“Is the Menemsha sunset open yet?”
Yes, I was there, I can attest to it: This question was posed the other day by a young woman in a pink tee shirt.
Inside the information booth, 82-year-old Mike Aquille retained his look of dignified calm. “Menemsha is where it’s always been. The sunset takes place every evening on schedule.” I could see him pondering how to break it to the girl that this stuff happens naturally.
She nodded. “I was wondering if any, like, cafes are open?”
Something about being on holiday turns some people — perhaps geniuses on their home turf — into deer caught in the headlights. The questions they ask make us ponder, “Are we that hopeless ourselves on vacation?”
It doesn’t seem possible. Maybe there’s something about the boat ride over that disrupts their brain circuitry?
I had an encounter last March that made me think the coming summer would be a lollapalooza of trippy travelers. It was late afternoon, frigid — as many of you may recall — in the Campground, where I strolled with my dog. The joint was in winter lockdown, chock-a-block with empty gingerbread cottages everywhere you could shake a (filigreed) stick: a ghost town, as if on a long-ago visit, Queen Victoria sent everyone home to Chipping Campden.
A Japanese family of four tottered from the eastern edge of Trinity Park. They looked shaken.
The dad asked me in precise English, “What happened to this place? Why has everybody fled?”
I realized they thought this vacant village was a 19th-century Pompeii, lovingly preserved. What had driven folks from their welcoming porches? Drought? Locusts? Bubonic plague?
I assured them that by the time June rolled around, these cottages rocked with families, each with their complement of 89 guests.
They looked at me with relief, and then I recommended Slice of Life for lunch.
I enjoy sending visitors on their merry way. What would it be like, I wondered, to come to the aid of addled wayfarers for longer stretches of time? Would it bring out the milk of loving kindness? Or would it turn me into an old grump in the Mammy Yokum style?
To find out, I signed myself up for a stint inside the Oak Bluffs Visitors’ Booth at the base of Circuit Avenue, surrounded by all that cool stuff: Gio’s, the Flying Horses, the town thataway, harbor thisaway, seawall, and buses: Watch my arms directing you forward like a traffic cop’s.
Last Friday at 11 am sharp, I joined John Newsome for his shift. John, 74, said the kookiest question he’d ever fielded came from a lady who asked, “How do you get a cab to Quonset Point?” He gently explained that this particular destination lay far across the Sound. There was a boat. It just didn’t happen to be running that day.
People wash up here who don’t even know where they are. “How do I get to Martha’s Vineyard?” is a zinger that comes round from time to time. How deep of a coma were they in — or how stoned — when they traveled over?
This reminds me, when I first visited the Vineyard with Marty Nadler in April 1976, we sat huddled in a booth at the old bowling alley in Vineyard Haven (yep, there was one!), and an old-timer told us that, back in the ’60s, a couple of thugs from Boston hitched a ride down to the Cape, robbed a liquor store, skedaddled over to the beach, stole a motorboat and, while they thought they were zipping along the shore, crash-landed on Martha’s Vineyard. The felonious bozos hot-wired an old Ford and drove it around and around until finally they were arrested. The crooks said, “If only we coulda found I-95, we’d’a been outa here!”
Back to the Visitors Booth, John told me the most common questions:
Where are the bathrooms?
What’s a good lunch place?
What should we do?
For restaurant tips, he plays each one by ear. “If they’re seniors from Ohio, I send them up to Linda Jean’s.” For a water view and a $24 lobster roll, he steers them to the Lookout, instructing them, ‘If your waitress is Linda, tell her Tiny sent you!’”
He tries to discourage people from renting mopeds. “I tell them they’re dangerous, and I also say, ‘People won’t like you.’”
He recalls a tourist who once asked, “Where’s the expressway to Nantucket?”
In earlier times, people wanted to know where the Kennedys convened. Nowadays that’s a moot question.
All the guys I hung out with at the booth, including John, Mike, and the 88-year-old manager, Bob Falkenburg, have been asked the inexplicable question, “How far is the water to the beach?” There was also the iconic, “Where’s Oopizland?, a misreading, of course, of up-Island.
All three guys agreed that some people come to our town without any sense of history. When they’re told about the Campground and its fairyland of Victorian cottages, they look perplexed. I shared with them my theory: A fair amount of Americans live in suburban subdivisions surrounded by strip malls, each with four or five franchises. A town like ours of century-and-a-half-year-old houses is inconceivable to them. They know the architecture looks, well, peculiar. They might reckon the façades are shipped in from Disney World, then banged up to look a little older.
But tourists’ questionable grasp of history aside, I loved working at the booth. I even asked Bob to plug me in whenever he needed a substitute. The travelers they assist are so inexpressibly dear, of all ages, from all nations, as they flock from the ferry to the window with a look of pure hope and joy on their faces. What should we do? Where should we go?
We try to break it to them gently that they’ve wandered into one of the most magical seaside resorts in the world. Well, I do. I’m a drama queen, so they get the whole spiel. John, Bob, and Mike are more low-key, but they send everyone to the Campground first for the Full Smackerola: “Just head up the street, and take a right at Sharky’s.”
You know what else was really cool? I LOVED hanging out with these guys! We gals say dudes are duds in the feelings department, but Mike had a moment of misty-eyed reflection as he spoke about his wife Karen shepherding him through a recent illness. Bob grew teary when he recalled a Menemsha sunset from a couple of years back (yes, it was open!): The sun descended on a rose-colored sea, and a guy on a cruise ship spoke through a megaphone: “All right, everybody, let’s give God a hand!”
The rest of the time in the booth, we swapped tall tales, laughed, got yelled at by buddies cruising past on Lake Street, or right behind us in that little cut-through. But most of the time, we helped people on their way. We made them happy. They made us happy.
Nice work if you can get it.