll remember the 58,261 names on the Vietnam Wall and the millions of Indochinese who, with the demons of war on their doorstep, were forced into battle. And then, I’ll think of my peaceful home many miles beyond the horizon and, with silent relief and a tormenting sense of guilt, quietly give thanks for the tranquil life I’ve been blessed with in the United States of America.

The cynic in me, however, can’t help but despair at the perpetual cycle of violence that taints nearly every chapter of our planet’s history and leaves us demoralized in the hope for a more peaceful future. The inferno of war, it seems, will forever flare up in distant corners of the globe and successive generations of youth will be eternally thrust into the fire. And eventually, the once urgent politics and solid rationale that sparked the bloodshed will dissolve behind the veil of time, leaving only a stark void of human life to mark its passing.

Only recently have I begun to understand the potency of the Vietnam Memorial. Through it’s beauty and placid surroundings, the Wall eschews the murky politics and moral ambivalence of the Vietnam era to concentrate solely on the human cost of warfare. Its glassy facade reflects the visitor among the staggering multitude of names, establishing them as a vital component of the memorial and forcing them to ponder their role in the madness.

The Wall seems to implore us, as Americans, to accept our innate responsibility to those fallen soldiers; the responsibility to honor their gift of freedom by living virtuous lives and, above all else, the moral responsibility to never send a single man or woman into combat without exhausting every last peaceable option, and even then, to never lose hope that their sacrifice will sew a lasting seed of peace for future generations.

Maybe, many decades in the future, my son, bitten by the travel bug of his forebears, will sling a pack over his shoulder and board a Northwest Flight to Baghdad International Airport. Maybe he’ll wander through the bustling morning markets of Sadr City and fight back tears at a heart-rending memorial in Fallujah. Maybe, standing on the fabled banks of the Euphrates, he’ll think of his peaceful home many miles beyond the horizon and, with a sense of relief, quietly give thanks for the tranquil life he’s been blessed with in the United States of America.

The Real Deal

•June 8, 2009 • 1 Comment

With another Nantucket summer looming, I can’t help but marvel at the heartbroken heap of misery I was just two short years ago. I had broken up with my girlfriend, moved into a miserable basement apartment and, like any suffering romantic, staunchly believed that I’d never find true love again. A true sadist, I’d sift through old photos and listen to our favorite songs, wielding the past like a nostalgic weapon in which to torture myself. And, sadly enough, if I happened to stumble across the film Love Actually while channel surfing, I’d force myself to watch it to completion, cynically eyeing each tale of budding romance from a wallow of self-pity.

I found one of the film’s characters, a writer named Jamie, particularly tormenting. After being betrayed by his lover, he flees to a secluded lakeside villa to finish his novel. One day, a freak gust of wind scatters the only copy of his manuscript across the lake and his housekeeper, a Portuguese beauty named Aurelia, dives in to save it. Jamie gapes at this exotic woman who, through the magic of editing, sensually flows in a slow motion dance as her walnut-brown skin basks in the heavenly aura of cinematic sunlight. Yes, he suddenly realizes, this is the girl for me. I’d watch them sloshing through the water from my subterranean couch, scraping ice cream directly from the carton and thinking, God, if only that would happen to me.

But here, in the real world, my moment of clarity didn’t unravel at an impossibly graceful film speed or come embellished with Oscar-worthy lighting, it arrived in the simple form of a phone call. “Okay, babe,” my girlfriend Alison began gingerly, “I’m going to ask you something I’ve never asked you before…”

I met Alison on my birthday, which (sorry, baby) sounds infinitely more romantic than it was. At the time, I was still a wounded man, a year removed from my stormy breakup but still living beneath its’ dark cloud. Much like Jamie, I’d fled the scene of my heartbreak, Nantucket, and struck off for some solitary soul-searching, first backpacking through Africa and then moving into a secluded cabin in the Maine wilderness. This lifestyle, as one might imagine, wasn’t exactly conducive to meeting new women and, on the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday, I suddenly recalled a comment my old buddy Steve Eddy had made upon my return from Africa.

