Cold: Why I Won’t Be Celebrating Spring Just Yet

sneeze-04Daylight savings may have docked an hour from their sleep, but the Gloucesterites who thronged Stacy Boulevard on Sunday were in fine spirits. Cousins hugged; neighbors shook hands; even perfect strangers leaned in close to chirpily observe, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” It was as though the entire city had survived a harrowing plane flight together—one where oxygen masks deploy and grown men whimper—and now, dazed and giddy, the passengers were congratulating one another on their luck.

In this case, the danger averted was meteorological, rather than aeronautical. Notwithstanding a blustery weekend or two, Gloucester has landed safely in mid-March with a fraction of its average snowfall—and its first 70-degree day already in the books. But the city’s collective sigh of relief assumes that snow and ice are the worst, most treacherous features of winter.

As a germophobe of the highest order, I know better. And, frankly, I found the scene on the Boulevard appalling. Was I the only one who spent the morning over coffee, a Danish, and the CDC’s weekly influenza map? Did no else realize skin-to-skin contact is the surest transmission route for the human coronavirus? In my mind, the city’s touchy-feely celebrations were not only premature, but also likely to prolong our misery.

usmap09[My web browser’s home page]

Because what the winter of 2016 lacked in ice, it has made up for in communicable disease. My next-door neighbor—a man generally too busy being handsome and talented to get sick—was recently stricken with pneumonia. His skin now hangs pale and slack over prominent cheekbones, and he hasn’t the energy to continue carving that marble bust of his daughter for her sixth birthday. On Friday another local friend woke up, yawned painfully, and discovered that his entire household had contracted strep throat. Since then, he has also learned:

  1. Harvard Pilgrim does not offer a ‘fourth one’s free’ deal on prescriptions of amoxicillin.
  2. Rather than keeping up with precise dosing schedules, it’s simpler just to distribute pills around the house in glass candy dishes.

As a schoolteacher, I’m on the front lines of every cold and flu season. Lacking immunity and the faintest regard for hygiene, children are the hardest-hit among us. This winter, I’ve found myself discussing poetry with half-empty classrooms. I exhausted my annual allotment of Kleenex boxes in February. And although I haven’t kept precise epidemiological records, I’ve noticed a surge in the volume of mucus left behind on my desktops, stranded and quivering like beached jellyfish. This is bad news for the rest of us, the caregivers and parents, who must herd damp tissues and administer rectal thermometers.

cimg0220-1[Worse for desks than your standard penis doodle]

I haven’t always been so fearful of viruses and bacteria. As a toddler, I lolled in every available sandbox, snacking on whatever bits and bobs I could grasp between my thumb and forefinger. As a teen, I rarely turned down a sip from a communal Budweiser. But things changed in February of 2002, during my junior year at Dartmouth College, when an epidemic of bacterial conjunctivitis swept campus. This wasn’t your garden variety pink eye. Victims of this particular strain discovered their condition as soon as they awakened, terrifyingly conscious but unable to open their eyes without the aid of a flat-head screwdriver. For the next three to five days, they shambled around campus in rarely-worn eyeglasses, their scarlet eyelids issuing a fluid as viscous and yellow as pine sap. Classmates recoiled, and friends treated them with the same compassion they might offer a smallpox blanket. As painful as the inflammation was, we students generally agreed that—aesthetically—it was better to suffer a bilateral case. Those with a single afflicted eye took on the lurid, asymmetric appearance of certain Picasso portraits.

06379b2ed6130eb556b92acfdd2dd992[Nothing a little bacitracin can’t handle]

After a few weeks, the outbreak got so bad that it drew the attention of the national media and the Centers for Disease Control, whose agents descended upon tiny Hanover to swab our eyelids with Q-tips. Long lines formed at the doors of cafeterias, where stern women in lab coats demonstrated proper hand-washing technique. Desperate, we complied, which meant preparing to handle a peanut butter sandwich as though it were the still-beating heart of a transplant patient. Yet their efforts accomplished little. The pink eye abated only when spring break intervened and we all left campus.

