An old fogey looks back


The death of my father forced us to sell one of our Vineyard properties. Certainly a luxury problem, as they were inherited from my grandmother, who bought them in 1955.

To the old farmhouse she added a screened-in porch, simple Yankee frugality that characterized the Island in that era. My parents later closed in the porch to winterize it, replacing the screens with windows and adding a chimney.

With my parents’ deaths, we are again remodeling. That small porch with the windows alone is costing $40K, and taking out the chimney. This is a small room. I remember when you could build a small house for $40K.

In the 1950s the appeal of the Island was that land was inexpensive and building codes practically nonexistent. Beach houses were glorified fishing camps. Labor was as it is today — should I say more?

Like many, I fell in love with the Island as a child, but grew to hate it as an adult. I should qualify that by adding it’s a love-hate. Not just hate, because when I arrive in the morning I’m hating the place for making me come back to it, but loving it by the end of the day. I’m not complaining about the building codes today, as I do not miss knowing when those living in beach houses flushed their toilets. Outhouses on the Island were common in the ’50s. Now a composting toilet will run almost $20K for installation.

Still, life has changed dramatically everywhere in the past 60 years. The Island was first in losing its farms and organic businesses, like blacksmiths and boat builders. The rest of the country followed later, offshoring first its manufacturing, then tech jobs.

The mother killed in front of her children and husband near Five Corners while riding a bicycle a few years ago was a harbinger of unregulated growth. We have narrow streets with no room for bikes and traffic, alongside even narrower sidewalks with signs reading “MA law says no bikes on sidewalk.” The woman was crushed under the wheel of a truck after she fell off her bike in traffic moving less than 5 mph.

Just as red-light districts in South America used to be outside the city limits until the cities expanded to encompass them, so has the Steamship Authority’s Vineyard Haven ferry landing morphed into a fuel depot. What used to be bottles of fuel carried on trucks has become a dedicated ferry loaded with a mixture of a couple of hundred tons of jet fuel, gasoline, propane, and fuel oil. It loads and unloads alongside the passenger ferry that carries upwards of a thousand people. It’s affectionately called the “bomb boat” by workers unwilling to complain for fear of losing their jobs. Meanwhile, passengers are as oblivious to the danger lurking on the Island as those who rent mopeds.

$40K for windows on an old screen porch, and just down the road there’s a fish camp that grew into a mansion, that had to be moved back from the water’s edge. As a child I remember the old fogeys complaining about the state of the universe. Now I am one, and finally understand why the old farts groused as they did.

Still, those $40K windows sure look nice, and I walk or ride my bike on the sidewalks near Five Corners, in spite of what the signs say. And I don’t ride the ferry when the bomb boat is running.

Stephen Jones