Essay: Heading to America? Think about it.


Living year-round on Martha’s Vineyard can blunt the common instincts that in the greater world aid in day-to-day survival. Occasional journeys to the continent may be bruising, but they can also smarten us up. A trip off-Island last week did just that.

My wife and I drove off the noon ferry Island Home Thursday in Woods Hole just as the first wind-whipped flurries fell, signaling the approach of a major winter storm barreling toward Martha’s Vineyard. Our original plan was to leave the Vineyard Friday morning, but we moved up our reservation because we expected the ferries might not run. We did not want to miss our first off-Island trip in months just for the purpose of fun, as opposed to trips for car repairs or complex dental work, both equally painful and expensive.

I exited the ferry, turned left and drove up Railroad Avenue, well known by Islanders as the side street with convenient metered parking spots from which to make a quick dash into the Pie in the Sky Bakery or the adjacent Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank branch office. Woods Hole is only slightly less desolate in January than the Vineyard, and I had my choice of parking spots.

I left Norma in the car with the motor running while I ran into the bank to stock up on cash for the weekend. The whole transaction, including pleasant conversation with the teller, took about five minutes. I left the bank and was surprised to see a Falmouth police car parked behind our car. The cruiser’s window was down and the officer, a man who looked to be in his forties, was holding a pen and a ticket book while staring at the license plate of our aging Honda CRV.

One of the risks of not going off-Island very often is that brain neurons follow familiar patterns. So it took me a moment to grasp what the officer was doing as I crossed the street.

“Are you writing me a parking ticket?” I asked him in a tone that mixed surprise with incredulity.

The police officer looked up at me. Did you put money in the parking meter, he asked, obviously certain of the answer. “Think about it,” he added.

“Think about it?”

I thought to myself that the snow is falling, it is January, and you drove up and parked behind me to write a ticket because I did not put a quarter in the parking meter. I did not share those thoughts.

I explained that I had just run into the bank for five minutes. I pointed out that my wife was sitting in the car and the motor was running.

The police officer asked me if I saw a sign that allowed for live parking. “Think about it,” he said.

I thought to myself that this police officer must be very frustrated or very bored if all he could find to do on a bleak Thursday afternoon was lurk in Woods Hole and ease up behind a car to write a parking ticket while a passenger sat inside.

It was not the money. It was not the meter. Had we parked and left, I would know it was a gamble. It was the concept.

Most of my interactions with police on Martha’s Vineyard are pleasant. I have had Island police let me know that it was time to get an inspection sticker, one of those details it is easy to overlook. Daily, I listen to the police scanner in The Times office. I would guess that the majority of calls involve police assisting people — lock outs, medical runs, checking on alarms. In a similar situation on the Island, should we have parking meters, I would half expect the officer, should he or she even be concerned, to ask if I needed the quarter.

I repeated that my wife was sitting in the car. But she was not sitting in the driver’s seat, the officer said, was she? “Think about it,” he said again for emphasis.

I thought to myself that the man with the shaved head speaking to me was probably capable of growing a full head of hair but favored a style popular with international private security contractors, but I was not about to share those thoughts. I said nothing. I did not have to, my attitude said it.

At that point the officer had a choice. He could stop writing or he could complete the ticket and admit without saying a word to me or himself what we both knew.

I did not receive a ticket. When I joined my wife in the car, she told me that while I was in the bank the same officer drove up next to an occupied car that had stopped in a metered spot. The officer looked at the meter, backed up behind the car, then got out and handed the driver a ticket.

When you’re not on Martha’s Vineyard any more, and especially before you park in Woods Hole — even for a few minutes — take the cop’s advice and think about it.

Nelson Sigelman is managing editor of The Martha’s Vineyard Times and an infrequent traveler to the mainland.