The following winter, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated the total number of cases in Dartmouth’s Great Pink Eye Epidemic: over 1000, on a campus with a population smaller than Rockport’s. Of this 1000, I personally accounted for no fewer than five, with each bout flaring up a few days apart. After my third case, I refused to leave my dorm room except for three obligations: attending class, going to work, and restocking my mini-fridge with Magic Hat. “Most likely,” my doctor told me over the phone, “you’re re-infecting yourself.” I pondered this, imagining how I must have absently rubbed an eye with some contaminated item. For a moment, I considered wearing an upside-down lampshade, like a sad, post-surgical terrier. After the fifth case, I was prepared to light a torch and treat all my worldly possessions to the full Velveteen Rabbit.

velveteen[You’re dead to me.]

Since then, my germophobia has settled into a way of life. It rarely keeps me from doing things and going places, but I do confess to taking elaborate precautions and maintaining a vigilance that would make Louis Pasteur proud. Most of all, I continue to make a point of washing up before handling anything I’ll eat raw. If I so much as open the refrigerator after peeling an orange, I’ll scrub my hands once again. Because I do a great deal of eating, my hands remain forever chapped and red, as though they’re ladles I use to serve boiling pots of chili.

Shopping for food is sometimes a vexing experience. If I’m in the produce department and I overhear a teenaged employee sneeze, I’ll promptly decamp for another store. I’m unable to take the risk that, at some point during her shift, a tissue was out of reach—and she improvised with the broad leaf of my Swiss chard. Not long ago, I had a remarkable experience at a grocery store that will remain nameless. Ready to check out, I had unloaded my basket onto the conveyor belt and stood in line, pretending to ignore the headlines on the cover of Us Weekly. The cashier was a young fellow whose beefy thumb pierced the cellophane covering the final item in the order ahead of mine: a value pack of Perdue boneless chicken breasts. When the cashier lifted and tilted the Styrofoam, it left behind a glistening slug’s trail. Briefly, the boy and I made eye contact. He looked down at his fingertips, from which dangled strands of chicken slime, like bunting at a party whose guest of honor is diarrhea. The cashier looked back up at me. Then, to no one in particular, he called out: “Can I get a squirt of Purell?” I stood there, paralyzed, calculating the monetary value of my groceries and the likelihood they’d have to be discarded. At length, the boy shrugged and merely wiped his hands on the shirt stretched taut across his belly. Then he asked: “How are you today, sir?”

Often, I marvel at others’ apparent appetite for germs. Recently, I was standing in line at my favorite fishmonger, and I noticed a shallow bowl of those pastel ‘conversation hearts’ on the counter. It was well after Valentine’s Day, long enough for the candy to have accumulated the uric tang of ripe haddock, not to mention an array of microbes. Yet here was a well-dressed woman rooting through them with manicured fingers. “Be Mine?” Nope. “Kiss Me?” Nuh-uh. “True Love.” Pass. “Hep A?” Yes, please! If she lived, I assumed her next meal would be a burrito at an area Chipotle, where, while she waited, she’d lick the length of the stainless steel prep surface.

[Again? Guess I’ll have to stop by my local cruise ship.]

It’s easy for me to spot my fellow germophobes, and I’m always on the look-out for new techniques. For instance, there is the fit older woman at the MAC, who drapes a plastic bag over the spot where her delicate neck meets the squat bar. And it’s never been a mystery to me why paper towels often collect in a mound beside the doors of public restrooms. These are hiking cairns for germophobes. We grasp the handle, drop the towel, and mark our passage—finding validation in the knowledge that others have deemed the space just as squalid as we have.

Whether it’s my habits or my schoolteacher’s superhuman immune system, I don’t get sick much anymore. But when I do, the viruses—spurned and thwarted for so long—really make themselves at home. It’s like the video footage of ordinary Libyans who, after decades of tyranny, streamed into the travertine palaces of Muammar Gaddafi, overturning vases and relieving themselves on his Oriental rugs. In fact, I’m just getting over my first cold in ages, which for ten days rendered me a feverish, hacking mess. I was at my lowest on the day of the Massachusetts primary, but I managed to crawl out of bed and hobble to my polling station just up the block. On my way out, I spotted a small group holding signs for Donald Trump. And so I performed my second civic duty of the day: stopping by for introductions and long, moist handshakes.

