I’ve been thinking about homelessness.
What do I know about homessness? Relative to social scientists and social workers who work in the field, nothing. Relative to those who are or have been homeless, nothing. I’ve had only the most incidental experience with the field, as an occasional volunteer at soup kitchens and shelters, and as a volunteer grant-maker at the United Way and the Hartford Foundation. I read an occasional article, see an occasional TV news report, have an occasional conversation.
I want to tell you about our trip to Nantucket. I understand that in one sense what I have to say about Nantucket will sound like the myopic meanderings of a privileged white guy, blissfully unaware of the real world that challenges the homeless, the poor, and the disadvantaged in our country. Those less fortunate aren’t going to Nantucket. I’m blessed to have the life I have. I understand that my position of privilege shapes my view of the world, but it’s the only perspective I have.
Carolyn and I went to Nantucket last week to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We took the ferry from New Bedford on Monday afternoon, caught a cab to the airport to pick up a rental car, and drove to the hotel we had booked for three nights. (I’m not one to leave for vacation without knowing, in advance, where I’m staying every night I plan to be away.)
After we checked in, we followed what over years of marriage and travel together has become a familiar routine: We surveyed and explored the room. It was lovely and quite nice for a three-night stay. Comfortable bed with night tables on both sides, a generous loveseat in one corner, a clean and fully functional bathroom with plenty of towels. TV and WiFi. Two (not one) luggage racks in the closet, along with an iron and ironing board that we never touched. We unpacked, stowing our clothes in a lovely dresser and the full-sized closet. We deployed our toiletries. In other words, we made that room our home.
We relaxed for a half hour and went out to dinner. There are a lot of good restaurants on Nantucket; we went to the Sea Grille, and the food was excellent. Unique appetizers and entrees, excellently prepared and presented. Loved it.
We arose the next morning, a typical (for us) traveling morning, and headed out for the day. We explored the island, learning to drive Nantucket-style down the narrow, streets lined with old buildings, respecting the pedestrians and cyclists, cooperating with other drivers to make our way through town and out onto the roads that lead to the beaches and outer villages. It was a great day – had lunch at Millie’s (portions were large enough that the leftovers would become our dinner), checked out a few shops, spent a couple of late-afternoon hours on a nearly empty and seemingly endless beach, looking at the sky and the water, listening to the waves, talking and laughing.
As the day was ending, a little bit of the reality of our situation came back to mind. We were in a new place where we knew no one, on a nearly deserted beach (only one young family that was packing up to leave). We were in a somewhat remote place. We faced a climb, short but more difficult that I had anticipated, up and through the dunes, a drive on unfamiliar roads to a town with narrow streets.
Out on that beach, there was just the slightest feeling of insecurity, the feeling that makes travel an adventure. If several things went wrong, if we made some bad choices, we could have been facing the prospect of sleeping on the beach or in the vegetation that covers the dunes, or knocking on someone’s door for shelter, or finding a bench on the ferry dock. Still, we had functioning cell phones and a relatively new and operational automobile. We had credit cards. There was a touch of anxiety, but we were good.
The anxious feeling persisted until we closed the hotel room door behind us, until we were home. Then we could relax. We were secure for the night, in a place that was warm and safe and ours.
Wednesday was a lot like Tuesday. Leisurely morning, nice lunch, a drive through town, then out to explore other places and a final-night dinner at Galley Beach. That’s when the script changed. I wasn’t sure where the restaurant was (I don’t know when I ever will fully trust GPS), so I gave myself a lot of time to get there, forgetting that Nantucket is tiny – a more adventuresome couple might have walked there. We arrived early, so we were having a drink at the bar. I (not Carolyn) was mildly lamenting the fact that the weather wouldn’t allow for dinner on the sand, part of the allure of Galley Beach. It was overcast, fairly breezy, and rain was coming. Rain was coming because the remnants of Hurricane Ida were beginning to arrive on Nantucket.
I absent-mindedly checked my email and discovered the message announcing that due to the weather, Thursday’s ferry trips, including the voyage for which Carolyn and I had tickets, were canceled. I was invited to reschedule our return to the mainland on Friday. I responded by requesting tickets for Friday afternoon. That was the easy part.
Then the unsettling awareness arose that in a little more than 24 hours we would be homeless. We could sit and enjoy our dinner, knowing that when we were finished we could find our way back to the hotel and refuge. That meant there was no need to panic, not yet. But our priorities had changed. That night, the next morning, the next afternoon, top of mind would be finding a place to stay Thursday night. As each hour passed, that need would become more critical. We needed a place to stay.
Now is the time to return to my comment about being privileged. I understand completely that I’m talking about what boomers have come to call a first-world problem. The chances that Carolyn and I would in less than 36 hours be spending the night on a park bench or in a homeless shelter (does Nantucket even have a homeless shelter?) were slim and almost certainly none. We were going to be in a room somewhere on the island, with all of our belongings. We weren’t going to be cold or wet or hungry. At the very worst, we were going to be having one of those occasional adventures you have if you travel often, because things aren’t going to go as planned every time you leave home. So, no, I’m not equating our experience sitting at the bar as Ida approached with the experience of a homeless person. And I’m not equating it with the experience of those thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by Ida (or by the earthquake in Haiti) and who continue to suffer through lives with either no home or the most meager of temporary shelter.
What I am saying is that in the lives that most of us lead, we tend not to think much about the importance of having a home, because we always have one. Hurricane Ida allowed me to experience, momentarily and in the most benign way, how it feels to face the day not knowing where I would sleep that night, not knowing how I would keep my possessions with me. My intellect told me it would work out, but there was a touch of primal uneasiness about our circumstance.
From the bar, I emailed the hotel and got no response. We had a lovely dinner, protected from the wind and light showers by plastic shields unfurled and secured by our waiter (“isinglass curtains y’ can roll right down, in case there’s a change in the weather”). Back at the hotel, I checked the front desk and made a reservation for Thursday night. We might have to change rooms, but we’d have a roof and a bed and a bathroom. Fundamental problem solved, although a bit of the homeless experience lingered, because we would have to pack up our stuff and move from one shelter to another, as it were. I discovered that the Hertz website offered a simple way to extend the car rental.
The next morning, the front desk called and told us that they’d had a cancellation and we would be able to stay in our current room. With that call, we were officially removed from rolls of the most modestly homeless, and my emotional unease was gone. It was ridiculously mild and brief, but it was enough to remind me that I didn’t want to be homeless.
We didn’t particularly want or need another day and night on Nantucket, but if we were going to be stuck someplace on the globe not of our choosing, we were incredibly fortunate that Nantucket was the place. It would cost us some money that we’d rather not spend but hey, we’ll take it.
And then, almost as if all of this happened simply because the cosmos wanted to teach me a lesson, it was over. Literally minutes after the front desk clerk told us that we could stay in our room, another email from the ferry company arrived. In the past twelve hours, the storm had broken up and the threat of dangerous seas had subsided sufficiently so that the Thursday ferry would, in fact, run as scheduled. We rebooked our original tickets, canceled the Thursday-night room reservation, told Hertz we wouldn’t need the car that extra day, after all. That night, after another lunch at Millie’s, a half hour watching magnificent waves pound the beaches, a pretty bumpy ferry ride, and an uneventful drive from New Bedford, we snuggled up in our bed in Wethersfield, just as we always had planned.
There’s no place like home.