Walking around Nantucket yesterday brought up emotions in me that date back to my childhood. My reaction to seeing a certain type of well to do men and women, dressed in elite preppy styles, full of self-confidence and sureness, implying a closed exclusive world, is not good. It makes me cringe inside and feel uncomfortable. It also encourages my contempt.
So what did I see? A well-groomed older man talking to another man. He wore bright green shorts, with a plaid woven belt, yellow polo shirt, and loafers without socks. He was a well built, handsome, fiftyish man. He was the epitome of a certain cultural elite.
Later I saw an older man walking down the street with his wife. Both were dressed for the evening. She was wearing a classic black cocktail dress with a lite shawl while he wore a polo shirt and plaid pants. Plaid pants? Who wears plaid pants?
And then there are the Nantucket Reds. Murray’s Toggery Shop on Nantucket invented these faded red pants over seventy years ago, and they have become emblematic for the Nantucket look. Nantucket reds are seen everywhere on and off the island. They have been copied by many stores, but wherever Nantucket reds are seen they conjure up images of an elitist exclusive world that few can enter, and many aspire to. They are part of the Nantucket brand. They also seem to me to be quite silly.
The emotions that these fashions and their wearers brings up in me is hard to describe. They stand for an elite, preppy world that I have never felt part of. There is a certain type of well-dressed person wandering the streets of Nantucket that brings out the worst in me. Women, out for their morning fast walk, with designer exercise clothes, a water bottle in hand, power walking their way to fitness.
Men, with classic good looks, athletic, handsome, with their Nantucket Reds and polo shirts. They display macho masculinity that seems to ooze testosterone. They are smug. They talk heavily about sports. They have energy and power in their communication. They have a supreme feeling of success and self-assured ease in the world. They make me uncomfortable. I am always on the outside of their world.
These kinds of men and women have an effect on me. They represent a world that I am not part of. They represent a cozy club, filled with laughter and breezy comments, of which I am not permitted to enter. Their world always struck me as fake and empty, but attractive. The issue that prevents me from entering their world was not based on money or fashion sense. Growing up as a gay man I always felt different. Sporty young men with a breezy easiness in the world stood in contrast to my lack of athleticism and self-consciousness about my difference. I eschewed sports and could not enter the sports-filled conversations of young men. I was slightly effeminate as a young man and was not invited into the sports and testosterone-driven circle of boys in school or camp.
And then there is the antisemitism that I learned about growing up. When I was about ten or eleven years of age, I remember my father telling me he had been invited to join a certain elite yacht club on the island that did not then allow Jews. The men who invited him to join did not know he was Jewish. Once they realized that he was Jewish, he told me, they would never let him join. I remember seeing young, handsome, well-built boys taking out the small yacht club sailboats from a nearby beach. I felt an attraction to these handsome tanned boys as a young man but also recognized that I could not enter their world.
I have always have found success in work. The world of work never seemed to be populated by the Nantucket Red crowd. In work, I found an earthiness and realness that I have always loved. Socially, I have never wanted to be part of the moneyed, successful, men and women who populate so much of Nantucket. I wanted something that I saw as more real and honest.
How do I make peace with this? I have been coming to Nantucket for over fifty-five years. Every summer for a week or two I enter a world that I do not feel part of. As a teenager I survived my visits to Nantucket by reading incessantly, being a child of the 1960s, and hiding behind the counter-culture moniker. Those teenage summers were also times when I would get depressed and sleep a lot.
As an adult, I have filled my time in Nantucket by reading and spending time with family. As an adult, I have come to love the charm and beauty of the island, but even today when I walk the streets of the island, I see the gulf between many, (but not all), of the other visitors and me.
What is it about this world that painfully scratches something deep inside me? As a gay boy growing up and feeling different from a very young age, I think that Nantucket, and all it represents, put a spotlight on that deep difference I felt.