Friday, September 6, 2013

The Whole Town Seemed Different

                                                            (photograph by Mark Power)

After Labor Day the whole town seemed different.  Most of the summer people had left.  When we lived 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 Blend, 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 snap 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 now, just 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 Browns 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.

     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.

(from A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, Lost & Found, available at local book stores and from

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Presage of Summer's End: "Children in August"

 Children in August. . . The phrase isn’t mine.  It’s the title of a play by a writer friend from college.  But it came to mind as I started to look back on that other part of summer when we were growing up, the end of it, or what we took to be its ending in that last flush of mid-August heat.
     The Fourth of July had come and gone with those final, sporadic explosions of firecrackers and cherry bombs in the fading light of dusk at the Cut and along the banks of the Blynman Canal.  The noise of carnivals, wafted across to us from Stage Fort Park on the freshening night breezes—those snatches of merry-go-round music, the sharp voices of the barkers urging you to bet on the wheel or take a shot at a doll for your girl—was stilled now and the park was bare except for the swings and seesaws, which we had long ago abandoned in boredom.
     Day camp was only during the week, and by mid-summer we had played so much evening baseball or watched so many adult league games at Newell Stadium that the freshness had worn off that, too, like the burnish from summer itself.
     Saturday mornings we’d hang around our porches or in the shade of someone’s back yard swapping comics and planning adventures.  But we—Billy Homans, Russ Henderson, Barry Clark, my brother and I—were getting too old to be making superhero capes from our mother’s old drapes, too old to be ambushing Mrs. Anderson as she hung her wash with a single arm, or teasing her grandsons Ronnie and Denny only because they were a little younger than we were.  Mothers would appear at the back door with pitchers of Kool Aid and ask what we were up to.
     “Nothing,” would be the inevitable reply.
     “Then why don’t you go to the library?” they’d offer.
     “Naw,” we’d answer. “It’s too hot to walk there.”
     Children in August, we were, with time on our hands, with the summer still hanging on and we hanging onto it because its end meant just one thing—back to school.  No one in his right mind would wish that to come again so soon.
     But what to do?  You could always make the rounds of the neighborhood and collect tonic bottles.  These you’d turn in with milk bottles at my Dad’s or next door at Irving Morris’ First National store.  With the refund money you could always buy a Baby Ruth candy bar or a Milky Way.  Then we’d stick the Milky Ways in the old General Electric refrigerator, in those tiny freezing compartments that could just about hold a few trays of ice cubes and wait for them to solidify, making a hundred trips in and out of the house to see if they were “ready” yet.  All this, of course, while our mothers were trying to finish their house work or relax in front of the radio with a cigarette, fanning themselves in the heat with a copy of Life magazine.
     Of course, we’d straggle over to the beach on hot afternoons.  Maybe across the Cut Bridge to the narrow strip of sand just by the entrance to the canal we called “Crab Beach.”  I have an old snapshot that shows us with towels knotted around our necks, sticks stuck in our bathing suit waistbands for knives, longer slats of crate wood for swords. . . homemade bows and arrows even.  But we did those things when we were younger.  Now I’m talking about the days maybe just before we entered fifth or sixth grade, when you no longer wore wooden swords or cutlasses any more than you acted out what you’d just read in comic books or heard on the radio—“the Shadow knows!”
     By then we’d also graduated from selling punch, lemonade or Kool Aid from our porches or along Perkins Road to those obliging parents or neighbors who would contribute a few pennies and endure the poorly made drinks.  Onetime I even opened my own “business,” selling pieces of my mother’s and my Aunt Helene’s discarded costume jewelry from the top of an orange crate on the porch at 3 Perkins Road.  The hand-lettered sign I hung from the porch railing said “Curio Shop” because it seemed that Lamont Cranston, alias “the Shadow,” was always encountering some mysterious stranger in the back room of an old curio shop in London or the Orient and the phrase had captivated me with its eerie recreation of faraway places and shadowy characters.
     But selling things bored us too, so on late afternoons we’d wander down the river bank among the tansy, which had by now broken out everywhere into golden buttons, the milkweed already gone to green seed pod, and the golden rod still green tipped, waiting until the end of August to finally flower when it would run riot everywhere.   We’d grown too old to chase the butterflies, as we’d previously done, though we remarked on the profusion of monarchs prior to migration and the last of the tiger and black swallowtails.  You didn’t have to be a naturalist to understand what the arrival of the monarchs meant.  It was an event you lived with all your young life, a presage of fall in the rich, darkly-veined rust-red of their wings, in the slow, stately figures of their flight.
     And in that first glimpse of the monarchs, in the smell of the fields on the river bank, the burnt over weeds and grass, the rich perfume of the tansy bruised under our running feet, came the inevitable signs of the end of summer, and with them a perhaps less clear but far more deeply impending sense that soon we ourselves would no longer be children in August.

