Portuguese at one end of town, Italians the other, a few devout Yankees left in the midst, meaning everybody’s at church, and I can slip this personal essay by. How the book began. But, no, 2300 words – don’t even think of it.
When I arrived in the early 1980s, Gloucester seemed to me a thriving fishing port. People around the harbor saw it differently, because the first minimum size limits on cod and haddock and gray sole were just going into effect, this a few years after the Magnusson-Stevens Act had imposed restrictions on what and how much fish could be taken.
But I wasn’t a harbor person. I didn’t come to Gloucester because of anything to do with fishing. I came because our family’s rent in Manhattan had gotten too much. A friend had inherited, and offered to us, an un-insulated old house that had, decades before, been floated across the harbor from town to Eastern Point.
Eastern Point had almost as little to do with fishing as I did. People had long since been coming to summer on the Point. Mark Twain had brought his troubled daughter there for a few months. A congressman built a summerhouse and was visited by FDR on the president’s voyage to his own estate on Campobello. A society interior decorator put up an exotic cottage that attracted a stream of bohemian visitors including Boston’s great art collector Isabella Stewart Gardener with her leashed tigers. A prominent society portraitist had a cottage, as did a professional society widow. There was also, in mild opposition to the bohemians, an understated clan of conservative industrialists with their tennis court and their sailboats.
Those pioneers were gone by the time I got to the Point, but many of their houses (many the worse for wear) and much of the spirit of the place, remained. It was a bucolic oasis. An oasis of privilege, for sure, but shabby privilege. Even the grandest mansion with its atypical deep lawn and Georgian brick façade was gone to seed, presenting a thin scatter of aluminum and plastic-weave pool chairs beneath the white granite sills of once-important windows.
The house that I lucked into had belonged to my friend’s maiden aunts who had been connected to the industrial branch of the Point community but who had also known artists and writers of significance. It was a big, plain, clapboard house with rusting bathrooms and with faded paper that peeled in rolls from the walls of the several bedrooms. The kitchen had split linoleum on the counters, a museum-ready dishwasher, and a pantry full of Delft crockery and jelly-jar glassware. The bell board for the staff answered only to the pedal under the molding carpet in the dining room. With all the windows closed, the house smelled of shore damp gone to permanent mold. But there were interesting books, and nailed up carelessly here and there were small paintings and drawings by recognizably important artists. There were weird but valuable, you’d think, pieces of furniture – an elaborately carved rosewood table on elephant tusk legs. The house was on the narrow waist of the point, and overlooked the harbor on one side and the ocean on the other. The slightest breeze blew through the window frames on the harbor side (except in the case of a North-Easter, which would be a different conversation) and out the ocean side. It was a brilliant summerhouse. You couldn’t have dreamed better. I couldn’t.
Un-insulated winter was another matter.
The basement held an ancient and enormous oil-burning furnace that, when started, shook the foundations of the house. Radiators on the first floor warmed; radiators on the second floor not so much. And oil was a buck and a quarter. We closed up rooms, put in a wood stove, calked the windows, and wore sweaters night and day.
The surprise had to do with my work habits. I liked to get up and get to my desk early. At three thirty every morning, I ran through the cold to my study, as I called it, and turned on the small electric space heater beside the wooden school chair at my desk, and ran back to bed. At four thirty, I got up and dressed and put on a down parka and went to my desk and began to write. The trick with typing was to keep your hands in your armpits until you had formed a sentence in your head, and then bring your fingers to the keys and blast out the sentence and bring your hands fast to your armpits again. Once I’d figured out this routine and put it into practice on seriously cold days, I felt, regardless of the quality of the work, like a hero.
My desk faced the Atlantic, and in those early mornings as I waited for my hands to warm and re-warm, I looked out over the dark ocean as far as the horizon. So absorbed was I in the heroic pursuit of my work that for weeks of our first winter I didn’t register that the ocean was not in fact dark. It was spread with a carpet of lights.
I knew what they were, had seen them before, but had never paid more than notional attention. They were the lights of boats either fishing inshore or making their way out to, or back from, deep-water trawls over the banks a hundred miles from shore. On the boats, in almost every weather, in every extreme of temperature, were fishermen doing what they did day after day, night after night, summer and winter.
I worked hard at the typewriter to try and justify my comfort and safety. Heroism evaporated.
Certainly, at that time, signs of trouble around the fishing business were evident even to the uninitiated like me. There were stories of captains who had gotten over-extended on their boats and sunk them for the insurance. There were stories of captains making their money, and a lot of it, bringing in more drugs than fish. But the lights did cover the night ocean outside Gloucester harbor, and the harbor itself was thick with the traffic of fishing boats of all sizes. A guy on the Point who had been a fish merchant to upscale Boston restaurants started his own small fish processing company and it grew to the point where he could move into an old plant down on the waterfront. This was the plant in which Clarence Birdseye perfected the quick-freezing process that by mid-century had made frozen fish a staple on American tables. The Birdseye plant had fallen into disuse, but the merchant got it up and working.
In a couple years, when my wife’s mother began failing in Oklahoma and we left Gloucester to care for her, I didn’t have any doubt that fish would always be fish and Gloucester would always be Gloucester. When my mother-in-law died in another few years, possibilities and pressures took us ever-farther from Gloucester, and it was well into the first decade of the new century before we got back.
