BACK AT THE VINEYARD
Just back from a week on Martha’s Vineyard to be with family members and friends. The house we stayed in was near enough to the ferry landing that we could hear the long mournful horn blow as the ferry was leaving the slip. It was strangely comforting, like a freight train wailing in the distance. The skies were vaulted in dark blue, and swept you up into a trance of unbounded space. Buds were opening and trees were leafing out in delicate shades of green. The grass was sprouting like spilled Kelly-green paint on what was earlier patches of drab brown with a few spikey weeds hanging on from winter. Tulips and daffodils were already in bloom, which seemed to soothe the soul like the first sip of wine at twilight.
Out on the back yard slope marched a small troupe of wild turkeys, led by a male caparisoned in bright copper and dark red feathers. A hen pecked for bugs in a demurely indifferent pose a few feet ahead of the tom, who had already fanned out his tail feathers in a show of interest. I couldn’t wait to get down to the Black Dog restaurant, which served hearty New England-styled breakfasts, including a menu of eggs Benedict, three-egg omelets, an endless cup of coffee, sides of bacon and sausage, corned-beef hash, and of course a separate section on waffles and pancakes. A few regulars eat here, but for the most part, it was tourists sitting eagerly at tables next to a bank of windows overlooking a narrow bay. The ferries tied up within view, and a few rusty anchors were posed on the sand of a modest little beach. Seagulls floated overhead, and crows liked to strut up and down with their goodly paunches full of seeds and the occasional worm. It was a festive mood at our elbow as we dug into our tucker and chatted about the slow-moving gears of nature turning the world into springtime. How better to start a sunny day than to be chewing the last crunchy morsel of bacon on the way out to the parking lot.
On this propitious morning we were headed to Menemsha, a battered little fishing port stacked high with lobster pots, nets and various coils of rope hung here and there. The shop we ducked into was called Larson’s, well known to islanders for its fresh oysters, crabs, cole slaw, tubs of sea weed. The old man behind the counter took his knife and began shucking oyster shells with ease as he talked to me. I observed an enormous lobster in its own remote basin, lying there meditatively with its frying-pan sized claws clamped shut with blue rubber bands. He was seventy years old, the man told me. Hearty, and tough, and just as eager to mate with the females neighboring in the deeps as were all the young sports who competed with him. I almost wanted to buy him just to let the old grandpa go free again. But I’m sure this resilient beast would fetch a hundred dollars or more. We settled for our two dozen oysters to take home with us, and to slurp these down with lemon juice and a swig of ale. Comfort enough with the last of the “R” months of spring about to lapse.
All over this crusty old island are the rich and famous, sequestered on their estates. No name on the mailbox, of course, just a sandy drive wandering through the salt grass to a house whose roof barely showed above the scrubby oaks. You might be passing by Bill Murray’s house near Gay Head, or if you were wandering around Katama, the sprawling manor house of the Obamas. The old money knew how to keep things simple, even rustic, like the Guggenheim estate, which happened to be just down the beach from the ferry landing. Everyone knew how to behave around the nobility, it seems. You don’t just walk on the manicured lawns and gawk at the blue bloods playing a quick game of croquet. Indeed, if they were even home this early in the spring. The island doesn’t come to full flower until June, when all the rest of the chosen few arrived at the private airport on their jets and took up the rigors of hosting parties for the next few months. All this was quite beyond me, so I was left with a vivid imagination about how the other half spent their champagne-laced leisure time. But the island was not only home to the hedge-fund managers and investment bankers, authors, singers, poets, it had its hoi polloi as well, and I would bump into a few of these commoners at the supermarket or the restaurants in Edgartown, the hub of island culture. Something about the sea and the sliver of land on which we perched that made socializing easy. We had our own world to enjoy, and tales to tell of how we ended up on this tiny human habitat lapped by cold Atlantic waves.
The old whaling families of this and neighboring Nantucket still provide a few descendants in this age, and you could find yourself waiting in line at an eatery where the primary language of the clerks and the clients was Portuguese. But no sooner did I present myself to make an order of smoked salmon and cream cheese than the woman’s face changed smiles and she spoke flawless English, with a delicate nuance of Old World curled r’s and subtly upturned final word to each sentence. I wish I could speak this more guttural version of Spanish, but alas, I was a stranger here, with no ambergris in my veins.
But what fun to stroll around Vineyard Haven along the white picket fences, the Cape Cod houses, the immaculate mother-in-law guest houses, the gabled roofs with their fresh coat of white paint and dark roof tiles, the hedges all trimmed like a Puritan’s conscience, the feel of people living splendidly private and comfortable lives all summer long. The tradesmen are all thriving at their jobs building a new bedroom, repairing eaves and replacing all those windows with new, fancy double-paned ones. Electricians bustle about with their loops of wire, scrambling up ladders to feed a new circuit through a hole; plumbers are in raptures over digging trenches to lay new pipe or to replace a furnace with a heat pump. I can’t even calculate what the yearly expense is for such houses having to keep up with the Joneses, whose neighboring manse is gleaming like a showroom car. There is no room for a leaning fence post or a busted screen door; everything is polished to perfection to keep up the property values. And it is a certainty that real estate has soared in the last few years. I’m told not a house is standing on this island that would go for less than a million dollars, Even though many of the more modest bungalows once sold for thirty or forty thousand dollars not that long ago. But now even these humble abodes are trimmed up like sailing yachts, with shiny rain gutters, carefully paved driveways, gravel paths leading to a gazebo or side door. Oh, and another thing that leaves me scratching my head. No one locks a door in these neighborhoods. Burglary is almost non-existent. The biggest news here a few months ago was a bank robbery that turned out to be an inside job and the cops caught the three men in a matter of days. But people still talk about it as their own doors stand unbolted while they gather at the coffee shop and lament this blemish on the town’s character.
Even the cars, the electric ones, I. mean, are left unsecured, for the most part. You need only open a door, press the start button, and you’re free to race around until some eager young trooper checks the license plate and gives chase. But you hardly read of such events in the Martha's Vineyard Gazette Instead, you can roam around the dark emerald-glowing hills and come upon one white, steepled church after another. They are as common as toadstools, and as stainless as a virgin’s handkerchief. Tucked in among old trees are the village country store, the wine shop, the boutique with vintage clothing, the trinket and t-shirt emporium for the droves of tourists who descend upon the island each summer and are hungry to cart away some remembrance of an enchanted week or two.
So when we got on our bus from the ferry landing and headed to the parking lot, we were a little misty-eyed ourselves. We had tried to see it all, including the tiny houses crowded into unpaved walkways in Oak Bluffs, with their gingerbread trim and brightly painted porches. We’ll come back when my niece calls, and she keeps an eye on the calendar to summon us at the best of times. Who can pass up a chance at Larson’s oysters, fabulous crab cakes, the smell of the ocean breeze blowing in from the open sea. I’m gazing down the hall at my suitcase even now.