Last night I heard the voice of Provincetown. Old Provincetown. It was not one voice but six, each unique, yet they blended into a song of remembrance and regret.
I attended a reading at the Provincetown Commons, presented by Our Writers Group, a small assemblage of women and men who come together every week or so to share their writing and to encourage each other in shaping and recording their thoughts. Some are published, some self-published, and some are complete novices — new to the idea of writing about their memories and thoughts. Some were at ease at the microphone; others looked as if they were facing a firing squad. They were, in order of their presentations: Phoebe Otis, Mel Joseph, Judy Dutra, Anika Costa, Avis Johnson, and their leader, Peter Cook.
What they had in common was a long history with this town and, even more important, an urgent desire to tell their individual chapters of that history with sincerity and unimpeachable veracity. The six readings included a bit of fiction, but mostly they were memoir and personal recollections. They ranged from tales of fishing, the phenomenon of sea ice, life on a boat, a dramatic and true story of rescue at sea (“the wind whistled through the rigging”), reminiscences of a house on Alden Street, and, most affectingly, the experiences of childhood in an earlier iteration of this town.
Their families, it was reported, were “money-poor” but rich in the qualities of life that now seem so utterly unattainable — a closeness, an intimacy, a sense of community. This richness is so elemental, so primary, but so foreign to most of us, even though some of us are trying desperately to get it back.
These six readers, about my age, represent living history. I might plumb the details of my own growing up in Harrisburg, Pa. — in fact, I often do — but I am afraid it is a pale shadow of life in old Provincetown. How could it not be? I was not “born in the same house my father was … and in the same room … and in the same bed.”
These were not all halcyon days: there was poverty (“Being out of work in a Provincetown winter is hard times”) and fractured families (“My father left us before anybody told him he was supposed to buy his wife a house”) and constant dislocation (“I moved seven times during my first 13 years; I thought my mother must have enjoyed moving”).
But all six readers conveyed a connection to the town, a connection that I share, even though I’ve been here only 50-odd years. I caught only the tail end of some of the things they talked about: the old cold storage building in the West End, the Adams Pharmacy, the kids diving for change off MacMillan Wharf (“Don’t be shy, don’t be cheap,” they called out to the tourists), the bowling alley in the center of town, Tillie’s Market in the East End, the mysterious “Mushroom House,” the Aquarium (not the mall, but an actual aquarium, with a barking seal that could be heard all over town), The Sea Horse Inn, Grozier’s Park, Ho-Jo’s, being “walking distance of everywhere,” and so much more.
But I did not grow up “in the shadow of the Monument”; I did not live with decades-old linoleum or the insanity of an old Cape house stairway (“the treads so narrow, the pitch so steep”); I did not live, especially, in a fishing culture (cod tongues and cheeks, “scully-joes” hanging on the line out back). My father was a good man, but a haberdasher. I did not know brave and modest men who risked their lives at sea to make a living (and rescue others). Just think of it!
After the reading, walking with my dog down to the beach by an elegant condo, I heard the raucous voices of a group of partying women, unmistakably alcohol-fueled. They were having a good time, and good for them, but I had to reflect that not much of what I heard earlier was known to them and, worse, not much would have been of interest.
How many people now living or visiting here value the town for more than a scenic backdrop, a water view, quaint houses, and live-and-let-live attitudes? How many recognize their lack of true connection to it? How many can discern that the reason they are attracted to this place is that it is real? Provincetown has a baked-in authenticity to it, left over from the days of old. Its realness is fragile, perhaps fading, but it is still here — something we can all tap into and benefit from. It is here for us.
As one of the readers described the town: “It knows my voice, my gait, and my intentions.”