A Dream to Bridge the Gap

He was a shrewd charmer, the late Art Buchwald. A compelling raconteur and writer, he became renowned worldwide. This gave him enormous social capital, capital he was not afraid to use at home on the Vineyard, most notably every year as auctioneer for the Possible Dreams Auction that raises money for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. The auction will take place without him again on Monday, settling in at its splendid new location in Ocean Park.

Like those bidders on whom the auction depends, Mr. Buchwald enjoyed a world of privilege, but unlike many others he knew in his heart what it meant to need such unglamorous services as Community Services provides — mental health and substance abuse counseling, disability services, early childhood help, programs to combat domestic violence. Art Buchwald’s mother was taken from him right after he was born and spent the rest of her life in a mental hospital; he never actually saw her. As a child, he bounced around among foster homes, he suffered rickets. As an adult, he suffered depression, found himself widowed and eventually in hospice. No wonder he did not hesitate to strong-arm bidders, both from the podium with friendly public shaming and from his home, where a week before the auction each year he would line up cocktails for invited guests before lining them up behind bids for one dream or another.

Art Buchwald embodied a bridge across the gap between those who call on Community Services and those who enjoy life’s riches, but there are plenty of other people who can take his inspiration to heart if they choose to do so. More people, new people, all of us need to reach across it in whatever ways we can, small or large. For some it may be spending twenty-five dollars to enter the auction grounds and enjoy the show, for others it may be spending tens of thousands for a good cause and a sensational experience.

The wealth gap nationwide is, according to Business Insider, worse now than at any time since the Roaring Twenties. One per cent of Americans have more than a third of the country’s wealth. The next third of the American wealth pie goes to only nine per cent of our citizens. Alarmingly, the bottom half of Americans split just two and a half per cent of the wealth in this country, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.

The Vineyard is a microcosm and magnification of that. Despite our many corporate and other celebrity Islanders, the fifteen thousand year-round residents of Dukes County make up the second poorest county in Massachusetts. Many of our challenges are inherent in any rural community, but they are compounded by a seasonal economy, the isolation and the very high cost of living.

More than six thousand people use the programs of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services each year; substance abuse discharges from its programs alone are twenty-one per cent higher than the state as a whole. This year, Community Services is hoping the auction will bolster a new day-patient program for recovering addicts who are leaving inpatient facilities to take the next step in their lives.

The Island Plan calls the widening financial and social gap a major challenge for this community. Income and real estate statistics show part of the financial picture. Anecdotal evidence fills in the rest. While this week some on the Vineyard dined with wait staff at the buzzer, delivering freshly flown in fish, it is likely a couple of people came in for three bags of donated nonperishable food from the Island Food Pantry, its coordinator Armen Hanjian said yesterday; the pantry has had already this season around 40 emergency calls on its food, though a few years ago, about half that number would do so in the entire summer, before the jobs disappear and the chill sets in and the food pantry opens for regular hours in October.

Culturally we are seeing changes too. Some seasonal residents stay for ever-shorter times; many feel less like Islanders than previous generations and take a less active role in Vineyard life despite the significant contribution of their tax dollars. A sizeable Brazilian population remains largely insular, whether because of language barriers, choice, or fear it is not clear. Resentments between groups split by income, seasonality or ethnicity are too often stoked rather than straddled, as Mr. Buchwald did, lately.

The Possible Dreams Auction is a very Vineyard bridge. It takes all comers, serious bidders and spectators (Will Richard Dreyfuss be there for his Jaws dream? Is that Doug Liman? Meg Ryan? Jake Gyllenhaal? Carly Simon?) It is not too swanky or heavily staged, like the Hamptons auction this week that included snow monkeys and stilettos. It usually includes a few dreams within reach of those willing to splash out to take the kids on a special shellfishing expedition for a couple hundred dollars, as well as the dreams designed to pull in tens of thousands. All of it makes a difference.

Down our dirt roads lie drafty shacks used year-round and exclusive compounds rarely visited. But Vineyarders have always crossed those roads without pride or prejudice. It remains a critical moral axis here that to whom much is given, much is required. The auction is a very pleasurable way to make good on that (as is dropping a bag of rice into the food pantry box at the supermarket, if that’s what you can do). Let the bidding begin.