Friday, June 24, 2005

Yesterday around 5 pm

Behind me and across the street lies the first cemetery in Rockport, Ma. where Richard Tarr’s body was laid to rest in 1732; honored to be the first citizen of the town to take permanent residence, albeit six feet under.

In front of me the Atlantic Ocean stretches out as far as I can see presumably ending as it hits Europe, only my eyes aren’t that good to make out the land once called “the old country.”

I am lucky enough to be somewhere in between.

The trip to Rockport was a last minute decision as I was content to remain at home, sending out resume's in the - what has become almost futile - hope that perhaps someone will hire me. I would have the internet, cable television, the Jonathan Lethem novel I just started reading, and the back porch to enjoy the perfect clear blue sunny day. 70’s (Fahrenheit) and not at all humid, a rare occurrence in New England. Perhaps I’d even mow the lawn if inspiration struck. Perhaps not.

My mother, having finished the school year the day prior (teaching at a local Jewish Junior High) decided to celebrate her first day of summer vacation by stopping off in Lexington (home to “the Shot heard round the world” - you can’t throw a stone in Massachusetts without hitting something of historical value) for an hour on her way traveling north up route 128 to the final destination of Rockport, MA. Though I was slow to acquiesce to join her, I relented - mostly due to the realization that I hadn’t been out of the house for almost a week.

Earlier. I walked around a small part of the town with my mother falling into most gift shops we passed. After that we decided to split up. She enjoys window shopping and sneaking into peoples back yards (“just to see how they decorate”) whereas I don’t have money to shop and the thrill of trespassing no longer does anything for me.

Now. Children play on the rocks jetting out from the left most border of the beach into the ocean, all acting as if they were the first to discover this “remote” part of America. A boy, no more than 17 years of age, decked out in the hippest heavy metal beach attire scales the highest rock. Perhaps to impress the waifish 16 year old girl trailing at his heels. They are the only two visitors wearing combat boots to the beach.

The town itself is picturesque, in the very sense that I felt I was walking through a picture as I navigated my way back to the car and this beach. It is every quaint New England coastal town you’ve seen on countless postcards. From the salty early colonial blue, gray, and white houses to the small over priced tourist shops (here spelled shoppes), art galleries and clothing boutiques. Not to mention the countless hole in the wall clam and lobster (spelled proudly and phonetically “Lobstah”) joints that litter the side streets. In the middle of the street leading up the docks and gift shops a street light rests; a scale model of a white New England lighthouse. I wonder if in the evenings the light revolves warning residents to avoid this part of town lest they crash head first into an out cropping of tourists.

It is so pristine in its portrayal of itself as a charming slice of nostalgic Americana I can’t help but feel I don’t belong. As if my very presence here lessens the aesthetic (and somewhat kitschy) value of this town. I am an outsider, alien to the quiet charm loudly echoing through the streets. I feel like a walking imposition on the residents forced to ply their trade from the tourists each summer. A tourist is someone loved for their money, but hated for needing their money, and I have no money to spend. So I am worse, I am just someone taking up space.

There is of course no outward hostility towards me, as all of my discomfort here is in my head and not actually on the streets themselves (or with the citizenry). But as I look at a town whose current appeal lies closer with Disney World than otherwise I think that Richard Parr, were he still alive, would be sitting next to me (he’d have to be sitting, a man his age and still alive wouldn’t be able to stand) feeling the same sort of detachment and alienation in his home town as I do. We might not have much to talk about, him being an early Puritan settler the likes of whom are responsible for current blue laws, and me, a liberal Jew the likes of whom support gay marriage and countless other vices not permitted by the puritans. Even through our differences I would like to think we’d agree that neither of us felt comfortable here. The town he knew and helped found would be so changed as to only be recognized making money from a false sense of nostalgia. Though as uncomfortable as he might feel he would have a leg up on me, swelled with a pride I do not have. Pride stemming from the simple truth that his decedents (if not exactly by blood then by citizenship) have kept his town thriving and healthy, and that his legacy lives on.

I’m just a bad tourist and have no excuse. So I close my eyes, trying to be like the 5 year old who excitedly giggles with joy every time she drops a stone into the water, and let everything go, just to enjoy myself. I think Richard would want it that way.

1 comment:

Jason said...

What should we expect towns to become if they can't become what is considered by many to be the most romanticized version of small town American life? Should they become pavement communities? Do we really want to see lifeless streets decorated with traffic lights, exhaust fumes and fast-food wrappers littering our environment?

I understand how and why you might feel part of the lameness that goes into a tourist town. But some towns can take on that design, quality of life and character, yet remain wholely dedicated to creating something new and modern.

Sure there are towns that literally survive off of the tourist buck from re-creation, like Sturbridge Village in Mass. But there are a number of towns and small cities in this country that have a distinctly familiar feeling to them while also recognizing that we don't live in the 18th century anymore. Try Northampton, MA, or any other quintessential college town.

We should be promoting local hardware stores, drug stores, grocery stores, etc, etc. A lack of bix box chains doesn't indicate a refusal to accept progress, it just means that you care about holding onto the future design that your community takes.

I've never been to Rockport, but perhaps your uncomfortablness comes from being in an environment that doesn't reflect our current reality. Most of us don't live in a walkable, breathable town where service to ones community takes on a very personal tone. We live in suburban bedroom communities, anonymous high rise buildings.

There are thousands of small town in this country, and perhaps what we need is for more of them to take on the appeal of places like Rockport. Then we wouldn't have to drive an hour to see what a local economy looks like, and we wouldn't feel so strange in a place that feels so farmiliar.

Jason