Gun Store on Main Street

Early this past week an email went round with the subject line “Gun Store on Main Street.” It started thus:

“It can’t happen here”… Sinclair Lewis

Or could it? There is a proposal in the works to open a guns and ammo store on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, between Mikado and Off Main. The Board of Selectmen will be taking the matter up at their next meeting, a week from today, Tuesday, October 10. Check the Times for details and confirmation.

The sender then called for people to pack the selectmen’s meeting and “do whatever we can to prevent this from happening.” (The proposal is no longer on the agenda for the October 10 selectmen’s meeting, but will most likely be coming up in the future.)

I don’t know the sender, but I did recognize many of the original recipients. (Having had a “blind copy fail” recently, I’m not going to snark at this guy for not concealing their names and email addresses.) One of them forwarded it to a friend of mine, who forwarded it to me.

By then this was a hot topic in the Islanders Talk Facebook group, from which I quickly learned that there was more to it than was told in the email, and the next day the Martha’s Vineyard Times posted a story, “Gun Store Plans to Sell High-End Shotguns,” that clarified the matter even more.

In short, the proposal has been made by the man who runs Vineyard Time, an existing Main Street watch and jewelry store that caters to a well-heeled market. According to the MV Times story, these shotguns are used for skeet shooting and sell for between $20K and $100K.

The price range does boggle the mind, or it would if I hadn’t lived on Martha’s Vineyard long enough to realize that I share these hundred square miles with plenty of people who live in a whole other world. Among the other stories reported this week, in the Boston Globe as well as the local press:

A south Florida woman, who claimed to be a psychic, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in Boston to hiding more than $3.5 million of income that she was paid by an elderly Martha’s Vineyard woman to “rid her of demons through repeated exorcisms,” according to a press release issued by acting U.S. Attorney William Weinreb’s office.

In the wake of the latest, and worst, U.S. mass shooting, it’s not all that surprising that the proposal, details of which are still sketchy, caused some alarm. My own initial reaction wasn’t exactly blasé, but my contribution to the Islanders Talk discussion was a question about the economic feasibility of a gun shop on high-rent Main Street. If indeed the proposal is to add inventory to an existing shop that already caters to the very affluent, it doesn’t seem off the wall.

But still, well — “guns on Main Street” is one of those phrases whose impact is greater than the sum of its parts.

My own attitude toward guns and gun control evolved rapidly after I moved here in 1985. In Washington, D.C., I didn’t know any hunters. Guns were the province of law enforcement (about whom I’d been somewhat leery ever since my antiwar organizing days) and criminals (who didn’t even pretend to be on my side). On the Vineyard it wasn’t long before I was meeting hunters and families of hunters and learning that hunting had a long, long history on Martha’s Vineyard. It was more than a sport; like farming and fishing, it was part of feeding oneself and one’s family, and as with many other essential activities traditions had grown up around it.

Not to mention — the hunters and fishermen I met tended to be environmentally savvy, and much more knowledgeable about woods and water than I was.

So I have no trouble maintaining the distinction between “gun owners” and “gun nuts.” Gun nuts all (I’m guessing here) own guns, but gun nuttery goes well beyond gun ownership: it veers into the territory occupied by the more fanatical forms of ideology and religion. It deals in symbols and slogans. Fueled by the National Rifle Association (NRA) since the late 1970s, it has become an integral part of the right-wing platform, and yes, it is related to white supremacy and a particular view of masculinity.

For a concise explanation of how this happened, see “How the NRA Made the Gun a Symbol of Tribal Identity,” Adele Stan’s October 4 column in the American Prospect.

As George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant, frequently points out, appeals to reason alone are generally ineffective against the deep-rooted moral convictions embodied in these symbols. This has not stopped the proponents of reasonable gun-control measures from circulating countless charts of gun-violence statistics and wondering why gun nuts don’t immediately see the light and stop insisting on their right to own as many assault rifles as they want.

In the current political climate, the chances for progress look pretty bleak — and it seems that even some liberals and progressives have adopted the right-wing view that the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right of all (white) citizens to bear arms, no questions asked.

