Stamford ’76: A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race and Feminism in the 1970s, by JoeAnn Hart (U. of Iowa Press, 2019)

Peter Anastas

New England Tragedy. 1934 Umberto Romano (1906-1982) Courtesy Cape Ann Museum

 

“A black drug dealer almost certainly killed his white girlfriend, then got killed himself by a police officer during an armed robbery.  What could I possibly hope to accomplish by writing that story?  Nothing. I had to shape meaning out of what seemed be to meaningless violence.”

–JoeAnn Hart, Stamford ‘76

 

Among a writer’s books there are those that come to us naturally.  But almost always there is another kind of book. It is not the book we write, but the book that writes us.  We may be at the keyboard or with pen in hand, but there is another force driving us to put down words on a page. It may be a voice from the past urging us on, or the pressure of a traumatic event, the outlines of which are still unclear.  It may be a story we have long wanted to tell, if only we could find a way to tell it, or we could discover certain details that have remained hidden or even unknown to us.

When we do tell this story, we often discover that it is a story as much about ourselves as its elusive subject or characters.   Often we find out that we are trying to learn more about who we were at the time of the story and, as a consequence of the telling, who we are now—who we have become.   Hence, we are written as we write.

This is one of the themes of Gloucester writer JoeAnn Hart’s stunning new book, Stamford ’76, published in April by the University of Iowa Press.

It is a book that works on many levels.  As memoir, Hart is writing about herself and her nuclear family in the context of an interracial relationship she embarked on after dropping out of college in 1975, at the age of 18, and moving to Stamford, Connecticut, where she found work in bars and restaurants, and eventually in a bank.

Stamford ’76 can also be read as a true crime story.  Hart and her black lover, Joe Louis, were friends with another interracial couple, both of whom died violent deaths.  The white woman, 24 year old Margo Olson, was found in a shallow grave in an abandoned potter’s field in Stamford, her heart pierced by a steel arrowhead.  Her partner Howie, who may have killed her, died at the hands of police during a botched liquor store robbery.  The circumstances of their deaths remained a mystery that haunted Hart for decades.

As Hart writes: “Leaving behind the memory of Margo had meant forgetting parts of myself, and I needed that eighteen-year-old by my side as I faced the challenge of getting three children through their teenage years.  I wanted to gain some wisdom from that girl, who was both reckless and brave to a fault, and to do that I had to open the box marked Fragile.”

“In that box,” Hart continues, “nestled along with all my stored emotion, was a three-pronged mission, (1) figure out what had happened to Margo, (2), remember what had been going on with me, and (3) try to understand why her death made me so wary, for so long.”

This, then, is the thrust of a narrative that is as revealing as it is riveting.  It is here that Hart employs her superb investigative skills in attempting to solve the question of Margo’s death as a “study in silence,” and the abandonment of her body in a makeshift grave.  Here, also, she uncovers the couples’ entanglement with drug dealing and organized crime. Equally, Hart unearths a parallel story whose outlines were unclear to her at the time of her involvement with Margo and Howie.  And that is the story of the growing presence of organized crime in Stamford, aided and abetted by the local Democratic Party establishment and the participation in criminal activities of certain key members of the Stamford police force, including the drug trafficking that led to the deaths of Margo and Howie.

Having published two novels (Addled, 2007, and Float, 2013), along with numerous essays, short stories, and works of journalism, Hart is an accomplished writer of fiction and non-fiction. Everywhere in the narrative one experiences Hart’s novelist’s eye for detail, which helps to give the book its powerful sense of immediacy.

Hart’s story also has social and political implications.  At the time of the events described (and during the country’s Bi-Centennial Celebrations), Stamford was undergoing extensive Urban Renewal, so that the city could lure major corporations out of the nearby crumbling New York City.  In order to achieve this, blacks and other minorities had to be pushed out of neighborhoods that had long been theirs to make way for the high tax payers.  As a consequence, race relations, strained during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, worsened, housing problems escalated, and Stamford became a more problematic city to live and work in, as it turned “whiter by the hour,” as Hart describes it.

Some of this Hart learned while living and working in the city and involved with Joe Louis, his family, and his friends, including Howie and Margo.  There is a particularly affecting picture of Joe’s jazz and gospel singer mother Georgia, with whom Hart remained close even after Joe’s death.  Though Joe had graduated from Columbia, much of his income came from gambling, drug dealing and flipping used cars.  He also ran unsuccessfully for public office.  As a consequence, Hart’s paychecks kept their often unstable living situations afloat.  Joe also became an increasingly heavy drinker.  A significant part of the narrative involves Hart’s attempts to come into her own as a person and a woman under the aegis of second-wave feminism, while trying to remain in a committed relationship.  Though Joe did not readily speak about it, the couple remained haunted by the deaths of Howie and Margo.

