Monday, November 2, 2015

Massachusetts: Provincetown

      Welcome back to Cape Cod Massachusetts.  Today we are visiting Provincetown, the community at the very tip of Cape Cod and the place the pilgrims first set foot on this continent. 

     When the pilgrims first arrived here in 1620, the shores of Cape Cod were a welcome sight.  When the discovered the fresh water lakes it was the first clean water they had tasted in months.  Back in 1907 Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for a 250 foot granite monument was built on this site to commemorate its place in United States history.  The tallest all granite structure in the USA, it dominates the skyline of Provincetown.

     The photo below depicts "first wash day" - the head of the colony had announced that Monday's would be laundry day.  The cleanliness in the mural certainly doesn't depict what these people looked and felt like after the difficult voyage across the Atlantic on a tiny vessel, but we like to remember things romantically.

     They decided that they must come to an agreement of rules to serve as a guideline for their first society.  Part of the group were fervent types seeking the freedom to pursue their own brand of religion.  These folks didn't call themselves pilgrims - they referred to themselves as "saints."  This sect referred to the rest of the group as "strangers" - who in reality were merchants convinced there was a killing to be made in the exploitation of natural resources.  

     It is interesting that this unlikely group of folks put together what is now known as the Mayflower Compact.  Today we recognize this document as the seed of the first democratic society.  Although women couldn't vote, 41 of the men signed and agreed to abide by the compact for the common welfare of the settlement.  Along with the granite tower, the monument above commemorates the signing of that document.

     After a couple of months on the cape, the pilgrims realized that the cape afforded little protection from the winter storms.  In November the group headed toward the mainland, landing at the site we now call Plymouth Rock.

     Being at the tip of what essential is a narrow hooking peninsula that runs well out to sea, it wasn't long until the Pilgrims reestablished fishing and trading camps back at the area at the tip of the cape, known today as Provincetown.

     Although the cape proved to be a navigational nightmare for early north-south commerce, the hook at the tip provides a safe harbor that lies a few miles out to sea.

     This configuration started the first big industry in the area - whaling.

     The large bay proved to be a sort of natural trap for whales, and on occasion they would beach themselves on the beaches.  Realizing this, the settlers soon started to take to boats and actively pursue them.

     This was the days before petroleum, so whale oil was the primary source of fuel for lamps and lanterns.  Europe had a nearly insatiable need for the stuff.

    I always enjoy the very early pictures drawn of the wildlife in the New World.  This one depicts a whale so large that it lifted a ship out of the water, then held still while its occupants celebrated mass.  The lizard foot and the teeth round out the scene nicely.

     Whales were harpooned and towed to shore where they were stripped and the fat reduced to oil.

     In the late 1800's factory ships that could process whales on the open ocean came into being, and it wasn't until they were just about fished out that the practice stopped.  Without the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania they probably would have been hunted to extinction.

     The town itself lies on the inward part of the cape, descending a hill that is surprisingly steep in a few spots.

     The town itself has a year around population of about 3,000, but during the summer season the population increases to 60,000 or so.  

     There are no name brand hotels here - there are smaller mom and pop operations and a host of bed and breakfasts.

     The streets are the same size they were before the automobile, making for an intimate community setting.  One end of the town houses dozens of art galleries, with the other end dedicated to restaurants, churches and taverns.

    It's fun to see architecture from various ages tightly grouped.

      A few on the outskirts appear to be from the 1970's era.

     A few of the big old houses have a unique story to tell.  

     This one houses a foundation called the Aids Support Group of Cape Cod.

     For many years Provincetown has had one of the highest percentage populations of gay couples in the nation.  So when the AIDS epidemic hit in the 1980's, this became a sort of ground zero.  A town of 3,000 saw about 300 deaths from the disease - a huge toll on its community.

     Early on, no one knew what caused AIDS and no one knew how it was transmitted.  People were scared - I recently talked to one woman who almost died because she refused a blood transfusion because of her fear of it.

Photo from obituary

     Almost half of the town's population is not gay, and the crisis served to bring everyone together.  A nurse named Alice Foley shoved the fearful aside and started helping those who needed it.  Space was donated for beds and many men were helped to face their final days with a bit of comfort and dignity.  Alice helped start this non profit and served as its first executive director.

     You cannot say enough about the courage of this woman.  A strange and mysterious disease came along that was killing young men left and right - killing them right in the prime of their lives.  Most everyone else was running the other way - but this woman started working with them out of the back of her Ford Escort.  Over time space was donated, but it was tough going on many levels.

     Barry Cook is one of the folks working at the center who was volunteering during that time period.    

Barry Cook

     There is one aspect of that crisis that everyone I talked to got emotional about.  That was the shunning that happened by the men's families.  In some cases the families never knew the men were gay until they were dying, but in other cases they did.  So often the families would totally reject them, caring nothing about whether they faced death with any measure of comfort or support.  For many of the men the strangers from Provincetown - straight and gay - were the only family they had when they died.  For everyone, the idea that so many families would  deny their son or their brother the comfort of their presence while they left this world is disturbing.

     Today the center provides counseling and all manner of assistance for hundreds of men from the Cape Cod region who are HIV positive.  There are several large benefits each year that raise a surprising amount of money.  Many restaurants host an event each year where they provide a full gourmet meal, and the $100 per plate charge is donated to the center in its entirety.  There is also a competitive run, a swimming event and a large art auction that raise significant amounts of money.

     I got to spend a bit of time with the center's newest employee as well - Heather Baker.

Heather Baker
      Heather and her partner moved here a few years ago, and Heather applied for and got a job here as a medical case manager.  She and all of the others talk at length about how much joy and peace they get from serving their fellow man.  

Random face in the crowd

     Things have changed a lot.  Medications have made this disease a manageable illness rather than a death sentence.  And being gay has become much more accepted in mainstream society.  

      A memorial is planned and beginning the construction stages on a small lot near town hall.  The memorial will list no names, but it will stand testament to the selflessness of the townspeople - straight and gay - through that time period.  

     One unexpected thing that stuck out to me is that most all of the couples I met and talked with have been together for decades.  I wish I could see how society will view this time period a few centuries hence.  

     The spirit of cooperation exists on many levels in the town - it was a topic that came up in numerous conversations.  One small example - a local pizza shop.

     Julie Knapp has owned a pizza shop on the main strip of town for 25 years.

     Something that isn't advertised - and you wouldn't know about it unless you have sharp eyes is the small box that sits behind the sign on the counter.

     Folks that do know about it often buy an extra slice of pizza and fill out a blank coupon that entitles anyone else to that slice of pizza.

     There are numerous coupons in the box - the top one read "Hope it helps out a bit."  The winters here are long and cold - and there is about a month each spring between when the soup kitchen closes and the tourist season really hits.  Homeless and needy folks can come in, pick up a coupon and get a slice of pizza.  No judgment - no issues - just another quiet way of one person helping out another.

     Regardless of how one feels about homosexuality, I find the town to be a testament to the cooperation and kindness we all enjoy when we get over our differences and face adversity shoulder to shoulder.

     Another local store has quite the selection of items - just in time for Halloween too.

     "And stuff."  I love it.

     Given the narrowness of the roads and the lack of public parking, the bicycle business is big here.

     And what a great place to ride a bike.

     Another item of interest - outside the public library is a statue named "The Tourists."

     Quite the pair.  And that brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd."

     I hope he doesn't overspend on mousse.  Which brings us to our parting shot -

     My mousse joke wasn't that good - was it?

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Today is our only chance to fully live this day - let's do it !!


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