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, looking for signs of hope and a way forward, I came across this story in New York Magazine from last December. Subtitled “An Experiment in Empathy,” it tells of more than a dozen individuals “on both sides of the gun debate . . . [who] had agreed to meet face-to-face, tell each other their stories, and try to understand one another’s points of view.” The stories are riveting, and not easy to read. Position papers, polemics, and charts of statistics are a lot easier. But better than any other single piece I’ve read recently, this one conveys what “we the people” are saying and hearing when we talk about guns.

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September License Plate Report

At first glance it looks pretty much the same as the end-of-August map, right? Now take another look to the left of California. Hawaii! Toward the end of the month, I took a swing through the parking lot at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital — a good source of unusual license plates, especially in the summer — and there, tucked into one of the smaller lots, was an SUV with Hawaii plates.

Coloring it in on the map, I realized that Hawaii was #45 — a number that this year has come to have other, less-than-halcyon connotations. No matter: as far as the license plate game is concerned, 45 is Hawaii, nothing more, nothing less.

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A Bookselling Snake

Is it September 15th already?? I spend the whole summer looking forward to Labor Day, and now it’s been two weeks in the rear-view mirror. The island around me may have slowed down somewhat — the traffic definitely has — but my workload hasn’t. Work is good, it’s all interesting stuff, and I do like having enough money incoming that I can pay my quarterly taxes (payment #3 is due today) on time. As the IRS and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue have probably noticed, this was not true (nowhere close) of payment #2.

The Ag Hall, site of the Labor Day Artisans Festival

On Labor Day weekend I got to spend some time selling my books at the big two-day end-of-season Labor Day Artisans’ Festival. My friend the prolific mystery writer Cynthia Riggs had snagged prime space just inside the double doors in the photo (left), and being a generous soul she invited a bunch of her writer friends to play too. These venues lend themselves to authors with multiple Vineyard-related books to sell, like Cynthia herself and local historian Tom Dresser, but even though I only sold a few copies — mostly of Mud of the Place but also a couple of my venerable original anthologies of women’s fantasy and science fiction, which hadn’t been out of my closet in years —  it’s fun to talk book and watch the world go by. The world was especially in evidence on Sunday, which was most emphatically not a beach day.

corn snake

Panthy, aka Suzan’s bracelet

The highlight of the weekend was sharing a table on Saturday afternoon with Suzan Bellincampi, director of Mass. Audubon’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature. Suzan was accompanied by Panthy (short for Pantherophis guttatus), a corn snake who lives at Felix Neck and as an educator is an old hand at public events. Panthy spent a fair amount of time coiled around Suzan’s forearm like a bracelet. Plenty of book browsers didn’t notice at first that the bracelet was a snake.

Snakes are cold-blooded, so it’s almost certainly warmth that so attracted Panthy to Suzan’s arm, but as the afternoon sun streamed through the window to the left of our table, she did a little exploring. (Determining a snake’s sex is an intrusive process, so Panthy’s actual sex is not known. Suzan refers to Panthy with female pronouns in part because the usual default setting is he, him, and his.)

Panthy goes exploring.

I was close enough to see Panthy’s tongue flicking in and out to explore her surroundings. Here she checks out my novel, The Mud of the Place. I’ve been known to refer to one of the villains as a snake in the grass, but I will not be doing that again. (The other villain is anything but subtle.)

Plenty of adults were at least somewhat leery of the bookselling snake, but the kids were mostly fascinated. Like this guy, who went eye to eye with Panthy:

More kids than adults took Suzan up on her offer to let them touch Panthy, as long as it wasn’t close to her head, which she might take as a threat. Several noted how surprisingly soft she was. For the first time in decades I remembered a grade-school kid I knew as a teenager. As well as being an avid horsegirl, she had a pet boa constrictor. Snakes being cold-blooded, a heated cage was a must. Once when power was knocked out by a storm, this kid induced her dad to sleep with the snake’s cage on his chest. I’m not sure how he managed it, but I still think he deserved a Father of the Year award for that one.