The old house on Eastern Point was no longer available, but we found a small place off the Point and off the water, with heat. And my focus went to making a living – always an issue and more so just then. After writing a few seasons of web marketing, I dialed into a Boston management consulting firm that subbed out histories of its officers and its cases – fun stories to hear, drudgery to write, good money (at least for somebody who needed it), no whiff of heroism. In was in this studied ambience of business triumphs and failures and rescues, that I came on the term “Undertaker” as it referred to the people who disposed of failed companies or the failed divisions of ongoing corporations. The undertaker appraised the worth of whatever elements were left of the corpse, cleared employee roles, liquidated stock, emptied factories of equipment that could be sold for use or scrap, saw the factories torn down for real estate speculation or repurposed for somebody else’s products, and managed the closing of books and the flow of tax benefits before finally certifying the burial of whatever the corpse had been.
It was an arresting term, “Undertaker,” and at another time in my life there would have been a happy irony for me in the term, a corporate joke, the undertaker. As it happened in those days, our family was coming out from under serious debt. If we’d been somebody’s division, we would have been, a year earlier, ripe for an undertaker. So the term was poignantly more than amusing.
Shortly the term took on other relevance. Walking the dog between management consulting deadlines and what writing I could do for myself, I found myself on the back shore at night, and there the dog and I looked out over a night Atlantic altogether black, not a single light from any boat. Or, no, one two three lights, three boats. It had been years since I’d registered the carpet of boat lights on the ocean, and I understood that in time things could change, but this amazed me. So the dog and I began taking walks into the working curl of the inner harbor, where we discovered the other half of the empty ocean. Buildings along the harbor were shuttered. There were lobster boats and other small day boats, but the fleet of big stern draggers that went out to the banks to bring in the major harvest of fish had been reduced to a few hangers on. Wharves were idle. The old Birdseye plant was empty again, and this time plainly for good. The main street through town had a pulse in summer, but in winter was dead.
Eastern Point, on the other hand, was thriving. There were new and big houses, and the old houses were shined up. There were serious, and seriously immaculate, lawns. There were gates everywhere. Trees were coming down for high-end Boston hoteliers who needed views for their several houses. The latest generation of the rich had arrived. There were no art patrons with tigers, no society portraitists. In place of bohemians were children with BMWs.
As always before, the working class fishing industry spit at Eastern Point, and the Pointers in turn took the eternal comfort of not being townies. But the fishermen used to make a living, often a good living. Now the living was gone, and with it a lot of the fishermen. The fish were gone.
For generations, the inner harbor was zoned strictly for commercial harbor business, for fishing and fishing related concerns. Agitation built over the years to break that zoning, so condos or hotels could go in and capitalize on views of the harbor, but until recently, the agitation had been held at bay fairly easily, despite successive waves of speculators circling the old Birdseye plant.
But now the undertaking of Gloucester has begun.
The harbor zoning has fallen, and a year ago March, plans for a hotel on the Birdseye site were approved.
In January, Congress passed $75 million of disaster aid relief for northeast fishing communities that have suffered from a 2012 disaster declaration imposing brutal restrictions on groundfish catch. Not all of the money will come to Gloucester, and even if it did, it would not be much more than straws to grasp at.
This is the harbor in which fish were so thick they slowed the boats of early explorers. This is the harbor from which Gloucester men in Gloucester-built boats fished inshore waters with too much success not to go farther out, to the unfathomably rich fisheries over the Georges Banks and Grand Banks. This is the harbor to which whole villages of Portuguese and Italians came for the cod that made Gloucester the busiest fishing port in the country. This is the harbor and the town, still a town of less than 30,000, from which 10,000 fishermen sailed never to return. In today’s landscape of homogenized cultures, this is still a harbor and a town with much remaining of its own unique culture, with its own vocabulary and its own pronunciations, and with now an ocean that is all but empty.
Here was a way of life, common along shores around the world and yet powerfully American on this open fist of a cape north of Boston. Here was a place and a living that mattered beyond its geography and its small number of souls – so many of whom were given to the waters beyond its harbor. This was a place that in its going away may tell us something about who we are and where we’ve been and what lies ahead.
And how hard it is to say that: Going away.
When I first came to Eastern Point, I understood that the life of the Point, while not a trifle, was movable, a kind of life that has always found a place and then another place. I was an example, showing up in the middle of my life while trying to break through as a writer, and able to move on. But the carpet of fishermen’s lights on the night ocean, in the dead of winter, had taught me to understand Gloucester, the harbor and the town, differently. When I looked at Gloucester after that, I saw a gravity of place and purpose that seemed all but eternal. And now with the innocent faith of an outsider, and despite the evidence before my eyes, I cannot in my heart understand Gloucester otherwise.
Must the undertaking wipe away everything? Can’t the fish stocks be stabilized and in time nurtured back? Can’t the fishermen who are left be kept on their boats? Can’t the working harbor and its spirit be held together as other economies find places there? Can the town’s historic muscle bring up the necessary answers – as once the fish were brought up and as, God willing, they will be again?