But when it comes to exposing others to my germs, I normally try to follow the Golden Rule. So while I’ve ended my self-imposed quarantine from my wife, it’ll take some time to go over every inch of our apartment with a sponge and a 2% bleach solution. Perhaps when I’m done, the weekly flu statistics will have declined—and I’ll be ready to join the end-of-winter celebrations. I’ll be the one smiling and waving my chapped hands, all from a safe, sanitary distance.

Away in a Manger: My Life as Livestock

There are plenty of reasons to love the holidays—even for people like me without children in their homes or Christ in their hearts. The carols and the twinkling lights are obvious charms. So too is the scent of evergreen and wood smoke. Subtler but equally potent is the way holiday advertisements persuade me of my generosity. According to the moral calculus of Target and Best Buy, all I must do is lavish gifts on my materially comfortable friends and family, and I’m excused for the past fifty weeks of being a garden-variety asshole.

But more than anything, I love the holiday season because it’s the one month when my year-round eating habits suddenly seem normal. At Christmas dinner, nobody bats an eye as I politely exchange my china for a wooden cutting board—then methodically erect three edible tiers. Using rolls and biscuits as cobbles, I first lay a sturdy carbohydrate foundation. Next, I spoon the casseroles and potatoes into a sort of quivering, cream-based mortar. Then on top I carefully assemble a flavorful façade of meats—which, at any holiday meal in my native South, will include roast beef and turkey, as well as ham studded with cloves and salted with the tears of Gwyneth Paltrow.

For me, a holiday meal is not so different from an average Tuesday night in April. The fare may be simpler and less butter-laden—salmon over rice, let’s say—but the result is the same, calorically-speaking. Because when I say “salmon,” I mean “a salmon”—or, at least, as much of the slippery devil as I can wrestle onto the top rack of my oven. True, I may steer clear of the eyeballs and fins, but otherwise I go after sockeye like a hibernation-wasted Kodiak bear.


In my household, I do the grocery shopping and cooking. It’s good exercise to crisscross Market Basket with racks of beef ribs and a burlap sack of potatoes slung over my shoulders. Moreover, it would be cruel to force my wife to handle so much food that she will never eat—and unfair to encumber her with the ceaseless task of keeping my stomach topped off.  When, as is often the case, hunger pangs awaken me at 3 AM, I only have myself to blame.  That’s what I get for not capping the evening with a glass of warm milk and a large pizza from Mike’s.

My wife knows that, when it comes to food, she has only one responsibility, which is to keep her hands and arms away from the chipper-shredder that is my mouth. The comparison is only a slight exaggeration. As an eater, I am not only immoderate, but also indiscriminate. When people tell me about their distaste for olives or their gluten sensitivity, I listen sympathetically—but with profound incomprehension. The notion of a meal “not sitting right” is, for me, a pure abstraction, like division by zero or leftover bacon.

Dining outside my own kitchen, I always feel a certain anxiety about getting enough to eat.  After all, at dinner parties it’s stressful to excuse myself, when everyone else is chatting over half-eaten pie, and go rummaging for more calories. I generally have a pretty good nose for the whereabouts of the hosts’ pantry. But it’s sometimes hard to judge—in the heat of the moment—which snack foods their children are least likely to miss.

At restaurants, especially fancy ones, things can get awkward.  A recent exchange went like this:

Waif-like server with sleeve tattoo: “Finished with this, sir?”

Me (looking down at a bay leaf and a cleanly gnawed bone): “Yes. I’ll have another.”

Server: “Another merlot, sir?”

Me (avoiding my wife’s imploring eyes): “No. Another dish, please.”

Server (smiling and searching my face to confirm the mischief): …

Me: “Another lamb shank.”

Server: “Oh.” (Pause.) “Yes, I can box up another to go.”

Me: “No, I mean to eat. Like, now.”

Wife (helpful and considerate, as ever): “Or, you know, whenever it’s ready.”