(from A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, by Peter Anastas.  Published in May 2013 by Lost &  Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.  Available from

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Brian James reviews A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester for North Shore Art Throb

A Walker in the City

Gloucester rises dramatically, unevenly from the harbor. Jagged sets of houses grin from the hillsides, a whole city keeping eyes on the giving sea, the taking sea. This is the city that I can see out the window, hazed in a blue fog, as I sit semi-circled with the devotees of the Gloucester Writer’s Center. And while I, so clearly an outsider, am enamored of the physical city, of the dense mystery, the natives who huddle here are not interested in the view. They wait, instead, for the raising of a spirit, over there, where a stool sits spotlighted.

Peter Anastas - Photo Courtesy of Mike Dean/Gloucester Daily Times
Peter Anastas is the conjurer of the evening, reading from his new collection of editorials, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester. This elegy does, indeed, mourn a lost age, but it also reawakens the spirit of the past, or the imagined past, that each listener so proudly and intensely possesses. As I watch Anastas, the poised storyteller with a voice and gesture that bespeak the familiarity of his audience, I also can’t help but survey the audience itself, all feeders, made strong with memory. They wade through his words, waiting for resonance, and when they find it, they rise in their chairs, they laugh, they eye each other, probing for shared satisfaction. Is this our Gloucester? It is our Gloucester! Isn’t it?

Having written of the city over decades of change (the articles were published in Gloucester Daily Times and North Shore North from 1978 to 1990, and range back in subject to life in the 1950s), Anastas’ Gloucester is consistently colorful, lively, and fragrant. His childhood memories, which are the focus of many articles, confirm the popular imagination of post-WWII America, a place of storybook color and definition:
The noise of carnivals, wafted across to us from Stage Fort Park on the freshening night breezes—those snatches of merry-go-round music, the sharp voices of the barkers urging you to bet on the wheel or take a shot at a doll for your girl…” Anastas indulges the fondest visions of the past, a time of cohesion, community, and innocence.
But even these brightest glimpses live in the shadow of Anastas’ most prevalent theme: loss. After descriptive reveries about working
with Papouli (Greek for grandfather) at his shoe repair shop, Anastas dials us back to current realities in jarring fashion: “Then Papouli retired and after that he walked with a cane and there were to be no more Saturdays at the shop, which remained empty before they tore it down.” At times, Anastas steps out of his largely narrative role to elucidate on the bigger picture of loss. One of his most eloquent reflections on the subject can be found in “Mourning Long Ago Landscapes”: “Robbed of things we remembered, we are also robbed of our histories; and we are, therefore, faced with a double mourning, as painful to undertake as it is puzzling to comprehend.”

Gloucester readers feel this “double mourning,” often relating it to the recent urban development that has reshaped the city and threatened a long-standing way of life. Anastas has also been a voice for this anger. A Walker in the City is divided into four sections, three of them largely picturesque and elegiac, one of them titled “Facing the Issues,” in which Anastas took on local government when education, environment, and local culture were threatened by outside forces and budget limitations. In these sections, the emphasis is always the same: preserve what has worked well, be careful moving forward, honor the city that we love. Despite his strong affinity for the past, Anastas pursues a “functional nostalgia rather than a regressive one.” In “Facing the Issues,” we see an active, present member of a community always in transition (but even his social action editorials are permeated by the romance of Gloucester past).

