The tourist may have replaced cod as king in Gloucester, but I have one friend who categorically refuses to visit. He lives in Beverly with his wife and two young sons, and all our social engagements happen there or at a neutral site—perhaps a classy restaurant in Ipswich. It’s not that he has anything against Gloucester; he can appreciate—at least in theory—the charms of a working harbor, a windswept coastline, and a colorful citizenry. Rather, he is convinced that Gloucester has something against him. He can’t shake the notion that, if he found himself on Rogers Street on a Saturday night, he would last roughly fifteen minutes before being accosted by swordfishermen, bundled in an Italian flag, and deposited in the ink-black harbor.
What it boils down to is this: my friend, whose name is Pierce, doesn’t think he’s tough enough for Gloucester. He worries that his summers of sailing on Buzzards Bay will linger on him like a splash of Polo cologne, to be sniffed out by men with less leisurely ties to the ocean. Myth has it that Athena was born, fully grown and armed, out of the head of Zeus. My friend believes that Gloucestermen are born, fully bearded and pugnacious, out of the frostbitten stumps of Howard Blackburn.
When I first moved to Gloucester, I knew absolutely nothing of its reputation. I had been living and working in Houston, Texas, a situation that any sane person can recognize as untenable. And while visiting the North Shore for a job interview, I meandered the coastline in my rental car, evaluating prospective new homes in case an offer materialized. Manchester I deemed too small, Rockport too precious, and Salem entirely too hot and cold in its feelings about witches. I didn’t know what to think of Magnolia, which came across as a ghost town where, rather than tumbleweed, stock dividends fluttered down Main Street. But when I rounded the bend by Stage Fort Park and saw a city climbing the hill above its glittering harbor, my pulse quickened. Further research consisted of stopping for espresso at Pleasant Street Tea Company, where I met a barista with frank opinions and a nose ring the size of an antique door knocker. “Gloucester is a pain in the ass,” she told me. “But I like it.” That was enough of a testimonial for me.
More thorough fieldwork might have given me pause, because—like Pierce—I’ve always been a bit unnerved by conspicuous displays of masculinity. But while class divisions seem to be the origin of Pierce’s fear—the specter of Wolverine boots trampling Sperry Topsiders—mine is rooted in other factors. See, I am a small, stringy sort of man, and as a kid I was breathtakingly undersized. The 5-foot barrier remained elusive until I was a high school sophomore, the year restaurant hostesses finally stopped handing me their children’s menu and a fistful of greasy crayons. For most of my childhood, I compensated for my physical disadvantages by honing a caustic, mean-spirited wit and bluffing like a son-of-a-bitch. Generally, this worked. But I existed in a state of low-grade panic, which spiked whenever male peers started thumping their chests and a demonstration of genuine toughness was required—for instance, in the locker room after PE class, where eighth graders organized and promoted fights between younger boys, like little suburban Don Kings.
Gloucester isn’t actually the municipal equivalent of a middle school locker room, but neither is testosterone hard to come by. Consider our city’s most important occasion, St. Peter’s Fiesta. It opens with a crowd of men jockeying for the chance to affix dollar bills to an icon of the saint, a spectacle that would evoke a night at The Golden Banana if only Peter weren’t so thoroughly clothed in liturgical robes. Then there are the Seine Boat Races, little more than an elaborate homage to the latissimus dorsi. And, of course, the signature event, which invites the shirtless and drunk to competitively negotiate a slippery railroad timber thrust over the harbor. To ensure the anatomical innuendo would be lost on precisely no one, we dubbed it the Greasy Pole. What’s more, Gloucester’s two most photographed landmarks are a genuinely sketchy dive bar and an 8-foot-tall bronze fisherman. Tarnished by age and the elements, he glares at open sea and grips his ship’s wheel with every sinew, daring Poseidon or the National Marine Fisheries Service to come and take it from his cold, dead hands.
I discovered Gloucester’s manly ethos on a more personal level during my first week as a resident, back in July 2008. Cooling down after a jog, I chanced upon a quaint domestic scene on Dale Street, near the post office. Several small neighborhood boys were shooting hoops on a rim with no net, and their shrill voices filled the air. It seemed that my presence had not warranted even a glance, but just as I pulled even with the basket, one of them shouted, “Hey, guy! Nice shawts!” Being a Southern transplant and having no beef with the letter “r,” I didn’t immediately register the boy’s statement as an appraisal of my running apparel. My preferred shorts are indeed nice; consisting of scarcely more fabric than a pocket square, they leave me unchafed and unencumbered. But the tot’s message was clear: Howard Blackburn would sooner amputate his legs as well, rather than cover them in such a garment.
Despite this initial reprimand, I have come to accept—if not wholly adopt—the city’s virile approach to life. Since moving to Gloucester, my status as a recreational jogger has progressed into something close to a competitive runner. Twice I’ve completed the Cape Ann 25k—and while my first effort included a ten-minute siesta beneath the spacious blue awning of Robyn’s Dog Grooming, I’m proud of the accomplishment. In addition, I’ve developed a fairly regular workout routine at the little MAC on Washington Street, a bright warehouse whose carpeted floors must require lavish applications of chemicals to deodorize. The men I’ve met there are exactly the sort of fellows who haunt the nightmares of my friend Pierce. One, named Dennis, is garrulous and utterly gigantic. He favors t-shirts cut to look like ponchos, exposing an expanse of chest that—with its undulations and thick, manicured stubble—resembles a championship caliber putting green. Lumbering from the bench to the squat rack to the smoothie bar, Dennis offers a handshake to every regular, including diminutive out-of-towners like myself. Another stalwart is Carl, a man whose thunderous claps on the back could easily dislodge a glass eye. He has given me the purely ironic nickname “Adam Bomb” and offers pointers on how I might increase my muscle mass, generally while he unwinds in the locker room, nude and scarlet from a scalding shower. His old buddy, Bruce, sometimes chimes in. “Eat a whole roast chicken for dinner every night,” he once intoned, as he wielded the community hair dryer, first on his thinning blonde mane and then on his damp undercarriage.
Whenever I worry that I might not fit in among the studs and silverbacks of our city, it’s this last image, as harrowing as it is, that comes to mind. I know I’ll never measure up in size or strength. But it turns out that Gloucester’s brand of masculinity is really nothing like the braggadocio of my suburban public school peers. Unvarnished and unaffected, it stands starkers in the locker room, a hair dryer flapping its scrotum like a slackened jib. If you can bear the sight, Gloucester is all too happy to share.