After the couple finally separated and Hart was living in Colorado, about to meet the man she eventually married, the story of Margo and Howie continued to affect her.   Her search for clues about their deaths, particularly Margo’s, as Hart traveled back to Stamford during the intervening years, searching through police records and the archives of the Stamford Advocate, tracking down people to speak with, and eventually writing about the case and her life in Stamford, constitutes one of the most dramatic dimensions of a book that will keep readers in suspense.

In the end, after all of her careful research and brilliant detective work, Hart returns to the potter’s field where Margo’s body had been found by picnickers.  It is there that she finally experiences a sense of closure.

“I had found Margo and with her, my younger self,” Hart concludes.  But in the process of this act of recovery, readers have shared the journey of a writer, who is as unrelenting in her pursuit of self-knowledge as she is redemptive of her lost friends, who, in part, enabled that important discovery.

_______________

JoeAnn Hart will be reading locally from Stamford ’76 at the Gloucester Lyceum, on April 18, from 7 to 9 p.m. and at the Gloucester Writers Center (Rocky Neck Cultural Center), on May 22, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. with discussion to follow.

 

Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

A Round of Robins

 

 

A Round of Robins

 

 

 

by Eric Schoonover

 

The snow from the last of the storms
melts into rivers that run down
the steps and a round of robins
jump and flutter ahead of me

in the evening’s blue snow. Six
of them, or maybe more, hop then
flutter, but the failing light won’t
tell me gender. They lead my way,

up those fifty-seven steps, to a
warmer time when snow drops
rouse and hopes enlarge to
greet a spring of warmth and light.

NOTE: There is no agreed upon collective noun
for robins: there are at least fifteen candidates, but
a round of robins seems to be the favorite.

 

Eric Schoonover is a writer living in Gloucester.
“fifty-seven steps” alludes to the staircase
leading from Spring St. up to Winchester Ct.

Former T. S. Eliot East Gloucester Summer Home Given New Life

By Holly Clay

TS Eliot’s Boyhood Summer Home       © 2019 Bing

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.—T. S. Eliot

Several times during the years after poet and Nobel Laureate T.S. Eliot married his second wife Valerie Fletcher, in 1956, they made the trip across the Atlantic from London to Eliot’s family house, high above Niles Beach in East Gloucester.  The old summer house on Edgemoore Road had been sold decades before, but Eliot liked paying the house and its new occupants, Mr. and Mrs. John Cahill, a visit. The Cahills recalled the famous poet’s presence while pointing out the room that had once been his. It was the smallest because he was the youngest of six. They also remembered tears in the poet’s eyes as he made his way through its rooms. Each visit brought him down a memory lane flooded with feeling.

Clare Reihill, an Eliot Foundation trustee, says, “Valerie said the home in Gloucester, was the only place he’d ever experienced pure happiness.”

In 1965, after Eliot’s death, Valerie, then 37, became Eliot’s Literary Executrix, dedicating her life to looking after his legacy.  She worked with Faber and Faber, the London publishing house aligned with the estate, where Eliot had been a director. While at Faber he founded and edited the prestigious literary journal Criterion, (1922-1939).

After Valerie’s death, Reihill and her co-trustee Judith Hooper found a letter, the contents of which came as a revelation.

“Valerie wanted to buy the Eliot house,” Reihill said.  “It had come up for sale in 1965 or 1966. She wrote to her mother, ‘I wonder if I should buy it because he loved it so much.’”

“The letter was such a wonderful thing to discover,” Reihill, said, “a blessing beyond the grave. The connection was so strong, Valerie thought acquiring the house would be consoling for her.”

But Valerie didn’t buy the house. Its $65,000 price tag would have strained her budget. As a consequence, the ties with the United States grew looser.

During his youth, T. S. Eliot and his family divided their time between St. Louis in the Midwest, and Gloucester in New England. Both places abided in Eliot’s psyche, as they did in his writing.

Eliot once commented, “In New England I miss the long dark river, the ailanthus trees, the flaming cardinal birds, the high limestone bluffs where we searched for fossil-shell fish; in Missouri I missed the fir trees, the bay, and the goldenrod, the song-sparrows, the red granite and the blue sea of Massachusetts.”

Reihill says: “Gloucester had a profound influence on Eliot. The place was enormously important to his poetry. His sisters were married here. There was a piece of Eliot’s heart here.”

Gloucester images not only enriched his writing but also “shaped him as a poet,” writes Robert Crawford, author of Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land (2016).

“Indeed, maritime images rooted in Gloucester reverberate throughout Eliot’s work,” Crawford writes, “whether it’s ‘the hand expert with sail and oar’ from The Waste Land or ‘the ragged rock in the restless waters’ and ‘the sea is all about us’ in The Dry Salvages, a poem that is itself named for a group of rocks off Cape Ann.

