[Ed: I (Jim) asked my most excellent cousin Abby to write something for The Clam about coming back to Gloucester after a long time and seeing it afresh. “Maybe make a funny list about Fiesta!” I said. I forgot that she is, like, a real writer and can actually create compelling narratives using language and not just hack together some bullet points with some snarkly captioned pictures. Wow. She is good]
Her reply begins: What I forget about, until yesterday, is that I fucking love the greasy pole competition. If you need to say anything about me, you can say that I grew up in West Gloucester, that I’ve worked as a writer, teacher, and roadie, and that I once crashed a golf-cart into Cher’s giant wire elephant prop.
Fiesta Sunday After Fifteen Years Abigail Greenbaum My most recent (and, to be honest, only) moment of entry into Gloucester royalty came during an innocent Pre-K romance with the son of a fisherman. We held hands, pretended the jungle gym was a ship (poop deck included), and he told me that his father would bring me a mermaid. Later, checking under my bed for the promised sea-lady, I realized two important things: sometimes boys lie, and Gloucester is a place where unlikely and magical things seem possible. Such as: dozens of men, more than a few in their fifties, dressed as cartoon characters, Hula dancers, animals, and clowns walking along a greased wooden pole in order to grab a flag and some serious honor and glory. I left Gloucester at eighteen, right when some boys my age were starting their careers as greasy pole walkers, and yesterday, after fifteen years living elsewhere, I sat with my father and sister on Pavilion Beach for the championship round. Though my family is neither Italian nor Catholic nor true Gloucester natives, we’ve always loved Fiesta Sunday. My dad attended his first Blessing of the Fleet as a teenager, right after his oldest brother moved to town. Part of me wanted to know if Fiesta Sunday would still feel like magic, the kind of thing that couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world. Part of me just missed the show.
The teenagers on the beach were taking selfies (#greasypole), and more kayaks and paddleboards clustered around the pole, but other than that, the scene was pretty much as I remembered. Grandmothers threw up their hands at small children as they returned from the shoreline, covered in Saturday’s grease. Girls sported white dresses and great tans. The Seine boats took forever to line up. “Anybody ever thought to use a cable for this?” an old man in a beach chair behind me shouted across the crowd. “St. Peter save us all.”
The wind was up for the boat race and the courtesy round, and the walkers were off to a slow start. The older guys seemed to have better style when they fell off, years to perfect the bone-preserving backward dives and flips away from the pole. For the first time, I realized that the only reason anyone ever reached the flag was because in the carnage of the early walks, most of the grease was wiped from the first half of the pole.
Soon, though, the clouds parted and the late afternoon sunlight hit the harbor the way it only does in Gloucester, and the crowd, no longer annoyed about race delays, was cheering every time someone neared the flag. I wished friends from my non-Gloucester life were on the beach with me, because really, how could I ever explain how awesome it is when someone wins, and when the blood and grease-streaked walkers, still half in the water, hoist him on their shoulders?
The carnies, their rides empty, were leaving the festival grounds to watch. Carnies tend to be a tough and jaded bunch, but Fiesta Sunday impresses even them.
Thanks Abby! Even our crappy Cher jokes could not diminsh your awesome! –JD