Volume 75, Number 19 | Sep. 28 - Oct. 04, 2005


A different world: A Cape Cod recap at summer’s end

By Michele Herman

Our two-week family gathering in Wellfleet is just beginning to fade to a handful of lovely memories tasting of sea salt and ice cream. We were 15 opinionated liberals and one not-very-independent puppy celebrating the 80th birthday of the beloved man known as Grandpa, my father-in-law. Most days, we managed to get our disparate habits, expectations and diets to harmonize.

But even successful vacations always strike me as harder than they ought to be, organizationally and emotionally. By the time the car is packed, I’m usually so deep in the role of put-upon wife that I have to unwind just to get back to normal. And viewing my life and my country from the distance of a day’s drive always leaves me full of the kinds of big questions vacations are intended to leave behind, like what does it mean to be an American, anyway?

Wellfleet is a fascinating New England backdrop for existential American ruminations, charming but elemental, unfussy in the way of really old towns and really old money (contrary to my second-generation-American father, whose favorite saying was “If you got it, flaunt it”). There’s one grocery store, one theater and a whole lot of ceramics. The long pond is called Long Pond and can be found on Long Pond Road. Everything that isn’t named Nauset, for the Cape’s tiny Native American tribe, seems to be named for a handful of old Cape families; if you’re not sure what something is called, try “Nickerson.”

Wellfleet is also a white town. The clapboard houses and the church are painted a crisp white. A good percentage of the kids hauling their boogie boards across the sand are towheaded and the old Yankee women, the ones who wear age like a state of grace, let their hair go long and silvery white. Oh, I know Wellfleet is all filled up with scraggly bearded New York therapists in August, and I noticed a few adopted dark-skinned kids, but the Yankees still seem to have a major grip here — serious Mayflower WASP’s, a type you don’t get a lot of in Greenwich Village. On the outer Cape, the beckoning arm of America, it’s hard not to think about their long hard hold on our land. And once you start thinking about WASP’s, it’s a short path to thinking about prejudice and fear and oppression and skin color, the major recurring themes of the human race.

I have to admit I find comfort in visiting this world, which looks so much like the public face of the America of my childhood in the early ’60s. It’s certainly a pretty face, even if it has very little to do with the demographics of the United States in 2005. The rabble is noticeably absent in Wellfleet. At the bike-rental place they send customers off with a skinny little cable lock that an ordinary wire cutter could snap.

Even the names as we drive up Route 6 are handsome in that well-proportioned Anglo-Saxon way, their second syllables worn away from long use: Yarmouth, Harwich, Brewster, Chatham. They make Orleans, the one town with a French name, sound downright saucy. When we pass the sign for Marconi Beach, my mind conjures the most primitive pictures of ethnic otherness on this whitewashed cape: “ini” foods and dark little men with big noses and weak chins. Then I remember that I come from dark little men with big noses and weak chins. As the Irish-American Governor Al Smith once famously put it: “I am the rabble,” or I would have been a generation ago before those New York therapists cleared the path.

Who we’re descended from, when we arrived and what we look like: what a random set of circumstances we use to sort out the somebodies and the nobodies in our country. In Wellfleet I had the displaced feeling I always have around ease and money, a feeling I have increasingly in my own neighborhood: how did I get lucky enough to be the vacationer and not the hired help? Why am I not the Irish girl working the long Saturday night shift at the Lobster Hut, or the townie broiling in the sun at the lumba yahd or the unseen cleaning lady who appears when we leave to clean our bathtub ring? How did my family travel, in three short generations, from a Latvian shtetl to Wellfleet, and how did I get to bypass the transitional phase, lived out in the crummy apartment over the failing family jewelry store on Staten Island? This begs the bigger questions: who am I, and am I on the side of the angels or the oppressors?

Change comes slowly to the outer Cape, and that’s part of the charm, especially for those of us used to New York, where the old saw has it that change is the only constant (a handy justification for overdevelopment, if you ask me). Some credit goes to the Kennedys for creating the protected National Seashore, and some to the stringent zoning laws, which the average Far West Villager would die for. One of the marvels of the outer Cape is that it still has a vernacular American architecture, going strong in its fourth century. New houses are still built with wooden window frames, clapboard fronts and shingled sides left to weather. They rise as unobtrusively from the sandy soil as new scrub oaks. But continuity has more charm as an aesthetic than as a social order.

We had a long, slow trip home this year. It took three hours to get off the Cape, and when we finally made it to the Bronx, Manhattan kept eluding us until we finally found an entry point on the bridge across 138th St. I’m one of those strange people who breathes easier once I hit the Manhattan grid, even in the unwashed steam table that is August. But as we filled up the tank in Harlem, rapid gentrification notwithstanding, the city squalor hit my eyes hard after genteel Wellfleet: the cracked pavement, the overflowing trash, the dark underpasses.

For my first few minutes in the city, all the African-American faces on 125th St. struck me as amazingly exotic (but of course after two weeks away my own shower curtain looked amazingly exotic). My thoughts looped back again to the Cape, to a gentle bay beach called First Encounter where we used to take the kids before they learned to swim. The name commemorates the first meeting of the Pilgrims and the Nauset tribe. It always gave me that shivery sense of history, and then I’d remember how the story panned out, full of the travesty and sorrow of one culture subsuming another and the first one not knowing what hit it. As my second-generation father also liked to say: Who ever said life was fair?

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