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In This Place

Beach People

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Mary Bergman
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We’ve gone back to making plans. The cell towers are too stressed to get a call out, we might soon go back to land lines. We are heading off to secret beaches and hiding bikes in the scrub oak. I’ve even heard of a woman out here who drives around with an old wooden ladder in the back of her pick-up truck to be able to get down to areas of the beach where the access points have eroded away.

It was at one of these becoming-less-secret-by-the-day beaches where a friend wondered just when did we all agree that societal norms would be suspended at the beach.

“All these people, strangers, really, and we’re all practically naked,” she said, “I’d never sit in a friend’s living room half-naked.”

Beach-world is different. You can sleep or read the afternoon away at the beach and no one thinks you’re being lazy. I was trying to explain what made Nantucket different than a land-locked small town to a visitor from North Carolina.

“Let me put it this way: you’ve seen everyone--your doctor, your boss, the Sheriff, the lady who bags groceries--in a bathing suit, and they’ve seen you.”

The rest of Nantucket is restrained, conservative in appearance. Walk along Main Street on a Saturday evening and you’ll see women who look like they’ve just stepped out of the pages of a magazine. There is a level of aesthetic perfection, in the architecture, the cars, the straight backed posture of a well-dressed man, the curve of a wooden boat’s bow, that permeates throughout this place. This uniformity can be overwhelming.

The beach is wild, this we know. Sand and flesh spill out in equal measure. An unleashed dog walks right across your beach towel. Gulls rip into a sandwich when you aren’t looking. And who knows what’s going on below the surface, the water churned and frothy.

Somebody wonders aloud what the answer to 22 down is: 2001 broadway spectacular with an exclamation in the title. Somebody else wonders how long it would take the Coast Guard to arrive from Brant Point if you got caught in a rip current. I wonder if we feel so good next to the sea because regardless of whatever nonsense your head has twisted up into today, the sea just keeps on churning.

On this island, we are proud of our open coastline, our easy access to dozens of beaches. There is no one to check town stickers or take payment. We want everyone to be able to feel like this, to indulge in the infiniteness of the sea.

But there are no campgrounds on Nantucket. The youth hostel is closed. No place to stay that won’t break the bank. We’re essentially surrounded by a moat. Unless you have friends on Nantucket. And you know what they say, you never know how many friends you have until you have a house on the Cape and Islands. So who really gets to enjoy all this open access to the beach?

Maybe that is why some days it feels like a duty to go down to the beach, to wander the low dunes between Surfside and the sewer beds. Even if that means getting to the shore as the fog rolls in at the end of a long day.

Luckily, the beach doesn’t care what the weather is, or what time of day it is. I don’t, either.