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Take My House, Please

Posted: 08/14/09 01:26 PM ET

Dear President and Mrs. Obama,

So I'm sitting in traffic here on Martha's Vineyard, trying to get downtown to buy those turquoise-colored poison pellets to kill the mice that drop their tiny doo-doos all over my kitchen counters, and it hits me, bonk!, like the apple on Mr. Isaac Newton:  The Obamas can have my house! You can have my house!

My house is just outside the town of Vineyard Haven. Our neighborhood is very scenic, in a wooded, country-lane kind of way, even though there is so much traffic on our country lane in the summer that you can't actually take a stroll on it. Take a stroll on it and you will be sideswiped by a Jeep Cherokee driven by a seventeen year-old boy from Greenwich who was absent the day in Driver's Ed they learned that driving while stoned, and "hit and run," are in fact bad things.

Our house is an old farmhouse, and it has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, except the shower in the upstairs bathroom doesn't work.  The shower per se works, but if you use it water streams from the ceiling down below into the living room, and then you have to stick a bucket underneath to catch the water. It's like living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, only with much lower property values. So please limit yourselves to the downstairs
shower. Thanks!

Speaking of the downstairs bathroom, sometimes the toilet doesn't flush. That's because that piece of wire that connects the bulb thing inside the tank to the rod thing sometimes comes unhinged. The wire is actually a replacement for the real piece of hardware; in fact, it's a bit
of coat hanger wire that our friend Augusta rigged up when the toilet broke years ago.  She got tired of waiting for our plumber, who promised to come and fix it but never did. Just lift the tank and hook it up again.

Try not to call our plumber unless it's an emergency. I'm afraid of our plumber, who barks at me, but plumbers call all the shots here. You do not want to rankle your plumber, because the other plumbers are all tied up, and then you won't have any plumber. Our plumber has been coming to our house longer than I have, which is twenty-six years, and he seems to think I am some kind of interloper, a Janey-come-lately.

"Jeff," I said on the phone when I asked him to come and turn the water on this spring, "I've known you for twenty-six years, and I'd like to ask you a favor."

"Depends what it is."

"I always call you by your name, and you never call me by my name, and I wonder if you could call me by my name."

"I know yah name!"

"Well, thank you for turning the water on," I said.

"All right," he said, and hung up.

Jeff's phone number is on the attached list of other repair and service people, who will not bark at you but will probably not come. They are too busy in August to come. Whatever the problem, you'll have better luck just fixing it yourself. Shirley's Hardware in Vineyard Haven is the place to go for any items you might need to do repairs. Don't mess with, or try to kid around with, the gals who work there. They don't like summer people too much. You'll go in and they will be talking and laughing with each other with gay abandon, and then they'll see you and their faces will turn to stone. "Yes?" one of them will say, stonily. It hurts your feelings a little, but who can blame them?Their summer days are filled with women like me running in one minute before closing time, straight from the beach and still in their bathing suits, a towel wrapped hastily around their waists, and, though they know better, demanding things Shirley's would never carry in a million years--herbal insect repellent, European coffee filters. Who wouldn't find us annoying? I find us annoying.

I think we've gotten rid of the mice in the kitchen, but if you get black ants, just go to SBS, the grain store, and ask for whatever you call the clear goo that you drop, like LSD, onto little square tabs of paper and leave all over your countertops. It's supposed to kill the ants. It doesn't, but it seems to disorient them so that they lurch in slow motion all over the counters and you can just smack them dead with your hand.

Please don't put off going to the dump. Don't say, "Oh, we just have a few days' worth of trash; it can wait." If the food trash is left for days, it will fester in the heat and humidity and smell to high heaven. Also, you'll get maggots. You don't want to know what a trash can full of maggots looks like. It's like a horror movie. Even bleach won't kill them--you pour a gallon of bleach into the trashcan and it only seems to excite them; they squiggle around in rapture.

Also: please don't forget to close the shed door tightly after you put the trash in the cans inside it. Otherwise raccoons or skunks will get in there and root around in the bins, and then they will or take up residence in the crawl space underneath the house and have their babies there. Republicans probably kill skunks and racoons with poison, but we Democrats do not! We call the Animal Control person and ask what to do. Sometimes the Animal Control person tells you what kind of humane trap to buy; once he told us to just take our radio and play really loud rock and roll music at the invaders. It worked! We blasted a raccoon family with Supremes songs one whole day, and killed two birds with one stone--they left, and it was festive, kind of like a party. You could try that.