“So Nantucket, then Africa, and now the sticks of Maine?” he summarized to set up his cruel punch line. “You must be beating the women off with a stick!” I realized that spending my birthday alone in the woods would, at best, accentuate my loneliness and at worst, plunge me into despair. So the next day I drove six hours south to Boston, crashed someone else’s birthday party, drank myself into a celebratory stupor, and yes, fell in love with beautiful Alison. I’ll admit, it wasn’t a romance worthy of the silver screen, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

And then, nine months later, I received the infamous phone call. “Yes, babe?” I asked, feigning serenity while my brain frantically rifled through the bad deeds I hadn’t yet confided to her. “Do you need any new underwear? Because I’m at the Gap and they’re having a really good sale.”

In those nine months we’d met each other’s families, discussed living together in the coming year and, as worthy couples eventually do, had even broken the I love you barrier, but for some reason, this inquiry into the state of my underpants seemed to cement our love as the real deal. Yes, I thought, elated, this is the girl for me.

I recently watched Love Actually with Alison’s family and, when viewed from the cozy perch of nascent love, it is a much different film. I was above ground, snuggled beside my girlfriend and spooning mint chocolate chip from a bowl like a civilized member of society. And most notably, this time around, I didn’t see a broken and defeated man in Jamie, but a bona fide writer practicing his craft. I saw a man so successful that he could afford to rent a magnificent villa in the south of France, hire someone to clean up after him, and spend entire days writing beside an idyllic lake. I squeezed Alison’s hand and thought, God, if only that would happen to me.

A 26-Pronged Birthday Cake

•May 14, 2009 • 4 Comments

One sultry evening in late August of 1982, my father, armed with red wine, two cuts of perfectly grilled sirloin, and considerably more hair than he has today, sat down to a romantic dinner with his wife. “More Zinfandel?” he asks with chivalry. “Why, of course,” Mom replies, batting her eyes suggestively and nine months later, on May 16, 1983, I was born. That’s how I imagine it, anyway.

Thus, as my twenty-sixth birthday approaches, I can’t help but fall victim to the familiar funk that, in recent years, has darkened this bright milestone beneath a cloud of demoralized self-introspection. I work on Nantucket at a tedious, unrewarding job that I, like any sane person in this economy, can’t risk leaving. Alison, my infinitely patient girlfriend, lives in Boston and the long-distance thing, as it inevitably does, has begun to strain our relationship. To top it off, I’m homeless and living out of my car. Yes, this year, I could sure use a good birthday wish.

Due to my own personal housing crisis, I’ll be spending the day at my parent’s house and, being ever so loving, they’ll insist on a traditional birthday celebration. Dad will fire up the grill (please, God, not sirloin) and afterward, Mom will dim the lights and, as the time-honored ritual requires, bring out a birthday cake. As a child, I can remember marveling at the flickering candles and silently wishing for the most wildly ambitious dreams with the earnest intention of realizing them when, in that inconceivably distant future, I reached adulthood.

In ’89, after discovering the stash of National Geographic magazines behind Mom’s old 45s in the basement, I wished to become a fearless adventurer, exploring distant cultures and voyaging through remote tracks of unknown wilderness.

In ‘93, I devoured festive cupcakes on the mound at Chandler Field during my joint party with Jim Bush. I wished, like Jim and every other Little Leaguer in the greater Boston area, to grow up to be a pitcher for the Red Sox.

In ’95, I spent a questionable day at the Raynham/Taunton dog track, scrutinizing the canine competitors while Dad illegally placed my bets. That night, I hovered over my cake while visions of greyhounds danced in my head and wished I could grow up to be a veterinarian. After all, what kid doesn’t love puppies?

By ’97, I, along with the majority of my suburban peers, was dripping with adolescent cynicism and, to cultivate the notion of teen angst, declared myself too cool for cake. Still, sans candles, I wished to be a rock star like Kurt Cobain.

So sadly, and by all accounts, I have arrived at the impossibly distant locale of adulthood and, when viewed through the harsh lens of my birthday funk, the landscape is rather bleak. I am not bombarding adoring fans with soulful Rock music, nursing sick puppies back to health, taking the mound at Fenway, or bushwacking through Papua New Guinea on National Geographic’s dime. I am, however, just one more directionless twenty-something in America, slouching at my parent’s kitchen table and eyeing a twenty-six pronged birthday cake with a keen sense of despair.

