The seasonal tide of the tourists

No registration requiredThe writer, Justin Tussing, formerly of Provincetown and Northamptom MA, is presently Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland OR. He lived for three years in Provincetown where he sold tickets at a whale watch in a booth on MacMillan Wharf, and derided our summer visitors. Now he revisits The Cape as a tourist himself with amusing results - The Editors

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or three years my wife and I shared a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the harbor in Provincetown. From our front door we saw dolphins and whales.

The Massachusetts town, in its isolation, felt like our own private country. On still evenings the hollow clanging of the buoy off Long Point punctuated our sleep. We marveled at the sunsets and the quahogs. In late winter when islands of ice sailed into the bay, they were our islands.

You couldn't find our family names in the town cemetery. We weren't property owners. But by virtue of passing a lonely winter on the clenched fist at the end of Cape Cod, we were locals.

As summer approached, our attachment to this place, and to our image of ourselves as locals, would reach a zealous peak. We prayed that red tides, hurricanes and rising gas prices might collude to keep the people away. Memorial Day inaugurated an unwelcome season of traffic lights and crowded streets, as hordes of vacationers clogged our paradise.

We learned to cope with a town distended beyond its capacity. We'd run errands in the morning, when fog (and something like a collective hangover) limited the crowds. We'd avoid the carnival procession that ran down the main drag, Commercial Street. Labor Day, marking the end of the summer, became our most anticipated holiday.

ptownDuring those interminable months before Labor Day arrived and the tourists departed, I retreated to a damp and fly-plagued booth perched above the harbor. There, I was the gatekeeper to the sublime. I sold whale-watch tickets.

Locals do their whale-watching in February and March, from the comfort of their cars, when endangered right whales parade in front of the parking lot at Herring Cove. The whale-watching boats catered almost exclusively to visitors.

I sat in my little booth on the wharf, and answered variations on the same questions. Would they see whales? Yes. How long was the trip? Three hours (upon hearing my answer someone would inevitably sing the theme to “Gilligan’s Island”). How much did it cost? It depended on coupons and promotions and my mood.

I was petty, but pettiness is the privilege of the powerful. I could dispatch information and disinformation, according to my whim. I could direct you to the leather bar or the prettiest garden or the best whole-belly clams. But good luck finding Subway, or my favorite piece of beach. From a metal folding chair, I witnessed, I judged, and I proselytized.

The tourists approached the ticket booth with a feed-me attitude. They expected a benevolent Nature. They wanted assurances that they would see whales, good whales. They wanted guarantees for the weather, for their satisfaction, and they needed to be back in time for dinner reservations.

But what I cherished about my job was that those same demanding, anxious, suspicious people would hammer down a gangplank and onto a boat, and, three hours later, disembark, often missing hats or cameras, becalmed and lovely. I’d like to believe that they’d been moved by seeing something larger than themselves, or that being out of sight of land had caused some elemental change in their souls.

More likely they were still under the spell of Dramamine. I watched them stumble toward their cars. Stripped of their consuming hunger, they seemed less like barbarians and more like innocents.

Sometimes, they would pause to ask me a final question: How do we get out of here? I drew comfort from the fact that they were leaving and I, the local, would stay. This was a fantasy.

Soon enough, the economic tides that swept away so many of our friends washed my wife and me inland. We wound up living in western Massachusetts, less than a mile from the Connecticut River — a body of water that, despite many attempts on my part, refused to accept my displaced affection.

This year my wife and I headed back to the tip of the Cape. We went as tourists, on vacation. The rainy days no longer cheered us. At the wharf the same commercial fisherman drove past in their rotting trucks, but my face no longer qualified me for the local’s discount at the coffee shop.

We wandered about, indistinguishable from the other summer people. We stopped to stare at the newly renovated art museum, at the flip-flop store that used to be the henna tattoo store and which had been something else before. We peered through a condo’s porthole window at the space where we were married, back when it had been a restaurant. We reached Commercial Street and joined the human procession.

In the distance, I saw my damp old booth. Part of me wanted to go over there, if only to convince the ticket-taker that I wasn’t a tourist. But our strongest claims of belonging usually reveal the opposite. I wasn’t kidding anybody. I knew what he would see. 

justintussing2 Justin Tussing gave cctoday permission to reprint his amusing tale in today's International Herald Tribune (no registration required) here. He has just published another book.
See Justin's books here and here.

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