“In Cape Ann,” Crawford continues, “Eliot lists many of the region’s birds — the ‘Swamp-sparrow, fox-sparrow, vesper-sparrow,’ and the house itself even makes an appearance in Ash-Wednesday: ‘From the wide window towards the granite shore/The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying/Unbroken wings.’”

An acute awareness of his New England ancestry informed Eliot’s thought as well.  He once said, “My family was New Englanders…The family guarded jealously its connection with New England…”

And, so, the Eliots returned here, having chosen Gloucester as their summer residence. Initially, they stayed at the nearby Hawthorne Inn. In time, plans took shape for a home, the brainchild of Eliot’s father Henry Ware Eliot (1843-1919). The East Gloucester house at 18 Edgemoor Road, “the Downs,” as the family named it, was completed in 1896. Eliot would have been an impressionable seven or eight years of age.

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For the next almost 20 years he would reside here in summers, even “coming up” during his Harvard years. Then came the break. He visited only once between the time of his permanent move to England in 1914 and his father’s death in 1919.  The house was sold. Eliot’s mother Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843-1929) said she could no longer afford the upkeep. She was deeply saddened by the loss.

Reihill says, “She was pained” about selling the home, which has since had a number of owners, including the T.S. Eliot Foundation since 2015.

Hooper says, “So now is the fulfillment of a dream,” a dream held by Eliot’s widow and perhaps by Eliot himself.

The acquisition and rehabilitation process is a story in itself.

Hooper and Reihill say it was a “shock” to learn the house was for sale. “Someone sent us the link, ‘T.S. Eliot Summer House for Sale.’  We knew of its existence, but we thought it had been destroyed long ago. It was irresistible because we wanted to forge a new connection with America, a link.

“Sales of Eliot’s works had been lower here in the U.S.  His poems, plays, and essays are not on syllabi to the same extent they are in England. He’s a slightly forgotten, slightly problematic figure in America. We’re interested in rehabilitating his reputation and establishing the fact he belonged here.”

Hooper handled the business and legalities of buying the property, as well as overseeing renovations and upgrades.

She says, “The Foundation bought it to be a retreat for writers who could do everything Eliot could do, the full range of craft: essayists, poets, playwrights, critics, editors. The restoration had to do with making it fit a group who weren’t a family. This is a long term thing for us.”

Hooper says, “It was with warmth, the way we were accepted. Anything to do with T.S. Eliot, well, people have been helpful and interested.  People here are proud of the connection. I felt welcome, personally, so I want this house to work all the more. Fiona Atkinson, the decorator, and I spent Thanksgiving here with Dana Hawkes, the previous owner and now Director of the Eliot House in Gloucester. Then, I was here for Christmas with my family, before we got going on construction projects. It’s a strange thing to say, but it feels like coming home.”

The Foundation undertook renovations designed to make the house last another 100 years as a destination for writers.  The garage extension was converted into a handicap-accessible bedroom and bath, the other baths in the house were upgraded; the house was totally rewired and the interior freshly re-painted.

They worked with local people, for the most part.

Hooper says, “I didn’t realize that ‘local’ meant Gloucester. We actually began by finding professionals over the bridge. That’s a million miles away, I realized, even though it’s only 40 minutes.”

Once she realized how locals define “local,” she tried to contract on Cape Ann or at least nearby. “Fiona, the decorator, shopped in Gloucester, Essex, and Ipswich buying things from antique shops, and dare I say, ‘junk shops.’ We also bought a lot of Dana’s pieces. The sofa in the drawing room was Dana’s.  And, all the rugs.”

As a writers’ retreat, “the Downs” constitutes a perfect adaptive re-use for the once-upon-a-time home of a world-celebrated Nobel Laureate. Residents stay an average of two weeks at a time. They work in a variety of genres. The Foundation directors vet applications for residency.

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The Eliot House has been accepting writers in residence since 2016. They can accommodate five people and can just fit in a sixth. The foundation supports the whole effort. Hawkes even prepares dinner for the guests.

Hawkes writes, “Last year we had 22 writers residing at the house. The house is open from April to October and is closed during the winter months for now.

“We have had many inquiries about the residencies through word of mouth from those who have stayed with us, along with winners of the Chapbook Award from the Poetry Society of America and the annual Fellowship Prize of the Academy of American Poets. Most of the writers are from the US.

“We have an annual poetry reading to launch the opening of the season’s residency. We also are investigating the idea of having a T.S. Eliot Festival in the foreseeable future.”

Ocean Vuong, recipient of the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for his poetry, reads at the Eliot House in the Spring of 2018.

In addition, the Foundation considers “the Downs” to be part of the Gloucester community. As such, Reihill and Hooper would like to see programs developed on the local front.

Hawkes comments: “We would very much like to do something with the local schools. I have made some inquiries with regards to this and the idea is at its infancy – a work in progress. If something is to be done, probably not until 2020.”

