(A Valentine to Provincetown – 2007)
“It is as if the residents of Provincetown are the culmination of all who have gone before: the Portuguese fishermen and their descendents remain, as do the parsimonious New England Methodists, the ‘60s hippie-artists, and the ‘70s Village People handle-bar mustached gay men. The iconoclasts, drag queens, lesbian comics, townies, high school students, even the babies: they all seem to know that they are in an enchanted place, a place untouched by time or animus.”
A friend recently asked to read this piece from 2007, so I am adding it here. For those who cherish the magical “specialness” that is P’town, and for those who have yet to experience its wonders, this is my Valentine to the little Portuguese fishing village, at the end of the world. I hope you enjoy it.
I am once again standing on the breakwater overlooking the Long Point lighthouse in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I come here off-season, to this tourist town that shrinks from 60,000 in the summer to 3,000 residents after Labor Day, when I feel the need to clear my mind. Provincetown in off-season is a place I often go for healing – from a crisis in work or family or relationship, or just for respite from the din and sensory overload of New York City life. Standing here, looking out to the immense Atlantic, I feel as if I am at the end of the world.
Located on the very tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, P’town (as it is affectionately dubbed by residents and tourists alike) is surrounded by water. If you were to walk to the easternmost point of the peninsula, you would encounter the Long Beach lighthouse, one of the oldest in the country, built in 1826. If you continued east past this historic landmark, you would fall into the Atlantic Ocean. After P-town, there is nowhere else to go. You either stay put or go back in the direction from where you came.
The Mayflower Pilgrims knew that when they landed in Provincetown waters in 1620. After a five-week sojourn, during which the adult males signed the “Mayflower Compact”, the Puritans determined that the terrain was too rocky and the water too salty for suitable colonization, and they turned their ships around and sailed back up the coast of Cape Cod. According to a timeline of Provincetown located on the online site, provincetowngov.org:
At last, in late December, the Mayflower and her company departed this harbor and sailed over to Plymouth, where they may or may not have noticed a certain inconsequential geological object known ever after as ‘Plymouth Rock.’
Ever after, Provincetown would be a place for the intrepid, the stalwart, a place that set man against nature. It would become a sanctuary for the idiosyncratic, the loner, the outsider, and a destination for those on the run: a place to hide, but also a place, once arrived, where you could be yourself. Many who ended up there were also running and hiding from something, from someone. You didn’t ask why your neighbor was there, just as you didn’t want him to question you.
Provincetown’s bad boy image probably began with the first settlement of fishermen’s shacks on the beach. It was known as a wild place inhabited by a cosmopolitan group of fishermen, smugglers, outlaws, escaped indentured servants, heavy drinkers and the “Mooncussers,” who were said to have lured ships to their doom by placing lighted lanterns on the beach at night, thus forcing ships to wreck on sandbars offshore and then salvaging the cargo.
In 1908, P’town became a safe harbor for black slaves, before heading north to Canada, as part of the Underground Railway System. During the early part of the 20th century, the town was a haven for writers, artists, and those living embracing the “Bohemian” lifestyle, including Eugene O’Neill, John Reed, Louise Bryant and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The 1960s brought counter-culture hippies and flower children; gay men and lesbians began to migrate there in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, many people with AIDS found in P’town a community in which they could live with comfort and dignity, and in safety from political and personal harassment.
* * * *
I first started to going to P’town in the 1960s, when I was a baby. My parents, who lived in suburban Massachusetts with my two older brothers and myself, would often rent a cottage in the town of Dennisport for two weeks in August. Dennisport, located about ninety miles from Boston and sixty miles from P’town, is almost directly situated at the halfway point of Cape Cod, which is marked by the Sagamore Bridge on one end and Provincetown on the other.