I’ll study the mocking flames, each one symbolizing a year of my life, and concoct some frivolous wish before snuffing out my lifetime in a single dooming breath. Then, Mom will remove the squandered years, Dad will retrieve the mint chocolate chip from the basement freezer, Alison will fetch some paper plates, and I’ll die a little inside.

Maybe this year I’ll wish to go back in time, like Marty McFly or a character from Lost, and, ignoring all the theoretical laws of time-travel, approach my former self. I’ll corner me among the uncouth ruffians at the dog track or beneath the bleachers at Chandler Field, and with the stern gaze of maturity, deliver that crucial piece of advice that will magically reinvent my 2009 self:

But suddenly, I realize that I would have nothing to say. Sure, I could warn bygone Bryan, so innocent and naive, about the inherent cruelty of greyhound racing or Jim Bush’s backstabbing High School years, but all things considered, I wouldn’t drastically change a single thing about my past. In fact, as the shrouding funk begins to dissipate, it occurs to me that I rather love this life I’ve been given, and so this year, I’ve decided to take a stand. This year, I’m going to joyfully linger above my cake, grateful to be among loved ones, and make a birthday wish with all the lofty ambition of youth but updated with the more pragmatic goals of adulthood. And this year, and each one hereafter, I’m going to break tradition by declaring my birthday wish aloud.

I, Bryan Bourgault, wish to move to Boston with Alison and get a job writing for a major publication. I wish to eventually marry her, buy a modest home, and raise puppies in a makeshift cardboard den beneath the dining room table. Together, I wish to travel extensively, enjoy sultry evenings in August with red wine and steak grilled to perfection, and pitch backyard wiffle-balls to the consequences of those summer nights. I wish to listen to the soaring hopes of our children as they marvel at their birthday cakes and boldly dream of a wide-open future that’s not nearly as distant as they think. I wish to realize these dreams in peace, in good health, and, most importantly, in freedom.

I wish many, many years from now, to lie on my deathbed with dignity, surrounded by friends and family and, as a fearless adventurer, voyage into the unknown wilderness of death with the knowledge that I lived each precious moment I was given with integrity, humanity, and copious amounts of love. Like so many generations before me, I wish to live the American Dream.

Oh, and I wish this article would get published. I wouldn’t say no to becoming a rock star either, but I’ll take what I can get.

Champagne Wishes and Calamari Dreams

•May 5, 2009 • 6 Comments

Nantucket Island, being both world renowned and tiny, is a Mecca for celebrity sightings. Each summer, whispers of VIP encounters drift through the community: Jim Carrey downing espresso martinis at the Summer House, Steven Tyler kite-boarding off Pocomo, and Meg Ryan browsing nonfiction at Mitchell’s Book Corner. In my very first week on-island, I witnessed a grown man completely lose his composure after catching sight of Jerry Stiller. “Honey!” he yelled from the middle of Federal Street, a line of vehicles forming behind him. “I just saw Frank Costanza!”

Most likely, this man is a loving husband and respected member of the community, but after one unsuspecting run-in with a revered celebrity, he was transformed into a ludicrous, traffic-halting spectacle. Having never witnessed a real-life VIP, I contemplated my likely reaction. What if I bumped into Claire Danes at the Atheneum or glimpsed Sly Stallone taking a dip at Miacomet Beach? Would I resort to dimwitted groveling or conduct myself with dignity?

What if (and this thought sucked the breath from my lungs) I ran into Trey Anastasio of Phish, a band that single-handedly shaped my taste in music and continues to reign supreme over my iPod playlist fifteen years later? I would, truth be told, lose my shit. As I watched the crazed Stiller fan, cringing in secondhand embarrassment, I resolved to never fall victim to such an undignified display.

