As a boss Napi Van Dereck was a terror.
At least in the old days when I bussed at the restaurant.
Each evening would find him hunched like a hawk at the end of his bar freely opining to anyone who came by or sat next to him. Meanwhile we, the intrepid staff, bore his nightly disapprovals slung like blades at a bullseye.
Not yet inured to his style, I’d find brief refuge in Helen’s preternatural calm. Helen, Napi’s long-time queen behind the bar king.
Not that working at Napi’s restaurant wasn’t rich with pleasures.
The food was good. The golden, come-in-from-the-cold atmosphere was comforting and lively. As an institution Napi’s was the year-round melting pot for Provincetown’s layered cultures and turning seasons.
As a friend, Napi Van Dereck was a delight.
He could talk about anything with a fervor that immolated any contradiction as he unspooled his take on what was wrong with the world.
I fell in love with him for real once I put my finger on what seemed to move beneath his dramatic insistence that all was lost, something generations of townsfolk had already figured out: Napi was a closet romantic, in ferocious love with the town, its extravagant natural beauty, its history. His knowledge of the Outer Cape was deep and intimate and his critiques seemed to be fueled not by scorn but by a tenderness betrayed by his own high ideal of how things should be.
This assessment of Napi’s heart was underscored the day he let me write an article about his legendary collection of mostly Provincetown art by mostly Provincetown artists for the Cape Cod Voice.
When Napi took me upstairs to the room where they were stored he opened the door to an experience for which I was not prepared.
I remember a window-lit room cast in dust-filled shadows, the canvases stacked deep, one against the other on the floor and against the walls and furniture.
I think I’d expected it to be like the restaurant below, treasures on display mounted salon-style. Instead, this silent bounty, this cornucopia of Provincetown history and sheer beauty had the unwieldy bulk of a true obsession. The pieces weren’t there to be presented, they were there to Be. To be added to. To wait, resting in the tower of being loved. In the stillness they seemed to breathe.
Then we sat down, he in a chair, me on the floor, and as he spoke we sifted picture by picture through the faceted soul of a town, interpreted by artists both living and dead. They were Provincetown caught in time, in all its salted, wet curves and crowded angles, its working piers and fog-bound moods. Some aspects of the place were still familiar, some irretrievable.
I regretted leaving before I could digest it all, knowing this rare access might not be repeated.
Napi Van Dereck was beyond boss and barstool friend, beyond Provincetown character and icon. In that room of accumulated reverence, Napi’s true lover’s nature opened up, enriching my understanding of place with his own.