Server (dazed, recalibrating, ashamed for me): “Yes. Okay.”

Me: “Thanks for understanding. It’s a problem I have.”

Server (slinking away): “Mm hmm…”

Me: “Miss?”

Server: “Yes?”

Me: “Another merlot as well.”

At this point, I suspect you are picturing me as a large man—or perhaps some mythological hybrid with a chambered stomach. So I feel compelled to state that I am, in fact, 5-foot-8 and decidedly stringy. You can go ahead and carry on about how lucky I am to eat what I want and get away with it. I won’t protest. But let me remind you that the calorie is a unit of thermal energy—and the laws of chemistry cannot be escaped. So you might, more accurately, picture me as one of those old-timey, coal-fired boilers. But since I’m not attached to a steam locomotive, all my heat must be dissipated through my pores.

I didn’t fully appreciate just how sweaty I am until a few summers ago, while vacationing with my extended family near Cancun. Our resort offered a variety of amenities, including six pools and one cramped gym. Inexplicably, it was the only place on the grounds that lacked air conditioning, and its ceiling was scarcely tall enough to accommodate a hoisted dumbbell. On my first visit, I hopped on a stationary bike and commenced to ride with my usual gusto. With my headphones on and engrossed in a trashy telenovela, I was at first oblivious to what was unfolding. My aerobic output—stoked by the resort’s all-you-can eat buffets—had combined with the gym’s jungly heat to generate the perfect metabolic storm.  Eventually, I became aware of some commotion behind me. I turned to find two hunched maintenance workers squeegeeing sheets of my perspiration toward a drain hole in the corner of the rubber floor. Ever mindful of guest safety, they had placed yellow cones along the perimeter. Piso mojado, they read—which, I think, translates to “sweat gully.”

H_2838_MWhen I returned to the gym two days and many churros later, the gym attendants recognized me immediately. One wide-eyed woman hissed over her shoulder, “Mira! Look!” Her colleague wheeled and, perhaps dubious of American bilingual education, muttered a string of epithets that could have served as a vocabulary unit titled, “Odors of the Barnyard.”

One reason I moved from the South to New England was that I was tired of being el cerdo, the pig, for nine months of the year. Here in Gloucester, I can usually count on bitterly cold winters to provide a respite—or at least an excuse to layer over the dark stains that bloom across my chest and back. Normally, after Christmas dinner, I like to slip out the back door, open my jacket, and let the steam rise off me like a piping soufflé. But this year I’m headed back South, and word is they’re calling for record heat. Who knows: maybe this will be the year I find religion once again. If there’s any truth to those carols—“Away in a Manger” and all the rest—the Baby Jesus was never too good to consort with the likes of me.

Desperate Houseguests: A Scatological Tribute to Maternal Love

I have a friend and neighbor named Andy who manages almost daily to fill me with the rankest of jealousy.  It’s not so much because he’s tall, handsome, and socially adept—as these are traits that lie safely beyond my reach.  Rather, it’s because he boasts an astonishing repertoire of useful skills—and each week, it seems, he picks up a new one that I’ve never even heard of.  I might swing past Andy’s place to fetch a pair of boots he’s volunteered to resole for me, and there he is in his basement, squinting behind a jeweler’s loupe, having decided that—really—any man worth his salt can facet his own rubies.

Where my friend really shines is in the field of home improvement and repair.  Last year he added an insulated mudroom to his 3-bedroom house in downtown Gloucester.  Which is to say, he planned and executed each stage of construction, from pouring the concrete foundation to installing reclaimed brass hooks for the tiny pastel coats of his daughters.  One day when I’d stopped by to admire his progress, Andy said, “Since you’re here, can you help me out with something?”  For a moment I got excited, believing I’d been called upon to survey blueprints and grunt in manly contemplation.  But he just pointed to a thick wooden post and explained with great precision: “I need to move that over there.”  Long ago Andy realized that, for the sake of everyone involved, I should be treated like a common draft animal.

