Chris Creegan

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Be here now: reflections from Provincetown

by Chris on 5th February 2018

‘The season’s over now’, said the flight attendant as we were about to board the Silver Line to Seaport Boulevard on our arrival in Boston in late September last year. ‘But if you want to party you should definitely try the Tea Dance at the Boatslip Beach Club’. We were heading to Provincetown, on Cape Cod, and we recognised him from the plane we’d just travelled on from London.

After checking which bus we should catch to the ferry terminal, we asked him where we might go while we were in Provincetown. He wasn’t short of suggestions, but they all came with that caveat. The season was over.

Provincetown is on the extreme tip of Cape Cod and the best way to get there from Boston is by ferry. You can go by road but it takes longer and we’d already been told by friends we were joining that arriving by sea was the way to do it. Just as any seasoned traveller will tell you to catch a boat rather than a coach to Venice when you arrive at the airport, approaching Provincetown from the water creates a more audacious arrival.

I first went to Venice in my mid-twenties. It was only the third city abroad I’d visited (after Paris and Amsterdam) and it captivated me in a way that few places have done since. Provincetown, or P-Town as it is affectionately known, may not be the eighth wonder of the world as Venice is sometimes referred to, but its spell is undeniable. And being told to arrive by sea was unquestionably good advice. The journey takes around 90 minutes and Provincetown rises out of the water to greet you as you approach the Cape, just as Venice does out of the lagoon.

Provincetown may not quite have Venice’s provenance either but it has something that Venice doesn’t have. It has a modern gay history. It’s a place that LGBT people have made their own for more than a quarter of a century. Before we visited I had been there in my mind’s eye many times over the last thirty years. Most memorably, I had taken Michael Cunningham’s Walk in Provincetown and lost myself in Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. And then, in 2005, I had read Andrew Sullivan’s landmark essay, The End of Gay Culture, written from Provincetown.

When I read Sullivan’s essay, I felt a loss for a place I’d never been and would somehow now never have the chance to experience. Not a physical place but a cultural and social phenomenon. I’d been reading about it for a decade but apparently, it was already too late. I’d missed the boat. Yet now here I was, on a boat, with my husband, on our honeymoon of sorts, about to arrive there in the fading evening sunlight. Whatever Sullivan’s or anyone else’s experiences had been, my P-town journey was just beginning.

That P-town is still a gay resort could not have been more obvious on the ferry. Three-quarters of our fellow passengers at least were gay men. There were the two guys who chatted animatedly about the place as if it was an old friend. They’d never met before even though both had been there many times. There was the couple next to us with the designer dog who they clearly liked being the centre of attention even though it meant that they were disturbed by it.

And then there was the group of three sat in front of us who gave off an air of seasoned visitors surrounded by novices. Like Armistead Maupin’s A-gays in Tales of the City, they had clearly claimed their place in P-town’s pecking order. They were especially exasperated by a curious couple who kept coming back and forth from the deck without closing the door properly. The couple – an older long-haired, tattooed and pierced, bear, and his bleach blonde, twink companion – were, to our slight embarrassment, British. But hey, they were full of anticipation, just like us.

We were not to be disappointed. It was the start of a trip which also took in Boston, New York and Toronto and for various reasons had its ups and downs. But when we arrived home to a Scottish autumn three weeks later, we both agreed that P-town had been the highlight. Sadly we were there for just five days. It was to have been six but the last gasp of Hurricane Jose put paid to the final day when the owners of the house we were staying in with our friends got in touch from New York to say that for its safety and ours they wanted to board it up.

Although Jose wimped out, our hosts had good reason to be risk-averse. The timber-framed house was on Commercial Street which hugs Cape Cod Bay the length of P-town and it was completely exposed to the elements. You are never far from the sea in P-town but we couldn’t have been closer. Out of the back door, down a few rickety steps was the beach, the sea just feet away. And because we were at the far eastern end of the street, we could stand on the beach and look back at the town. At nightfall, it shimmered in the distance, all the way past the harbour to Long Point Light Station, one of three lighthouses around the tip of the Cape which date back to the early 19th century.

The light is one of the things about P-town, and Cape Cod, that is most memorable. If you’ve marvelled at Edward Hopper’s paintings you’ll understand. Hopper and his wife had a summerhouse in Truro, just to the east of P-town, in the mid-1930s. I had always liked his paintings, but on Cape Cod, they made sense viscerally for the first time. The way they connect sea and sky captures its shoreline to perfection. Because it’s coastal, the light in P-town is ever changing too, no less so than when we there. Each day we rose to thick fog which hemmed us in and concealed the town from view. And each day, save the last, without warning the fog would lift to reveal the curvature of the bay bathed in early autumn sunshine.