Thus, I formulated the Celebrity Intrusion Index, or CII, as a yardstick for rating VIP encounters. The CII employs a sliding scale between 0 (complete disregard) and 10 (obnoxious and extreme molestation) with anything above 5 (casual handshake or calm autograph solicitation) being inherently undignified. I determined that a CII rating of 2 (zero corporeal contact, minimal intrusion) was the most honorable approach and adopted it as my official celebrity policy. This way, one could respectfully acknowledge a VIP with a knowing glance or slight head nod without compromising their self-respect in the process.

My first test came during the 2006 World Cup Finals when Mr. Bill Paxton poked his head into the Rose & Crown Pub, a halo of afternoon sunlight emanating behind him. He studied the room, blinked a few times, and vanished. In those five-seconds, I didn’t yell, point, or awkwardly wave, but simply stared: I’d stayed true to my principles and earned a noble score: 1.

After that, the CII took on a life of its own…

***

Massachusetts Senator and Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry striding up Broad Street as I devoured a late-night slice of Steamboat Pizza. I wiped a hanging thread of cheese from my chin, recalled unenthusiastically filling in the oval beside his name on my 2004 absentee ballot, and averted my gaze in an impressive act of political snubbery: 0.

Actor Paul Giamatti mumbling his thanks after I graciously held open a screen door for his son at the Even Keel Cafe. Luckily, he was unaware that I’d been loitering on the brick patio for over an hour in hopes of completing this very task: 4.

Head Coach Bill Belicheck enduring a horde of Pats fans beside the organic avocados in the produce aisle of Stop & Shop. To be fair, however, Mr. Belicheck was overtly advertising his superstar status by sporting a Patriot’s Super Bowl T-shirt, earning the marauders a slight amnesty: 5.

Will Ferrell sipping his Straight Wharf clam chowder as patrons in the adjacent barroom chanted “Frank the Tank!” in a collective violation: 6.

Tiffany Faison, the Top Chef Season 1 runner-up, tolerating a drunkard at the Brotherhood Restaurant. “I know your name,” the man slurred, staggering a bit, “so I think you should know mine.” Faison smiled politely and bolted immediately after the intrusion: 7.

***

The most ignoble CII ratings ever recorded belong exclusively to my dear friend Chris. In his years working at Captain Toby’s Chowder House, he served many celebs such as Wayne Knight (who he called “Newman” to his face: 8) and Monica Lewinsky (who, in a moment of insanity, he hit on: 9). But one evening Chris had the pleasure of clearing Mr. Brian Dennehy’s half-eaten plate of calamari. As he ducked into the kitchen, Chris popped a remaining morsel into his mouth to savor the briny ambrosia of a B-list acting god. A truly deviant, disturbing, and chart-topping act: 10.

Last summer, my ultimate test arose. “That guy from Phish is here,” my friend Cara whispered into the phone at the Boarding House Restaurant. “Anastasio?” I stammered. “Yup, he’s having dinner.” I wanted to hightail it down there, commandeer his booth and tell him “Billy Breathes” is my favorite song of all time. “In fact,” I’d say, nudging his shoulder, “that entire album guided me through a really tough time.” “That is fascinating!” Trey would reply with genuine interest and, after motioning for the waitress to bring me a cold beer, his eyes would narrow in earnest.  “Bryan, is there any chance you’d be interested in joining the band?”

Right then, I knew I couldn’t go down there. After all, this wouldn’t be some chance encounter, but an orchestrated scheme to accost my most-beloved idol which, I reasoned, would be the most grave violation of my policy and the height of hypocrisy. “You’re seriously not coming?” Cara whispered, shocked. “I’m seriously not coming,” I replied and, unable to stop myself, asked, “Did he order the calamari?”

Looking back on that evening, I no longer see a strong-willed man retaining his self-respect, but a haughty moron bound by a foolish set of self-imposed rules. VIP sightings, I now realize, are not about the Big Namer, but about average folks like Chris who acquire the tale of a lifetime in that unsuspecting moment when their ordinary lives cross paths with a superstar. Chris, however demented, isn’t concerned with some harebrained intrusion index conceived to safeguard his self-image, he simply does what comes naturally: he follows his heart.

