Anthropologists call them social nodes — the places where a community’s social cement is stirred, where folks get to know each other during the spontaneous expression of life’s routine. Our churches, libraries and town halls serve this purpose, of course, but so do more informal locations like our parks, walkways, forest trails, beaches and general stores. Recently the Gazette documented the usefulness of a number of such stores in promoting sociability among their patrons — Alley’s General Store, Chilmark Store, Katama General Store and Menemsha Market (I would add Tony’s Market in Oak Bluffs). These are more than centers of commerce — they are places where we pause in the course of our days to chat and reaffirm friendliness with our neighbors. Tourists are welcome as well and from at least anecdotal evidence they are drawn by the feeling of authentic warmth that emanates from those Islanders who mingle there. It is this commingling of commerce with general society that makes this Island special — places where you are just as likely to buy something as to make a new friend. The proprietors of such places are very aware of their role in the community and it is one of their motives for being in business. “I think it’s the main gathering place in town for friends to meet and that makes it special in my opinion,” says William Rossi of the Chilmark Store. “I’ve seen many, many friendships form here and develop.”
Everyone is familiar with places like the Chilmark Store, but many social nodes are less well known — hangouts for habitués, they pass under the visual screen of the casual passerby. Such a place in Oak Bluffs is Inkwell Beach. One morning, relatively early, I paused by the beach to take photographs and, by chance, got to talking with a gentleman dressed in a wetsuit. We were soon joined by two women and another man who are, I learned, members of the Oak Bluffs chapter of the Polar Bears. “Come swimming with us,” they suggested. So I did. Here is an informal group with a conscious inclusivity – “anyone can join,” they told me, “you just pay the dues. Five dollars.” The Oak Bluffs bears swim together most every day and, on Mondays, they join at Inkwell to share a potluck breakfast of gargantuan proportions. After our communal swim, we paused in the sun to chat. Soon others joined — nonbears — bike riders, strollers, runners. Here is a perfect example of the Island’s informal society — and of a social node.
Some nodes like the one at Inkwell are constant, others are sporadic. The shipyard, for example, is a place of industrial activity little noticed as we drive by except for the occasional pause as we wait for a boat tomove across the road. Yet here too, on occasion, we find a tight knot of folks joined in sociability — the recent fete for the launching of Rick and Chrissie Haslet’s ketch Destiny comes to mind. The event drew hundreds of people and was accompanied by champagne, food, speeches and music. Everyone was welcome. And the next day Destiny lay alongside the pier for inspection by anyone curious enough to find their way down to the harbor, stimulating much visiting and hurrahing by the maritime crowd. Gannon and Benjamin shipyard is another such place.
On any Vineyard day the Island’s social nodes are so tremendously varied as to stimulate consternation. A dozen or so galleries may be opening simultaneously. During the summer, strollers in Oak Bluffs throng the roadway between Pik-Nik Studio, Dragonfly and the galleries of Lucinda Sheldon and Allison Shaw. Similar passagiattas are held in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. Up-Island crowds jostle at the Artisans Fair, the flea or the farmers’ market. Books are read, poetry recited, plays put on, movies shown, lectures given. Both Island papers devote many pages to such events.
Social scientists like to measure things — how else to make a science of what is inherently gossamer? They might attempt to define a place as sociable or not, for example, by the number of informal, nonexclusive meeting places that are charged with social potential. By such a measure as this we Vineyarders are a lucky lot indeed.
Sam Low lives in Oak Bluffs and contributes frequently to the Gazette.