Diogenes Goes To Martha’s Vineyard

Bottom line?  I want out.  Of New Jersey, that is.

Can you blame me?

I mean, can you really blame me?

It doesn’t take decades of bad jokes by late-night comics, Snooki, airheaded Franklin Lakes “real housewives,” or the opening sequence of The Sopranos to understand how oppressive New Jersey can be.  The murk of New Jersey hangs on our State like a fog, and that fog sure as hell doesn’t come in on little cat feet.

Sure, many people can’t wait to leave the places they were born.  Everyone claims their traffic is the worst, their government is the most corrupt, their misery is unparalleled.  Maybe I’m wrong to think that there’s something unique about New Jersey’s inescapable crowding, its reflexive mindless anonymous nastiness, the chasm between its poor and the lucky bastards who create little fake English villages where they pretend the poor don’t exist.

And anyway, it’s tedious to complain about where you live.  So.  Back to the bottom line.  I want out.

Incidentally:  I’ve wanted out for a very long time.  I tried to get out by landing a job after law school with some big firm in the Great Elsewhere.  But, it was 1982, and those jobs were hard to land.  So, I wound up working back in my home town.

(My first office was actually right under the green mansard roof).

I stayed in that firm for fifteen years, then got recruited away to an in-house corporate job where I stayed another ten years.  Twenty-five years living somewhere I didn’t want to live.  Then, seven years ago, when my nest emptied and I was planning my getaway, I married Barbara, whose work and family require her to stay in the area.  Are you there, Jersey?  It’s me again. Mudgeon.

Still, dreaming is free; and so Barbara and I have been freely dreaming about where we might live next.  Our goal is a neighborly place where people are warm-hearted, socially conscious, and intellectually curious.  (Maybe this explains why my destination, just before we married, was Portland, Oregon).  Oddly, one of the places still on our list is New York City, where it seems that the impossible crowding generally forces people to behave well toward one another.

Like Mr. and Mrs. Goldilocks, we’ve “auditioned” all sorts of destinations:  The Berkshires (too snooty); the North Shore (too remote); New England (wicked cold); even the more rural parts of Jersey.  Some of our romantic notions – for example, that country dwellers are kindly simple folk – have turned out to be more romance than reality.  Yet, we’ve been excited to discover that life seems truly gentler in some other parts of the country.

And so, we recently made like Diogenes and took our lanterns to Martha’s Vineyard.

Martha’s Vineyard, even at its most crowded in mid-August, is the anti-Jersey.  No graffiti.  No piles of litter thrown onto the street.  No road rage – heck, cars routinely stop to allow drivers to turn in front of them, and everyone religiously stops for pedestrians and bicyclists.  Every chance meeting begins with a smile and a kind word.

So if everyone on Martha’s Vineyard is swooning from a healthy dose of Soma, what about cultural pursuits?  Well, at least in summer, there must be twenty concerts, plays, lectures, and movie screenings every day.  We saw a taping of the NPR show The Moth Radio Hour.  We scowled righteously through a documentary about the persecution of Ai Weiwei.  And, we met or at least learned about dozens of island residents who are artists, writers, and crafters.  (We were also there for the 40th anniversary of the filming of “Jaws,” and learned that our landlady was featured in one of the beach scenes, and the manager of our favorite restaurant was famous as the kid who was eaten by a shark while floating on his inflatable raft).

People, however, are damnably human.  (See my post about Hitchens’ criticism of religion).  From behind Victorian filigreed porch balusters, we all need to parse out the saints and the sinners, the big and the small, and especially to make certain that we’re on the right side.  This, it turns out, is no less true in genteel Martha’s Vineyard.

On the day we left, our landlords came to take back their rental home, and not incidentally to size us up.  They commented that we had put out a lot of garbage, which meant to them that we’d probably saved money by cooking at home.  They asked about our “thrifty” method of renting a car only on the weekdays, when renting is a tenth the cost of the weekends.  They made a fuss about the fact that although they owned this home in an obscenely wealthy part of the island, they themselves were not rich.  The theme, I guess, was that it is good to be rich (and to spend money), but unseemly to admit to being rich.

(No lie, this was one of the houses in our neighborhood, owned by our landord’s cousins.  Their private beach is the one with the little floating dock; our private beach was the one just to the left of it.  The tenants in that house, who paid $100,000 for the summer, were so incensed that anyone would swim up to their dock that they posted big “Private” and “No Trespassing” signs….on the little dock!)

Fine.  They have their way of parsing.  Tourists on the island, amusingly, parse themselves by pretending to be natives: dressing like Vineyard farmers and wearing Black Dog Cafe t-shirts marked with dates from the 1990’s.  I mean, it’s not as if even a person stranded on a desert island doesn’t strain to convince himself that his island is sandier than his neighbor’s island.  It’s just that, well, Martha’s Vineyard, we’d hoped that you were different.


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