by Peter Anastas
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.”
“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 Gloucester, is 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.