Jeremy Driesen — leaving New York


We sold our house in the New York City suburbs and rented an apartment in Manhattan. A few months later, COVID struck. As the situation quickly deteriorated, we decided it would be safest for the four of us to go to our Oak Bluffs house and give COVID “a little time to blow over.” But just as we made this decision, we saw that Islanders were posting online and asking summer residents to stay away. It stopped us dead in our tracks.

Was it unethical to go to the Vineyard? Was it selfish?

Jennie and I sat down with our two adult children and debated what to do. We totally understood the Islanders’ fears of off-Islanders coming to the Vineyard, and acknowledged we would feel the same way if we were in their shoes. Thinking of the greater good, was it better for us to stay in a place where emergency rooms and morgues were already overflowing, or was it actually more ethical to leave and ease the strain on those resources? As an Islander later pointed out to us, the greatest kindness we could have shown the people of New York City was to leave. If Martha’s Vineyard had been the epicenter of the pandemic, would Islanders have stayed in place, or sought refuge elsewhere?

This was our first pandemic, and it raised difficult questions of ethics, health, and survival. There were no easy answers. We came to realize that doing what was best for Manhattan and doing what was best for Martha’s Vineyard were mutually exclusive, so it came down to this: The Vineyard has long been one of our two communities and our sanctuary, and we needed that community and sanctuary now more than ever.

We set out for Martha’s Vineyard.

We picked up a carload of groceries along the way, stayed in the car during the ferry crossing, drove straight from the ferry to our house, and quarantined for two weeks. I never imagined I would ever do that many jigsaw puzzles in a row.

Arriving here was heaven, the perfect juxtaposition to the density and chaos of Manhattan. I could step out in my backyard and breathe. I didn’t have to worry about sharing common spaces with others. I could take long walks and usually not see another soul.

At the same time, I was troubled that some Islanders resented us being here. Of all things, I realized how lucky we were to have Massachusetts license plates on our cars. A friend with Connecticut plates told me some nasty stories about being harassed when Islanders spotted her out-of-state plates. An online commentator wrote that summer residents think they have a right to come here just because they pay property taxes (seriously, someone posted that). And so on.

The anti-outsider sentiment rankled. I felt defensive, and I silently rehearsed my Island bona fides from a previous year we spent here, just in case I needed them: I was a Chilmark firefighter, my wife worked at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, my kids attended the Chilmark School. We support local causes, and we pay property taxes. When did we become outsiders?

Being an outsider isn’t exactly new to me, whether it’s not being one of the cool kids at school, being Jewish, being ostracized by career firefighters during my 10 years as a volunteer firefighter in New York, or, most recently, Donald Trump asserting that I’m not a “true American” because I didn’t support him. I imagine we all feel like an outsider in some situations, but it’s hurtful to have people going out of their way to let you know you don’t belong.

We eventually realized that we weren’t going back to Manhattan anytime soon, so I negotiated a lease termination with our landlord. The plan had always been to make the Vineyard our permanent home one day, but the pandemic changed us from summer residents to year-rounders overnight.

Our COVID upheaval went beyond having to leave our home. My event production agency took a body blow, and had to give up its Manhattan office. My daughter had a job offer suddenly yanked away from her. My wife’s acting and modeling career was put on hold. Our son’s college told all students to stay home after spring break. I played over 60 gigs on drums here during the summer of 2019; I played all of six in 2020.

But the sweet offset to all the upheaval was our deepening involvement in the Vineyard community. My wife took a nursing job at the hospital once again, mainly administering COVID tests. Our son, a midshipman, served in the Coast Guard at Station Menemsha. I began doing photography for The Martha’s Vineyard Times, eventually ramping up to about a dozen assignments a month. It’s amazing how much better you get to know a community when you’re asked to photograph it.

For years now, I’ve made it my business to stop and acknowledge the things I’m grateful for. I reasoned that if life changed for the worse, I never wanted to say I didn’t appreciate what I had when I had it. I took the same cue in living with the pandemic: I focused on the things I was doing, rather than dwelling on those I no longer could do. I embraced my gratitude for a healthy family during a pandemic. I savored the relief that comes with sanctuary. COVID brought so much suffering to so many; I recognized how lucky I was, and that any problems I had were trivial in the grand scheme of things.

In spite of a challenging 2020, time has somehow flown by, and now a year has passed since we arrived here. Did we make the right decision in coming here? Yes, absolutely. The Vineyard has retained so much of what we love about it, in spite of the pandemic. Yes, there’s much I miss — playing live music, going to see my friends perform, hanging out at the Ritz, eating in restaurants, shaking hands, hugging friends, not having to treat everyone like they’re radioactive, and on and on. COVID has changed life for the worse, there’s no denying it, but I continue to be grateful for that which matters, my two amazing children and the strong marriage that has lasted over 27 years.

Pandemic, schmandemic: My cup still runneth over.