The Upside of the Vineyard Shuffle

One man’s seasonal journey from rental to rental.

So many people pooh-pooh an Island dance called the Vineyard Shuffle that I feel a moral obligation to weigh in on its positives.

The Shuffle to which I refer is the two-step known to year-rounders as the semi-annual seasonal shift from winter to summer digs (and back again at season’s end). To some lucky souls, one or both houses are their own. To the renters among this migratory cult of Vineyarders, the phrase alone immediately evokes visions of sorting, packing, remembering what was yours, what you broke, important papers flying all over the place along the way, begging a few friends to spend half a day schlepping you and your suitcases and thirty cardboard boxes and your inversion table out of a lovely big house into a small shack, the scenario often ending with a bad back, surrounded by boxes containing your so-called life.

Though the houses have changed over the years, I have been living this lifestyle since the fall of 1997, discombobulating as it is. This is what you endure as the necessary evil to living as if you own a piece of the rock, when in fact you could not afford a grain of its sand. Especially a grain at Quansoo.

But while some may whine, I now have come to see it as a privilege: an opportunity not only to move into other peoples’ houses but also to move into their lives, however impermanently.

Their silverware, their wall hangings, their books, their furniture – over the months you become comfortable with their stuff. You almost begin to think of their stuff as your stuff. And your own stuff, the transitional objects you carry from place to place – the favorite mug, the portable desktop, the rug you bought in Tehran – intermingles with their stuff to the point where it’s hard to distinguish what’s yours when you pack again.

What’s more, through some mystical renter’s osmosis, the owners and their possessions become part of you and your life. You start calling it “my” house, “my” backyard, “my” neighborhood. Their stories become your stories; a little tile of them joins the mosaic of your own history. By association, I have been a Mayflower descendant, a Columbia University professor, a nationally recognized astrologer, the Island’s first psychiatrist, and the member of a family that had the prescience, wisdom, and financing a half century ago to buy fifty acres at the top of the third highest hill on Martha’s Vineyard.

There’s another upside to the Shuffle: a chance to explore in great depth those corners and crevices of the Island that I heretofore would have passed in oblivion. Or never would have been allowed to enter.

So the two winters I lived off Hatch Road, near West Chop in Vineyard Haven, in the harborside home of a Mayflower descendant, next door to what was then the summer home of TV journalist Mike Wallace, I counted my blessings when my commute was walking from “my” private beach along the shoreline to my office on Beach Road – about a mile. So what if I caught nary a sighting of the legendary Wallace; I still claimed he was my neighbor.

I spent two summers renting off Elias Lane in West Tisbury, a few hundred feet from the Red Barn Gallery at the corner of Old County Road and Scotchman’s Bridge Lane. My cottage, built to resemble a converted horse stable, looked out on the meadow where (the now late) Bill Honey’s horses grazed, their outlines forming a new landscape and a new mood each misty morning. An avid cyclist, I discovered that Elias Lane dead-ends at the State Forest bike trail. I also stumbled onto an ancient way, across from the Red Barn, that leads through the woods to Old Courthouse Road. Who would have thunk?

My longest, most stable Shuffle lasted five winters. I rented the home of the late Milton and Virginia Mazer, off Music Street in West Tisbury; it’s now owned by their son Mark, who has become one of my closest friends. (How often does that happen with your landlord?) Dr. Mazer was the shrink who spearheaded Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and authored a book that still informs my understanding of Islanders, People and Predicaments (Harvard Press, 1976). Along with being an award-winning radio writer, Virginia was known to the West Tisbury librarians as the woman who signed out more books than anyone else in town.

There was no better place to write a book, which I did over the first two winters. An eerily realistic Stan Murphy oil portrait of Virginia watched over me as I paced the living room between paragraphs. I could almost hear her egging me ever onward. Then I stayed on for several more winters, if only to pay homage to the Mazers and marvel at what I had accomplished there – thanks to the literary heritage they left behind.

A couple of winters ago, after working off and on in India for a few years, someone else had taken up at “my” Mazer house, but I lucked into a find that may be tough to top – literally. An old friend and her siblings are trustees of a house at the tippy top of Christiantown Road in West Tisbury, which they rented to me while I wrote another book. The house overlooks Vineyard Sound; on a clear day you can see across to New Bedford. My walking trail followed the stone-wall boundaries of the property, and it would take me forty-five minutes to circumambulate the grounds. I had to pinch myself: This was my private reserve for the winter and I wasn’t even trespassing (though I was caught with friends on the adjacent Graham estate one winter day, and was immediately asked to leave).

One fine spring day I caught sight of an otter. Otter is my totem animal and I took it as a sign that I should return there the next winter. Nonetheless, come June, I was acting more like a tortoise than an otter, packing my mug and rug on my back. Again.