Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Walker in the City: Summer's End

(Gloucester street photographer Louis Bland/Mark Power photograph)

After Labor Day the whole town seemed different. Most of the summer people had left. Living down the Cut, we’d still run into a few tourists along the Boulevard in mid-September—“stragglers,” everyone called them.

They’d be snapping pictures with their “Brownie” box cameras. Or they’d be getting their own pictures taken by Louis Bland, who held onto his post in the circle in front of the fisherman’s monument until the days grew cold and the rains washed down Stacy Promenade and the wind blew the leaves out of all the trees along Western Avenue.

Louis would take your picture—it couldn’t have cost more than a quarter in those days—and the most fun would be watching him develop it right there, dipping the print into a little tank of chemicals, washing it off (you could smell the “hypo”), and handing to you in a stiff gray cardboard “Souvenir of Gloucester” frame.

How many of us have had our childhoods recorded in a series of images by Gloucester’s only street photographer? Can you see yourself now in bathing suit or shorts in front of the statue, the backdrop always a fa├žade of Western Avenue houses?

Still, you always knew when summer was over. The days felt different. And the light was different, too, as it had been since the last few weeks in August: more oblique in the morning, sharper; falling earlier in the evening, the trees casting long shadows at suppertime when you’d limp in after scrimmage along the river bank. No more baseball, once the football season had started; only the World Series on radio.

Of course, school was just around the corner, if it hadn’t already started. During the last week of August there would be the annual ritual of shopping for school clothes. Your mother would drag you around Brown's or the Empire, or in and out of Goldman’s or Grants. If you refused to make those obligatory trips, you’d probably end up with clothes you didn’t like—shirts, for example, the color and style of which you wouldn’t be caught dead in at Central Grammar.

So it was best to submit to the ordeal of trying on slacks that had to be cuffed, or the embarrassment of seeing yourself with those droopy trousers in several views in the big mirror of the men’s department in the Empire with the rest of the customers looking on. Henry Weiner sold me my first pair of long pants there, and I’ll always be grateful that he didn’t patronize me because I was a kid. Later, in high school, when you had the freedom of buying your own clothes, you could also go to Bloomberg’s or Alper’s for your back-to-school wardrobe. Their men's fashions were more up to date.

After we’d moved from the Cut to Rocky Neck in 1951, Labor Day was a more dramatic event. The number of customers in our store and in all the shops and restaurants on Rocky Neck would decrease markedly. You could tell the difference the day after Labor Day. The Neck would literally be deserted. Slowly all Dad’s “regulars”—Richard Hunt, Stan Farrell, Tommy Morse, Bill Sibley, Joe Garland, Jerry Hill, Harry Wheeler, Walter Kidder and Parker Morong—would reappear to take up their old stools at the counter for those long fall and winter nights of coffee and talk. Come winter, Dad closed early and we actually got a chance to sit down and talk together as a family before my brother and I went to bed early on school nights.

Summer ended precipitously in East Gloucester. One day you’d be walking past the Hawthorne Inn Casino, the “deli” thronged with bathers from Niles Beach, Johnny Windhurst and his Dixieland Band screaming away upstairs at night with us kids on the back porch taking in the music breathlessly; and the next day, it seemed, the Casino would be empty, boarded up like the rest of the cottages, silent. And with the sharp winds of coming September nights the whole place would take on a forlorn air, the Rockaway Hotel and the Harbor View, the Delfine and the Hawthorne Inn, the Fairview and the Seacroft Hotel, all “closed for the season,” as the signs on them would read when we walked past them on those chilly nights after Labor Day to discover that summer had indeed gone, disappeared just like that, and all of us here somehow left holding the bag.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Walker in the City: City of Hills

(Gloucester painting by Theodoros Stamos)

Gloucester is a city of hills, marvelous and steep, as I knew from my tired legs, walking endlessly up and down them as a child with my grandfather, Angel Polisson. But the views from Governor’s Hill or the summit of Ledgmont Avenue, to name but a few of our many vantage points, are also stupendous, rewarding any effort to discover them.

From first grade I walked over Rider’s Rocks, between Centennial Avenue and Hovey Street, as a short cut to the Hovey School. From that granite outcropping you could look across Newell Stadium to the Essex Avenue marshes and all the way up behind the high school to Done Fudgin’. Once you reached Hovey Street, at Roger Babson’s house with its distinctive red turret, you could see almost to Boston. On a clear night the lights of Cape Cod dotted the horizon.

Don’t think that because we were young we didn’t want to observe the world from any height or angle available to us. There were no distracting TVs in the 1940s. And radio, while it may have kindled our imaginations—who wouldn’t have been excited by The Shadow?—didn’t Disneyfy our perceptions. No, we were noticers, we kids who lived down the Cut, on Babson Court or along Mansfield Street. From the Boulevard we watched the endless stream of fishing vessels and pleasure boats as they negotiated the Blynman Canal. We were curious also to see the tourists, who began to stream back into the city after the war, the women in flamboyant straw hats and the men in plaid shorts, which no native would appear dead in on Main Street if you wanted to avoid that quintessential expression of Gloucester derision: “Down for the summah?”

But it’s the hills I’ve had on my mind ever since I recently walked up to Governor’s Park. Dusk was approaching, that magical hush as the day ends and the night has not quite declared itself. I stood listening to the muted sounds of the city—the voices of kids playing after supper, the barking of dogs, the muffled roar of automobile engines. Robins sang, swallows darted in the muggy air. And beneath me the city spread out from East Gloucester and the Paint Factory to Ravenswood.

Where else would one ever want to be? What else would one want to do on such a summer night but stand and take it all in? There was the familiar roof of the Hovey School, now condos, the assorted 19th and 20th century houses of Beacon Hill, just below Commonweath Avenue where I stood, and the harbor itself, spotted with small craft heading for their moorings as night began to fall.

It was here on Governor’s Hill, in the big Victorian house to the right as you face the park, that I was taken one Sunday morning during the war by our neighbor Gardner Deering. Gardner was an air-raid warden, and at the top of that house, in its attic or under an enclosed widow’s walk, was a lookout station. Surrounded by windows, the men who were on duty there, Coast Guardsmen or Civil Defense volunteers like Gardner, watched for signs of strange aircraft or German submarines. I remember maps strewn about and a short-wave radio. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, when I climbed the dark, echoing stairway to the top of the house; but I’ve never forgotten the view out across the city and the harbor. I remember the men, patiently explaining to me what their mission was, for German subs had been sighted off Thacher’s Light and the Isle of Shoals, and I later learned that spies, speaking perfect English, had come ashore in South Portland, where they were apprehended by the Coast Guard.

So hills served a wartime purpose, as did the concrete watchtowers on Eastern and Halibut points. But as children I think it was more the wonder of heights that drew us, as we envied the people whose houses commanded such a view through all the seasons. I remember following a narrow wooded path at Ravenswood Park with my friend Bob Stephenson, only to emerge at the top of a ridge from which the city itself, from City Hall to Eastern Point Light, unfolded magically beneath us.

And what about Fiesta from Governor’s Hill or the top of Ledgmont, high above the blue carillon towers of Our Lady of Good Voyage? You may not be able to see the crowds or smell the sizzling peppers and sausages, the fried dough; but you can hear the vibrant music of the Italian bands and the voices of the revelers as if you were looking down on it all from the heights of Palermo. But make no mistake, it’s Gloucester, and we had better love it or lose it