Next month, I’m spending a week following Phish’s first tour in five years, beginning with opening night at Fenway Park. As the event nears, I find myself regularly visualizing that moment of rapture when the four silhouettes appear beside their instruments onstage. And when those first notes reverberate around the stadium and the kaleidoscope of lights streak across the euphoric faces, I’ll think back to that regretful evening last summer and try to imagine savoring a succulent morsel of Trey’s discarded squid, if only I, too, had followed my heart.

Then, I’ll pray for a Billy Breathes encore.

Starting From Scratch

•April 20, 2009 • 2 Comments

When my house painting career began on Nantucket in 2005, I quickly learned that the most important tool for the monotonous hours was not a paintbrush, a caulk gun, or a lobotomy, but a trusty boom-box tuned to National Public Radio. Almost immediately I became hooked on WNAN 91.1 and, as is my temperament, I took this passion to the extreme.

I’d arrive at the job site for Morning Edition and work through a mid-morning double-dose of The Diane Rehm Show. I’d scarf down a turkey and provolone during Fresh Air with Terry Gross, commute home to the second hour of Talk of the Nation, and unwind to All Things Considered. Soon, along with liberal amounts of lead paint dust, I was ingesting a fanatical 50-55 hours of Cape and Island’s NPR per week. However, one fateful Saturday I heard a program that put all the others to shame: This American Life with Ira Glass.

Each week, This American Life features a specific theme and presents a few stories based on that theme, each with a musical score to complement the narratives. However, what makes Mr. Glass’ program so utterly brilliant is that its’ protagonists are ordinary Americans and each segment has a ubiquitous quality that allows the listener, regardless of the individual story, to empathize with the plight of these strangers. The average American, bogged down in economic hardship and facing an uncertain future, can easily find solace in the often sad, sometimes funny, but always relevant tales of people much like themselves.

Sadly, I am burdened with a rather addictive personality: in middle-school I idolized Kurt Cobain, in college I obsessed over Wes Anderson films, and these days, since I’m (mercifully) petrified of syringes, I’ve become a This American Life junkie. On that first Saturday, I heard episode # 287, Backed Into a Corner: Stories about people who end up making choices they’d rather not make. “Ha!” I’d cackled in commiseration, “That’s the story of my life!” and each week thereafter, I began to crave this weekend bliss like a dope-fiend lusts for heroin.

Before long, a single hour each week wasn’t nearly enough to support this growing habit, so like any true addict, I found a new way to score: www.thisamericanlife.org. The show’s official website is a shameless enabler, providing hundreds of free episodes to stream on your computer. Needless to say, I began devouring episodes like they were oxycontins. I’d listen to one before work, catch another while boiling four-cheese tortellini for dinner, and pop a final dose just before climbing into bed.

This questionable behavior continued for years until I finally decided to abide by the righteous lessons of episode # 258, Leaving the Fold: Stories of people leaving the situation they’re used to and striking off for something less familiar. I was going to ditch this one-horse island and the brainless tedium of painting and strike-off for something that would challenge my intellect before the rising level of lead in my bloodstream renders me stupid. I was going to apply for the This American Life internship.

After months of fastidious tweaking, I finally deemed my application worthy of Mr. Glass’ consideration and submitted it online. However, I didn’t receive the automatic notification of receipt guaranteed by the website and since it was the application’s deadline, I began to panic. To ensure this wasn’t a personal snub, I created a Yahoo! email account for a highly competent, but nonetheless fictitious applicant named Richard Rollins. When Dick’s bogus resume also failed to provoke an automatic reply, I nearly sank into hysterics. However, I was able to circumvent this electronic chaos by coercing an old friend into marching through Manhattan and hand delivering a hard copy to the show’s headquarters on W. 27th street. Six days later, I received the following email: “We have received your application for our fall internship. Thank you.” I tried checking Dick’s email for the same reply, but I couldn’t remember his password.

Last week, I went online to buy tickets to the upcoming simulcast of the This American Life stage show that will be beamed live from New York City to movie theaters across the country. Since Nantucket lacks any real cinema (among other things), I’m making the considerable effort to get off-island and over to Cape Cinemas in Dennis. Missing such a unique event is, quite simply, not an option.