A Walker in the City reminds us how much we hunger for the articulation of our environment. Language shapes a city just as much as the landscape or architecture, and we want that spoken shape to be true, epic, and unique. What a tall and often contradictory order for the local writer. Give us a legacy! Make it great! Make it real! But Anastas is glad for such a demanding audience. This work has flowed from him without coercion or resentment. Perhaps this is because the demand from within Anastas is equally, if not more fiercely, demanding as that of the readership. His words are the only consolation, the only treasure store that remains after the wreckage of time has taken its irrevocable toll.

Brian James is an English teacher, a songwriter, and a church musician at HRNS. He grew up in Salem, lives in Salem, and writes about Salem, which is the setting of his novel-in-progress. Brian also collaborates with musician Jon Green, writing some lyrics and music. He is pursuing graduate studies at Salem State University.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester: A review by Rae Francoeur

NORTH SHORE BOOK NOTES: Peter Anastas' 'A Walker in the City'
By Rae Padilla Francoeur
Cape Ann Beacon
May 22, 2013

A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester” By Peter Anastas. The book is published collectively by Lost & Found Elsewhere: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative and Back Shore Press. 2013. 244 pages. $14.95

I am under the spell of Peter Anastas, who takes me by the hand in “A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester,” and leads me to his grandmother’s stove to take a whiff of her wonderful keftedes, little Greek meatballs seasoned with onions, oregano and fresh mint. We walk to the Fort to watch men unload the fishing boats. We stroll to the library, through Dogtown at dusk, to summer camp to learn to swim. I see the summer gardens immortalized by John Sloan and I feel the restlessness of late August and I hear the quiet murmurings of a friendly neighborhood as the sun sets.

Anastas has compiled, in “A Walker in the City,” a collection of essays he first published in The Gloucester Daily Times and North Shore North in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. This collection highlights Gloucester, not as an artifact of a past era, but as a community of souls arrived “on the brink.” Of what? Inevitable change, loss, annihilation of self? And how is this different from what Anastas faces as he grows toward his own unknown? The book is a layered and intimate conversation between author and reader.

Gloucester, in possession of unique and valuable resources, is a maritime-oriented community whose desire to retain its identity and way of life feels like a protracted and tragic struggle in these beautiful, heartbreaking essays. Gloucester is prey to developers who have won more than a foothold here. Will this one-of-a-kind city fall to a familiar default mode, one seen at so many seaside communities whose unique characters have been overwritten by hotels and shops and boardwalks?

Anastas begins with many eloquent reminiscences of his childhood, spent at the epicenter of what is still a captivating, dynamic community. In his urgency to capture the essence of his childhood and its symbiotic link to Gloucester, he manages to present a multi-sensory recreation of what we thought we’d lost — our youth. At the same time, he chronicles a community’s struggle for the survival of self. Sense of place, he writes, is the chemistry between particular people and a unique landscape. Change the landscape and change the people. Save Gloucester and save yourself.

I wonder, what is more alluring as subject matter — Gloucester’s years of struggle or Anastas’s? He’s self-aware, engaged in self-examination and somber even in his most eloquent and successful reincarnations of youth. Read the essays in Section I: This Side of the Cut and transport to a childhood so real that the buzz of a cell phone or even the honk of a car will seem surreally out of place. He may or may not mean to do this, but these beautiful evocations, so tinged with melancholy, are both warnings and, in a more hopeful bent, models. It doesn’t have to be too late. Anastas admits to his “perpetual condition of bereavement.” He carries a weight for all of us.

Roger Martin, poet in Rockport, once called Lura Hall Phillips “Rockport’s prod.” Phillips compelled people to work hard for the arts, for Rockport and for the betterment of the community. She wasn’t subtle, like Anastas is, with his sweet nostalgia that can easily be mistaken for simply that. (He says his nostalgia is functional rather than regressive, meant to demonstrate the extent of the loss.) She was an arm twister where Anastas relies on his fine skills as writer of essays and fiction, and his years-long commitment to his subject matter.

Anastas worries, in a few essays, that today’s youth are not close to the land and the community. They are less in touch with a natural world, the one he revels in, where an owl’s hoots announce a certain point in winter’s progression. Our sense of place is who and what we are, writes Anastas. If we don’t notice, what will happen?

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at Or read her blog at 2or follow her @RaeAF.22