We Have Met the Summer People and They Are Us.

Who are you calling an Islander?

March 2020: The Vineyard is in winter-weary mode, gray and sleepy. Phones start ringing like wake-up alarms, as if it’s April and the forsythia are already blooming. Caretaker phones. Plumber phones. Housekeeper phones. Open up our houses, say seasonal homeowners from afar. We’re on our way.  

March 2020: A friend in New York tracks flights in and out of Westchester County Airport on a phone app; he’s nerdy that way. He texts me to report a curious rise in departure activity out of General Aviation. Private planes are heading toward the Hamptons, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard on a daily basis like it’s an average Friday in July.

March 2020: Island grocery shelves, still at winter supply levels, begin looking meager.

March 2020: The Steamship Authority reports a bump up in Island-bound auto travel. And lo, come the sightings of out-of-state license plates, earlier in the year than the norm, from Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Yes, those flaming, in-your-face orange plates from New York.  

Once the pandemic shut down most of the northeast U.S. – the schools, the offices, the Starbucks – many denizens of the epicenters fled like refugees. Because they were nervous. And because they could. They had other homes at their disposal. They could shelter in place elsewhere. Like here.  

The welcome mat was not out, however. Many year-round Islanders, thus far cocooned from doomsday and death across the Sound, got spooked and said: No! Stay away from us!   

Depending on the year-rounder, 
No meant: We are sympathetic to your worries for yourselves and your families but we have our own fears of the contagion you may bring though we know you don’t mean to yet our hospital is so very small and our Island is so very isolated so if you wouldn’t mind please don’t come but if you do come please bring your own food and toilet paper and then self-quarantine. Namaste.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, No meant: Of all the selfish nerve of you contaminated people to come here and put us in danger with your entitled selves when unlike you we don’t have second – or third or fourth – homes to escape to from the virus you’re undoubtedly spewing and we can’t telecommute landscaping or cut hair on Zoom and besides we already ceded our summer months to you people a long time ago so let us keep our off-season of freedom from your traffic and rudeness and by the way since you said you were coming here to shelter in place why are your license plates in plain sight at Lucy Vincent Beach?

The standoff played out in our local rags and, with far less grace, on social media. It got covered out “there” too – in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times.

A few refugees slunk back to where they came from, humbled or merely weary of getting the ninety-degree side-eye. There’s nothing quite like the cut of a side-eye over an ominous mask. A few engaged backbone: Oh, so it’s spend, spend, spend our money with you in the summertime and otherwise go to hell? Cooler heads waved the white flag and attempted reasoning: The Vineyard is our home too. We pay taxes. We gladly support Island businesses, the hospital, etc. Which the least conciliatory of year-rounders took as: We carry you little people so shut up. You’re welcome.

And on it went. Please, may the past tense of that verb still apply by the time this piece is published.

In ordinary times, the Island’s us-and-them dynamic simmers on a lower burner. Add the panic of pandemic to the tail end of our long cabin-fever season, and it rose to a rolling boil – a level perhaps not seen since the so-called Kennedy Bill of a half-century ago. In that dust-up, conservation lovers, chiefly of the seasonal sort, implored Congress to empower the federal government to take all – yes, all – of the Vineyard’s undeveloped private lands by eminent domain. They were not greeted by locals as liberators.

Us-and-them is inevitable in any resort community. On the Vineyard, it appears to go back a century or so, when visitors began creating getaway homesteads in critical mass, driving stakes even into the hills and farmlands of up-Island. 
An editorial in the Vineyard Gazette in the autumn of 1929 sounded a tad edgy – “We doubt if summer people realize how completely they pass out of island life and how little they are missed,” the paper opined on November 29 of that year.

In Martha’s Vineyard: An Elegy, a memoir of nearly forty years ago, the late Everett S. Allen observed with his elegant pen:

“Summer people, especially on an island, which has only a certain amount of room, constitute a unique sociological phenomenon. The fundamental is not whether they are good or bad, well behaved or otherwise, little or largely seen abroad in the villages – and all of these matters vary according to the individuals and the era – but, rather, what kind of psychological impact their presence has upon the native. This is something over which the average summer visitor may have some control, but not much.”

Indeed, it seems summer people have more bearing on the year-round psyche than the other way around, by sheer force of their larger numbers – ten to one, is it? – not to mention the largely hidden profile of service sectors in general. 
On her first visit to the Vineyard one July, my intelligent and generally woke goddaughter observed the circus of beachgoers, bikers, kite surfers, beer guzzlers, and what have you. I mentioned something about avoiding rush hour, which took her by surprise. “I didn’t think anybody worked on Martha’s Vineyard; it seems like everyone just plays.” I pointed out that her lobster roll didn’t arrive on her table by magic. Another time a summer friend overheard my end of a tense business conversation one afternoon. When it ended, I sighed, “I’m so stressed.” To which my friend chuckled and said: “Don’t be silly. No one is ever stressed on Martha’s Vineyard.” She wasn’t being sarcastic.

I react gently with these people. I get these people. I used to be these people, half oblivious to the bedrock society all around me. Naïve as heck. But then sixteen years ago, I crossed the threshold from summer person to year-rounder, started working in customer service, chiefly to visitors, and – bam – my orientation to us-and-them flipped 180 degrees. Across counters and desks I faced variations of the old summer me on the other side. It quickly sunk in why Island shopkeepers deny service to customers talking on cell phones. I finally figured out why “the August people,” dropkicked straight from the nation’s epicenters of stress, are a stereotype all their own. I began working in real estate and came to know year-round neighborhoods I’d been largely clueless about within a stroll of my own home. I volunteered with the Red Cross and met families who lost everything in fires. It took me but a few rotations around the sun as a full-timer before the next arrival of summer people had me wondering, if only for an instant: Who are these people?

The summer person will never fully drain from my pores. I’m something of a hybrid now. I’m tied to both us and them, and I’m not sure which is which anymore. But I embrace it. I am blessed with nourishing relationships in both worlds. In my very summer neighborhood, I’m the oddball who rushes out in the morning in client clothes with laptop in hand and a wistful wave to barefoot neighbors sipping coffee on their porches. It is joyful to reunite with summer friends not seen in nearly a year and to be persuaded to take a little stay-cay, at a beach or on a nature trail, if only for an afternoon. But no, I am not going out for cocktails and dinner every dang night. I am not on a junket.

I can’t help but overhear the occasional snippet of ignorance and false presumption from both directions. Well, I could help it a little if I avoided social media, but never mind. I am sometimes like a ping-pong ball, bouncing back and forth across an invisible net, with the words of Rodney King in the back of my head. Can we all get along? One moment, I may be trying to explain to one side that one entitled-in-her-own-mind “Karen” from somewhere across the Sound doesn’t spoil the whole bunch. The next moment, I may be trying to reassure the other side that the zoning board of appeals won’t set fire to their application just because they’re seasonal. Not even if they’re a Karen. But, um, don’t poke the bear.