When selling books at the Artisans’ Festival, I not infrequently manage to spend more money than I take in. I avoided that this time by not lingering over any earrings, and though I was much intrigued by a woodworker’s gorgeous pens, so many others were crowded into his booth that I managed to walk by without opening my wallet.

I did, however, buy a copy of Suzan’s Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature. Along with lots of info on the Vineyard landscape and half a dozen guided walks, it includes chapters on identifying island flora and fauna, with drawings and photos of leaves, ferns, frogs, shells, and yes, a snake. Not a corn snake, though, because they aren’t native to the island. If you want to meet one, a trip to Felix Neck is in order.

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August License Plate Report

When July ends, I damp my expectations way, way down. Pickin’s are always slim in the last five months of the year, and in a few years they’ve been nonexistent. So spotting Nebraska! and Kansas! in the first week of August was a big wow. Two big wows. Anything was possible!

The following weeks didn’t measure up, in large part because I stayed off the roads as much as possible. The traffic was terrible. Not terrible by urban standards, of course, but our roads aren’t urban roads either. One Saturday Farmers’ Market morning the traffic coming into West Tisbury was backed up on the Edgartown Road almost all the way to the airport. That’s more than two miles, almost two and a half.

Then one afternoon the last week of the month I parked at Ocean Park to do my grocery shopping at Reliable Market. The Reliable lot is very small, so when I can’t squeeze in there I head over to Ocean Park. The four-hour spaces are almost always taken, but if I can grab one of the 15-minute slots, I can always get back to the car in time. An unusual plate caught my eye. I crossed the street to check it out. South Dakota!

Strange but true, while selling books at the Labor Day Artisans Festival, I got into a conversation with a couple who were from, I kid you not, South Dakota. I quickly ascertained that theirs wasn’t the car I spotted on Ocean Park that day. There must have been at least two South Dakota cars on the island at the same time.

Well, I’ve got hopes for the rest of the year. Not high hopes, but hopes. Utah and Nevada are definitely possible, Mississippi and Montana maybe. We’ll see.

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Statues

I’m more than half Southern on my mother’s side, but I grew up (and have lived most of my life) in Massachusetts, so until pretty recently I was able to think of Confederate statues as mostly a matter of heritage and history.

Next to her writing desk my Richmond-born grandmother had a World War I recruiting poster that depicted an avuncular gray-uniformed General Robert E. Lee and the words “I FOUGHT FOR VIRGINIA. NOW IT’S YOUR TURN.” (The same slogan was used during World War II, inviting civilians to join the Lee Navy Volunteers.)

My grandmother’s middle name before she married was Washington. She was also a descendant of Custises and Lees. My New England born and bred father was a collateral descendant of Robert Gould Shaw, first commander of the 54th Massachusetts, who was killed in action and didn’t live long enough to leave direct descendants. My father, Robert Shaw Sturgis, was named after him.

The Bonnie Blue Flag, the first unofficial flag of the Confederacy

Having both sides of the Civil War in my ancestry seemed a natural state of affairs. As I and my three siblings entered the world, my grandmother, who played piano by ear, gave each of us a song. Mine, of course, was “Oh, Susannah!” Brother Roger’s was “Dixie,” brother John’s was “Maryland, My Maryland” (he was named after Marylander John Hanson, the first person to serve a one-year term as president under the Articles of Confederation), and sister Ellen’s was “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

My grandmother was almost certainly the source of two LPs I played so incessantly as a kid that I learned most of the songs by heart: Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings Songs of the North and Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings Songs of the South. Both albums were released in 1961, the centenary of the Civil War’s beginning, when I was 10. That’s probably when they came into my family’s home in the Boston suburbs. (They’re both available on CD these days, separately and as a two-CD set.)

Above the mirror in my grandmother’s dining room was a small Confederate battle flag with a rustic wood frame. As the years went by and I learned more about the Civil War and more about Jim Crow, as the antiwar movement brought me into contact with veterans of the civil rights movement, that flag would grow huge in my mind’s eye until it was bigger than the mirror and dominated the wall. Every time I returned to my grandmother’s house — which was pretty often, since she lived less than 10 miles away from my parents — I was startled by how small that flag was.

