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Take a Self-Guided Jaws Tour on Martha’s Vineyard

I’ve loved the movie Jaws since before I’d even seen it. I remember it playing at the North Reading Cinema for the entirety of the summer of 1975 and probably even into the fall, and every time we drove down route 28 Main Street I saw it there on the marquee, JAWS is red plastic letters. I asked—begged—for my parents to take me to see it every time we passed it, but they kept saying I wasn’t old enough. I was six.


For some reason, one of them eventually brought home a copy of the novel. I loved it and cherished it and brought it everywhere I went. I loved that the paperback cover was the same as the movie poster, the triangular torpedo of the shark’s head closing in on the unsuspecting nude swimmer. I was fascinated by the shark’s rows of jagged teeth, jutting in every which direction, and stared at them for long stretches of time. I stared at the swimmer too, my face up close to the cover, studying her face and breasts. At six, she was my first love.


I read chapters of the book into a tape recorder, swear words and all, then played them back and listened with headphones. A homemade audio book.


I brought the paperback to CCD class to show the other kids. The teacher said it was a distraction and made me sit on the book. An hour or so later, class over, I stood up to find that over the course of the hour the cover had torn off, the result no doubt of my restlessness. I still hate that teacher to this day.


I put on a Jaws play with my aunt who is four months older than me. We used a large cardboard box for the shark and drew eyes and nostrils and gills, cutting a hole for a mouth, paper triangles for teeth. One of us pushed the cardboard box around the basement, chasing victims, swallowing them whole. We rehearsed the play for a long time—weeks—but I don’t think anyone actually came to see it.


Later, my first short stories were Jaws stories. One day I proudly showed my father a series of magic marker drawings that illustrated the progression of the shark attack from the book cover, the shark’s head rising and getting closer, until its jaws snap down on the woman, chewing her into bits, the paper wet with magic marker red. I remember I drew the woman with giant, cartoon breasts. In the past drawing, the water was red with blood and her limbs and body parts floated in the water. My father told me it was really good but that I probably shouldn’t show it to my mother.


* * *

After a recent wedding on Cape Cod, I took my brother, who’s fifteen years my junior, on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard for a day trip. He’d never been, and while I had, I was excited about the theme of this particular visit: to see some of the Jaws locations by bicycle. Now, as a kid, I don’t think I ever realized that the film had been shot in Massachusetts, so the idea that the actual “Amity Island” was two hours away would have really blown my young mind.

The ferry from Falmouth takes about an hour and leaves you on the shores of Oak Bluffs, the bustling entry point to the island. The ferry holds cars as well, but on this day trip my brother and I planned to rent bikes and see what we could on two wheels. Already I was feeling a touch of Jaws-related adrenaline buzz, thinking of the shots in the film of the ferry docking for the Fourth of July, loads of tourists filtering out of the ship like the aliens disembarking at the end of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind a couple years after Jaws.


There are plenty of bike rental shops all over Oak Bluffs. You could make a reservation ahead of time, but we probably wouldn’t have had trouble without one. I saw a lot of car rental places with Jeep Wranglers lining the road. They looked tempting. I decided I’d see the island that way on one of these trips, but not today.


From Oak Bluffs to Joseph Sylvia State Beach is about a 15-minute bike ride and about three miles, pedaling south along coastal along Seaview Avenue. This is the first important stop, not just because it’s a beautiful stretch of beach, but because so many of Jaws’ iconic scenes were captured here. We got off our bikes, locked them to “Jaws Bridge,” and crossed the street to the beach.


This is where young Alex Kintner meets his untimely fate atop a yellow inflatable raft, where Chief Brody tells the old swimmer, “That’s some bad hat, Harry.” Later, it’s where those chaotic Fourth of July shots were filmed, two pranksters scaring swimmers with a cardboard fin moments before the girl painting calls out, “Shark! The shark’s going in the pond!” Ellen grips Brody’s shoulder: “Michael’s in the pond.” It’s all right there, some forty years later—the stretch of sand, the mouth of water that leads under the bridge to the pond, the mound of sand on the other side where the painter stood and shouted her warning. You can picture it all, the years melting away. A chill rippled through me despite the summer sun. It happened here.


My brother took some photos of me running down the rock breakwater, a’la Brody, toward the bridge. Then again. Then how about one more time just be sure we got it.


The bridge was busy with people fishing from it, or jumping off it, but we ignored them and imagined Ellen running its length, hyperventilating with panic, clutching a cramp at her side. We stared down at the pond below, where viewers got their first glimpse of the shark’s profile through the murk of water as it closed on the dude in the red rowboat.


“You ready?” my brother asked.


I swallowed, my throat constricted with emotion. I nodded.


* * *

From the bridge to Edgartown is another 15 minutes on the bike and about three miles, making the bridge the halfway point between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs and a good stopping point. Edgartown is the quintessential New England seaside town: small, quaint, everything painted in whitewash, American flags fluttering, the scent of lobster rolls strong on the air, tourists meandering the streets with ice cream cones or salt water taffy.


Edgartown stood in for downtown Amity. The town hall. The police station. The hardware store where Brody knocks over the jar of paint brushes. The bicycle shop where the owner chases Brody down the street complaining of Boy Scouts karate-chopping his white picket fence. I took a picture of the Town Hall sign, where anxious residents had gathered to listen to Brody declare that the beaches would be closed. “Only for a day,” Mayor Vaughn interjected. Brody had been taken aback. “I didn’t agree to that,” he tried to say, but Vaughn had already dismissed him. “It’s only for a day!” It’s where we first meet Quint, dragging his nails down the chalkboard and nibbling a cracker.


In front of the corner convenience store that stood in for the hardware store Brody visits to buy his sign paint, we meet a man who gives walking Jaws tours of Edgartown. We’re with a small group, and we stroll the streets while he points out the buildings that appear in the film, sometimes using his iPad to show us a clip from the movie for context.


Down the hill toward the water we check out the Chappaquiddick Ferry and watch it motor the occasional car across to Chappaquiddick Point, the same ferry on which Brody appeals to Mayor Vaughn to close the beaches. “You yell ‘barracuda,’” Vaughn explains, “people say, ‘huh, what?’ You yell ‘shark,’ you’ve got a panic on your hands on the Fourth of July.” I raise my camera, snap a photo, and nod with recognition.


Directly behind the ferry is the boat house that the filmmakers used as inspiration for Quint’s house, which is on the other side of the island. We’d have to save that side for another day.

While most visitors to Martha’s Vineyard are here for the beaches, sun, and seafood, our small group, some wearing vintage Jaws T-shirts and socks, lean in close to the iPad, squinting in the sun and shading our hand over the screen to block the glare, oblivious to the tanned, beautiful women walking around.


We thank the iPad guy for the tour and look for a good place for lunch. We pass Edgartown Cinemas, across the street from Town Hall. It’s the kind of old, small theater you’d expect to find in a small town like this, tucked between a T-shirt shop and a small restaurant. We see a curled, sun-damaged Jaws poster behind fingerprint-smudged glass, and read that the cinema screens Jaws every Sunday night. We look at each other and smile. That would be cool. We added it to the list of things to do next time.


On the bike ride back, we stop in a couple souvenir shops for some Jaws swag. I buy a wood Amity Island sign, and we both buy matching automobile stickers that say Martha’s Vineyard on them and feature the iconic rising shark. One will go on my car here on the east coast, one will go on his out in California, identical stickers placed on the same glass patch of our rear windshields, connecting us—brothers forever—and our epic, unforgettable Jaws summer.


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