Andrew Buckley: The Commonwealth

The Monday after Labor Day, when I found my father’s truck missing from his driveway, I had been planning on spending the day editing video mostly. The car that was parked in front of his house when I arrived was unfamiliar. Late model import sedan – an import – dark blue. Not the white Ford Ranger used in the family landscaping business that sits right outside his kitchen table window in West Chatham.

The Meals on Wheels driver exited from the breezeway over the kitchen door, got in their car and pulled out. As I grabbed the paper from the plastic tube near Main Street, it began to dawn on me that the truck was already gone. Perhaps my father was gone or one of my siblings had borrowed it. But not midmorning on a weekday. Not without notice.

What ensued was a nearly two-week quest that ended with an eyewitness identifying the thief to police. To get there by the end of the following week took scratching at the underbelly of our Lower Cape community. Face to face questions and phone calls to neighbors. Social media posts. Anonymous tips. Many visits by and to the police with more information. Driving with Sofie to Newport one evening in a less than orthodox father-daughter experience. Dockside discussions with fishermen and convos at Cumberland Farms with landscapers. Barroom whispers and confessions.

Fear. Concern. Violence. Drunkenness. Immigration violations. Intimidation. Drugs. Prostitution. Outstanding warrants. Covering all three towns on the elbow of the Cape. And, of course, the theft of the sole motor vehicle of a 92-year-old World War II vet and retired town of Chatham employee.

None of this is what you would find on the chamber of commerce websites or in the real estate listings.

The reality, not the image, is that this happened. The thief was identified to authorities and they are looking for the truck and him in Rhode Island. No word to date on either.

This crime is, to be sure, a rarity. Cars are rarely stolen here, at any time of the year. If they are, they are often recovered. The thief usually knows the owner.

This is closer to the reality of the Chatham and Cape Cod I grew up in. Not inherently dangerous, but real people with real problems. Having worked in research and investigations until about a dozen years ago, it was something I slipped back into easily enough. Yet as I went deeper into this world to get to what happened to my father’s truck, the clearer it became to me that there really are two worlds here.

One is the Chatham of town meeting, where speakers tell themselves that we all go to Florida for the winter and economic development budgets pay to promote $400 per night hotel rooms and $30 lunch specials and $6 beers.

The other Chatham is the over 1,000 families – and growing – that live on less than $35,000 year, who can’t schedule doctor’s appointments outside work, agonize over snow days when they can’t choose between going to work and keeping their kids safe at home, and who can barely scrape together the every-increasing cost of the transfer station sticker and so often go weeks relying on an unattended dumpster at work.

Or the people who hire someone to mow their lawn and the people who actually do the mowing. The gap between these two groups, by any measure, is expanding – here. We know it is happening nationwide. But right here, these people you know are standing still or going backwards, and it is not because they are working any less hard.

We live in a Commonwealth, and since 1620 have always done so in this region. That word isn’t interchangeable with “state,” like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts compared to the State of New York. It means we’re all in this together, not just out for own success. Perhaps that is something we have lost sight of in recent efforts to retain young people and build affordable housing and other high-minded proposals over the past two decades.

However, what I found, as a private person and as a selectman, was that the motivations were lacking. Build affordable housing so that the town would not be subject to a Chapter 40B development that tosses local zoning aside and maximizes profit. Retain young people so we can have a stable workforce. Encourage public transit to free up parking spaces used by workers so as to fit in more shoppers.

This is an attitude that holds others in slight regard. You have affordable housing because your residents need a place to live. You have a local economy that retains your young residents because they need to earn enough to have a decent life. You have public transit because you want to take all cars off the street and give your people a cheaper, less polluting choice in moving about in their daily lives.

Right now we are in an examination period, to determine if the prosperity our towns have achieved – much through no action of our own – has produced a better quality of life overall. While we certainly have attracted a number of very comfortable residents in recent years, their success wasn’t created here. And it doesn’t seem to have improved the lot for a large portion – the population that works for a living.

While I understand any number of efforts will be made to hear from the public, the numbers are relatively small. Under 1,500. An approach which I have found fairly effective, especially recently, is simple. Get out and talk to people where they live and work. Ask again. Check back when you have a new idea.

Find out what the people want and need to strengthen our commonwealth. You will be surprised with what people will tell you when they think it will help.