Those Cape Cod weeks, which stayed fairly constant each August through my early adolescence, constitute some of my fondest childhood memories. Our contingent of family and friends (which would often include grandparents, cousins and babies) would spend leisurely days on the beach, lazing in the sun (no ozone warnings then), building sandcastles and frolicking in the waves of the icy cold Atlantic. As a baby, I was taught to swim by my mother, who would hold me in her arms and chant, “One, two, three, dunk!” as we dipped beneath the water’s surface. This was followed the next summer by my father’s tossing me up and across the sky into the ocean, following the same numerological mantra. Our evenings would be spent eating clam rolls and soft-serve vanilla/chocolate swirl ice cream, and playing miniature golf, our faces beautifully bronzed and our minds slightly delirious from a day of incessant sunshine.
On the first cloudy day (God willing – a chance to let the tan seep in), we would pile in the car and drive to Provincetown to “see the artists” and buy chochtkes, the Yiddish definition for charming, worthless seashore junk. My mother, having studied as an Art major at Hunter College, reveled in the counter-culture scene of the 1960s. She had made the choice at nineteen to marry my father, two years her senior, an Army 2nd Lieutenant during World War II. During their first two years of marriage, he was often stationed away from my mother and, when logistics permitted, she would join him. It is difficult, even today, two years after my mother’s death, to imagine her living in Army-issued housing in Macon, Georgia, in the sweltering summer, without air-conditioning. But she was young and they were in love. Following her graduation from Hunter, she chose the more conservative role of suburban wife and mother, at least until all of her three children were grown, when she went back to graduate school.
She once revealed to me that she had smoked pot and “didn’t like it.” Unlike the picture of her “shvtzing” in the Southern heat, I could well imagine my mother smoking (or at least trying) dope. I could see it in her during our weeks on the Cape – the housewife persona would begin to shed during her first day on the beach, as she dove into the waves, wearing her fashion-of-the-moment one-piece bathing suit and flowered bathing cap. Upon reaching the shore, she would doff her cap and shake out her semi-dry hair. Even smoking her Kent 100 cigarettes, she looked like a young Vivien Leigh or Elizabeth Taylor. Everyone said so. I see photos of her now and I agree.
When we went to P-town, the mask of propriety shed even further. In those days (pre-gay Liberation Stonewall), Provincetown was not thought of as a gay-friendly town per se – just artistically inclined and accepting of all bohemian lifestyles. My mother would study the sidewalk portrait painters creating their caricatures. My own portrait was painted twice – once when I was twelve, and the second time when I was fourteen. The first painting was lost in shipping during a family house move, and my mother insisted that I have the exact same pose replicated the following summer. The portrait of my youth still hangs in the dining room of my father’s house, like Dorian Grey overseeing every holiday meal.
Even my buttoned-down father was more relaxed during these summer months, though he more so while ambling on the Dennisport beach than amidst the crazy energy created by the artistic hedonism of P’town.
Between the ages of ten and fourteen, I spent four consecutive summers at a sleep-away camp in Wellfleet, two towns north of P’town. During each of these summers, I would travel to Provincetown twice: once in July with my cabin-mates and counselors (by camp bus or by riding the hilly twenty-mile terrain on three-speed Schwinn bicycles), and once in August with my parents during “parents’ day”. Whichever way I got there, the visits were similar: engorging myself on fried clams, soft-serve ice cream and penny candy, and being both awed and titillated by the counter-culture hippie artists. They seemed so happy, so free of the shackles of suburban conformity. They were not hemmed in by mind-numbing nine-to-five jobs. They didn’t have their dreams quashed by the orthodoxy of raising two-point-three children and the aspirations to an upper-middle class consumerist lifestyle. They had made other choices. They weren’t my parents.