But back to history, because aside from its geography, it was that which made our visit memorable. I’ve done quite a few of the world’s great gay cities, Berlin, Amsterdam and San Fransisco to name three of the best. Each is steeped in contemporary gay history and offers a feeling of belonging which until recently British cities couldn’t rival. But their gayness is still found mostly in gay districts. As a gay visitor, they’ve offered the opportunity to feel less outlandish, more commonplace, than in other cities. But you’d still be in the minority. Not so in P-town. It’s not exclusively gay. Some of its most iconoclastic residents have been straight – our beach house was just a few yards from Norman Mailer’s – but in P-town, it’s a straightdar you need walking about.

We didn’t go to the Tea Dance. Our middle-aged reserve eschewed its draw. In fact, we barely visited a gay bar though there were plenty to choose from. Even if the party season had been in full swing, we’re not really party people, not the P-town way anyway. Rather, for those few days, we meandered around the town, lingering here and there in a bookshop, cafe or gallery. And the impression that this was a place our kind had made their own was unmistakable. I’ve never really bought the notion of a gay community, even when defined as a community of interest. But P-town confounded me.

In part, it did so just because so many of its visitors were gay men – and more visibly than in many gay resorts, lesbians too – but the feeling of community was less ephemeral than its status as a gay resort might suggest. This wasn’t just a place LGBT people had visited – and visit. It was a place they had settled – and whose nooks and crannies could tell our story. A narrative about gains that only recently we didn’t dare to dream of – I was there with my husband after all – and losses that still sear through us of the years that HIV ravaged gay America.

For Sullivan, Provincetown was a place where, for a while, ‘a separate identity defined a separate place.’ And he’s right – in a way. Just as it has done elsewhere, gay culture, as we knew it has diminished. It was, if you like, a victim of its own success. The gains we made meant that we thought we no longer needed to seek refuge in gay culture’s spaces, still less the need to nurture and sustain them in order to be ourselves. But gay culture isn’t dead yet. P-town is still as gay as anywhere I’ve ever been. And for all the changes which have blurred that sense of separation, I couldn’t help but see it through the eyes of the gay men who came before me. Their history – ours – is palpably part of the town’s fabric

The flight attendant was right too. We had missed the season. And frustratingly, we had missed Armistead Maupin who had been there just the evening before we arrived to talk about his new memoir, Logical Family. But being there after the season had a distinct advantage too. We’re past partying for the most part. Ambling is more our thing these days. So P-town’s present-day gayness – its population can swell twenty fold at the height of summer – didn’t suffocate us. Instead, its rich history wrapped us gently and reassuringly on our late call honeymoon.

This piece started while we were still in P-town. The feeling that I would finally arrive there after the end of something had taken hold before we had even set off. Once we were there it stubbornly stuck in my mind, inevitably heightened by the fact that we were reminded from the moment we landed in Boston that we had come after the end of the ‘season’. And yet in those few days, I also felt an irresistible pull to transcend that retrospection and to embrace the moment. Whatever we may have missed by being latecomers to Provincetown, its present magic was utterly enthralling.

The friends we joined there on Commercial Street, another gay couple of our age had been just once before two years ago. I chewed over P-town’s push and pull with one of them and it resonated with him for just the same reasons. The past was, of course, unavoidable. We couldn’t help but be reminded that we were retracing the footsteps of gay men who had been there before us or avoid walking in the shadows of everything they had been and done there. But then it came to us. This was our time. We had to ‘be here now’.

That realisation, though we didn’t know it, was prescient. A couple of months after returning home, just before World AIDS Day, I decided to return to Mark Doty. His book, Heaven’s Coast, is a memoir which tells the story of his relationship with his partner Wally Roberts who died of AIDS there in 1993. In its Prologue entitled, Is There a Future?, Doty asks, ‘What then can it mean to “be here now”?’ His answer could not be more relevant to the puzzle we had grappled with on our trip.

Doty takes us to the salt marsh near Wood End Light, another of the three lighthouses, just beyond the town, perhaps his ‘favourite place in the world.’ ‘What one can see is the present’, he writes, ‘the dimension of landscape which is in front of us now. But now is shaped by the past, backed by it, as it were, the way the glass of a mirror is backed by silver; it’s what lies behind the present that gives it its color and sheen. And now is always giving way, always becoming.’

In the end, there was no contradiction in our fascination with P-town’s past. It had made it the place which was speaking to us. It reminded us that we have to look back to look forward. It’s how we make progress. But perhaps it’s because P-town is at land’s end that we had no choice but to stop a while. As we hurtle through life, it’s worth remembering that “being here now” is part of the journey we’re on too. The present is unmissable.

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