A better place

Finding home in an Oak Bluffs shanty.


As a writer, you end up living in some creative places — a couch, a garage apartment, and if you’re lucky enough to be Kato Kaelin (O.J. Simpson’s now infamous sidekick), a pool house in Southern California. So when my girlfriend suggested we move to Martha’s Vineyard and take up residence in her family home, bells went off in my highly conditioned mind.

I had been to the Vineyard before — once in college and maybe once after that. Living off the largess of friends’ parents, croquet was de rigueur, barbecues on the long, sprawling lawns, nighttimes under starry skies and shingled pergolas.

I played it cool (even though I felt like the catbird who had eaten the canary) and begrudgingly agreed to “give it a try.” Escaping New Jersey was like breaking out of Alcatraz, the ferry scenic, if not sublime, and the light and air upon arriving on-Island was something on the order of celestial good breath.

“I’ve really stepped in it this time,” I said to myself. Maybe my grandma was right, that I did have a guardian angel and things would turn up roses in the end.

We ambled up New York Avenue, detouring to see the “Jaws House,” and I wondered which of these majestic Cape Codders I would soon call home. We pulled into a compound with a large residence and a “she-shed” to boot.

“I could turn that into my office,” I plotted.

There was a shack across the cul-de-sac with a plaid couch on the front porch, and I feared we’d be living next to the Clampetts. But hey, they were probably good people.

“Meet you inside!” I grabbed my not-yet-monogrammed L.L.Bean bag and made a beeline for the home I thought we were moving into. That’s when it hit me.

“Honey …” The familiar tones rung out. “Not that one. This one.”

As fate would have it, my new residence on-Island was not the attractive beach house next door, nor even its she-shed. It was not overlooking Aquinnah Cliffs, or tucked away in the West Tisbury woods.

Nope, yours truly had left the comforts of home (if New Jersey can be called that) and arrived at an old gray shanty that appeared to be caving from the inside out.

“Do you want to see the ‘man-hut’?” my girlfriend inquired.

“The man-hut?” I wondered. “Is she going to put me in a doghouse?” It was a cabin, set back on the property, with no electricity or plumbing. Apparently, my girlfriend’s brother had lived in this edifice full-time for many summers.

This was my introduction to the Island, and it only got more … interesting from there. The house had no power, no people, no heat, no hot water. The basement was thick in cobwebs, and I was sure that human remains could not be far. There were two heaters — the old one, and the really old one — the latter of which still boasted a shovel and coal. Something was wrong with the sink, and the shower, and the front steps, and the landscaping — which one could only describe as “spaghetti Western fabulous.”

If that wasn’t enough, the ceiling sprang a leak.

“It’s the flange,” reported the workman.

“What’s a flange?” I wanted to ask, but pretended to know. “Oh.”

Whatever it was, it cost $600. Soon enough, I was broke, living on an Island, and attempting to work from home without becoming Jack Nicholson from “The Shining.”

I slipped into a depression. Me and the girlfriend fought. But then everything changed one perfect Vineyard morning when my one friend from the Oak Bluffs Inn, Erik Albert, stopped by to check out the new digs.

“This is awesome,” Erik exclaimed, and I looked at the house again, with second eyes.

“Look at the light in here,” his wife Rhonda remarked, stepping into the dining room with its vintage table and chairs.

In the weeks that followed, I adopted a new precept: “If life gives you Vineyard, make Vineyard-ade,” and things began to change. Granted, we now had power and heat. The shower? Still a work in progress. But I had come to understand the Erik’s subtle point: Maybe there was beauty here that I was missing.

After that, the house took on a more amiable edge. Generations had lived and died here, and relics were scattered not only in the basement, but in unannounced closets and drawers.

The front porch had a few loose boards, threatening to send the UPS man to purgatory, but the couch was awfully comfortable. The shingles needed a shine, but were sturdy. And the light and the air …

Ever since that turning point, the Island has become so much more friendly. Or is it me? The house is “rustic,” but I’ve come to embrace pioneer living. And the girlfriend and I? Well, we’re getting along too.

We committed $1,000 to renovations and macked out the living room to make it more “hygge” (a Danish word for cozy). We bought a shag rug, a chair, and augmented the front “lawn” with native rocks. We even have a jackalope (a mythical garden creature) to add a little panache. I’m writing in that sun-filled room.

Sure, the plumber doesn’t call back, the oil doesn’t last long, and it’s still a little solitary at times, but there’s nothing wrong with this house. I would still be me whether I was here, or in the she-shed, or the man-hut, or my friends’ parents’ home from way back then.

Maybe it’s a cliché, but home really is where you make it. I didn’t move into a mansion, but I did end up in a better place.

House redesign and work in progress by Caroline Peckar.