My last time in P-town as a teenager was when I was seventeen. Then, at age twenty-two, I came back, this time refitted with a new identity. During those intervening years, this refuge for ‘60s Bohemians had become a major gay and lesbian tourist destination, and I was now a major gay tourist. It was 1981 and I was horny. After years of suppressing my sexual nature and desires, I was the kid in the penny candy store. P’town was no longer just fried clams and street artists and ice cream (though it still was all of those.) It was men and dancing and men and bars and drinking and laughing and men and dancing. And men. One man, in particular. I fell in love with the houseboy at my guesthouse. The affair ended disastrously after we tried to transfer an idyll romance into the real worlds of New York and Youngstown, Ohio, but in those five summer days, I discovered my first Provincetown transformation as an adult; I felt a freedom in my bones that I had never dared to imagine. Dancing to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” on the deck of the Boatslip, consuming seafood pasta with a group of New York gay friends (i.e. not my parents), getting stoned on the beach at noon and drinking copious amounts of beer at midnight, having heart-to-hearts with a person I was falling in love with, underneath a full moon and a blanket of stars: these were all new experiences for me. P’town had again worked its magic, in a different way from when I was a child or a teenager.
Each time I journey to P’town, I go with no expectations. And each time is a transformational experience. The restaurants and shops change. The costs of owning a home, eating out, staying at a guesthouse, have become almost prohibitively expensive. But there things about the town that never change. When I was a baby, my father shot reams of film footage of with his 8mm Kodak Brownie home movie camera. We still have these movies, now transferred onto videotape (itself now also a relic.) One of those grainy reels contains images of P-town’s Commercial Street, the main thoroughfare. Some of the details are different, but the scene is the same: Automobiles still inch along the narrow street, tourists still window-shop for tacky t-shirts, and restaurants and bars still dot the street. The cars are now red Jeep Wranglers instead of blue Ford Mustangs, the fashions are different, but one detail has remained the same: there, clear as a the red crustacean on its shingle, is The Lobster Pot, in its same location, on the corner Commercial and Standish Streets. Still the best place to order fresh lobster, unadorned, the Lobster Pot has been a staple in Provincetown for over twenty-five years.
It is this consistency that keeps me coming back year after year, no matter the season. The home mortgage rates may rise, and the names of the restaurants and shops may come and go, but the P’town city council has been adament about retaining certain by-laws year after year. Despite the absurdity of allowing cars to peck their way through Commerical Street, the traffic remains. The restaurants and shops fill every space on the street, and there are no chain stores. The restrictions on building new property, from as height requirements to expansion to water useage, are enough to thwart a new owner. Except that there is such good money to be made. There is comfort in this consistency. It ensures that, along with always being a haven for misfits, outlaws and outcasts, P-town is also a place where one can go home again: there is a solace amidst its crazy constancy. This also helps in its transformational qualities: in its atmosphere of comfort, it is easier to try on a new identity, to escape an old life (if even for a short while), to forge a new beginning. And one either stays or returns back North, hopefully with a new-found sense of purpose.
* * * *
As the Pilgrims would have attested, even the journey to Provincetown takes determination. This is the primary characteristic of the town: most of the tourists, and certainly all of the residents, have a purpose for being there. They are there for a reason. One does not mistakenly slip into Provincetown. It is not a place that can be passed by. It is a destination.
During the fall and winter months, the number of travel options is limited to car, bus or plane, since the ferry from Boston stops running in October. I live in New York, but have family in Massachusetts, and this weekend I have rented a car for the expedition to my spiritual homeland. I haven’t made this trip in a while and have forgotten the number of obstacles involved. First, I must dodge the quintessential “Boston driver,” for whom a left-turn signal on a three-lane highway is considered a sign of weakness. After getting through the dense Boston traffic on the confusing Central Artery, I am faced with a myriad of quick decisions, as road signs indicating “North” are really going South, and those cantankerous, signal-impaired South Shore commuters do not show much mercy as I try and make a swift directional decision. I am challenged by squeaky tin-horn honks by ladies from Saugus in hair rollers and Peterbilt truck blasts from grizzled tattoo artists wearing backwards Red Sox baseball caps. Both drivers give me their versions of the middle-finger salute, though only one of them accompanies this gesture with colorful regional language. (Hint: it is not the truck driver.)