As I printed the tickets, I recalled recently witnessing a horde of face-painted, leather-swaddled freaks outside a Boston movie theater screening “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” I’d made some snide remark to my girlfriend about their absurd, cultish obsession, but I suddenly realized that I was quite similar to that gothic mob, the only real difference between us being that I won’t be loitering outside Cape Cinemas tricked out like David Bowie in 1987.

I, too, am attending an event that only diehard fiends would even consider, but is this really so bizarre? Does not every human being enjoy some innocent obsession that serves to enrich their lives? Am I not, as a warm-blooded American, completely within the realm of normalcy in my fierce passion for This American Life and the unrivaled genius of Ira Glass?

This comforting sentiment was short-lived. Before climbing into bed that evening, I streamed episode # 20, From a Distance: Stories of hero worship and trying to get closer to them. It didn’t take a giant leap in reason to conclude that my “innocent obsession” with Mr. Glass and his radio show can more aptly be described as unhinged idolatry. Or put bluntly: if Ira Glass had a Secret Service detail, I’d have a black Chevy Suburban permanently staked outside my house. I was a freak.

Three weeks have passed since my buddy, annoyed and offended, delivered the application and I’ve given up hope. I’m sure they hired a Richard Rollins type: someone uniquely impressive, extremely qualified, and for the sake of Mr. Glass’ safety, less fanatical than myself. I’m now living in a state of occupational limbo, forlorn and undecided about where to go from here. I scan www.thisamericanlife.org for a fresh episode and decide on # 233, Starting From Scratch: Stories of people starting over, sometimes because they want to, other times because they have to.

“Story of my life,” I mutter, and climb into bed.

Starry-eyed Suckers: Surviving Your First Nantucket Summer

•April 1, 2009 • 3 Comments

My girlfriend of six years had been enjoying her first Nantucket summer for an entire week when she called to dump me. This being my first exposure to the island, I immediately, and quite understandably I think, decided Nantucket was a vile and loathsome place. So each spring, as the balmy air wafts northward, I can’t help but recall this potent hatred and the shameful about-face I made when one year later in 2005, I not only took back said girlfriend, but agreed to accompany her for a summer on Nantucket Island. Put simply, I was a sucker.

Yet, with that glorious tool of hindsight, I now credit this decision to the omniscient hand of destiny. Four years later, my girlfriend is long gone and I’ve made two unsuccessful attempts to leave. As it’s done to so many who’ve ambled along its’ shores, this magical isle has captured my heart. On Nantucket, I am home.

It’s precisely this enchanting quality that lures large numbers of young people to the island each spring in anticipation of a fabled Nantucket summer. I can’t help but recognize my former self in their starry-eyed smiles as they cascade from the ferries eager to begin living as Nantucketers. However, like any tight-knit community, finding a niche in the established society is no walk in the park. Thus, in the interest of this year’s suckers, fresh off the boat, I’ve prepared a simple roadmap to help smooth out the bumps on the path to becoming a bona fide Nantucketer.

First, I firmly, firmly suggest taking the ferry over, but when that old salt Poseidon gets riled up, you will have no choice but to fly in from Hyannis. You’re not being neurotic, these nine-seaters are flying death tubes and there is a real chance that you, as they say, will crash and burn. Concentrate on the magnificent contours of the coastline below and ignore the fact that the disgruntled gentleman grasping the yoke earns significantly less per hour than I do painting houses.

If you safely touch down at ACK airport, you are now “on-island” and every dry inch of earth that is not located on this fifty-square mile rock can now be consolidated and neatly referred to as “off-island.” Be aware that this term should only be used among fellow Islanders as Mainlanders will, as I once did, misconstrue this as extreme arrogance. On that note, begin to develop an unwarranted loathing or, at the very least, a pompous superiority regarding Martha’s Vineyard and its’ inhabitants. There is no discernible reason for this, but it does serve to unite the island in the face of one common enemy.

