Remembering P-Town

7.4.2007

By Out.com Editors

Flying home from anywhere, you have to take a little plane from Boston. For a while it's just open blue, and then there it is: the crook of land at cape's end, a spiral of dunes and green curling into the Atlantic, then the town, nestled in that curving arm of land, the image of safety and welcome.

And this: walking out of the house on a clear, bright morning into that clear air fresh with beginnings. Down my street, out into town, and in between buildings along Commercial Street, the town's prime artery, the harbor gleaming. Bright, gleaming'Provincetown words for me, signs of a place drenched in light, where even in the long gray of winter the atmosphere is always and ever on the move, the sky doing something new every half hour.

Or when you look out from any upstairs window or any high place, the welter of rooftops, the crazy cubism of jumbled houses. They're a theme of the famous white line prints, woodblocks made by Provincetown artists in the 1910s and '20s, many of them women who came to town to escape husbands and conventionality, remade themselves and their art, and left an indelible sense of how to see this place. The unlikely Pilgrim Monument glowing above it all'strung for the holidays with a tent of lights so it towers over town like a Christmas tree and at night glows all the way to the high dunes of Truro.

Socked in, in a deep winter snowstorm, the sky a heavy, lowering gray, big shawls of snow billowing across the harbor, twisting in the air. Our two dogs snoring a little, paws drying in the heat of the fire.
Wild things: whales, hawks, a council of great blue herons discovered in a confab one morning in the dunes, green crabs, minnows, seals, ribbon snakes, foxes, geese, coyotes that slip into town and snatch up the local cats after dark.

The hopeful energy of the place come spring, stores scrubbing their steps, window boxes planted, shutters painted afresh, signs hung out, the optimism that will inevitably sag after the Fourth of July, when the welcome starts to flag a bit.

For years, the same T-shirt hung in a shop window. It pictured a caterpillar trying to mount a similarly shaped object that in the caption cried out, 'Knock it off, asshole, I'm a french fry!' Where else could you buy such a thing, where else would it hang in a window for years, till it becomes practically a permanent part of the scene: trashily touristic yet endearing in its extremity.

Or riding my bike in the emptier days of spring and fall, when the townies take delight in sailing down Commercial as fast as they can go. In summer heading out to the beach, where the bicycles are chained shoulder to shoulder along the rail fence that marks a path through a salt marsh to the crescent beach of Herring Cove. I used to love sitting on the dune side watching the men on the rim of the tidal marsh'men naked or nearly so, carrying their beach bags and supplies, looking for all the world like hunter-gatherers of some ancient day.

Summer evenings when you can walk out into the welcoming streets and the place seems entirely devoted to the pursuit of happiness: under the moon, in the gardens and byways, in the clubs and restaurants and the stoops on the sidewalks where people gather to look at each other, to talk and to cruise, and to simply be present in the bright stream of it all. One late-night reveler, carnival week, standing alone in front of a west end florist's shop, wearing nothing but a tinsel hula skirt, so happy he was still dancing.

The old bohos, the painters and sculptors and freethinkers who settled and stayed on, with their long, gossipy memories and their houses full of paintings and books, bones and shells and jazz albums, traces of another sort of alternative time, a culture nearly gone now.

Or the two old foghorns, one at Long Point Light and one at Wood End, their two-note plaintive calls controlled by a switch someplace in Connecticut, so sometimes they'd come on for no apparent reason, their notes layered, one just over and just after the other, signaling warning and refuge.

Refuge was what Provincetown was for me. I arrived in 1990 with my partner, Wally, looking for a place that would welcome us as a couple and provide some kind of shelter in the growing maelstrom of the AIDS epidemic. A refuge shelters you, but it can also focus the forces outside of it; life in Provincetown, in the early '90s, was like standing in the path of a hurricane. We were hard-hit but as well prepared as we could be; there were services, a community, a collective sense of standing up together, embattled, in the path of a terrible wind. I stayed for 15 years'sometimes year-round, sometimes half the year, then as a summer resident'and the town became the landscape of my heart. It became for me a stage and arena, a place where I could see the questions that mattered most to me played out; it was the location of my creative life. But sometime in those last few years, I realized that the life span of my imaginative engagement with the place was drawing to a close. I left in 2006 with my partner, Paul, our old golden retriever buried in the garden, our ancient house in the hands of two men who love it. I felt frustrated by the loss of community. In a resort where there's been so much change, it's easy to feel as though everyone's a tourist, a replaceable stranger, and the result is a certain corrosive indifference: We'll never see you again, so here's your just-adequate, overpriced dinner. Want a cocktail with that?

The place has become intoxicated with the fumes of real estate profits. Real estate becomes a way of being, a subject of conversation, a focus, a social glue, a civic obsession. Everything's a property'not a home or a container for your life, but an investment. Money takes its toll on community. Famous designers buy houses on the waterfront, knock them down and build new ones, and they don't care what it costs; the values escalate with no seeming end in sight. What were apartments or rental houses are fitted out with granite and stainless and sold at big profits. Want to wait tables in the summer and spend the off-season painting or writing? Forget it. No more big funky houses full of a dozen boys working in guesthouses and clubs for the summer and having the time of their young gay lives; they can't afford the rentals. And thus the community homogenizes: more lawyers and investment bankers from Boston, more weekend homes shuttered in the off-season, less edge, less grit, less surprise.

Though in truth the town is not quite tameable. A 70-something cross-dresser, Ellie, still sings in her lovely baritone in front of Town Hall with a little speaker on wheels, and she does 'My Way' with absolute conviction. I think there will be foot-long hot dogs and cheap T-shirts on sale in the town center till the waters of the Atlantic close over the place. The powers that be will be fighting over whether you can put a dildo in a shop window or have sex under a deck on the beach at night until the end of time, and visitors will go on seeking and finding pleasure in that lovely libertine way that's a part of the town's soul. You can dress the place up to the nines and raise the prices, but there's a deep streak of honky-tonk in the town's heart that's not going away anytime soon. (Knock it off, asshole, I'm a french fry!) Thank heavens for that.

I suspect it will forever be a place of permission. Here teenage boys or girls are free to hold hands on the street, probably for the first time in their lives; there's that whiff of freedom in the air, whatever that means for you, and the possibility of living your way toward that elusive aim.

And in truth, when I got to town people were fond of saying that the great age of town life had passed, no more bohemians, no more rich cultural stew'15 years later, here I am echoing those same words. That huge sky, that precise light, those crooked rooftops, and that riffling bay with its two lighthouses guarding the entryway'those will be beautiful and unforgettable as long as there's anyone to see and to remember them. The next younger (or at least newer) arrivals'whether they come for a week, a summer, a decade'will still stake their claim on the place, and I hope they find in it a great arena of the heart.

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