On Martha’s Vineyard the trappings of the Confederacy are rarely seen, and the few swastikas I’ve seen in the last 30-plus years have all been graffiti. Ugly as they are, swastikas chalked on brick walls don’t have the visceral impact of the Nazi flags carried in Charlottesville. So my belief that the statues were mostly about history and heritage was rarely challenged. When it finally was, it collapsed completely.

Writes historian Karen L. Cox:

Almost none of the monuments were put up right after the Civil War. Some were erected during the civil rights era of the early 1960s, which coincided with the war’s centennial, but the vast majority of monuments date to between 1895 and World War I. They were part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution, and their installation came against a backdrop of Jim Crow violence and oppression of African Americans. The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy.

Cox also notes that “the group responsible for the majority of these memorials was the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), among the most influential white women’s organizations in the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” and to which I believe my grandmother belonged. The World War I recruiting poster by my grandmother’s desk would have come from the tail end of this period.

In contrast, a monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts stands outside the Massachusetts statehouse on Beacon Hill. It was erected in 1884. It’s a tourist attraction, but it hasn’t been a rallying point for any political perspective, not even after the 1989 film Glory made the 54th Massachusetts famous.

In the wake of Charlottesville, a vigil and a rally were held a week apart on the Vineyard. Both took place at the Civil War monument across from the ferry terminal in Oak Bluffs. The monument is easy to miss, even once you know it’s there. Its surprising history is told in Tom Dunlop’s “Uniting the Divided” on the Martha’s Vineyard Magazine website, but these pieces of it stand out:

Charles Strahan, who raised the funds for the monument, was by then a newspaper editor on the Vineyard. A native of Maryland, he had fought for the Confederacy. The monument honored the Grand Army of the Republic. It was dedicated on August 13, 1891. Are you feeling a little dissonance yet?

The fourth inscription, 1925

Inscriptions on three sides honored the Union army and its Vineyard combatants. The fourth side was blank until 1925, when an inscription was added, funded by the surviving veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. This had been Strahan’s hope from the beginning, and he was alive to see it dedicated on September 4, 1925. It reads:

“The chasm is closed.”
In memory of the restored Union this tablet is dedicated by Union veterans of the Civil War and patriotic citizens of Martha’s Vineyard in honor of the Confederate soldiers.

Noting the 34-year gap between the two dedications, and wondering how many Union army veterans were still around in 1925, 60 years after the end of the war, I wonder if there was resistance to the idea of honoring the Confederate soldiers. The chasm between North and South was alive and well in 1925 for those who cared to look; the Great Migration of African Americans from South to North was well under way. I suspect that on some level at least, the chasm was within Charles Strahan himself, a man who had fought for the Confederacy but had lived on Martha’s Vineyard since 1884.

After the passing decades had taken their toll, the monument was restored in the late 1990s and rededicated on August 17, 2001.

At the “rally for unity” last Sunday, there was some talk about the statue, and about that fourth inscription. Was this monument problematic? Should it be taken down? Why would anyone want to honor the Confederate soldiers?

I’m not a big fan of statues, but I like this one. It embodies the complexity and contradictions of both the Civil War and our often dis-United States. It makes me look at history from different angles. It reminds me that my grandmother had Robert E. Lee and the Confederate battle flag in her dining room, and that I still know the words to a bunch of Confederate songs.

A Union infantryman, Oak Bluffs

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Gossip

Gossip is widely assumed to be, by definition, frivolous, erroneous, and/or malicious.

Call it “orally transmitted information” and it gets more respect.

My first few years on Martha’s Vineyard I didn’t believe people who said they rarely read the local papers. How could they possibly know what was going on?

In part, this was because I worked for one of those papers. My weeks were organized around its schedule: on Monday began the rush to deadline, culminating late Wednesday afternoon when “the boards” were hand-carried to boat or plane or (later) digitally transmitted to the off-island printer. (This was before it and just about every other news outlet was on the web and could publish anything at any time.)