Very important: Do NOT mix in the recyclables with the regular trash. Recycling is taken very seriously here, and has, thank goodness, been streamlined in recent years. Gone are the days when you had to separate your recyclables into twenty-seven separate bins: plastic shampoo bottles in another, plastic conditioner bottles in another, plastic mildew remover bottles in another, plastic mold remover bottles in another, plastic slug deterrent bottles in another. Dog food cans separated from soup cans separated from cocktail wienie cans. And the alcohol bottle recycling! Different bins for clear bottles, light green bottles, dark green bottles, brown bottles. It was like AA was sponsoring the alcohol bottle recycling, forcing people to revisit every drink they should have declined at Saturday night's party--not to mention the cozy nightcap at home that followed all those drinks, the nail in the coffin that has given them such a raging hangover here under the hot dump sun.

But I noticed it also had a reverse effect. For years, Sunday mornings at the dump were like being with a bunch of unrepentant juvenile delinquents, only all of them were middle-aged. Rich people and not, summer people and year-round people, would stand at the alcohol bottle bins and pitch them in harder than they had to. The glass would shatter against the other shattered glass. The throwers seemed to take pleasure in it. Smash, smash, smash, yes I did finish off the last third of that quart of vodka, that bottle of Sancerre, that Calvados that some houseguest left in l983, and what of it! Or maybe the smashing just cleared their heads.

Anyway, these days all you have to do for recycling is put bottles (alcohol and non-) in one bin, cans in another, and plastic bottles in another. Newsapers and paper papers and moldy paperbacks left out in the rain go in the Paper dumpster; cardboard in the Cardboard dumpster. Broken appliances (if, say, our toaster breaks again) are NOT refuse. Broken appliances can be brought in only every second Tuesday of the month, and you will be charged some horrible amount per appliance. So, if the toaster breaks again, just hold it down manually with your thumb while the toast cooks. Thanks for understanding.

You'll actually like the dump. Our dump has the Dumptique, a big shack where people bring their old toys, clothes, and John O'Hara novels, and other people take them, for free. The women who volunteer at the Dumptique, it is assumed, take the crème de la crème for themselves, but you'd be amazed at what they leave for the rest of us--Shetland sweaters, tennis toggery, real cast iron skillets. Once I scored a Perry Ellis Egyptian cotton button-down shirt for my husband, thrilled to have it because I had bought one like it for him years earlier. It wasn't until I got it home that I realized it was his old shirt. How it came to be there remains a mystery, like the Bermuda Triangle.

Vis a vis the beach. Our town beach is a beautiful bay beach. You do need a sticker for your car to park in the parking lot, but we didn't get a chance to get a sticker before you got here. Sorry. Actually, we tried to find the place to get stickers, but they changed it from Town Hall, which was right by the road, to the firehouse, which was hidden away on some back road, and we've lost track of where it is now. Anyway, if you find it, go ahead and get the sticker (much obliged!) If you can't, just use the beach before nine in the morning and after five at night, when you don't need a sticker at all. Dogs are allowed then too, and do they ever come. It's fun with the dogs! In August there are so many it's like a dog cocktail party out there, a dog mixer. Except sometimes they get in fights, and it's like a big dog rumble, like West Side Story.

If you want to go to one of the Atlantic Ocean-facing beaches, the ones with great crashing waves, you'll want to find someone with a beach key. The most breathtaking beaches on the Vineyard are owned privately, mostly by beach associations. Of course you can't "own" the sand and the seawater, but how people have gotten around that here is to get together and buy up the land that leads to the big-wave beaches. You get to the beaches by driving, forever, down long rutted dirt roads. Toward the end of the road is a big wide gate, and you need a key to unlock it and drive through. The keys for these beaches sell for up to $300,000. I'm not kidding; they really do cost that. It is a membership in perpetuity, but still, doesn't it just seem so wrong? And yes, it surely is ironic that this island so known for its history of liberal, even radical, vacationers has had most of its beaches tied up by them. And that nearby Nantucket, which we here snigger at for the pants with the spouting whales and other preppinesses, is an island of free beaches, open to all.

Anyway, even though those of us who deeply disapprove of the way beachfront has been portioned out are not above sucking up to others with keys, in the hopes that they will invite us to their beach, where we spend the whole day thinking for not one moment of how unfair it is that we are enjoying the spectacular beach while others are not. If you find a family willing to host you for the day, it's generally good etiquette to offer to bring the lunch. You want to be asked back, after all.

