What Makes the Greasy Pole So Great? A Comparative Scientific Analysis


A buoyant, sprawling, motley affair, St. Peter’s Fiesta offers something for everyone. And on a typical Fiesta Friday—just as the twilight dwindles and a breeze whisks away the day’s heat—each demographic gravitates toward its designated zone. Sicilian elders hunker beside the plywood stage and tap their feet to Sinatra covers. Meanwhile, tourists settle on the perimeter bleachers, content to observe the proceedings and rue their consumption of a second deep-fried Mounds bar. Young parents command their own domain: the carnival attractions, where they clasp toddlers to their chests and plunge down the potato sack slides. As these thrills unfold, local teens drift away to administer hickeys beneath the winking, kaleidoscopic lights of the Tilt-a-Whirl.

But one event brings together young and old, native and out-of-towner, seaman and landlubber. One event compels all to brave the mid-afternoon sun, to flout the city’s open container laws, and to confront irrefutable evidence of just how juvenile we all can be. It bears not even the faintest connection to Fiesta’s religious origins, but it’s easily the most popular event on the program. I’m speaking, of course, about that wince-inducing test of bravery and balance: the Greasy Pole.


On one level, the basis of the Greasy Pole’s greatness is easy to pin down. Anyone who has witnessed a single round of the competition—even via a wobbly YouTube video—can cite a host of reasons for its appeal. He or she will point out the outrageous costumes, the name’s salacious undertones, and the exquisite tension of knowing that—at any moment—a man may find himself entirely responsible for squashing his own testicles. But I would like to examine two of the subtler charms of the Greasy Pole, the nuances that exalt this event above mere slapstick—and, indeed, above other sporting competitions.

As a point of comparison, I must tell you about another wildly reckless contest. Known as “Pigs-N-Fords,” it headlines the annual Tillamook County Fair on the North Coast of Oregon. In the summer of 2003, I was fortunate enough to witness the event, which invites six local men to race three times around a dirt track. The twist is that each man completes his laps atop the naked chassis of a Model T Ford—and that a squealing Yorkshire piglet rides shotgun. Specifically, a man must fetch a different pig for each circuit and keep the invariably terrified and often recalcitrant creature under his control at all times. Needless to say, this doesn’t always go as planned, leading to the spectacle of fugitive bacon. With pigs zigzagging across the dirt, drivers must weave and swerve in their smoking 1920s jalopies, a generation of Fords not exactly known for their tight handling.


Yes, Pigs-N-Fords is a splendid event—and one I encourage you to seek out on the Internet. But it does not begin to match the grandeur of the Greasy Pole, for reasons that will become evident.



For starters, the Greasy Pole is deeply rooted in its cultural and environmental setting. Gloucester’s slice of the Atlantic serves not merely as a picturesque backdrop, but also the grounds for the city’s very existence. Yet this existence has always been precarious, vulnerable to storms, declining fish stocks, and the possibility that our resident basking sharks may one day mutate, flop onshore, and devour us all like so many smelts.

The Greasy Pole, then, is a perfect symbol of this relationship. The timber evokes a schooner’s mast, and its recumbent angle both echoes the ocean’s horizon line and reminds the sailor of the constant danger of capsize. As the competitors tiptoe down its tapering length, they lord over the water below. But one false step pitches them headlong into the brine, a cartoonish display only accentuated by the capes, masks, and fake tits some elect to wear. Like the City of Gloucester itself, the pole walkers are suspended between maritime glory and calamity.

(Gloucester, MA - 6/30/13) , Sunday, June 30, 2013. Staff photo by Angela Rowlings.

In contrast, Pigs-N-Fords bears no real connection to its place; the dirt track could be transplanted to any township from Idaho to Indiana without compromising its operation or significance. While it’s true that all of Tillamook reeks of pigpen, this is a byproduct not of the pork industry, but rather the town’s ubiquitous dairy cows. Resourceful farmers convert their Holstein manure into a nitrogenous slurry, which they discharge onto pastureland with huge, oscillating irrigation cannons. For Tillamook to match the cultural synergy of the Greasy Pole, it would need to devise an American Gladiators-style competition, wherein flannel-clad farmers hustle through a hay bale gauntlet, while dodging a gracefully arcing fusillade of liquefied shit.