HotForHandyman[A semi-autobiographical account by one of Andy’s many admirers]

I try to compensate for my total ineptitude around the house by keeping every surface perfectly spotless.  I approach tasks like sponging the baseboards with the intensity of a SEAL team maneuver, and my wife must warn me not to get overzealous with my scrubbing, lest I dislodge a fixture or furnishing I’m incapable of repairing.  Indeed, for a few weeks now, a loose hinge has turned one of our toilet seats into a magician’s trapdoor.  But I can patiently await someone like Andy to come and fix it, confident that when guests do plunge into the bowl, their bottoms emerge as clean and uncorrupted as a hand from a baptismal font.

Our recent guests have included two spry retirees from Virginia: my mother and father.  They are good and low-maintenance people.  But their annual visits last a week—and thus occasion special preparations, such as stocking the liquor cabinet and stashing the knives in hard-to-reach places.  This being their first summer stay in our new apartment, I decided to go all out with the cleaning.  In particular, I would spruce up the outdoor spaces, where someone might want to adjourn, cocktail in hand, in the aftermath of this or that disastrous political discussion.

One of the biggest tasks would be the roof.  It’s a large square of composite decking that—like other high points in Gloucester—functions as a roost-cum-bombing range for the local seagulls.  Exacerbating our situation is the nearby Cape Ann Museum, a permanent gull encampment whose shit-slick gables should be negotiated only with crampons and an industrial respirator.  Notwithstanding the birds’ filth and noise, I felt we had settled into a peaceful détente.  Every week or so, as splatters gradually rendered the deck uninhabitable, I would haul buckets of soapy water through a narrow hatch and scour the hot planks with a brush resembling a scalped hedgehog.  It isn’t such a bad job.  There’s always a breeze, and the views of the inner harbor are fine.  Moreover, by studying the deposits for variations in color, texture, and viscosity, I’d become something of a pioneer in the field of seagull digestion.  For instance, there seems to be a species of clam that sours the colon of an average gull, yielding an ochre custard that, when left to bake in the August sun, must be pried off with a putty knife.

On the evening before my parents’ arrival, I had completed this task.  And as I arranged new flowerpots and admired the immaculate surface, the cries of the gulls overhead sounded comforting, almost melodic.  But the next morning, when I cracked the roof hatch with a watering pail in hand, I heard a different sort of cry: keening, insistent, and very close. I pulled myself onto the deck and turned to see a runty, gray gull standing and squawking amid a tract of unholy foulness. It was as though the visionaries at Shoney’s had developed a new type of seafood restaurant—call it an ‘all-you-can-shit buffet’—in which drums of laxative aioli invite patrons to dine and crap in the same booth.


I lurched toward the gull, crunching discarded clamshells and calling him dreadful and illogical things.  Whatever vices the creature might have engaged in during his life, it seems unlikely that he was, in any meaningful sense, a “cocksucker.”  Despite my abuse, he just sidled away into a corner, leaving a set of dainty white footprints.  On cue, a massive gull swooped down and perched behind him on the rail, clutching in her beak the butt of a shopworn baguette.  This, I realized now, was the mother—and the gray fellow her spawn, no longer a chick but not yet old enough to ravage trash bags on his own. I broke into a fit of stomping and clapping, like a participant in some kind of disturbed hoedown. But it took three blundering charges to stir the mother from her roost and chase the juvenile into clumsy flight.

With my parents speeding down the Mass Pike, I had no other choice but to drop everything and clean the deck once again.  Brushing away dismembered crabs, I was reminded of my own adolescence—in particular, the squalor of my bedroom and my mother’s efforts to coax a growth spurt by purchasing endless quantities of frozen buffalo wings from Costco.  I was sure that if I looked hard enough I would find, under a loose piece of decking, a collection of beak-and-plumage magazines: “Gulls Gone Wild” or perhaps something kinkier.

