Provincetown, My Love
with thanks to Mary Heaton Vorse
If a place could be a lover, Provincetown is mine. This slip at land’s end stole my heart when I first visited at age ten. My father bought me peace sign earrings as we wandered along Commercial Street on a day trip in the early era of hippies. I found my way back as a teenager searching for an identity I didn’t know I was missing but knew the earrings didn’t solve. I was for peace and love but even in my hippie garb people called me “Sir.” I came to land’s end to figure out something existential and sexual, as well as to dance.
I go to Provincetown still, to find that philosophical elixir, my source of inspiration and hope, now spiritual and sensual. This essence, this invisible soul- satisfying thing, is in the tidal perpetuity of waves crashing and lapping. It is nature at it’s most ferocious and sublime; the idea of the lion and the lamb entwined. This is what comes over me every time I cross the Sagamore Bridge and make my way, while the compass spins, from Lower Cape to Outer.
The compass has to navigate the curve of the land as the car rolls from Buzzards Bay along Route 6. The geological map of Cape Cod defines the shoulder at Sandwich, Chatham is the elbow, and Provincetown the curled fingertips. Massachusetts claims it, but it is a place unlike any other.
When I first moved to town as a high school graduate, five years after the Stonewall Uprising, I was unemployed and uninterested in college. The Portuguese year-rounders owned many shops, fishing vessels and homes along the harbor. There were several gay bars for men and two for women. The place was still pretty heterosexual. I was very interested in drinking, dancing and finding out who the lovely gorgeous men were and who the heck I might be, liking girls it seemed, but not caring a hoot for consciousness-raising groups. I failed at finding fascination in my vulva’s mirrored reflection, or talking for hours about defying the patriarchy. I preferred being raised by drag queens as a budding baby dyke that first winter. They fetched me to take a walk, go for coffee, go out dancing, or just smoke cigarettes in a sunny spot out of the wind. They guided my sartorial opinions while shopping at the thrift store for a cool pair of blue suede shoes, though none of us were into Elvis. Mayo gave me his red satin PAL jacket in a fit of closet cleaning. But more, they taught me to believe in the quest for trueloveandhappiness, said in one breath, even if they didn’t always live long enough to find it. I’ve been lucky.
I remember when it wasn’t safe to be too loud or too proud; we couldn’t even imagine rights such as marriage or anything equal. We were just hoping to survive, hardly thinking to thrive. There were gay bashings and fights around town. Today there are annual events sponsored for leather, bear, S&M, motorcycle, drag contingents of men loving men. Women have a whole week dedicated to their desires while the transvestites and their wives and the AA folks have a weekend too. The Portuguese have a festival, as the demographics have shifted like the dunes, and they have moved inshore.
Such changes are what Mary Heaton Vorse explained in Time in the Town: A Provincetown Chronicle. I’ve read Vorse several times, always searching to better understand this place that I love. With her journalist’s eye she described the impact of national and global economic waves as they undulated and crashed on Provincetown’s shores along with the aquatic tides. She detailed the various sailing vessels that carried fishermen of many generations. The whalers chased the whales before the schooners sped along, the gasoline engines brought faster change while the trawling vessels destroyed the bottom of the sea. She warned of over fishing and the precarious future of the whales.
Vorse had no way to predict that the fishermen and tourism of her era would be followed by thousands of condominiums in the sand hills and a vibrant gay clientele. Changes in the culture came from a variety of sources: the price of fish, the rise and fall of styles of ships. Prohibition, Vorse claimed, was most significant. With Prohibition came a desperate obsession and more attention to drinking than ever before. It was quite a holiday when cases of whiskey were bobbing in the harbor after rumrunners tossed them in the sea to evade the coast guard. Cars clogging the street were also something about which she complained in 1942.