Notes:

Thomas Stearns Eliot lived from 1888 to1965. At 25, in 1914, he left the U.S. permanently. In 1927, Eliot became a British citizen, formally relinquishing his U.S. citizenship. He received the Nobel Prize for literature posthumously in 1948.

Judith Hooper and Clare Reihill serve as Trustees of the London-based Eliot Foundation, which maintains close ties with Faber and Faber. Dana Hawkes is the Gloucester-based Director of the Eliot House.

 

Holly Clay is settled in Gloucester after many years of living overseas and in Washington, D.C. Holly is a member of the Gloucester Historical Commission and the Annisquam Historical Society.  With a background in education and writing, her professional energies are currently devoted to studying and teaching yoga and meditation.

 

Grateful in Glo, 01930

Thanksgiving © 2013 Elynn Kröger

Five years ago today, I was driving to Mass General Hospital with my parents. This plan had been in the works for over a month. I was going to have a full​ ​thyroidectomy​ whereby my superman, Dr. Richard Hodin, would remove any cancerous lymph nodes that he found upon opening me up. I still remember sitting in the back seat and hugging a pillow while having some deep talks with the Universe.

While I would never wish cancer to enter any of your households – never, ever, ​ever
​ – my own personal experiences with it wound up teaching me one of the most valuable life lessons to be had. As we all know, crucial life lessons, or as my dad likes to call them, takeaways, tend to elevate our experience on this planet, maybe even carry us through the darkest of times.

This particular takeaway changed my life forever.

I GOT GRATEFUL, FAST.

I became grateful for my blunt and strong as hell sister, who picked me up off my bathroom floor after I was told over the phone that I may have lymphoma. Meg’s response, “So what? You’ll beat it.” She then handed me my daughter, Emerson, who was only two and a half at the time.

“She’s your reason,” she said, not mincing words as she referred to my baby girl. “Now get up.”

Thank you for giving me strength, Meagan.

I became grateful to my father who somehow rallied the competitor inside of me. During our lymphoma scare, my parents never once left my side. On a two mile drive from Gee Ave to Granite Street, my dad said, “Lu, this is just one more big game. And all you have to do is score more than 30 points. You’ve done it before, you just need to do it again.”

Thank you for bringing out the champion in me, Dad.

I became even more grateful for my mother, the woman I caught crying in my kitchen, telling my father, “Timmy, why Lori? I just wish it was me.”

And that, my friends, was the turning point.

I had awoken. Gratitude felt like it had literally just washed over me. I knew then that I belonged to a Universe that blessed me with a mother who would fully embrace such overwhelming love and sacrifice. What more could I ask for?

From that moment on, I vowed to no longer feel sorry for myself. I didn’t want my Saint Nance to experience any pain. Not her.

Not my mom.

Thank you for raising me right, lady.

Shortly after that kitchen moment, thanks to my mother and the efforts of our family friends, Kate and Jack Andrews, I was connected to an elite doctor at Mass General. Through him, I received a diagnosis of papillary thyroid cancer. In short, this diagnosis was a long way off from lymphoma. I was told by my doctor that, on the wheel of cancer, I just received the best diagnosis possible. Due to my exhibiting symptoms, my medical team believed that I had been living with this for about ten years. I used this to explain EVERY bad choice I had made during this time.

Thank you, humor.

Fast forward to February 27, 2014. My surgery was scheduled for three hours. Clearly, when it lasted an hour beyond that scheduled time, my people started to get nervous. That is until Superman himself, Dr. Hodin, entered the waiting room to let my family know that the surgery was complete. It had taken longer than he expected because he had to remove 31 cancerous lymph nodes surrounding my thyroid. ​31…

Remember how many points I needed to score in this particular game?

Thank you, Universe, for having my back.

Since my surgery, I have started every single one of my days by expressing gratitude. Parts of my life, such as Brandon and our children, my nephews, my career, my home, my oceanside community, and my entire tribe of family and friends, only begin to tap into the infinite depth of possible things to be grateful for. And the more I am able to honor and express this gratitude, the more things I find myself having the opportunity to feel grateful for.

I have never gone public with this personal story. Until now. Why? Because of all of you. Because we are not alone. None of us. And each of us has a story to share and be heard…

A story to be grateful for.

Thank you, everyone, for listening.

Pictured above from left to right: my cousin Melissa Hull, me, my sister Meagan Marrone, my best friend Lauren Riley and my cousin Sara Hull.

 

Lori Sanborn was born in Gloucester and returned to live permanently in our seaside community six years ago. She has been a public educator for 12 years and is currently the Assistant Principal of Swampscott Middle School.  Lori is most proud of her role as mother to her children, Emerson and Ryder.

 

At the Farm

Story and Photos By Susan Pollack  

It is late afternoon and frigid. Silver light streaks the western sky, illuminating barns, pastures, and frozen fields. I head down the snowy road, basket in hand, to pick up our weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable share at Alprilla Farm in Essex, MA.