Although given the way it has been raining here, the whole beach enterprise may be a moot point. It rains all the time on the Vineyard. It rains and it rains, and then it's sunny for twelve minutes, and then it rains again. Earlier this summer, it actually hailed--big golf-ball sized chunks that pocked people's cars--while it rained. No one knows why we have such inclement weather, but we do. Matches will not light, charcoal briquettes will crumble into smeary bits, potato chips will become soft and pliable, like fine shoe leather. Towels retain that sour wet-towel smell, even after they come out of the dryer perfectly dry. We had a houseguest recently who reported that her bathing suit top stayed damp the whole time she was here, and she never even went in the water. (This reminds me: the "brisker"--it looked like a bread box, but it had a mild electrical charge that kept crackers and cereal crispy--has finally had to be taken to the dump after many years of service. I miss it so much. There were days I loved my brisker more than my family. But you can't find any briskers on the island anymore, for some reason, so you have to stuff all the crackers and cereal into the refrigerator, shoved in on top of the milk and orange juice. Then they fall out when you open the refrigerator door.)

On rainy days it's fun to go to Bunch of Grapes, the excellent bookstore in downtown Vineyard Haven, or into Edgartown to shop, or to the movies. It's just not that fun in August, when everyone else on the island is at the Bunch of Grapes and shopping in Edgartown and at the movies. Here is how it works with parking spaces: there are fourteen parking spaces in Vineyard Haven, for example, and 10,000 people competing for them. It's like musical chairs, only much, much worse. Instead, pick a sunny day to enjoy these activities, one of the sunny days when you can't find anyone to take you to their beach.

There are also crowd control and parking problems at the Farmers' Market, the Artisans' Fair, Agricultural Fair, the August fireworks, and all art gallery openings, so best to avoid them.

I probably don't have to tell you about tics and Lyme disease. But you might want to look up Tularemia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Stay out of any wooded areas, or paths through wooded areas, and don't hang out too long on the lawn, either. Stick to the roads. In your car.

Speaking of driving: We don't hold with traffic lights on the Vineyard; we think that if we have them, the island will seem too citified and lose its rustic appeal. Since traffic is in fact at Times Square levels all summer, intersections are very dangerous places indeed. There are no traffic lights, hence no right of way. Rumor has it that everyone is supposed to take turns at an intersections in a clockwise direction, but no one knows this for a certainty and anyway they don't care. People just muscle their way into the middle of the intersection, play chicken with the other cars, and give each other the finger.

The other thing you should know about traffic is that there seem to be many people every year who drive at 22 miles an hour. This is not for safety's sake; in fact, it's dangerous in the summer, because they are followed by a long tail of people forced to drive at a crawl behind them. If the person going 22 miles an hour stops suddenly, the fifteen cars behind him all collide, like dominoes. No one knows why these people drive 22 miles an hour, and it's not because they're old, either. You'd be surprised at how many people in their 40's and 50's are creeping along. My theory is that these are people in the midst of terrible, rancorous divorces, and hope that the spouse they now hate is somewhere in the line behind them.

Grocery shopping: We've had it with Cronig's, where a tomato costs twelve dollars. Now we go to Stop 'n' Shop downtown. Go before nine a.m. (parking, crowds). Dawn is a good idea.

Mail: Don't expect to get Fed Ex packages. The Postal Service seems to be run here as a kind of practical joke. For example, although our mailing address is Vineyard Haven, the village in the township of Tisbury, our house is actually in West Tisbury, another town. And the number on our mailbox keeps changing--for a long time it was 520; now it is 310. The numbers on either side of us are 215 and 448. 310 is the "rural route" number, and 440 is our "rural free delivery" number. Or something like that. My stepdaughter, to take another example, lives in Oak Bluffs, yet another town here, and has just been told by the post office that she will now have a Vineyard Haven mailing address, unless she is expecting a Federal Express package, in which case people should Fed Ex her at her same address, only in Oak Bluffs.

The post office workers seem to know how to make sense of this, but the rest of us cannot. Including the Fed Ex drivers, who must also deal with the rutted dirt roads through the woods, and the way one rutted dirt road will suddenly split, tentacle-like, into seven, with homemade signage that is no help at all (an arrow and the "name" of the house--"Squim-Squaw", 'The Swale"--posted on a tree). Fed Ex trucks can sometimes be seen pulled over to the side of the road. A Fed Ex driver I once gave directions to told me that when they cannot find a house after an hour or so of looking, the drivers just pull over and rest or nap or eat their lunch until their shift is done, and then tell their supervisor that they couldn't find it. Wouldn't you?

We hope you're happy with the house, and with the Vineyard. The key is under the heart-shaped rock next to one foot of the hot water heater, that big rusty tank next to the kitchen door. Don't touch the tank; it's about to tip over. And if it does, you'll have to bathe in Uncle Seth's Pond, the big public swimming pond next to our house. Uncle Seth is long gone, but the pond's ancient old snapping turtle is still there. The Animal Control guy says he can take off a finger, or a kneecap.

Yours,

Jenny Allen