Provincetown has been a harbor for fishing folk as far back as the Vikings so the history is long and lonely. It was the first landing for the Pilgrims who departed after five weeks to search for fresh water and more fertile ground, settling across the sound in Plymouth. And the Cape is but a barrier island; prone to battering winds and waves, whole chunks disappear in storms. The ocean side shorelines were considered the “graveyards of the Atlantic” due to the intense currents and ever-shifting sandbars. Henry David Thoreau began Cape Cod, his tale of walking from Eastham to Provincetown, with a shipwreck. He described the wind, the waves and the immigrants coming to America and their daring and their dreams as they are dashed on the very first pages of his travelogue of 1865. It is estimated that three thousand ships were wrecked between 1626 and 1898. The mooncussers, scavengers by any other name, harvested the goods that floated ashore. One spring it was cherry pie filling and chewing gum.
Vorse introduced Captain Marion Perry, a local fisherman who won the Sir Thomas Lipton Fisherman’s Cup in 1907 sailing the full size schooner Rose Dorothea. Mary Heaton Vorse comments that he’d been racing to get fish to market for years and he was making extra good time during the race because he was so angry that the mast broke. He won in a fury but he was too shy when the cup came home to fuss with the parade and he was too busy working on his boat to meet President Theodore Roosevelt who came to town to meet the Captain and set a cornerstone for the construction of Pilgrim’s Monument, the tallest all-granite structure in the United States. Today, under a half scale replica of the Rose Dorothea in the Provincetown Library, there are books set out about Big Bird, Madeline, and Malcolm X.
Among the various details of Cape living Vorse included a prescription for removing skunks. A neighbor advised that the only remedy was to write a letter to the skunk. Vorse’s son, Heaton, rigged a light under the house so the skunk could read her polite yet firm request and the skunk soon departed.
She related stories of strange things appearing in the dunes with no telltale tracks to determine the origin (a cast iron cooking stove) or a storm so brutal all the chimneys in town toppled. Life saving stations and lighthouses dotted the coast and the stories of storms and wrecks are often followed by reports of the fantastic daring and bravery of the rescues. One such story that Vorse cited is of a Coast Guard captain who had a vision of a young woman and days later the woman tossed her infant to him during a rescue. The mother was lost in the surge and he adopted the baby girl.
The Cape Cod Canal opened for traffic in 1914 and the rescue stations fell into disrepair. In these early years of the twentieth century, Provincetown became a source of creativity for painters and writers of poetry, prose and theater when they couldn’t get to Europe due to the hazards of ocean travel prior to World War I. Vorse was part of this early art scene. She went abroad to cover wars and labor disputes and returned to raise children as a widowed single parent. Her chronicle captures iconic figures and explains the history of the town so we feel the sand whipping our face in a storm; understand the endurance and taciturnity of the people as they weathered gales and losses of fishing fleets and family. Eugene O’Neill took over one of the abandoned rescue stations while peers wrote and painted in dune shacks dotting the desert landscape of the province lands. Those were the days prior to World War II.
Chaim Gross’s bronze sculpture, The Tourists, are sentinel figures on the path to my library perch where I found myself reading Vorse’s Chronicle. I could feel Henry David Thoreau and Henry Beston standing behind her as she wrote: Thoreau’s Cape Cod and that horrific shipwreck; Beston walking with the coast guard fellows along the dune’s edge at night in The Outermost House. His cottage was moved at Nauset Marsh a few times but the Blizzard of 1978 demolished it. The sand, the solitude, the roaring of a tumultuous ocean require inhabitants to be men and women of wit and temerity. Such folks are described by all three authors and they could be talking about year-rounders of today as the weather is freezing and a dune at Ballston Beach has just been breached. The dunes have collapsed along the Wellfleet coastline too. Waves were still pounding and roaring with ferocity days later here in 2013.
Photographers and painters render the landscapes of the town’s gardens, vast array of people, houses, and ocean, while other artists design with reeds in the moors and sculpt with flotsam from the sea. Provincetown is the perfect place to get lost: in the light, the booze, the history, the dunes, great coffee and food, the sobriety of the present, the beach, the whale watches, and the infinite possibilities of creativity. There is everything here, much more than a tourist will ever see in a day. The dunes and town are filled with ghosts of shipwrecks, captains, pirates, rumrunners and pilgrims. The shifting sands of the dunes are mountains in motion. Here too are phosphorescent waves, Fourth of July fireworks, the sun and moon light, fog, and the grey of a Cape Cod day.
