Stairs to the Harbor

Town Steps, Gloucester. 1916.        John Sloan (1871-1951)

by Eric Schoonover

      I leave by the kitchen door, thinking that the flowers in the small urban courtyard might offer some joy, but they seem to have seen the best of their summer days. The door to the street, a grand wooden affair, swings inward and I step out through the lovage and the rosemary and the sage and the chicory still holding on. Once this land was empty, but here in Gloucester these small ways have become streets; short, often one-way and called “courts.”

I walk toward the staircase, toward the sea: the sea.

My house was built by a fisherman almost four hundred years ago. He would have had to scramble down five hundred feet of granite ledge to reach his boat. Today, there are 57 steps. I inform casual climbers of this fact and of its Heinz connection but they seem indifferent to this older person descending from a world of ketchup and chili sauce. But then, perhaps as a consolation, I gesture toward the flowers and shrubs growing on either side of the staircase.

            Winslow Homer painted from the top of these fifty-seven steps, John Sloan from the bottom.  Homer’s view is not informing.  But Sloan’s observes the social niceties of dogs and shoppers and women chatting with each other. But that does not reveal the nature of this unusual staircase.

            In the fisherman’s time, long before a staircase, it was a dramatic place, the denizen of wolf and fox. Those must have made his early morning descent rather interesting—if indeed he took this route to his boat. Today, a monstrous skunk haunts my dreams with his malodorous character. One night, I rose to see his giant form slink away, his mark of white now yellowed over, presumably his badge of many years of hunting through our refuse.

            Look through the trees and you can see the Atlantic, a shard of ultramarine blue, flat and harmless, hardly a harbinger of a fall hurricane.

           Most of the streets run down to the harbor, as Gloucester is a city of the sea. Their architecture is mostly domestic—triple-deckers, with mansard toppings and wrought iron Victorian frostings. Begin with Pleasant and proceed along Prospect, past Elm and Chestnut until you get to Spring. None of these houses is new, although some have obdurate metal siding offering a hardened aspect to the world. It’s the modern way.

          But I don’t take these streets that lead to the sea. Rather, I choose the stairs. I want that glimpse of the sea and a more woodsy approach, bordered with flowers wild and cultivated.

 

Eric Schoonover’s next novel, Harboring, set in Gloucester, will be published later this year.  Sloan’s painting, Town Steps, Gloucester, is held by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.