Smells of wood smoke and sounds of conversation emerge from the greenhouse. Entering, I’m flooded by warmth and abundance: vegetables of many kinds appear enticingly arrayed in wooden boxes, each precisely labeled. I reach for four hefty white (Elba) potatoes, a few parsnips, carrots, onions, golden and red beets, and a large macomber turnip, pondering a weekend meal of roasted vegetables. I add a handful of kale and admire the squashes. I’d been partial to buttercup, with its creamy flesh and handsome dark green skin until I discovered orange kabocha, the sweetest squash of all, baked without brown sugar or even honey. Move over, acorn squash.

Farmer Sophie Courser swings open the door juggling totes of spinach from the walk-in cooler next door; she stops to hug a friend whose infant daughter is strapped to her back. Sophie’s farming partner and husband, Noah Kellerman, sits by the wood stove, repairing a rake-like tool, part of the apparatus used to wash their profusion of vegetables. A father and his young sons look on. Across the room I spot the hostess from a summer restaurant, a local poet, two other young farmers, and Sophie’s aunt, Stephanie, who drives down from New Hampshire to help out.

The stove warms against the cold, creating a comfortable space in which to pause and chat as we select the week’s vegetables. A small group of shareholders lingers by the fire or a nearby tea urn, their half-filled baskets at their feet. The gathering nurtures a sense of community often missing during the long New England winter, when the instinct is to huddle at home, with family or close friends.

Noah and Sophie are doing something so old it’s new: keeping alive a family farm by sustainably growing tasty and nourishing vegetables. They also cultivate and mill some grains for flour while tending a small beef herd. Noah grew up on Alprilla Farm, where his grandfather had raised Black Angus cattle. Noah’s parents, a musician and a scientist, live on the farm and help out, including caring for the animals when Noah and Sophie are away.

As evening approaches, a local farmer from the summer open air market arrives, and conversation turns to the high cost of land here in Northeastern Massachusetts, where real estate values have escalated, making it difficult for young growers to get a foothold. Noah and Sophie must lease some cropland in order to survive as must many other young area farmers. They also face a relatively short growing season and the challenges of working with clay-like soil that compacts easily. To help aerate the fertile, but heavy soil, Noah and Sophie rest the fields every three years, by rotating clover in combination with grains. They work with a team of oxen that are nimble and lighter on the land than the tractor, which they also use. Sophie, the writer of Alprilla’s eloquent farm journal, is also a seasoned teamster, having worked with oxen since she was a child growing up on a family farm in New Hampshire. (Today her mother and sister sell some of their lamb and pork at the Alprilla share along with maple syrup made by her father.)

Standing here at the farm in mid-February, on the last day of the winter CSA share, I feel gratitude for the food that Sophie and Noah grow all year, which sustains me and my husband and all of us CSA shareholders through the coldest months.

I am grateful as well for the opportunity to support the farm, as a shareholder. By paying for a “share” of the harvest at the start of the season, we help farmers buy the seed and supplies they need. We also partake of the risk that adverse conditions may cause some crops to yield less than hoped or to fail altogether, while others exceed expectations. By bearing a small part of this risk, I feel a deeper connection to the land, the farmers, and the food I eat.

Then, too, I delight in Noah’s and Sophie’s excitement about the season ahead: the seed catalogues they’ve pored over all winter, the new crops they hope to grow. It’s hard not to share their enthusiasm, especially as the days grow longer, the greenhouse doors are flung open, and the frozen earth gives way to luscious mud.

My basket is full. The winter share is over. In mid-March Noah and Sophie will plant seedlings in the greenhouse, and so, a new season will begin, carrying with it all our hopes for a fruitful harvest.

 

E. Schoonover photo

Susan Pollack is an award-winning journalist and author of The Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Cookbook: Stories and Recipes. She lives in Gloucester with her husband, Eric Schoonover, a writer.

 

 

Copyright © Susan Pollack 2019

 

 

Kumba, my Gloucester Pangur Bán

by Eric Schoonover

This poem was inspired by “Pangur Bán,” a 9th-Century
Irish poem about a scholar monk and his cat.

 

KUMBA                                  Photo SBPollack

Cats are such fine fellows
neat and fierce, quick and soft.

Their lives are tidy at the edges
carefully surveying all—before the leap.

In that ancient poem, Pangur’s dedication to mousing
is likened to his monk’s devoted writing.

They labor in their different vineyards (yet close by)
catching mice, discovering meaning in the text, each

wrapped in deadly silent focus: the mouse upon the
floor, the portending skull upon the desk.
   Sic transit gloria mundi.

