"Owning a place on this island is for billionaires, not even millionaires anymore," says Brian Borgeson, a giant, red-haired, freckled charter boat captain standing in pink clogs and battling the outgoing tide from the wheelhouse of his vessel, the Absolute.
"Look at the kids in town. You don't see any Celtics tank tops like you would on Martha's Vineyard. Here it's just little sailor suits and $400 shoes. It's hilarious and wonderful. Being on the island at all is like being in an exclusive club. It's 25 miles out here in the middle of the ocean. You can't even get here if you're not wealthy," Borgeson says.
For my first visit to the island I take the Grey Lady, the high-speed catamaran from Hyannis. I sit on the top deck drinking
The ferry docks at Straight Wharf. The village looks like the centerpiece of a living history museum or the campus of a small New England liberal arts college on parents weekend. Everything is scrubbed and blooming and preserved in the glory days of pre-traffic lights and pre-asphalt and pre-chain stores. And there are shops, but it is not a place to look for what you need, unless what you need is Lilly Pulitzer, or a $700 fishing reel, or an oil painting of dunes and breaking waves.
Passengers from the boat head their separate ways. They walk to their inns, are picked up in hotel vans, or by sun-bleached girlfriends in beach buggies toting surfboards and surfcasting rods. I look for the scooter rental shop. Walking through town, it is unnerving to see two police officers to every block. And then I realize that they are unarmed, more security guards, put-your-dog-on-a-leash, and you-can't-park-there, than real crime-fighting police.
I rent a scooter and ride up and down the cobblestone streets. The stones were ballast on ships that delivered whale oil to England and the Pacific. Many of the streets are one way, and the cops scold those going the wrong way. I head south out of town and chug along to Surfside and the Hostelling International-Nantucket, also known as the Star of the Sea Hostel. The scooter goes only 30 miles per hour, and the speed limit is 35, so people need to pass, and they do. When they pass they honk and say bad words. It makes me feel like one of the dummies from "Dumb and Dumber," going barely 30 with a moped full of luggage.
The hostel, originally the Surfside Lifesaving Station (built in 1873) is at the end of a dead-end sandy road overlooking the dunes. Starting at $32 a night it is by far the least expensive lodging on the island. It's wonderfully out of the way and architecturally interesting and very nice if you don't mind sharing a buggy second-story dorm room with dozens of teenage bike trippers and their groovy trip leaders.
I drop off my stuff and ride back into town. The people that I see look alike (tall and tan and blond and lovely) and are dressed similarly in a sort of Nantucket uniform, a specific, preppy, just-woke-up-from-a-nap-on-the-wooden-sailboat look. For men it's a collar-up polo shirt in soft fruity colors like periwinkle blue and Bermuda sand pink (actually called Nantucket Red), longish almost to the knees shorts or straight-front pants with a pattern of lobsters or whales, a cloth belt embroidered with more whales or classic sports cars, leather loafers or boat shoes without socks, big waterproof sailing and diving chronograph watch, gold wedding band, and the haircut, long enough for conditioner but short in the back and around the ears. Many sport the look, but few pull it off, and if it does not work it seems like a put-on, like New Jersey city slickers strutting around in cowboy hats and snakeskin boots at the Denver airport on their way to a ski weekend.
For dinner I wander into LoLa Burger, the techno-music-pumping, tile-lined, fancy new burger stand. I sit on the dock watching the squid squirt around the harbor, and I eat slowly: slender french fries and a big greasy cheeseburger with mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, and pickles.
Later, on the scratchy sheets and twin bed of the hostel dorm I fall asleep to the sound of the surf and the private planes flying overhead. The bicycling boylings have strange voices changing from child to man. I hear them until late, killing moths with wet towels.
In the morning I scoot into town and head to the docks to meet Borgeson, whom everybody calls "Boomer" or "Boombastic." He's about to head out on the Absolute with a group of guys from New York, a cop, an actor, and a Mercedes dealer. He invites me along.
Borgeson guides the boat out of the harbor, past the yachts and the sunbathers on the yacht decks, and cruises by the "old-school cottages" on Great Point where he says people come to "watch the sun rise and set, and to grill fish, and to eat outside," and to not "re-create the suburbs at the beach, plasma televisions and all."
He cruises along the island's southeast shore, Siasconset, or Sconset as it is known, where $10 million houses with big views may fall into the ocean because the cliffs are eroding. The homeowners want to spend millions of their own money to dredge millions of cubic yards of sand from a few miles offshore and pump it onto a 3-plus-mile stretch of beach. Borgeson and the other fishermen have fought them because they say the dredging would ruin the best spot for striped bass fishing on the rare cobble bottom just offshore.
Borgeson stops the boat and on the fish finder we can see the structure, the bumps and boulders, and on the surface the bluefish are swirling, and so the lines go in. The bluefish bite, and the New Yorkers reel them in. And then Borgeson heads offshore to the outer rips where the depth drops and there are standing waves and 6 knots of current, and before long they are reeling in 30-pound stripers which spin and snap 80-pound leaders. The lines go in the edge, jig, jig, jig, and the fish are on and the men sit in the chairs and reel them in, click, click, click, and the mate gaffs them by the gills and pulls the beasts onto the boat. And then Borgeson is ready to go and says, "I'm gonna pull out of the edge here; everybody hold on," and he whispers that the waves can build to 20 feet in five seconds. "You can feel the energy here," he says. "It's like being in Times Square."
Back on the dock Borgeson unloads the fish, and his mate cleans them. Jamaican women, seasonal workers most of them, come out of nowhere and clamor for the fish to make soup or escabeche.
An hour later I'm eating supper at Straight Wharf Restaurant the freshened-up old girl where Gabriel Frasca (formerly chef at Spire in Boston) and Amanda Lydon (formerly of Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain) have taken over. The food is obsessively local and pretty and generous. I eat and eat, a three basil salad with chardonnay vinegar, marcona almonds, and pickled lemon; a bluefin tuna crudo with marinated king oyster mushrooms, Bartlett's radishes, and chive blossoms; croquetas de jamon with Connecticut asparagus, soft poached egg and brown butter vinaigrette; a nectarine tart. I eat until the ferry pulls up to the wharf, and then I run for it.
I board the boat for home. Weekenders switch their cellphones back on to check messages. Children finger string bracelets and temporary tattoos. One last Bloody Mary and the sun sets over the sound.
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.