I’m stuck at the ferry terminal in Hyannis, waiting to go to Nantucket for Christmas. It’s a very familiar experience for me, waiting to get on a boat. If you extend that feeling to include planes, trains and buses (not to mention people), then I would say a pretty significant chunk of my life has been spent in such a state.
In order to go home from high school, I would have to walk to a commuter rail stop and wait for the train. The train would take about forty five minutes to Boston, where I would walk to the T and take three subway trains to the bus station. The bus ride to Hyannis took about 2 hours with a few stops, followed by a walk to the ferry. It seems as though I always arrived just after a ferry had left, so then I would experience this particular wait that I’m experiencing now, and finally a two-plus hour boat ride. In those days, I would always have a book to read, but I really just spent the time (most of a day) worrying. Would I arrive in time for the next leg? Would I get off at the wrong stop? What if I fell asleep?
In college, I would walk to the local bus, which would take me to Hartford (after many many stops). From there, I would catch another bus to Providence, then change again for Hyannis, and the rest would be the same as above. By that point in my life, the experience was familiar enough that the worry was replaced by whatever my predominate mood was at the time- usually out and out exhaustion. College included a lot of all-nighters. Between my need to get the absolute most out of my time in college (not to mention my tuition money) and the wealth of options for how to spend my time, there were more than a few bus rides that acted as my only sleep in at least 24 hours. I felt very confident that I would wake up at precisely the right moment. Just as the book acted as a distraction for my worry in high school, in college, I wore headphones and listened to music, but mostly slept through it. Under normal circumstances, I’m a pretty light sleeper, and can’t listen to music and fall asleep, but these were far from normal circumstances. Whether I had Schoenberg piano works, Ornette Coleman improvisations or Smashing Pumpkins in my ears, I only “heard” the music in my dreams.
After college, I traveled around the world, from Ireland to India to Ghana to Brazil. I used London as a pivot point throughout my travels, so I spent a lot of time on intercontinental flights. Most of the waiting, though, was done in the airports. I was always afraid of being late for my flight, so I tended to arrive far far far far far in advance of the departure time. More than twice, I spent an entire day in the airport. Worry had crept back in, so there would be no sleeping for me. Instead, I would open my journal* and write about what I could see in front of me: thousands of people of all nationalities and ethnicities moving to and fro. It’s easy to start to think about how personal our lives are in these cases.
*I’m going to dig those up and see if there are any good stories in there. As I recall, there just may be…
It’s not a new thought: most of the time we see the universe as centered on ourselves, but occasionally we realize that there are 6 billion other centers of the universe among humankind alone. Each person is the protagonist in their own movie, even more than they are supporting characters or extras in my movie. And as interesting as my life may seem to me, it’s only as interesting to others as their lives are to me (present company excluded, of course.)
Nowadays, I do a bit more driving as my method of travel, which means that I’m not nearly as prone to worry, reflection, or sleep- thankfully- during travel. Instead, I have the act of driving and the content of my iPod to keep my mind occupied. Music can be a little too influential, as far as mood goes, and lead me to drive too fast or slow, or something else, so I have a few audiocasts on which I rely for many drives. Today, I listened to a This American Life episde from a 2003 that blindsided me with familiar voices. One of the contributors was a man from Nantucket named Jim Sulzer, who used to sing in a group with Daddy Wrall’s daddy and uncle, called Willie & The Whalers.* Jim interviewed a number of island personalities, and though I never heard his voice, I did hear their voices and they were ones that I recognized. It was quite poignant; nostalgia, both happy and sad, got me in the mood to take a ferry ride through the fog. (Man, it’s foggy like you read about right now!)
*Willie & The Whalers was a very influential group for DW and Todd the Rocket, and me too, in a more indirect way. They were a barbershop quartet that did all the standards and they were fantastic.
Jim had a son in Wrall’s class in school, the same class that my brother was in. In first or second grade he had the great idea of coming into the school and having the kids write songs that he would help them record. Wrall and my brother wrote a song called “My Brother” about Todd and myself. They each took a verse and joined for the chorus: “We are The Rockers and we came to Rock you. We’re gonna do something that’s fun to do. Let’s rock.” As far as I’m concerned, we should absolutely steal “we’re gonna do something that’s fun to do” for a Miss Fairchild song. That’s pure and unencumbered brilliance right there. I didn’t even really know Wrall at the time, but I think the present incarnation will be amenable. It’s strange to think that he was involved in writing a song who’s co-central subject was, well, me. And now look at us. (And by the way Dan**, the movie is all about me, and that song proves it.
Where was I? Oh yeah, now that I don’t live on Nantucket anymore, I identify more than ever as a “Nantucketer.” When I see people wearing Nantucket sweatshirts and hats, part of me wants to tell them, “that’s my hometown you’re fronting on!” When I see products made in New Jersey (no jab*) that have Nantucket in their name, I want to tell everyone, “that’s not really made in Nantucket!” I want to let people in on my secret, but keep it secret at the same time. Even when I’m on the island, if I hear the word Nantucket or see someone with a t-shirt on that says “Madaket” I want to set the record straight.
*Yep: another catchphrase, but I’d guess you can figure this one out on your own.
When I moved off the island, people would ask, “what’s it like growing up there?” I wouldn’t have a clue what to say; Nantucket was the only thing that I knew. I’ve since learned that beyond the normal small town stuff, you could add: no fast food chains or department stores, everything is 5 minutes from everything else, unless you need to go to America, in which case, pack an overnight bag. Also: it’s warmer than New England in winter and cooler in summer, but it’s windy as heck, and foggy, too. There aren’t any stops lights or multi-laned roads, but you still have to be a good driver, because all the roads are one-way, and barely wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage, let alone a plumbing van. When you grow up on Nantucket, malls are more than malls: they are special. They are a treat. What if you don’t get off the island for a bunch more months?
Nowadays, people say “you’re so lucky!” when they hear that I’m from Nantucket. They’re correct, of course. I had a great childhood and feel like a come from a very special, if misunderstood place. They usually add, “you’ll always be able to go back there,” which may or may not be true, but what they may not realize is that there is no going back. The island, like every place, has changed so much. (Don’t worry, this is not a good old days lament.) Not only are the people and shops different, but the actual land is different. There is a lot of development that wasn’t there when I was exploring it with my brothers, and even scarier, some of the land is gone. When my grandfather was a kid, Madaket Road extended something like a mile farther than it does now. Erosion has eaten away at the island. Some folks have to move their homes, and others watch as they fall into the ocean.
Don’t get me wrong, Nantucket is still a gorgeous gorgeous place. In fact, I credit that landscape as being a part of my aesthetic sense. Not my taste per se, but the fact that I have any. Being surrounded by that kind of beauty had me take it for granted so much that I wanted to be a part of it. At first, I wanted to do visual art and then music.
I guess I’m saying that there is a reason that so many artists have landed there over the years, for recharge, for retirement, for retreat. I guess it’s appropriate that I’m listening to John Sebastian’s album Welcome Back right now. It arrived in the mail yesterday, it’s ordering inspired by this:
From what I know of his drumming style, I would highly doubt that our good friend Richard Manuel* is actually drumming on this, but it doesn’t stop it from being truly amazing. When Daddy Wrall discovered this, it reminded me how much I love some of his work, from the Lovin’ Spoonful** to the theme from Welcome Back Kotter. Signed, Epstein’s Mom.
*I think we’re going to do a whole post on him soon.
**How could I not like a band named after a lyric from a Mississippi John Hurt Song. It’s good to the last drop.
Well, this post has been way too long. Nantucket is important to Miss Fairchild, though, whether we prefer it that way or not.