To fully appreciate the Greasy Pole, one must also consider its educational value—specifically, its illustration of various physical and mathematical principles in a way that no textbook could ever match. First, there is the phenomenon of friction—which, when coupled with the downward tug of gravity—allows us under normal conditions to walk in a predictable manner. But the Greasy Pole does not present normal conditions. Instead, the pole’s coefficient of friction is reduced to zero by a proprietary blend of axle grease, whale oil, and the hot tears of local environmentalists. Thus, when a pole walker ventures forward, Newton’s Third Law dictates that his foot will shoot out in a random direction, undermining his center of gravity and sending him into a tumble whose trajectory is subject to a host of complicated variables, including wind direction and the volume of Coors Light and linguiça sausage sloshing in his belly.

From this moment on, the walker is at the mercy of gravity and the structural integrity of his pelvis and facial bones. He may spill cleanly into the air—or he may carom off the pole at any angle, not unlike a human Plinko chip. His fall may last anywhere between 0.3 and 2.0 seconds, depending on the tides and whether he has—in the cruelest statistical outcome—landed astraddle, leaving him to clutch desperately at the pole while his scrotum vibrates like a crisply struck bell. Over the course of an afternoon’s competition, a young spectator might watch twenty men make four or five attempts. If she has been observing closely—scribbling notes and employing an accelerometer—she should have no trouble passing the Advanced Placement physics exam.


In comparison, the Pigs-N-Fords contest is, from a scientific perspective, rather ho-hum. The cars travel a set path around the elliptical track, and the physical forces this motion unleashes are generally absorbed and rendered invisible by the Ford’s tires and steel frame. The one exception is when a driver loses his grip on a piglet, just as the vehicle is exiting a turn. Unfettered from the car’s centripetal force, the pig squirts from the Model T along a line that is tangent to the curve—a line that, God willing, does not intersect with the track’s Jersey barriers.  The entertainment value may be high. But surely there are simpler, gentler ways to teach our children the stark truths of Darwinian selection.



I moved from Texas to Gloucester in late June of 2008, just a day or two before the opening of St. Peter’s Fiesta. I knew almost nothing about the city or its customs—aside from what national news outlets had recently revealed about the astonishing fecundity of its high school girls. Thus, I couldn’t understand why—around 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon—the streets of my downtown neighborhood had grown eerily quiet. As a Southern boy with agnostic tendencies, my only hypothesis was that Gloucesterites were a pious bunch—and, with the Rapture having come to pass, I had been left behind.  When I walked outside, I expected to see cars embedded in telephone poles, their drivers spirited away and now chuckling at my bewilderment and damnation.

Eventually, I spotted a middle-aged couple hastening down Dale Avenue toward the harbor. “Hey!” I called. “Where are you headed? Where is everyone?”

They looked at me with the mixture of exasperation, amusement, and contempt that I would come to know and love, as it defines the native’s attitude toward outsiders like me.

“Pavilion Beach!” they said. Then: “It’s the Greasy Pole, ya jerk!”

I thought about running back inside for my sunglasses, but I didn’t know Pavilion Beach from Pismo, and I feared I’d lose their trail. So I followed at a polite distance, slowly becoming aware of the tinny sound of a public address system—and the dim roar of a crowd. At last, I squeezed onto the packed beach and caught my first glimpse of a fat man in a dress pinwheeling into the inky water.  Standing on my tiptoes, I realized that it was, indeed, the Rapture—and that I’d managed to make it into heaven after all.


Fun With Bathing Suit Anxiety

I had first seen Good Harbor Beach during the chill of late March a few years ago. It was empty apart from a few people with unleashed dogs racing in and out of the surf. The dogs were running around like happy idiots, unaware that they were soaked to the bone with sea water that was approximately the temperature of liquid nitrogen. It was a lovely scene, with the lighthouses in the background and a clear blue sky framing the whole picture. It charmed my husband and I like the naive fools we were.

I pictured myself nestled into the warm sand with a book, wearing overly large sunglasses and not enough sunscreen, sat next to my husband who I would make wear a sun hat. We would complain about rapidly warming drinks and sand getting into various crevices, and would on occasion wander down to the water to float around like a pair of content seals.

Actual shot of me in the water.

This has yet to happen.

I peer out the window of the car during the summer, eyeballing the glistening blue of the Atlantic in the distance. It calls to me, saying “Come in. It’s lovely in here, I mean it. Sure, my water is 40 degrees but for the 55 seconds that you can bear it, you’ll feel great.” But I never give in to the temptation.

