Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Lion Is Dead

I wrote the following in August, after we returned from a week in Provincetown. It ran in a few newspapers here in New England. I thought it would be fitting, on this day that Norman Mailer died, to post it here.

The Lion in Winter

By Terrence McCarthy

" It's a city of sand. "

Writer Michael Cunningham on Provincetown, Massachusetts

My wife and I recently returned from a week in Provincetown, Massachusetts. We stayed at a place called Dune's Edge, a campground located about a half mile from the center of the town also known as Land's End. Donna backed the camper into the tight space we rented for a week. I guided her in with a combination of shouted directions and hand signals. Then we hooked up to water and electricity. And there we were. For a week. No TV, no internet. It's the way to go out there. Where " Out there " has at least two meanings.

This town is nothing if not overstimulating. The last thing you need is the sixty ring circus that is cable television. There's much to see and much to do in this small town at the tip of Cape Cod. Great beaches.Terrific restaurants. And if you're a people watcher, this town is mecca. TV? The Web? Who needs them? The only screen you really need is sunscreen. And the only screens you look at are the ones on the doors of the old houses you pass as you bike through town.

Among the Provincetown experiences I recall fondly is the time I ran into Norman Mailer as he was trudging up Bradford Street a few summers ago. Mailer was in his mid seventies then, and walked with a cane. I recognized him. Thought once. Thought twice. Then decided: What the hell. He's my favorite writer. What do I have to lose by saying hello?I said hello. He said hello. Then he asked me, " Do I know you? "

What's it like to be famous, easily recognized as you walk down the street?What's it like to be confronted, even in a kind and gentle manner? Do the famous think, as I do, of what happened to John Lennon as he walked in The Dakota's shadow?" Do I know you? "It's a question that might suggest a degree of ( justified? ) paranoia. Why is this person saying " hello? " Do I know him? Should I know him? These are questions I might ask myself, if I were famous.

" Do I know you? " Mailer asked." No. I just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed your books. " Then I added, " I've read them all. "" Thank you, " Mailer said. " What are you doing here in Provincetown? "" Just spending the weekend, " I said." Well I hope you enjoy yourself. " Mailer said. He was cordial. I'd expected him to be the mad man I'd read so much about. He was, in fact, a perfect gentleman. A former newspaperman, I'm always the last one to admit you can't believe everything you've read in the newspapers. Mailer wasn't anything like the man I'd read about. He wasn'tdrunk, or rude, or outrageous, or grandiose. What he was was nice. And very accessible.

That was nine years ago. On this 2007 summer vacation I took a bike ride past Mailer's house ( The only brick one on the east end of CommercialStreet ) and was sad to see all the No Parking! signs planted out front. And the ivy and the bushes had grown thick since the last time I saw the house. I rode past the place without realizing it was Mailer's place. I was looking for red brick. But the place wore a green mask. And the signs shouted, " Keep your distance."

Most of the front doors of the gray shingled Commercial Street houses I rode past that morning were screen doors. It was hot as hell. Mailer's front door was closed. Not just the screen door. The thick wooden one. It was like it was January 25, not July 25.

The words - the lion in winter - came to mind as I biked past the place. Provincetown. Next to my hometown, Easthampton, Massachusetts, and London, where I've spent a fair amount of time, it's the town to which I feel most attached. I know its streets like the back of my hand. It's one of the first places where my wife and I went away, just after we met back in the 70s. We go back Like pilgrims, we go back. Not every year, but as often as we can. During our most recent stay, I peddled my bike up and down, east and west on Commercial Street. Rode past the place where Dos Passos lived, and where current authors, Mark Doty and Michael Cunningham have houses. Alice Brock, of Alice's Restaurant fame, has a place in the west end. Commercial Street. It's where Eugene O'Neill worked. The pier on which the Provincetown Players' theater once stood is still there, its pilings rotting and thick with barnacles. The facade, a big old cement thing with the name of the theater on it lay in big pieces on the sand, next to a small mall where cheap tourist stuff's sold. Bumper stickers, key chains. T-Shirts with dirty jokes printed on the back.

The Provincetown Player's fa├žade, sticking out of the sand like that. It reminded me of that scene in the original Planet of the Apes. The one in which Charlton Heston comes upon the severed head of the Statue ofLiberty...

The writer Michael Cunningham has called Provincetown " A city of sand. "You look at an aerial shot of the town and you know what he means. Sand almost fills the frame. Sand dunes. Mile after mile of sand dunes. It doesn't take much to imagine that the dunes to the north of Land's End are waves. Big waves caught in freeze frame as they are about to wash over this crazy off world colony. And, of course, that is exactly what they are in the process of doing. The dunes are moving, inexorably, townward. They will cover the place where the town is. Someday. It's inevitable. It's a slow moving tsunami of sand is what it is is what I thought as I rode my bike east on Commercial Street.

Perhaps he's seen it coming. Sees it coming. They say his legs are weak. He needs two canes now, and it's a struggle to do much walking at all. But my guess is that there's nothing wrong with his vision. Mailer's latest novel is titled " The Castle in the Forest. " That's what his Commercial Streethouse reminded me of. A castle. In which a literary lion waits for the surge of sand to move in.

Terrence McCarthy is a writer who lives in Rhode Island

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