Vorse’s book ends on the eve of American’s entry into World War II. The Hurricane of 1938 on the Cape coincided with Britain’s Chamberlain meeting with Hitler, which struck her as ominous coincidence. Her last line, “The one certainty is that Provincetown is in history’s path as it has always been.”
As I write this, the whales are returning with calves born in the Caribbean, the stores will be swept and coats of pain applied to buildings and boats. Another summer is coming. Vorse would be astounded that many of today’s problems (parking, drinking, sewer, sheer numbers of tourists, and labor issues) are so similar to her era but the good food, artists, dunes, waterfront, harbor, whales and seals would please her.
A good long-time lover allows for indiscretions, infatuations, lapses in attention, and despite all, inspires renewed passion and delight. There is a resiliency and a resolve in such adoration. So many others have expressed their love of Provincetown. Two who include Vorse in their telling are Susan Baker and Annie Dillard.
Baker’s illustrations in The History of Provincetown portray painters, poets and places Vorse described, as well as more recent residents and visitors. A poignant portrait of “The death of a thousand friends in the AIDS epidemic” is completely contemporary.
Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, is a fictional love story of the landscape of the dunes, two people, and Provincetown. Vorse is mentioned fondly as a friend of the protagonists. Dillard writes of Deary, a character who “claimed to like the way starlight smelled on sand.”
Dillard, Baker, Thoreau, Beston, and Vorse seem like wise relatives telling tales of the place. They stand beside me as I sit on a chunk of driftwood and look out on the horizon where sea and sky meet. I hold a little beach stone from Herring Cove between my fingers and later put it on a friend’s gravestone near a cedar in the cemetery. I imagine the rumrunners and whaling ships in the harbor while keeping time in the twenty-first century. Maybe this is a “thin place,” as I’ve heard exists in the Himalayas, where spirit world and real time blend.
I’ve found so much here besides lobster claw salt-and-pepper shakers or a pirate hat and sword. Those things are gleeful but there is nothing to purchase that tells of the peace, love and acceptance of strolling through town hand in hand with my partner or whistling at the drag queens advertising their shows. I get to be my whole self here, in full identity as photographer, lover, writer, cook, dishwasher, housepainter, scholar, mother, friend and sister. That is a lot to be on one little spit of land.
In such early spring as March, the drag queens are not out in full splendor, tourists are few, and the festivities subdued. Once the weather changes and the flamboyance of personalities set free (by acceptance, booze or both) this quiet will shift, like the waves’ roar after a storm, to the constant beat of the summer bass, louder and louder until the Labor Day bell returns many to school. And so the tempo of town matches the rhythm of the tides. My love abides, awaits the quiet time again when the beaches are empty and the shore is mine for lone footprints in the sand, collecting pebbles as a seal blinks nearby.
A Few Favorite Books of Provincetown
*Baker, Susan. (1999). The History of Provincetown. Burlington, VT: Verve Editions, Ltd.
*Beston, Henry. (1928). The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. New York: Henry Holt & Co.
*Cunningham, Michael. (2002). Land’s End: A Walk Through Provincetown. New York: Crown Publishers.
*Dillard. Annie. (2007). The Maytrees. New York: HarperCollins.
*Doty, Mark. (1996). Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.
*Huntington, Cynthia. (1999). The Salt House: A Summer on the Dunes of Cape Cod. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
*Kunitz, Stanley,with Genine Lentine. (2005). The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
*Oliver, Mary. (1979-present) Volumes of Poetry & Prose.
* Preston, John. (1983/1995). Franny, The Queen of Provincetown. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
*Thoreau, Henry David. (1865). Cape Cod. Boston: Ticknor & Fields.
*Vorse, Mary Heaton. (1942/1991). Time and the Town: A Provincetown Chronicle. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.