I go for walks on the beach all the time. I stroll barefoot in the sand at the water’s edge like an idyllic tampon commercial, enjoying the feel of the water on my feet and rolling my jeans up so they don’t get wet. (Yes, I am that asshole in long pants at the beach.) I stare at the water and listen to the waves, barely audible above the din of what my brain convinces me is a crowd of impossibly beautiful people, all judging me and my fat ass for blocking their otherwise perfect view.

Now, logically, I know this just isn’t true. Average looking people go to the beach, too, though I’m sure they judge me just as harshly.

I stare at the water, and I want to go in. I linger and dig my toes into the sand and try to avoid the fresh, gelatinous seagull shit. I linger for a while and daydream about floating in the surf, then I move on, back to my car.

Another thing to be avoided in the sand

Why does this happen? Why does my brain do this? I don’t fucking know. I’m overweight but I’m not obese. It’s illogical, damaging, silly, ridiculous, but all I know is that I get hit with crippling anxiety at the thought of unveiling my blindingly white, uneven, imperfect thighs and hips to the world. It keeps me from enjoying my summer, and that makes me angry and resentful.

Before you think it, I can’t just “get over it.” My brain has been sabotaging me for years, like a bitchy lifelong frenemy who you keep hanging out with because you convince yourself you deserve her scorn. Even when I weighed eighty pounds less than I do currently, my mind would still very helpfully whisper “You should probably wrap yourself in a sarong. Better yet, just keep those shorts on. No, you don’t look stupid swimming in shorts at all, you look great. This is so much better than just relaxing, trust me.”

I thought that buying a bathing suit for “curvy women” (that’s what they call larger women now, FYI) would help. So I found a website that specialized in clothes for larger gals. It was populated with large gorgeous women, all looking impossibly glamorous while lounging around the pool with giant sunglasses, great hair, and expressions that screamed “I look good. I want to swim, and I refuse to wear a goddamned mu-mu, so go fuck yourself if my fat ass bothers you.”

Owning. All. Of. It.

I was inspired.

I clicked “buy now” and waited for my package of confidence to arrive in the mail. When it showed up, I immediately had to try it on. I hadn’t worn a bathing suit since the last time I had been swimming, which was back in 2001. The sensation of pulling this thing on, this weird, once piece contraption of stretchy fabric and underwires, was foreign. I had hoped to put it on and immediately be blessed with the self confidence of those gals living it up poolside, as if the fabric was woven of some magic “I give zero fucks” attitude.

That didn’t exactly happen. I didn’t look bad, but I still looked like me. I prodded at my soft parts, tried posing and looking for the right angles to minimize the bits I didn’t like. Still, I had spent the money on this thing and I promised myself that I would use it. We live a stone’s throw from some of the most gorgeous beaches in New England, and I told myself to stop being such a goddamned baby.

I’ve worn it once.

I wore it, not to Good Harbor (small steps, folks) but to Plum Cove which is like Good Harbor’s older, crotchety aunt who gives you off-brand candies. It’s small and not terribly picturesque, both the beach and the water are lined with uncomfortable pebbles and rocks in lieu of soft toe-diggable sand, and the water is topped with mats of vaguely menacing looking seaweed.

I felt a little sorry for the lifeguard who got assigned there. It was a beach populated that day by grandparents and their charges, exasperated looking moms who just probably just wanted to read a book but had to get up every few minutes to intervene in a child fight, and a fat girl trying to mentally will eyeballs blind to her presence. (It was me, the fat girl was me.) I concentrated hard on my book, and got up exactly twice to venture into the water with a practiced quick-walk meant to both get me there ASAP, and draw as little attention to myself as possible. The uncomfortable rocks underfoot had other plans, sadly, and my graceful walk was reduced to a herky-jerky shuffle.

I thought then about trying out Niles beach, but I pictured it as the domain of East Gloucester, populated by thin women with designer beach towels and a taste for chardonnay, and stylish moms feeding kale chips to children named after a plant. They would, my brain assured me, give me the stink eye and I would immediately be given a look of disgust for being fat near them. They would point at me and tell their kids “Look, Maple and Barley, that’s why you don’t get refined sugars. Have some more quinoa.”