In part, I hadn’t been around long enough and wasn’t well connected enough to get my info by osmosis, that is, through the grapevine.

Tendrils of the grapevine did work their way into the newspaper office. When I was features editor, that’s how I got plenty of story ideas. I came to realize PDQ that there was more to most stories than what appeared in print. Reporters and editors had to verify facts and make allowances for erroneous perceptions and outright grudges.

The newspaper office was one node on the grapevine. Stories flowed in, stories flowed out — some of them orally, the way they flowed in, and others in print, typed, edited, and checked for accuracy.

With gossip there are no editors. It’s all up to the teller and the listener — the teller-listener, I should say, because everyone on the grapevine both hears stories and passes them on. We learn who’s reliable, who tends to exaggerate, who has a long-standing feud going with who else that might affect the story s/he tells, and so on. Maybe we learn how to check things out without letting too many cats out of the bag. At the very least we learn to recognize stories that might blow up in our faces if we pass them on.

Nodes develop where people pass through and hang around long enough to talk. The town post offices, grocery stores, hairdressing salons, the hospital . . . In Cynthia Riggs’s Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series, sleuth Victoria Trumbull picks up a fair amount of information from the regulars on Alley’s porch. These days the porch is so crammed with bright-colored goods for the summer trade that there’s barely room to lounge around, but people still manage.

Business executives and politicians are notorious for doing it on the golf course, though what they do generally isn’t called gossip. Gossip is associated with women; golf is associated with men. Men talk shop. Women gossip.

After I’d been on Facebook a few weeks, I started calling it “the grapevine on steroids.” Information passes to dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of people at once. I post regularly in a political group that has 55,000+ members. The Islanders Talk group has about 9,500, most of whom live here and any of whom I could run into at the grocery store or PO.

At the same time, when we post on social media, we’re often in the privacy of our own homes. It may feel like Alley’s porch or the post office, but it’s more like getting up onstage at the Performing Arts Center. The Islanders Talk group has 12 times more members than the PAC can hold. Think about it.

Facebook, and social media more generally, unlike the grapevine also leave a written record. We can delete our own posts and posts on our timeline, but we can’t be sure they’re gone for good. Public figures who should have learned better by now still haven’t figured this out.

“Fake news” is big news these days, and with good reason: it was surely a factor in last year’s presidential election, and in the polarization that’s afflicting the country. On Facebook, I don’t see all that much blatantly fake news, but I do see plenty of repackaged and distorted news with clickbait headlines that misrepresent the story. Just like it’s possible to not pass on a story if we distrust the teller or think it might do harm, we are capable of not sharing links to stories that we haven’t bothered to read.

One nasty thing about both malicious gossip and misleading or downright fake news is that once it lodges in your head, it doesn’t disappear, even if you distrust the source and are 99% sure it’s not true.

I’m on a tear about this. The forces using social media to sow dissension are smart. They count on people to uncritically share bogus information because it could be true or because it confirms their assumptions. The other day I saw a meme that claimed Melania Trump had stolen her post-Charlottesville remarks from Michelle Obama. I smelled a rat. A quick Google search turned up zero evidence that Michelle Obama had ever said those words, or anything close, on the day she was said to have said them, or on any other day. I passed that on to the two people who were sharing the meme. I was glad to see (1) that I wasn’t the only one who had smelled a rat, and (2) that both posters deleted the meme.

Circulating unverified information is like littering. Trashing the landscape, physical or virtual, has ugly results. Some rumors are like lit cigarettes: toss them out the window and they may do serious harm. Look before you leap. Check before you share.

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Insider, Outsider

The Performing Arts Center was filled to capacity when Sen. Warren came to speak.

When Senator Elizabeth Warren came to the Vineyard for a town hall last month (see “The Line, the Hall, and the Senator” for details), an estimated 1,000 people filled a hall whose official capacity is about 800. When my four friends and I made it in, the orchestra section of the Performing Arts Center was nearly full. We spotted a couple of rows over on the right where there seemed to be four or five empty seats in a row. I went over to check them out. RESERVED said a sign at the end of those particular rows and several others.

