Around 1983, when I was still living in D.C., I read a story in (IIRC) the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine about the housing situation on Cape Cod. Landlords wanted to get top dollar during “the season” (usually June through September), so the “winter rental” was born: you could move in around October 1, you had to be out by May 31 at the latest, but the rent was affordable, i.e., in sync with local wages, which summer rents emphatically were not.
The story was about the people who as a result had to move twice a year. For families with children, this meant moving at both the end and the beginning of the school year, and who knew if your next winter rental would be in the same town as your last one?
I was appalled. How could people live like that? What kind of greedy, heartless bastards were those landlords?
Then I moved to the Vineyard. Within a couple of years it all seemed normal. I moved eight times my first three years here. I was one of the lucky ones: I had a place to go in the summer, plus I was single, child-free, and unencumbered by Stuff. Nevertheless, my first spring was pretty much ruined because I started obsessing about moving around March 1. By the second spring, I had it down: I’d start packing two or three days before I had to be out. It made for a miserable two or three days, but I got my spring back.
Each summer, it was “If I can find a winter rental, I’ll stay till spring,” and each winter it was “If I have a place for the summer, I’ll stay till fall.” Eventually I lucked into a series of year-round rentals. I’ve been in my current apartment (which is designated “affordable” under my town’s bylaws) for 11 years, but I’ve still moved 12 times in not quite 33 years.
Since leaving his home kennel, Travvy has lived in one place his whole life, but Rhodry had four homes in his 13 years, not counting the farm where he was whelped.
Probably my #1 claim to Vineyard fame is that I once managed to find an affordable year-round rental in May, and with a dog. In the spring of 2002, my young, possibly narcissistic landlady told me I had to get out of my two rooms (one for sleeping, one for working) because she’d found a guy who was willing to redo her roof cheap in exchange for a place to live.
To my delight, the deal fell through after I’d moved out. She lost a reliable tenant and didn’t get a new roof.
The place I found — through the grapevine, of course — wasn’t legal (it was the second story of a one-family house whose official occupant lived on the ground floor), which means it didn’t have a stove. I couldn’t bake bread, but for almost five years I managed to feed myself with a hot plate and a microwave, doing my dishes in a little bar-type sink.
It couldn’t happen today. The housing situation is so bad now that the 1980s, ’90s, and even early ’00s look halcyon. My neighbor, who knows the island’s housing crisis probably better than anyone else, told me the other day that you can’t find a year-round lease on Martha’s Vineyard these days for any amount of money.
How has housing affected my writing? Let me count the ways . . .
Here are sonnets V and VI from “Winter Rental,” a six-sonnet sequence I wrote in the spring and summer of 1986:
V. Clearing Out
There’s no housecleaning thorough as the one
I give a place I’m leaving. Every act
is charged as sacred dance and must be done
with care. My desk dismantled, memories packed
in cartons, is a disconnected brain;
it’s tough to write without it. Sorting clothes
by season isn’t hard, or flushing drains,
but mere intent to start the kitchen slows
my steps to creeping sludge. A heart beats here:
I know it, know it lives and has no faith
in transport or revival somewhere clear
across the island. Change is never safe.
I’m bleeding too; the sloughing off makes clear
it’s spring, there are no nesting places here.
VI. On Being a Year-Round Tenant in a Summer Resort
The planet’s very axis must be skewed
to make these lopside seasons. Here it’s spring
yet we prepare to pull our winter roots
and move again. Relentless summer flings
the unattached before it, so we cling
like barnacles to shells, or learn to ride
the tidal wave like surfers. Skirts aswing,
the wily serving maid will be my guide.
She runs another’s errands, filches time
to walk the ancient ways, but always turns
chameleon when the master comes. So I
conduct myself, for something in me yearns
to root in sand, no longer wondering that
the year-round folk are taciturn and mad.
The following winter, when I read the whole “Winter Rental” sequence at Wintertide Coffeehouse (which was at the youth hostel that year), a woman came up to me afterwards to tell me that she and her kids moved twice a year and this was the first time she’d heard anybody write about it. That might have been the moment I decided, or realized, that writing about the year-round Vineyard was my calling.
The Mud of the Place pretty much began with the single mother of a school-age son who was being forced out of her rental because it had been bought by a hot-shot celebrity writer who wanted a summer home on the Vineyard. The two questions I asked each main character were “What are you afraid of?” and “Where do you live and how do you pay for it?”
It turned out, for instance, that Leslie Benaron, reporter for the Martha’s Vineyard Chronicle, lived alone in an impressive house on Lake Tashmoo. No way could she afford that on what the Chronicle was paying, so I pushed until she reluctantly admitted that she was living rent-free in the in-law apartment of a summer home owned by her parents. More prodding elicited the news that her father was an eminent journalist whose beat was the health-care industry and that Leslie feared she was a terrible disappointment to him. Wow. Was I glad I asked or what?