A vagabond’s journey

Holly Nadler’s “The Hobo Diaries: Down and Out on Martha's Vineyard.”


Holly Nadler’s new memoir, “The Hobo Diaries: Down and Out on Martha’s Vineyard,” is a zany, rollicking tale about her vagabond journey from the spring of 2018, when she gives up her year-round apartment on the Island (even though everyone pleaded with her not to do it) through fall of 2019. 

As a writer and reporter, Nadler has such credits to her name as television scripts for “Laverne and Shirley” and “One Day at a Time,” articles for national magazines including Cosmopolitan, Lear’s, and Women’s World, as well as six published books about the Vineyard and her writing for The MV Times. Nadler narrates her short, pithy chapters in an often irreverent, conversational tone that is full of quips and immensely amusing asides in a stream-of-consciousness manner.

“This is different from my other books, because I knew that the misadventures were following one upon the other, and that I should write it all down,” Nadler says. “I started right away because I knew it was going to be an odd period.” The book is an intimate view of all the hoops she had to jump through to find a place to call her own. She sets the stage on the first page:

I don’t know what I’m doing, but whatever it is, it’s gonna be all right. Or not.

See, I’m moving. The deal on moving, nowadays, on the Island, is that if you’ve got a roof over your head, you hold on to it with bloody fingernails … even as the landlord who sold the digs out from under you is having you evicted by a team of draught horses. And why are you hanging on?

Because you will NEVER EVER find another place, not a treehouse, not a shed, not anywhere on this five-star Island …

I’m 70 years old. An inconvenient age at which to become homeless.

I don’t even own a car, so that’s homelessness squared.”

We follow Nadler and her endearing Boston terrier Huxley as she goes from one possibly promising abode to another — each has its challenges, many of them stemming from the humans involved. But not all. My particular favorite is a tiny, lilac-walled “unplumbed Cinderella cottage,” which is enchanting except for the fact that it has no running water and a composting toilet. 

In addition to her many different abodes, Nadler treats us to the ins and outs (emphasis on outs) of having agreed to run the Book Barn on New York Avenue in Oak Bluffs. This two-story, musty, moldy barn stuffed full of old and rare tomes turns out to be haunted. Nadler writes about descending the steps from the second floor and being assaulted: 

I’m genuinely manhandled … and flipped outward, flying like Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist,’ before my trajectory is stopped, abruptly and with teeth-rattling pain, by a cladding-wrapped metal spoke jutting out from a magazine rack set high on a side table.

I’m stabbed.

I clutch my ribcage and fall to my knees on the floor … You don’t get tossed around by unseen forces to not know you’ve got poltergeists on your hands, or, to put it mildly, a very sick bookstore.

Over the course of Nadler’s journey, she also gifts us with an up-close-and-personal perspective of what it’s like to deal with chronic depression with honesty and a supreme sense of humor. Likewise, in addition to important friends who are there for her, we meet Nadler’s immediate family, which includes her beloved son Charlie and his father, Marty, an ex with whom Nadler gets along well. The relationships with her sister, brother, and especially her mother pose more of a challenge. 

Nadler’s itinerant life continues when she leaves the Island for several seasons to be with her impossible and dementing 98-year-old mother in California. She also stays for a month in Edinburgh, where she’s banished from a retreat on the Holy Isle, and eventually returns to the Vineyard.

Nadler reflects near the end of the book:

“So did I grow?

A year and a half on the Vagabond Trail, after a life of one long Vagabond Trail, might have kicked some sense and strength into my princess-y backside. And did it?

I don’t know.

Maybe I learned nothing …

But wait.

I am, hand to heart, stronger, bolder …

And this new stronger part I like, that part where inside my silly 71-year-old, frail, rickety hide, Popeye eats his spinach and boing-a-boing, his biceps expand in a way that gets Olive’s eyes telescoping.”

In a recent interview, Nadler shared, “I feel that through all the challenges that we meet in life, we discover how resilient we are. And we look back and think, ‘Wow, I made it through that, and I learned how to do this while I did that.’ I think it’s very healing and life-affirming that we can make it to the other side. You can learn how strong you are.” 

She adds, “Life throws challenges at us to teach us to be more spiritual.” We can see this important aspect in this excerpt of beautiful writing at the end of “Hobo Diaries”:

“So what have I learned? I’ve learned that if I remember to wrap God’s pure cashmere cloak around me, a cloak that lets in cool breezes in summer and warmth from the softest-of-soft weaves in the winter, then it doesn’t matter where I live or roam or visit or come back to …

The tender Cashmere Embrace is all that matters, all that IS … If I take some moments to magically, invisibly share that feel of God’s cloak against your cheek, your shoulders, then all’s perfect, for now.”

“The Hobo Diaries: Down and Out on Martha’s Vineyard” by Holly Nadler. Ozark Mountain Publishing, 158 pages. $15. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, and online.