Surprise, surprise, I snarked to myself. The insiders get special treatment.

But several days earlier I’d contacted the staffer from Warren’s office who was point person for the event. A friend of mine really wants to come, I told him, but she’s not steady on her feet and can’t wait in line. Is there some way she can get in?

Have her get there early and check in at the door, he told me. I passed the word to my friend and all unfolded as planned. Some 200 people didn’t manage to get into the hall itself — chairs were set up in the lobby so they could listen — and another 150 or so sat outside on the grass. My friend and her daughter had great seats up front, at least in part because as an officer of the Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard (aka the MV Dems) I knew who to contact and had the chutzpah to do it.

Insiders get special treatment.

It happened again yesterday. Summer brings plenty of big-ticket events to Martha’s Vineyard, including fundraisers for candidates and political organizations, virtually all of them liberal. These take place on the same island I live on but when the lowest price of admission is generally $250 or more they might as well be on another planet.

John Lewis, congressman from Georgia and hero of the civil rights movement, speaking on Martha’s Vineyard, August 6, 2017.

At this particular event, Rep. John Lewis was receiving the Guardian of Democracy award from iVote, a national organization founded in 2014 to “secure and expand access to voting.” The venue was the waterfront estate of Richard and Nancy Friedman, which was the “summer White House” when the First Family vacationed here during the Clinton administration.

Needless to say I’d never been there. I had to consult Google Maps to be sure I wouldn’t get lost on the way. But I got to go because a sister officer in the MV Dems was volunteering on site and she got to invite her friends. Her friends, like me, are the sorts who will spread the word about iVote through our various networks even if we can’t contribute much to the treasury.

Insiders do get special treatment, but the line between insider and outsider is often more permeable than it looks from the outside.

No, I’m not minimizing the insider-outsider split. I’ve yet to encounter an organization or a movement that doesn’t have one, and some insiders are so far inside that they’re several degrees removed from the people affected by their decisions. Insiders are almost never the best authority on why their organization is dwindling in numbers. And when the outsiders try to make themselves heard, their letters, phone calls, and emails are ignored. They’re even thrown out of the office or dumped out of their wheelchairs.

Last year’s presidential election was full of rhetoric about “the establishment” and “the swamp.” The rhetoric on the left of center is riddled with references to Wall Street, Big Pharma, Big Oil, Dark Money, etc., etc., all of which frame the opposition as big hulking insider monoliths. The rhetoric on the right is similar, only the enemies have different names. In the process we frame ourselves as helpless unless we throw in behind a savior who promises to deliver us from evil. When the savior doesn’t deliver — well, it can get ugly.

Mass. attorney general Maura Healey addresses the MV Dems. State Rep. Dylan Fernandes listens.

The good news is that since the disastrous election plenty of us are learning that taking action makes us more powerful. We demystify government by learning how things work and how we can better influence the outcomes.

A month ago Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, spoke at an MV Dems meeting. She talked about what her office does, and about what the Democratic attorneys general across the country are doing to counter the many excesses of the current administration. Ever since people have been telling me how encouraged and hopeful they felt afterwards.

We may not be insiders, but we’re probably not as far outside as we think we are.

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July License Plate Report

After June’s record-breaking tally of nine, July’s yield of precisely one — Wyoming — was a bit of a letdown. Pickings are always slim in the second half of the year, and it’s not because there’s a shortage of cars.

Traffic jams in the down-island towns are ho-hum this time of year, but on one Saturday morning in July traffic coming into West Tisbury was reported backed up almost to the airport, a distance of more than three miles. This prompted some cries that the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market should be moved from the Grange, in the dead center of town, to the Ag Hall, on the outskirts or, maybe more accurately, in the middle of nowhere. The counter-cries were considerably louder: The Farmers’ Market isn’t the problem, it should stay at the Grange, “you call that traffic?,” and of course the old standby “Pray for September.”

There have been years when my last sighting of the year was in July, but 2017 won’t be one of them: I spotted Nebraska in the hospital parking lot on August 2.

