By and large, Gloucesterites are a frank and voluble people. So for those with the time and inclination, diligent public eavesdropping can be a deeply rewarding activity. Such was the case yesterday, as I walked through one of the city’s most fruitful snooping grounds: the downtown Shaw’s parking lot.
Directly in front of me ambled two rangy fellows whose heads were bent together in animated conversation. Their grooming and attire were decidedly scruffy—unruly beards, muddy sneakers, voluminous flannel—so I wasn’t altogether surprised when I overheard them planning their acquisition of a 3-liter jug of Carlo Rossi. As they fished in their pockets for crumpled bills to pool, I noted this exchange:
“Let’s get the Burgundy,” one said in a gravelly voice. “Good tannins. Sweet finish.”
The other cleared his nose into his palm before offering his assessment: “Too sweet. Chianti’s better.”
The texture of their conversation—the connoisseur’s intensity and erudition lavished upon discount wine—flooded me with a familiar feeling. It is a special blend of wonder, equal parts confusion and delight, born of ironic juxtaposition. And it is something I associate with Gloucester just as much as I do fish, seagulls, and a devotion to tanning as a religious sacrament.
Allow me to provide another illustration. The post office building on Dale Avenue is a truly impressive pile of masonry. With its soaring granite façade, Doric columns, and rooftop balustrade, one might expect it to house an Italian aristocrat. And I don’t mean a six-time winner of the Greasy Pole, but rather some member of the Medici family—a fringe cousin, at the very least. Yet a Gloucesterite with a parcel to mail will mount the building’s broad stairwell, enter its vast, hushed chamber, and discover someone far more humble: a single postal clerk in a frayed uniform, hunched behind a Formica counter, counting the days until her pension kicks in. Over her shoulder you might catch sight of another employee shuffling past, wraithlike, pushing a half-empty collection bin beneath the vaulted ceiling. It both confounds and charms me that such modest activities would unfold within one of the city’s most ostentatious structures. Proportionally, it’s a bit like commissioning Renzo Piano to design a cantilevered glass dome for your kid’s roadside lemonade stand.
[Nice digs for your PO box]
There’s a different irony but a similar response when I pass the wooden sign of an establishment on Main Street that sells nothing more than olive oil and a few specialty vinegars. I don’t question their fundamental business model. Gloucester is home to many individuals of Italian extraction, a population that—I suspect—enjoys a plate of spaghetti aglio e olio from time to time. By the same logic, nearly every for-profit entity in town—from the roast beef joints to the salons to the insurance agencies—devotes part of its operations to selling pizza pies. But I do not often see frail Italian nonnas ducking into the Cape Ann Olive Oil Company. Presumably, these women seek out economy-sized drums of extra virgin and balsamic, the transportation of which requires a team of strapping nephews. Whereas this retailer—bafflingly, endearingly—insists on peddling slender green vials better suited to the rectal concealment of prison contraband.
I’ve crunched the numbers, and it seems the most common type of ironic juxtaposition in Gloucester involves the collision of class and cultural opposites. Think of the Common Crow, with its bulk bins of stevia and refrigerated cases of probiotic yak butter. Just across the street sits Cameron’s, a defunct townie watering hole whose interior of crumbling plaster, chipped tile, and three-legged chairs looks roughly as it did four years ago, when it heard its last sea chantey. Everywhere you look in Gloucester, the gritty rubs elbows with the genteel, and the old-timer’s bearded cheek brushes against the newcomer’s mustachioed jowl. For the most part, the city’s diverse constituencies live, work, shop, eat, and drink next to—if not quite among—one another, yielding a social fabric that is something like a patchwork quilt. Of course, it’s a quilt stitched with monofilament, whose batting is not wool or cotton but rather vodka-soaked clams.
Gloucester is no utopia. Frictions exist. And it’s true that the yachting crowd of Eastern Point have attempted to escape the unwashed masses by backing onto a narrow, easily defended peninsula. But the last time I was there, I noticed that Dog Bar Breakwater, the furthest extent of the yachtie redoubt, may occupy the grittiest real estate in all of Gloucester. In the shadows of million-dollar sailboats bobbing in the cove, seagulls paint the granite slabs with ammoniac shit, and striper fishermen fill the air with tinny music and salty jokes in their native Portuguese. Perhaps this is all unremarkable to you. But it’s truly wondrous to someone like me, who has spent long years in the suburban South, where people turned White flight into an art form and, in many cases, the divisions still hold.
[The Jackson Pollocks of Dog Bar]
I happen to be paler than the underside of a flounder. So I can’t do much to contribute to Gloucester’s racial diversity. Instead, I savor my part in blurring its tenuous class and cultural lines. Last fall, my wife and I were enjoying a drink and perfect blue weather on the refurbished patio of The Studio, a Rocky Neck institution. A quick look around the bar revealed that just about everyone was better dressed than we were: breezy linen shirts, madras shorts, and more anchor motifs than you could shake a stick at. I did notice one fisherman on hand, but he was a crewman on the Hot Tuna, a veritable reality television star. Halfway through my gin and tonic, a silver-haired gentleman strode in from the dining area to deliver an urgent question: “Is there someone here who came in on a kayak?”
My wife raised her eyebrows at me, and I shrugged my shoulders before standing and waving at the fellow. “That would be me,” I said. Indeed, we had borrowed our friends’ tandem for the day. After putting in at the Harbor Loop public landing, we had dodged whale watches and lobster boats and tied up at The Studio’s own spacious private dock. It turned out that now another vessel was attempting to moor, and our kayak was in the way. As I eased past many sets of eyes and down the floating ramp, I discovered that this other vessel was only slightly smaller than a trash barge, except it was gleaming, graceful, and purring like a big cat. Standing on the deck were a young man and woman whom a brisk shake had liberated from the pages of a Vineyard Vines catalog.
[Enlarged slightly to show texture]
In my younger and more Socialist days, I might have put up a fuss, pointing out that my boat had carried the exact same number of patrons as theirs had. That it wasn’t my problem they wanted to bring their jacuzzi and Viking range to the restaurant. That they probably wouldn’t expect someone to leave his table and move his Mini Cooper from a parking spot, so that their Winnebago could be accommodated. But raising a stink would have only reinforced that line between them and me. Instead, I just took my sweet time untying from the cleat and climbing into the cockpit—relishing that familiar feeling of slack-jawed wonder at the irony of it all. “Nice day to be on the water,” I called up to the deck, while paddling toward a vacant sliver of dock. But I can’t be certain they heard me.