Your 20s and early 30s are supposed to be the best years of your life, brimming with booze, love, sex. Less talked about is that they are also laced with precarity. No pressure or anything — but this is when you lay the foundation for the rest of your life.
Provincetown is rumored to have once been a place to figure all of this out, free of the expectations of the mainstream. Here, you could make your own way. You could choose adventure over convention. You could even be an artist.
That Provincetown is gone, we are told. But is it really gone, or is that just a sad story that we have told ourselves in our penchant for romanticizing the past and scorning the present?
Mitra Kaboli came to Provincetown last summer to find out. Kaboli, a 35-year-old from Brooklyn, is an audio-documentarian, best known for her award-winning podcast “The Heart,” a show about power dynamics in intimate relationships. She’s also worked on podcasts for ESPN, Bon Appetit, and WNYC.
The result of Kaboli’s search is “Welcome to Provincetown,” a 10-episode podcast series, streaming on SiriusXM, Pandora, or wherever you get your podcasts, that follows the lives of five young people in Provincetown, all but one of them artists, all of them queer and experiencing varied levels of success at scrapping together an unconventional life.
The Independent was given a preview of the first five episodes.
Kaboli tells us in episode one that she has recently flung herself into the deep end of queer life. “A few years ago, I made the decision to leave the safety of the straight side of my bisexuality behind,” she says, “but I hardly know what that means or what my life could look like.”
Her subjects include Qya Cristàl, a drag queen with windpipes for days. There’s Sonny, a handsome newcomer in town who works at the brewery by day and, by night, no matter how tired he is, parties. He’s 29, single, and just wants to have a good time. Or, as he puts it: “I moved to P’town to be a dumb slut for the summer.”
There are three people from Summer of Sass, a program that provides queer 18-to-20-year-olds from conservative places with jobs and subsidized housing in Provincetown. Running the group is Kristin Becker; one of her charges is Ethan, a nerdy and shy 18-year-old. He stands out on the show because he’s the only one who is mellow and moderate.
Which brings us to Star, the other Sass participant, a Black and trans 21-year-old who, within a matter of days, quits her job and tries to make it as a singing street busker. Her name is a double entendre, implying celebrity but also one of those bright things in the sky that might, at any point, explode into a supernova. That stellar explosion never seems far off.
Much of the podcast feels like that — it’s like watching the crank being slowly turned on a jack-in-the-box. Almost all of Kaboli’s subjects seem to never stop moving; it’s a survival instinct. Qya says yes to every gig that comes her way, Sonny works and parties full-time, and Star is Star. The frenzied pace is clearly unsustainable.
That’s what a summer in Provincetown can feel like: intense, never-ending, like a marathon — but instead of water stations there’s just overpriced vodka. “We really wanted to capture what it feels like to live and work in P’town for a summer,” Kaboli says. “At the beginning of the summer, you’re ready to get in the sun and make new friends. Anything is possible. But by August, you’re combusting.”
Episode four is memorable. Circuit week has arrived in Provincetown and, with it, insecurities among many gay men about their bodies. “Circuit week is all about how fit and trim and slim and muscle-defined you are,” Qya says. “And nobody eats.”
When we first meet Sonny in episode one, he’s fresh off the ferry, liberated from the heteronormativity of Boston. He unbuttons an extra button, hikes up his shorts, and revels in the fact that, rather than being ignored in Boston’s straight bars, he’s ogled at every corner he turns. He feels sexy and confident. He buys his first Speedo.
Come circuit week, though, Sonny isn’t feeling so body positive. He’s dealing with the scrutinizing gaze of “circuit boys,” who assess your body the way an accountant might assess your finances. “I didn’t realize how much body dysmorphia you would get from circuit week,” he says.
While Sonny deals with an excess of visibility, Kaboli hunts for any at all. Episode four is divided in two — the first half about the gay boys and their fun, the second about how the gay girls aren’t given any space for theirs. Kaboli goes out looking for lesbian lovers and comes back empty-handed. Her conclusion: “There will be no dumb slut summer for me.”
The podcast reveals how the keys to a life of art and eros in Provincetown are handed only to the few. As Kaboli says of Star’s dreams to become a singer: to make it as an artist, you often need to have already come from money. If you don’t have such privilege, pursuing a creative life comes with its own set of burdens.
In the end, Star doesn’t last. She leaves in early August, a month earlier than planned. We hear her grow increasingly alienated as one of the only Black trans people in town.
Star’s alienation becomes Kaboli’s disappointment. “I had this fantasy that P’town would take care of her, flaws and all,” Kaboli says. “But Star wants to go and, when I look around town, I don’t blame her. This place is not for everyone.”
The irony is that Kaboli becomes Star’s caretaker. Their interviews double as therapy sessions and trips to get a hungry Star a hamburger.
This care is apparent throughout the show, though it looks less like a safety net than a safety pin. It comes not from a village but from a handful of individuals in that village.
This is ultimately what “Welcome to Provincetown” offers: not that the old Provincetown — one where you could make art by day and make love by night — is dead, but that it’s gone into hiding. The show asks you to leave the funeral procession because, hey, the casket is empty. Instead, come play — there’s a fun game of hide-and-seek to be had.