But this year, THIS YEAR will be different. I will be different. I will find that bathing suit and rescue it from the depths of forgotten and ill fitting clothes, I will wear it, and I will be fat at the beach and I will float in the water like a happy seal.

So I tell myself.

Check back later.

No Snark Sunday: Mayoral Pre-Election Edition: Clamathematics

The question we hear over and over again at your beloved The Clam is “will Sefatia run for mayor?” as if this is something we should know. As it turns out, we do. The answer is yes. Or, more accurately: It’s really goddamned likely.

Just a typical workday at Clamedia Tower.

Just a typical workday at Clamedia Tower.

Shocked? Let’s clamsplore:

Look at how the voting pattern broke down in 2013, which we should note was an off year like this one (there was no presidential contest):

Total votes cast: 8307


Sefatia (running at-large): 5016

Verga (running at-large): 3899


McGeary (unopposed, Ward 1) 1185


Kirk (for mayor w 60% of vote): 4724

So, given people tend to do what they’ve done before unless given a really good reason not to, as it stands today if she runs she wins. She knows this. This is why she’ll run because: a) it looks like she likes the job, b) people are asking her to, c) it pays pretty well, d) she hasn’t screwed anything up which is the standard most incumbents have to meet.

This is not an endorsement of her or of anyone else. We like all three as people and consider them friends but we are a strategist and this is just how it breaks. Numbers are reality. When people have her and Greg to choose from on the same ballot in an equal contest, a substantial number more choose her in every ward in the city every time. It’s that simple

Paul has no history of being able to get that number of votes and we like him a lot, but  just don’t see a place where the momentum for him is so strong against the other two he draws about three thousand plus votes (a handy rule of thumb for Gloucester is it typically takes about 5K votes to win. If you can’t dig that up in any model, then it’s not happening). We can see few hundred for Paul per ward, sure. He has a couple of key audiences pulling for him, but Gloucester elections are mostly about name recognition. The majority of voters will never pay close attention to the positions or qualifications of the candidates beyond the names themselves. This is the reality of local politics.

*Note: We could go much deeper into the wonkiness of it all but suffice to say even in a two-way Verga v. McGeary contest the biggest, but not only, barrier for Paul would be Ward 5 representing West Gloucester and Magnolia. It’s Greg’s home turf and there are a lot of votes out there- about half again as many as the other wards.

However, turf or no, in the predicted contest including Sefatia she remains the vote leader in 5 as she has historically been in every ward and precinct of the city.  Greg simply has led there against other candidates down the ballot in the at-large races. 

Sometimes when we are at parties and we sketch this out on napkins people disagree with us and scrunch up their faces and say things like, “But if everyone just did x….” and we laugh and laugh to the point of snorting microbrewed India Pale Ale out of our nasal cavities. We then ask, “Are you a wizard? Because if you know a way to get ‘everyone’ to change their current behavior when there is no visible and immediate economic or social gain for doing so, then you are wanted on Madison Avenue and at the Brookings Institution.”



Elections are math. People behave in predictable ways. Simple as that.

The next protest we get laying this out is “but she promised not to run when she was given the position of interim.” Yep. She did. And she’ll pay a vote penalty for that. The only question is how many votes will it cost her? A thousand? She can spare a thousand, especially in a three-way race. Maybe a candidate going crazy-negative on her could make something of it but I don’t see Greg doing so in a major way and there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t epically backfire given how many people love her. Not likely in our opinion.

Now, big caveat, anything can happen between now and then. She could screw up. She could say something to offend a huge group of people or get into trouble or who knows. But right now Gloucester is getting positive national attention for once, she’s in the spotlight and clearly digging on the job.

Everything we know about behavior and economics says she’ll opt to keep it.


Fun Proof for people planning to give us shit about this analysis:

Before emailing or texting or commenting with what idiots we are, please show how one could say “false” to any one of the following statements:

A. Sefatia likes being mayor and it’s a financially rewarding position for her

B. Sefatia has not screwed up being mayor in any visible way

C. Sefatia will continue to be able to draw on the large amounts of electoral support she has received in the past

D. There will be some penalty for her breaking her promise not to run, but not more than a thousand votes or so

E. There will be a growing chorus publicly asking her to run

F. She will not get into trouble and no other personal circumstance will prevent her from running

Prove one false and there is a chance of someone else. Otherwise, it’s the Godmother.