I am surprised to find that the Powers-That-Be have removed the next official obstacle: the Sagamore Bridge traffic circle, located at the foot of the Cape. Every time I have reached this part of my journey, I have found the choice of exits to be overwhelming. There is a Christmas Tree store (which seemed to be busy even in August) at one exit, a Burger King at another, and signage covered in foliage at each of the four possible arteries. Legend has it that a family of four in a 1964 station wagon drove around for four hours, until they ran out of gas. They may still be there. Today, the rotary is paved over. This is regrettable, since I have been looking forward to this exit in order to use the restroom. I have now missed the only exit to the Burger King, and now I have passed the thirty-foot sign at the entrance to the Bridge, encouraging motorists to call the Good Samaritans hotline. After enduring aggressive accelerators, hieroglyphic highway signs and a full bladder, I can understand the impetus for an otherwise sane person to get out of his car and consider jumping.
Once over the bridge, the next challenge is the thirteen-mile one-lane road. While it can be quite lovely during the summer months observing the quaint Cape Cod scenery of five-dollar T-shirt stores and soft-serve ice-cream shacks, it is not so pleasant during the off-season. Besides, I still need to use the restroom. I am stuck behind a great-grandmother, out for a Sunday drive in her dead husband’s mammoth Cadillac (probably back from a day at the Christmas Tree shop), barely able to see over the windshield, driving twenty-eight miles per hour in a thirty per mile lane. Given that there are no passing lanes on this thirteen-mile stretch, I am forced to suck on the tailpipe in front of me. This is particularly maddening when, ahead of the tank in front, there are miles of empty road. We seem to be the only two cars on the road, when, just a moment ago, I was in the Grand Prix bumper car road race.
In the summer, I will almost always choose to take the Fast Ferry from Boston, which only takes an hour and a half, and on which I can get a head start on my tan. But as I get closer to my destination, I try to remind myself that part of the satisfaction of the trip is in its challenge, and that the journey can be as important as the destination.
After completing the thirteen-mile one-lane stretch of highway and leaving the little old lady in the dust, I drive past the towns of Sandwich, East Sandwich, Orleans and Wellfleet, and enter Truro. I am starting to feel relaxation enter my pores. Now is the time to roll the window down all the way. I stick my left hand out and let the chilly November wind tease my fingertips. Radio reception returns and I turn to the oldies rock station on the F.M. dial and blast it. I sing along with Bruce and Aretha. I smell the salt from the ocean, and hear the seagulls summon me to their territory.
Then I wait for the moment. I know when it will come. I climb the crest of a small hill, and, on the descent, I see, to my left, a row of little white cabins perched along the lip of the oceanfront, like pristine Monopoly pieces. It is the image from countless paintings by countless Cape Cod artists. In front of the cabins, I can make out the whitecaps on the ocean’s waves. And then I am on a two-lane strip of highway, with the ocean on my left, and the bay on my right, as I pass the sign, free of foliage, clear as a Welcome mat – the sign that says “Welcome to Provincetown.”
And I feel the weight of the journey, and the city I left behind, and the job and the halted relationship, and all the stress and anxiety –I feel it all begin to melt away, and I breathe in the salty air, and exhale a deep sigh of contentment. I have arrived.
* * * *
In keeping with its tradition of inclusion, Provincetown is a place that offers something for everyone – all ages, colors, nationalities, sexual preferences, religious and political beliefs are welcome here (though perhaps supporters of the current Republican administration would be advised to keep that belief to themselves.) The athletically inclined may choose the rigorous bicycle trail that ends with the rewardingly breathtaking apex of white-sanded Race Point beach. Other beach goers will ride in another direction, locking their bikes at a wooden fence on the highway, and make the quarter-mile trek across marshland to the more secluded and stony terrain of Herring Cove beach. Imbibers may quaff in the Rock and Roll atmosphere of the Town House, where heterosexual bikers in black leather jackets play checkers and sing karaoke, or in the dungeon of the Vault, where homosexual men pretending to be bikers will cruise each other and watch porn on television sets hanging from cages. Historically minded literati may choose the Atlantic House (known as the “A” house), where Scott and Zelda drank and fought. If you need to ask “Scott and Zelda who?”, you might want to sip martinis and watch a drag show at the Crown and Anchor. Gourmands are in luck: unlike many tourist destinations, the cuisine in Provincetown is truly exceptional, ranging from family-style breakfasts to romantic, pricey dinners of quail and shrimp-stuffed lobster.
