Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of living on Martha’s Vineyard.
I grew up spending summers in Chilmark; Menemsha is my Shangri-La. I have precious memories of sitting at Dutcher Dock, breathing in its trademark scent of brine and decaying lobster bait (a scent I totally love now, by the way), racing to gobble up a Texaco Station-bought fudge bar before it melted, netting and releasing shiny minnows with my sister, late-night squid-jigging with the older kids (who were super-duper-cool, as all older kids are to 7 year olds), and watching the fishermen unload their trawls — the thrilling bonus being when they would let us take tiny live crabs from the by-catch (...which we, uh, responsibly dropped back into the ocean afterwards? Let’s just say that.)
So, yes, Menemsha — and the entire island — has always held a special place in my heart. I never had to think twice when someone asked, “What’s your favorite place on earth?” Every time I visited as an adult and was moved by the beauty of the sunset on the ocean or the sound of a horse huffing outside my B&B’s window* I thought, “I will live here one day.”
Alas, it didn’t seem likely. I was a busy New Yorker, and, later, a busy (Los) Angeleno — and I certainly didn’t have the means to buy a house on the island. Martha’s Vineyard was relegated to a “one day, when I’m mega-rich” pipedream. Though I didn’t dwell on it, it manifested as a dull ache; a longing for the unattainable.
Several years ago, when my folks finally decided to become year-rounders themselves (technically they’re off-seasoners, as they rent their house out and have to go elsewhere in the summer), I was happily ensconced in my own little world three thousand miles away. It was years before I even got the chance to visit.
Then, another dream I had — to write a novel set on the island — became a reality. I was fortunate enough to have time to focus on it, so I flew across the country to hole up in my parent’s spare room for a month. You know that totally unrealistic life-as-an-author romantic cliché? I was living it! There I was, perched at a window overlooking the woods of West Tisbury, just me and my laptop and a strong cup of coffee, the only obtrusive sound the occasional cry of a wild peacock. (Which, if you’re wondering, sounds like, MAY-YAWWWWW!)
This was when I said to myself: “This! This is all I want in life.” And then the peacock said, “MAY-YAWWWW!” Which I’m pretty sure in Peacock means “SO DO IT ALREADY!” (Or maybe it just means “CHECK OUT MY AWESOME FEATHERS, YOU GUYS.” Then again it could have multiple meanings; perhaps it’s the “Aloha” of the bird world. You don’t know.)
So, under the advisement of this wise (or just noisy) peacock, I did it. Without being mega-rich (or rich in any degree), I up and moved to Martha’s Vineyard. I’m making it sound much easier than it was: I had to endure some drastic, painful changes; it took a lot of time, sweat, tears and desperate pleas for cheap housing, but one sultry August day I arrived in Vineyard Haven harbor with a suitcase in my hand and stars in my eyes.
And that's when my romance died in the arms of cold, hard realism.
First of all, the minute you move to a place you love, the bloom is off the proverbial rose. It’s not your private nirvana anymore. It’s not the peaceful paradise your mind defaults to when, say, the dentist is drilling your molar and hitting a nerve. It’s your HOME. Which means it’s suddenly a real place, with real people (15,000 of them), real problems (some of which are yours, because this time you couldn’t leave them behind), and while you may drive the entire span of the island twice a day on vacation, you won’t be doing this anymore when you live here, because you live here, and you can see Menemsha anytime now. Why waste gas today?
Second, for some reason I decided to move here in the height of high season, and I hadn't experienced this island in the summer since I was a kid. The crowds made me agoraphobic. As a new resident, it took me exactly 1.1 weeks to start grumbling about the tourists. I couldn’t park anywhere. And the mopeds! Are you kidding me with those things? Get off my roads, you people with your fun-having! I LIVE HERE NOW!
Third, my book wasn’t selling, even with an agent pitching it high and low, so I wasn’t going to be Rowling-rich any time soon. I would have to get a job, and any job would do; I was ready and willing to wait tables or be a barista, but the Vineyard in mid-summer is already stuffed to the gills with work force. There weren’t any jobs out there. I had to wait until September, when all the kids went back to school. (Assuming there were any year-round jobs for the taking, what with most places shutting down for the off-season.)
The island is oddly contradictory — or, a typical tourist spot come to think of it — in that it has a cachet of being a playground for the fabulously wealthy, and yet the year round residents actually average among the poorest in the state. So when I tell people I’m living on Martha’s Vineyard, there’s always an, “OooOoooh, I seeeEeee.” They think I’m golfing with Obama or something. On second thought, I should just let them think that. We all should. But I digress.
There was an article in a U.K. paper recently that, you know, DARED to expose the SEEDY UNDERBELLY of Martha’s Vineyard. It was melodramatic and one-sided and unintentionally hilarious, but it did prove the point that like anywhere else, this misunderstood paradise has its share of poverty, drugs and crime. (Not very much crime, though. I mean, the biggest news story last month was about a couple of dogs who ate some geese. Really. Dogs vs geese. I can hear the LAW & ORDER: MV** line now: “Looks like this perp is FOR THE BIRDS”. dun dun!)
That said however, unlike anywhere else, there is a tremendous and inspiring sense of community here. I think it’s because we share the feeling that we're all in this boat — or, on this “rock” as the natives say, usually with disdain — together. I found a job in September and lucked out: I love everyone I work with, and because it’s a counter position I meet new people every day. Some customers have become close friends. No year-rounder thinks you’re beneath them when you serve them coffee — just about all of us have (or have had) menial jobs, and we don’t feel confined or defined by them because we usually have something else going on, like burgeoning side businesses, or gigging bands, or book deals (< wishful thinking on my part).
In other words, I can’t complain. Not about any of it. I'm thrilled to be here and infinitely grateful to be a part of this wonderfully wacky community. Though My Enchanted Isle has been slightly tarnished by the mundanity of everyday existence, it’s still enchanted. I feel it every time I see a breathtaking sunset, hear a peacock, or make that long trip out to Menemsha to smell that sweet, sweet fishing dock funk.
Martha, even though I know you a little better now — and I have some of your underbelly seeds in my teeth — you’re still my favorite place on earth.
Next post: how to survive the off-season in three easy steps!***
* - Captain Flander’s House. Horses chillin’ outside while you’re taking a nap. It’s amazing.
** - There is no such show, but we should totally make it. LAW & ORDER: MV. Who’s with me?
*** - Or possibly twelve.