Update: Kansas at SBS (the feed, garden, and grain store) on August 3!

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The Line, the Hall, and the Senator

Vineyarders are notorious for not RSVPing, signing up early, or buying tickets in advance. Case in point: Last Tuesday evening I shucked my soggy shorts and T-shirt for a crisp, presentable summer dress and headed into Vineyard Haven to see I Am Not Your Negro, which I have managed to miss on several occasions since it was released.

My big concern was parking. The film was showing at the M.V. Film Center, located in the Tisbury Marketplace, where parking can be horrendous even in the off-season. Mid-July is not the off-season. Sure enough, the parking lot was jammed. The only spaces available were the 15-minute slots for people picking up pizzas at Rocco’s. But I found a place at the nearby Ace Hardware lot and all was well — until I got to the theater and learned the film was sold out. Buying an advance ticket, or calling ahead to find out if tickets were available, had not occurred to me.

Elizabeth Warren speaks behind the West Tisbury library while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, summer 2012.

So a week or so ago it became apparent that staffers for Elizabeth Warren, my state’s senior U.S. senator, were concerned about the possibility of a low turnout for her upcoming town hall. True, the venue — the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school — is one of the island’s largest, with capacity around 800, and also true, in high summer there can be as many as a dozen events competing for one’s attention at any hour any day of the week.

Still, Senator Warren is popular among year-rounders, several local activist groups had been putting the word out to their members since late June, and there’s a reason that so many high-profile Democrats do big-ticket fundraisers here in the summer.

Still, the off-islanders were worried. They had set up an event page on Facebook to get an approximate head count, and with barely a week to go the “Going” and “Interested” numbers were well under 20% of the 800 necessary to fill the hall. Could we locals who were helping get the word out perhaps devote a couple of hours to phone-banking, calling people up to tell them about the upcoming town hall?

The line stretched back to the front of the high school and then around it . . .

We locals mostly fudged it, in part because in mid-July most of our waking hours are already committed but mostly because we didn’t believe for a moment that it was necessary. We were convinced that an overflow crowd was far more likely than a half-full hall. Yeah, we got that the “optics” of a half-full hall would be a PR disaster: imagine how the Republicans would be crowing if their nemesis couldn’t fill a venue on bluer-than-blue Martha’s Vineyard in the summer!

. . . and up to the front doors.

We were right. The event was scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m., with the doors opening at 9:30. When I arrived at 9:15, I snagged one of the very last available parking places in the very large high school lot and the line stretched from the not-yet-open doors of the Performing Arts Center all the way back to the front of the school and then around the corner. I checked at the table out front to make sure that a friend needing assistance had managed to get in (she had), then started walking toward the end of the line, greeting the many people I knew en route. Before I got that far, I fell in with friends.

Soon the line started moving. It moved in batches: the staffers inside were both counting people and keeping an eye on the number of empty seats. The banked “stadium” section at the back was cordoned off till the orchestra section was filled. It was close to capacity when my group arrived. We didn’t see five seats in a row anywhere, so we moved the cordon out of the way and occupied the front row of the house-right side of the stadium section.

People kept coming in. The organizers set up two rows of chairs in the wide space between the two sections — then they started setting up chairs in the foyer. This is what the place looked like just before the event started:

This morning the Facebook event page reports that 214 went and 226 were interested. Yeah, right! 😉

According to the Martha’s Vineyard Times report:

There were 1,000 people inside, 150 listening in the lobby, and another 150 people who couldn’t get in got a private audience with Sen. Warren before she came into the school, state Sen. Julian Cyr said in introducing Sen. Warren: “I feel so fortunate and blessed we have someone so interested in talking to people who couldn’t get in the door.”

I expect the whole event will be available on MVTV and/or YouTube before long. Will post links as available. Suffice it to say, the senator is a dynamo and the crowd left even more energized than they came in.

Sorry about the fuzziness — my little point-and-shoot was at the brink of its zoom capacity, but here’s our senior U.S. senator onstage.

