I have begun to take a hard look at the summer that has just
passed. I spent it in a house at Hancock Point, Maine, a secluded
promontory of land that drowses under bright sunshine and watches the
light burst and stray out over Frenchman’s Bay. The house was one
of those great, weathered cottages that seem to go on and on, and
scarcely a day went by without one of us asking, “Now where does
that door go?”
The days there were restful, long and warm. I had plenty of time
for reading. I picked the season’s wild berries, I took thoughtful
walks along the shore, and with an inexhaustible curiosity I watched the
residents of this seaside colony–the summer people.
I have always watched the summer people. As a boy working my way
through college I was employed at a grand hotel on the island of
Martha’s Vineyard, where the summer people spent the nine-week
season paying nearly $100 a day for their room and meals. My first
summer there I was quarantined in the windowless kitchen and scrubbed
pots and pans as part of my rite of passage into the dining room, where
I was finally promoted to the position of busboy and had my first brush
with the hotel guests. Late one evening, while on my hands and knees
buffing the dining-room floor, I discovered a man’s tie clasp under
a corner table. I handed it over to the night clerk and thought nothing
more of it until the following afternoon, when the hotel manager
summoned me to his office to meet a dignified old man who instantly
dispatched my boss, saying he much preferred to speak with me alone.
He was dressed impeccably in a white shirt, brick-red trousers and
a navy-blue blazer with some sort of emblem sewn in gold threads on the
breast pocket. With a shaky but baronial voice he identified himself
and thanked me for recovering his clasp. I stood across from him and
nervously shifted my weight from foot to foot as he looked me over.
Then suddenly he drew his shoulders back ceremoniously and gave me his
right hand, which was knotted in a tight fist. As if passing a secret
message behind enemy lines, he pressed two folded bills into my hand and
quickly closed my fingers around them.
After I had been dismissed I opened my hand and found that the
reward for my vigilance was two $100 bills. I rushed to find the old
gentleman, certain he had made some mistake. No mistake, I was told.
The tie clasp had once belonged to a classmate at Princeton in 1921.
Its sentimental value was inestimable.
This sort of experience caused me to pay great attention to the
dining room floor and to the ways of the summer people. I learned that
many of them were descendants of families whose wealth was immense and
indestructible. They were the very people who owned the things everyone
else wonders who owns–diamond mines and railroads and professional
baseball teams. I learned that there was very often a precocious
self-assurance about the children of these people. And often a
recklessness. One afternoon I observed two teen-age boys racing their
father’s giant sloops out in the crowded harbor and seeing who
could come closest to the pier without bashing into it.
At this hotel I first discovered that a grown man would spend an
entire day reading newspapers out on a porch and moving with a courtly
negligence from chair to chair as the sum moved across the sky, while
someone brought him coffee all morning and tea all afternoon.
The ways of the summer people were of amazing interest to me then
because I was a young boy trying very hard on my own to figure out how
the world worked.
The world seemed to work against me from time to time in those
days. One other summer I was employed as the caretaker for Mrs.
Alexander Chadbourn, a dowager in her late 80s who resided in one of the
largest cottages on the island. I did everything for her that summer,
and she appeared to be very fond of me. Sometimes she would call out to
me to come inside for lemonade and holler out across her shaded lawn as
she must have done once for her own sons. She liked to call me Scotty
(I never found out why), and when she pronounced that word she hit very
hard on both Ts. Her husky voice was accented with violent gasps that
gave dramatic weight to even the most mundane declarations.
One morning she called to me: “Scotty. I must get a weather
report for tomorrow. The Blanchards have invited me sailing, and
I’m much too old to go blowing off in a hellish gale. Go and find
me a newspaper with a reliable forecast.”
Off I went later that day and rode my bicycle to the market and
back with a newspaper folded under one arm. As I was heading toward
Mrs. Chadbourn’s place, I spotted her out on a neighbor’s lawn
with several dozen gaily dressed people who had gathered for cocktails.
I parked my bicycle and walked across the lawn as inconspicuously as I
could. Mrs. Chadbourn had her back to me, and someone who watched me
approach motioned to her with a hand that held a highball glass. SHe
“I’ve got the paper,” I said triumphantly. Mrs.
Chadbourn said nothing at first, and I will never forget the look of
disappointment that swept over her rouged face. Her narrow eyes closed
for an instant, her mouth opened and she said: “No no, no no, no no
no! This is not the right place for that.” She hammered all three
I wanted to sink into the fabulous lawn. I wanted to evaporate
into the clouds. That afternoon I learned my place among the summer
people, and for a while is suited me just fine that I was vastly
different from them, for these were the late 1960s and I was a restive,
ornery college student with a political disaffiliation contemptuous of
the older generations.
My politics had changed by the time I met Miss Winslow, a widow
close to 100 years old, whose room in the third-floor annex of the grand
hotel had been reserved for her for 27 years in a row. Every morning,
just after six o’clock, without fail, I marched up the spiral
stairway with her breakfast: one four-minute boiled egg, one piece of
unbuttered whole-wheat toast cut diagonally and a glass of apricot juice
served on a silver tray with the circumference of a catcher’s mitt.
Miss Winslow was exceedingly rich and, it was said, wished to give
away as much of her fortune as possible before she passed on. Every
Saturday she walked to the bank in Edgartown escorted by her private
nurse. Once there, she withdrew, in new $20 bills, enough to give one
to each of the hotel’s 80 employees. Sunday morning after church
she began her rounds and personally delivered the weekly gratuity to
every worker from the manager to the lowliest pot washer. She carried
the cash in a large pocketbook made of alligator skin, and we all
referred to her as “The Alligator Express.”
I was nearby when Mrs. Chadbourn died one summer, alone. And I
took breakfast to Miss Winslow on one of the last mornings of her life.
That day she motioned for me to set the tray down on the bureau. Then
she called me to the side of her bed. She looked longingly at me for a
few minutes before, at last, she said: “Do you know, the world is
for the young. Because you have time, the time is everything.”
Gradually I came to learn that unhappy things did happen to the
privileged summer people, and that in grief and despair and loneliness
all people are the same.
I look back over the past summer just as I have always looked back
over time. For as long as I can remember I have searched my past for
the chronological hinges on which the stages of my life have swung. I
have wanted to be able to say exactly when certain changes in my life
took place: Was there an event that marked the last afternoon of my
childhood? Did my adolescence begin with the inning of a baseball game,
or the arrival of a letter in one day’s mail?
I wonder about these things, and what it means that I have spent my
first season as one of the summer people. Instead of working at the
tennis club, I belonged. At the restaurants and inns I dirtied china
and left it for someone else to wash. Always before, my access to this
sort of summer place was gained by way of a job. This summer I paid my
own way. But what does it mean?
I turned 33 in August, and on the night of my birthday I thought
about the seasons at the hotel when the summer people seemed to me to be
so unspeakably old and odd. If in certain ways I have started to become
like them, then surely I am approaching that time in my life when I will
no longer be called a young man, when the umbrella of youth’s
resilience is lifted, and when I will not be pardoned for squandering
energy and time. This is surely one of the things I will be thinking
about throughout the winter.