 I met my Pangur on a dark and stormy, boldly
crying at my door with impatient ice-matted fur

the neighbor’s cat neglected neighbors told.
I let him in, he stayed for years

and we nourished each other’s silent padding ways
tho my pen would scratch and he would purr,

signatures of our contented ways. But Kumba’s
gone. Another neighbor? No, I fear the car

as we live against a fast street, challenging
our arthritic days. But then . . .

in a ninth life, he stands moaning at the door
ear torn, blood-matted but eyes still bright.

I let him in, he leans against my leg as if a dog.
Mice beware! The challenge of my page awaits!
. . . and our lives resume.

 

KUMBA with the author.  Photo credit SBPollack

Eric Schoonover is a writer, boatbuilder, and watercolorist, who lives in Gloucester in a small 1735 Cape Ann cottage with his wife, also a writer. He is the author of the award-winning The Gloucester Suite and Other Poems and a novel, Flowers of the Sea. His latest book, Telling Tales, has recently been published.

 

Talkin’ Glosta

by Peter Anastas

Mug-Up at the Fort.          © 2002 Jeff Weaver

A friend put the bug in my ear.

“Why don’t you write about how people in Gloucester love to talk?”

“I’ve been thinking about it,” I said.

“You mean you’ve been yakking about it up and down Main Street.”

“Well, I’ve asked a few people if they’ve ever noticed how much we all enjoy jawing.”

“My God,” my friend broke in, “the ear is bent as much as the elbow in this town!”

“It’s a long winter.”

“Don’t make any excuses. This is a big oral town, summer or winter. It’s been that way from the beginning. Do you know that the largest number of court cases in the 17th and 18th centuries involved slander? Not only did people talk about each other at the drop of a hat, they took each other to court if they didn’t like what they heard somebody else had said about them!”

“Gossip is another thing,” I said. “It’s endemic in a small town. You can’t get away from it. What I’m more interested in is how the fact that people do love to gab in Gloucester shatters the myth of the taciturn Yankee, you know—the New Englander of few words.”

“That only happens with outsiders,” my friend replied. “And maybe it’s done to keep up an image. With each other it’s different. If you call someone up, be prepared for a siege of it. I always keep a snack and something to wet my whistle by the phone just in case.”

“You’re exaggerating!”

“I kid you not. A call from my mother is worth an evening.”

“Don’t blame it on your mother! I’ve never found you at a loss for words.”

“You’re right,” he said. “Once someone told me ‘I can tell right off you’re from Gloucester—you can’t stop talking.’”

“Here’s one for you,” I broke in. “Some friends from Philadelphia were visiting last month. We’re driving down Main Street. In front of us is a car. Suddenly a guy waves to the driver from the sidewalk just outside the Savings Bank. The driver jams his brakes on, cranks his window down, and they start a conversation in the middle of the street on Saturday morning!”

“I’ve had that happen to me many a time,” my friend said. “In fact, I’ve done it myself.”

“Well, my company was dumbfounded. They asked me why I didn’t blow my horn and yell at the driver to get going. ‘They’ll move when they’re finished,’ I told them. ‘Besides, they probably haven’t seen each other for a day or two.’”

“I’ll never forget how frustrated my wife used to get,” said my friend. “Before we moved back to Gloucester she always complained she couldn’t get a word in edgewise. After we settled here, she just threw up her hands in despair—’there’s no relief!’”

“What do you suppose is the reason for all this loquacity?” I asked.

“I think it goes back to Gloucester’s having been cut off from the rest of the world by our island geography and by the harsh winter weather,” my friend replied. “People tended to make their own entertainment. The men would go fishing and leave the women and children to their own devices. So the women told stories and gossiped to pass the time. When the men came home they were expected to share the stories of the trip. What they didn’t tell at home they’d talk out among themselves on Main Street. The children picked up the habit of talk as a pastime and oral history. It was the way you found out nearly everything you knew about the world growing up—and the way you passed it on to others. Habits and customs like that persist, even though the need for them changes.”

“And you think that hasn’t been undermined by Facebook and Twitter?”

“People don’t seem to talk any less do they?”

“There’s less storytelling and that’s a shame,” I said.

“I think the older folks feel the youngsters might be bored so they just tell stories among themselves,” he said. “Of course, it’s a great loss to the kids. All that beautiful personal detail dies with the old people—and a whole way of life disappears along with it.”

“We can joke about talking,” I said. “But there’s something really human about it.”

“It’s real,” he answered. “It’s people interacting without the interference of media and the outside world. The talk between people is the hum and buzz of the community. Stop that and you stop life itself.”

“So you think Gloucester talk is really a continuation of an age-old need for people to stay in touch, to remain current with each other—to feel alive in a world that tends to ignore us?” I asked finally.

“Something like that,” my friend said.

“Thanks,” I said. “That should get me writing. See you around. . . Oh, if you come up with anything else, give me a ring. In fact, call me anyway. . .or I’ll call you.”

“Okay,” said my friend. “Talk with you later.”