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Street Fair

The Tisbury Street Fair takes place every year on July 8, a date I remember because it was my father’s birthday. From 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Main Street and Union Street are closed to traffic, shops and nonprofits set up tables along the sidewalks, bands play live music at both ends of the street, and long lines gather at the booths where food is sold.

It’s the sort of event you look forward to when you’re new on the island but then it sort of fades from your psychic map. During the almost five years I lived off Skiff Ave., in the mid-2000s, I sometimes strolled into town to check out the street fair with Rhodry, who was well behaved in crowds and always attracted plenty of admiration. Trav is not at his best in new situations, and besides, we live up the road in West Tisbury.

This year was different. As I blogged last month, I’ve fallen in with Democrats. For years now Cathy Brennan has done an MV Dems table at the Tisbury Street Fair. Usual practice was to focus on election years, when there’s lots of campaign literature to be handed out, but as non-election years go, 2017 is proving pretty unusual, possibly unique, so it was decided that a table might be a good idea. I volunteered to help.

Cathy has the routine down and had the table set up before I showed up. Here we are:

Cathy on the left, me and my hat on the right. Photo by Kim Hilliard.

Jay Gonzalez, Setti Warren, and Bob Massie — the three names on the sign at left — are the three Democratic candidates who’ve declared so for the the 2018 Massachusetts gubernatorial primary. We heard them speak at the Democratic State Convention last month, and Cathy brought home their literature to pass out.

State rep Dylan Fernandes listens to Mass. attorney general Maura Healey speak at the July MV Dems meeting. Photo by me.

Maura Healey, featured on the sign at right, is our state’s attorney general. She gave a rousing speech at the convention. I’ve now got her bumper sticker on my car. It says

MAURA HEALEY
THE PEOPLE’S LAWYER

As it happened, she and our state representative, Dylan Fernandes, had been the guest speakers at the MV Dems monthly meeting that morning. They both talked about what they and their offices were doing, at the state house and on the legal front — Healey has been a leader in the legal battle against the Trump administration’s many excesses, and other Democratic state attorneys general across the country have also been on the front lines.

In the days since, several people have told me that they felt more encouraged and energized and inspired after that meeting than they have in months. I get it: I did too, and still do.

The gloom-and-doomery out there is contagious. Social media is a hotbed of generalizations about how screwed up the country is, how stupid Trump supporters are, how clueless and/or corrupt the Democratic Party is. You try to keep your guard up but it gets to you anyway.

So it’s encouraging and energizing and inspiring to listen to elected officials doing important work in the real world, and to be reminded how demanding that work is, and how change doesn’t happen overnight. At the street fair I had conversations with people from an array of states, among them Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Maine, and people from across Massachusetts. I learned a little more about what’s happening where they live; they learned a little more about year-round Martha’s Vineyard.

One guy noticed the I’M WITH HER button on my hat and said, “I’m still with her.” It made my evening.

Summer money lures Democratic politicians from all over the country to Martha’s Vineyard for big-ticket fundraisers. The cheapest option is usually $500. The ridiculous cost of campaigning, made worse by the Citizens United decision, makes these big-ticket events inevitable. Those able to afford them wind up with face-to-face access to candidates and officeholders, while the rest of us are little more than faces in a large crowd.

This is not to knock large crowds. I’m planning to be a face in the crowd that turns out this Saturday morning to hear Elizabeth Warren, our senior U.S. senator, at the high school’s Performing Arts Center.

But officeholders like Maura Healey, who speak to relatively small groups and stick around for coffee afterwards, are so refreshing, and effective representation in state legislatures is so important. In Massachusetts a state rep represents on average about 40K people, a state senator about 160K. The house districts in particular are not large, at least not in population.* Elect a real representative and the chances are excellent that you’ll be able to establish a face-to-face connection even if you never contribute to a campaign.

  • Dylan did note that a colleague of his from western Mass. has been heard to complain that his district is so big it takes two hours to drive across it. To this Dylan replied that it took two and a half days to get across his district, which includes the Vineyard, Nantucket, and part of Falmouth (on the mainland). He spends so much time on the boat that the Steamship Authority should give him office space — or maybe a berth.
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