One of the rewards of spending so much time in P’town is the discovery of some of the more secret pleasures, such as the dune shacks. The entrance to the trail that leads to the dune shacks is not well-known to the average tourist, and it can be a strenuous walk in the mid-day heat. These six or seven shacks are just that: shacks with no running water or electricity, located on the dunes, tucked away by the bayside. They are rented by fishermen, artists and writers, who want a simple place to lay their heads at the end of the day. One shack, in particular, is a well-loved secret place to those in the know. A journal lies on the desk in this spare space, with only a bed as the other piece of furniture. Guests enter the shack and write messages to the owner and to each other. It is a bit post-modern Thoreau and a bit secret society.
Ritual is also part of the comfort factor of P’town. Massachusetts, still clutching at its ethics, remains an early-to-bed/early-to-rise town, relatively-speaking, and P’town is no exception. The bars close at one A.M., and at that time, the place to be is on the street outside Spiritus Pizza, where surprisingly excellent pizza is actually served inside. Here, friends reconvene, and new friends are made, if only for the night. One summer, in the early 1990s, a rebellion occurred here: A resident of the town, upset that drunk tourists were using her flowerbed as a urinal, unearthed a little-known city ordinance stating that no one could step foot on the street after one A.M. Since this law had never been challenged since its inception, most likely during the Pilgrims brief layover, the local police were compelled to enforce it. This was not acceptable, particularly by the militant dyke townies, who took the opportunity to voice their visible protest by dipping their feet onto the street outside Spiritus, chanting slogans about police brutaility, while their gay brethren stood safely on the curb, cruising and eating pizza, confident that their sisters-in-crime would solve the problem. Which, of course, they did.
The decades-old ordinance was removed the next day, though public nuisance laws (such as peeing in lawns) were still in effect.
Most of all, though, for those of us who venture there year after year, and for those who came to visit and (unlike their Mayflower counterparts) actually stayed, P’town is special because of its people. It is as if the residents of Provincetown are the culmination of all who have gone before: the Portuguese fishermen and their descendents remain, as do the parsimonious New England Methodists, the ‘60s hippie-artists, and the ‘70s Village People handle-bar mustached gay men. The iconoclasts, drag queens, lesbian comics, townies, high school students, even the babies: they all seem to know that they are in an enchanted place, a place untouched by time or animus. Ellie, an eighty-year old transsexual, still sings outside Town Hall every night in the summer, the dogs still wear handkerchiefs around their necks, the hot straight men still cruise the gay ones, with their girlfriends clutching their hands tight. Marijuana is still the drug of choice here. “Cher” rides a motor scooter down Commercial Street, handing out flyers. Tourists buy fudge. It is truly a world of “live and let live”.
And so I am here again, standing on the breakwater, overlooking the oldest lighthouse on the Cape, a little light at the end of the world. It is late fall, and the sun is beginning to set over the marshland. There is a bite in the air as it sails from the white-capped water, forcing me to zip my sweatshirt up to the top of my neck. I can see the lantern on top of the empty light keeper’s house, with its fixed light exhibited thirty-five feet above mean high water, visible for thirteen nautical miles.
The aching sorrow of the lonely foghorn in the distance reminds me of the one that haunts O’Neill’s morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, with its soulful attempt to pierce the veil of the past. It is very likely the same low moan that inspired O’Neill when he lived here. But I take comfort in the beacon of light that has, for centuries, guided strangers to its shores. It continues to search the vastness of the dark ocean as it revolves around its nest, each determined turn of the endlessly seeking light beckoning, beckoning, reminding me of the possibilities for the future.