 

Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

 

From the Editors of Enduring Gloucester

EG Christmas

Christmas in Glosta. 2018. ©️ Bing

A year’s end wish to our readers and contributors from all of us at Enduring Gloucester: 

May your holidays be happy and safe, and your New Year filled with many blessings.

We appreciate your support and look forward to sharing with you another year of celebrating this magical place we all call home.

The Editors.

Ben Nelson’s Curiosity Shop

Photos © Bing

by Bing McGilvray

On Main Street, shops come and go, as do buildings over time. Time on Middle St. has tried, somewhat successfully, to stand still. It still evokes the days of Schooners, Sargent, Hopper, Blackburn and Olson. Past, present and future dance here.

Center Street connects Main and Middle and in the middle of Center Street, at #6, you’ll discover the Post Historic Studio. The brainchild of Ben Nelson, PHS is a holistic experience, his and ours. You would not be wrong in calling it an artsy retro-chic antique boutique but it is so much more.

Ben, a friendly young man with a creative, nimble mind and a pet rabbit named Mr. Rabbit, happily answered my questions without ever putting down his brush. He may just be the coolest new kid on the block.

Ben Nelson

Bing: OK. Sitting here with Ben Nelson, proprietor of the Post Historic Studio. How long have you been open?

Ben:  I opened on May 27th of this year. It was a really cool start. I had a special artist, a performer from California, Joe Louis (Salami Rose) come in and play for the opening.

Bing: PHS is so enchanting, there’s some magic happening here. Everything’s going well? You’ve said people enjoy coming and hanging out.

Ben:  Oh yeah. It’s a really fun place to hang out.

 

 

 

 

 

Bing: Every time I come in you are painting. You’re working on this beautiful fish at the moment.

Ben:  I paint friend’s pets on commission. This one is just for fun.

Pet Portraits

Bing: Tell me about you. You’re young, 20 right?

Ben:  Yes, I am. Well, I originally convinced myself I was going to go to college for pharmacology. I was committed to that. When I got to college I was disappointed. Not what I expected. Kind of like high school all over again. Especially with the college I picked.

Bing:   (laughs)

Ben:  I think I learned and changed a lot after that experience.

Bing: Absolutely, yeah.

Mr Rabbit

Ben:  Pharmacy wasn’t worth it. I didn’t want it anymore. I would have been $200,000 in debt.

Bing: Right. Instead …

Ben:  I opened this studio in Gloucester. I grew up in Rockport, lived here 17 years. So, I know the area. Came back looking for a place. This one popped up at just the right time.

Bing: Perfect. It’s a wonderful mish-mash of an artist’s studio and gallery, curiosity shop and as you said, a place for like-minded minds to intermingle. I don’t think there’s anything on Cape Ann quite like it.

Ben:  It’s a very fun, creative environment.

Motif © Ben Nelson

 

Bing: Indeed. Tell me how you came up with the name Post Historic Studio.

Post History © Ben Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben:  The title took a really long time. We had group chats to brainstorm names. I asked my English teachers and all my friends. At first, it was going to be The Gloucester Gallery. But I wanted something more interesting. I’m in the process of making a giant T-Rex skull, still working on it. So I was thinking pre-historic and then came Post Historic.

Bing: Yeah, it’s really good. Strangely, it does describe the place. Whimsical, future nostalgia. Poetic, ironic and iconic, a paradox of space and time. You’re doing a daily, extended performance piece.

Ben:  Wow. You’re right. Thanks.

Bing: Thank you, Ben. I’m going to walk around and take some photos. You are really doing something special.

VCR Tapes Available!

Ben at Work

Tune In, Turn On, Drop By …

To Soothe the Savage Beast

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bing McGilvray is an artist, flaneur, raconteur and bon vivant living in Gloucester.

Bing

Kathleen Burke and the Towering Victorian

Kathleen Burke

by Bing McGilvray

From her 5th floor window, Kathleen Burke can see just the top of the Victorian house she once bought and restored, at least during the winter months when the trees are bare. The house, with its unmistakable tower, is one of my favorites in Gloucester, rising improbably above all others like something from a fairy tale.

I live on the 2nd floor and I met my neighbor Kathleen when I helped her carry a large box to her apartment. That’s when I saw the paintings of the Loring B. Haskell house, named after the eccentric fellow who originally built it.

Prudence Fish wrote about this Queen Anne wonder in her book Antique Houses of Gloucester, now out of print. But I wanted to hear Kathleen’s story of how she happened to acquire the place. Graciously, she agreed to this interview.

The Loring B. Haskell House, Gloucester.

Bing: OK, we’re recording. I’m sitting here with Kathleen Burke, my upstairs neighbor. Let’s see. We first met at the mailboxes, I think.

KB: Yes, I think so.

Bing: Eventually I learned your name was Burke and you were originally from Quincy. I wondered if you were related to Patricia Burke from Quincy who married my uncle Charles McDermott.