With any luck, your girlfriend has already found you a room to rent, but I assure you, the luck ends there. Your new home will be a squalid garage apartment with accordioned cigarette butts peppered across the floor’s mucous-like coating and suspicious chestnut-colored splotches will adorn your assigned mattress. Take a good look around because you will spend the entire summer avoiding this place. It will get so bad that eventually, you’ll start taking your morning bowl of Apple Jacks down in the driveway to escape the horror. Hang in there.

As you probably know, Nantucket is a haven for bicycles and a Nantucket summer is not complete unless yours gets stolen. Preferably, make it the expensive Schwinn your parents so kindly bought for your birthday. This way, you can spend the next three years hoping they don’t ask about it so you don’t have to lie to their faces. Once your bike gets nabbed, and this should take no more than a month or two, it’s time to jump on the bandwagon and buy a truck.

Inevitably, you will drive this truck the wrong way down a one-way street. Do not fret, this is a character building moment, and survival is simple. Dismiss the gesticulating drivers and disgusted pedestrians with a spirited hand wave and feign involvement in some vital task that trumps the rules of the road. This should be easy in your new truck. Also, get a large dog, most likely a Labrador, which you’ll undoubtably name “Cisco” after the renowned beach. Throw him in the back while you cruise around and your respectability will skyrocket!

Now, with reputable transportation and a loyal friend, it’s time to go to work, which you almost surely will not have. This is due to credit default swaps, asset-liability mismatches, risky derivative markets, and other such financial jabberwockies no one can understand. If you’re lucky enough to land a job, my advice is simple: don’t blow it.

By now, the restaurants, beaches, and barrooms will be swarming with summer people and tourists, but try to avoid partaking in the incessant banter about how dreadful they are. These people are the only reason you’re able to live in this paradise so have the prudence not to bite the fanny-packing hand that feeds you.

Although you can hardly afford Advantix for Cisco (and you better not skimp because Nantucket is bathed in Lyme disease), you’re a thirsty guy who loves a good watering hole. Fair enough. While your girlfriend spends her nights snaking through the drunken hordes to mingle, you should be trying to land a barstool. If this Holy Grail is attained, I don’t care if a pregnant and exhausted Mary of Nazareth asks for that seat, do NOT give it up. Face time with the local barkeep is crucial because if yours isn’t familiar, you’re just another visitor and prompt Heinekens will be a perk of your mainland past.

And concerning those crusty fellows sipping Bud in the shadows: you are not being paranoid, they are glaring at you. These men are staunch nativists with ancestral roots that stretch back to the white settlement of the island. In fact, they’re still livid about those scullions from New Bedford who encroached on their great great great-grandfather’s whaling profits during the James K. Polk administration. Now just imagine what they think of Johnny-come-latelies like yourself. Give these men a wide berth.

At some point during this whirlwind season you’ll realize that you’re staying for the winter, after all, where else are you gonna go? Find a cozy winter cottage with your girlfriend and witness the island’s transformation. The crowds will gradually dissipate, the days will darken, and the illicit drug use will soar to mortifying levels. If you survive this difficult stretch, come spring, you’ll almost be a true Nantucketer!

However, there is one final speed bump on your quest to bona fide Islander status and, quite naturally, it will be the most emotionally wrenching obstacle of all: you’ll have your heart broken. This will not be a sudden bombshell, but a protracted, nine-month nightmare until one rainy day, red-eyed and defeated, you’ll move into a dank basement on Essex Road. You’ll mope through the next year in a state of perpetual glum and suffer the torture of sharing custody of poor Cisco, who will be noticeably baffled by the split.

Yet, one fine evening in April, many years later, you will stand on a deserted stretch of sand, cold Heineken in hand, and watch the brilliant mango sun slide into the purple velvet of the Atlantic. You’ll hop in your truck, roll down the passenger window for Cisco, and cruise off to the harbor where your new girlfriend is arriving on the 7 o’clock Hy-line. Your heart will lift as you spot her on the gangway amid this year’s cascade of eager new arrivals and suddenly, with a surge of euphoria, you’ll realize that you belong here on Nantucket Island.

One day, many years from now, you will experience this very euphoria and recall the day when you, too, were nothing more than a starry-eyed sucker, fresh off the boat.

 
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