A Walker in the CityGloucester 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 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.