KB: I grew up in Quincy but no, no relation.

B: The most fascinating thing I found out about you is that you once owned and renovated, brought back to life really, one of my favorite buildings in … well, anywhere.

KB: You have excellent taste.

B: Thank you. So tell me about this towering Victorian – the Loring B. Haskell House. On the corner of Marchand and Spring.

KB: Yes. We were living in Ipswich at the time …

B: We?

KB: My significant other, Lou. We were driving around Cape Ann. We drove by the tower and I just fell in love with it. Such a shame that it had fallen into disrepair. Such a beautiful building. It had been on the market for a year and no one had made an offer on it. To make a long story short, I was with Pru Fish, who wrote that fabulous book.

B: Antique Houses of Gloucester. Yes, it’s out of print and selling for big bucks on Amazon.

KB: I hope it will be reprinted.

B: Me too.

KB: After talking to Pru, I made an offer of $95,000 and they accepted it.

B: Wow.

KB: We were all so stunned we went out for a pizza.

B: So now you have this house and it’s in pretty tough shape.

KB: No, that’s the surprise, the unknown quantity. Structurally it was very sound.

B: All you really had to do was decorate?

KB: Well, there was a lot of scraping, painting and scrubbing.

Gloucester Victorian.    Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

B: You have an article, full page from the Gloucester Daily Times dated April 22, 1985 … “High Tech Meets Victorian Gingerbread ~ Consultants translate computer argot into English in old Gloucester home”.  So you were working with computers way back in 1985?

KB: What we were doing was advertising new products. Back when parts that are now tiny chips were as big as refrigerators. I had a knack for understanding the tech talk. For example, when I was helping them sell the latest controller …

B: You had to understand the controller and translate that into laypersons language. That’s very interesting.

KB: Yes, it was. This is something I never get tired of saying, the engineers are the unsung heroes of women’s lib. They didn’t care about male or female, you just had to understand the product. Wonderful people to work with.  I had been doing this technical work before I bought the house. But I could justify buying it because I wouldn’t need to rent office space.

B: Perfect.

KB: And then I got into throwing wonderful parties. It was a house just made for it. People would come and get lost in the upper stories.

B: Do you know who owns it now?

KB: I don’t but they’ve done a wonderful job keeping it up.

B: Yes, still beautiful. I’d love to get up inside there sometime.  When we met, I knew nothing about you and the house but I did know you lived for awhile in Haiti. That’s fascinating. Of course, this was long before the hurricanes from which they have yet to recover. Your time there was rather enchanted, right?

KB: Fabulous. They had cleared up the political mess. Someone decent was in the White House. Americans flocked to the Oloffson, a gorgeous old hotel, run by an imam whose mother was a Haitian dancer and father was a Yankee college professor. He put his hand to restoring the murals. Those were happy days.

Dambala

B: Your cat even has a Haitian name.

KB: Dambala is named after the Haitian voodoo god of motion and dance. I went with a friend to adopt a cat. We decided pick a name once we saw him. Well, he danced right out of the cage! That was it. Dambala!

B: Tell me about these three paintings behind you.

KB: The one to the far left is by Ward Mann, a noted Gloucester artist whose studio was on Rocky Neck. Through someone I knew, I got a message from him. He wanted permission to paint Main Street from the tower.

B: Very cool.

KB: When we saw the painting, it was so lovely we bought it.

B: Terrific painting.

Gloucester Main St. and Harbor.       Ward Mann (1921-2005)

KB: Isn’t it? It has the spirit of Gloucester.   The one in the middle is by Edward Hopper. In his time it was in the same lousy condition that I bought it.

B: So, when you bought it, it was boarded up like that?

KB: No, it wasn’t boarded up because there was a nice couple living there. But it was shabby.

B: That’s a Hopper print, right?

KB: They said if I sent them a picture of the house, they’d send a print.

B: Who?

KB: Oh, sorry, the Whitney Museum.

B: Aha. A very nice print indeed.

KB: They were very kind.

B: Now, this third picture shows the full height of the house… which you can’t really see anymore because the trees are now so large.

KB: That’s also by Ward Mann. We became great friends.

Kathleen’s House, Gloucester. Ward Mann (1921-2005)

B: There were also people who thought it was folly to fix up the place. Lots of graffiti along the sidewalk walls. You’d fix it up and the vandals would return soon after.

KB: There were two opposing philosophies on that. I had the broken window theory, if you fix something others will follow your lead. And that’s what happened. No more graffiti. This happened with the ‘Painted Lady’ Victorians in San Francisco too. The pessimists were wrong.

B: Thanks so much for sharing a bit of your life, Kathleen.

KB: Thank you, Bing, for the attention.

 

 

Bing McGilvray is an artist, flaneur, raconteur and bon vivant living in Gloucester.