Other chores beckoned.  And I moved into high gear—not considering for even a moment that, with their squat discovered, mother and son would return.  But sure enough, thirty minutes later we were locked in our second faceoff, and neither bird was any more inclined to budge.  This chutzpah, I realized, was my biggest sticking point with the pair.  I’ve been forced to dwell alongside other pests—most notably, in Houston, Texas, where the American cockroach can reach the size of an Almond Joy.  On one occasion, I found such a specimen on my kitchen counter, standing astride a scrap of endive.  It was large enough that I could see its neck articulate and hear its jaws work, like a small, clean-shaven yak.  Still, when I flipped the light on, the roach skittered away, aware on some level of its trespass.  These seagulls, on the other hand, acted like the roof deck’s rightful occupants.  Sure, when our monthly budget gets tight, a sublease sounds like a good idea.  But I would draw the line at a ravenous and incontinent gull, no matter the size of the security deposit.

After I’d shooed the birds once again, I realized I needed a plan for ongoing deterrence.  My first idea, a blazing palisade of tiki torches, seemed reasonable enough—but I was running out of time.  What do people use to scare away birds?  As I looked down at Andy’s house, just next door, I knew he’d have the perfect answer—probably an eco-friendly tincture of herbs he could grind by mortar and pestle in the corner of his basement that doubles as an apothecary shop.

As I brooded on my friend’s sweeping competence, I was suddenly reminded of a lark he had orchestrated last summer, a prank that enlisted his mastery of a zoom lens.  It’s a cliché, really.  One minute, I’m hiking with four guys to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and the next I’m in a photo shoot, wearing only a wooden sign the National Park Service had installed for nobler purposes.  “Sensitive Area,” it read. “Keep Out.”  Perhaps it goes without saying that some Irish whiskey was involved.  But honestly, even if I had been sober, I never would have imagined that my friends would pay to have the best shot enlarged and turned into a life-sized cardboard cut-out of startling clarity.

This semi-nude doppelganger was unveiled a few months later, when the hiking party reassembled for a wedding in Maine.  Specifically, it was placed in the shadowy hall opposite the room where my wife and I were sleeping.  So that at 2AM, when she slipped out to use the toilet, she believed she was in the throes of a complete psychological breakdown.  During the rest of the weekend, Fake Adam (or, “Fadam,” as he was dubbed) found his way into a variety of other compromising situations.  Truly, I cannot overstate how unsettling it is to discover, as you rub your sleepy eyes and peel back the shower curtain, a second undressed version of yourself—this one not clutching a bar of Irish Spring.

Keeping my friends’ creativity and irresponsibility in mind, I thought it critical that Fadam not fall into the wrong hands.  So after the wedding he rode home without complaint in the trunk of our Honda.  Later, while wrestling him into the back of our walk-in closet, I caught my wife looking at us rather dubiously.  “What?” I said.  And in a rare moment of foresight: “You never know when a fellow like him might come in handy.”

As far as scarecrows go, what Fadam lacked in three-dimensionality, he more than made up for with verisimilitude.  Honestly, if you think about those classic, straw-filled effigies—with their floppy hats and ill-defined faces—it’s a wonder that farmers succeed in harvesting any corn at all.  Still, to be effective, Fadam needed to establish a sustained and credible presence on the roof.  Thus, I had to position and secure the cardboard so that an errant gust of wind wouldn’t catch him broadside, flinging him into the middle of the street—or a child’s backyard birthday party.  This was accomplished by means of a phone cord the previous tenants had abandoned.  Wrapped and strapped to a black metal chimney at the center of the deck, Fadam looked to the human eye like an actor in a gay bondage flick.  Someone who, minutes before, had rung a doorbell—then asked the eager conclave if they’d ordered one hot Italian grinder.  But evidently the pair of gulls saw him differently, and they kept a wide berth.

fadamOn the second morning of my parents’ stay, I was enjoying a quiet moment on the deck when I heard someone padding up the stairs to join me.  Naturally, it was my mother who popped through the hatch, bringing along a glass of V8 and her broad streak of conservatism.  I watched her eyes settle on Fadam, who had the decency to present his plain cardboard back.

“What’s that?” she asked, with the bright innocence of her Midwestern upbringing.

Taking a deep breath, I introduced her to my twin—then diverted her attention with a clarification of Fadam’s purpose.  This, I supposed, was less than self-evident.

My mother’s eyes got very wide. And I braced for a tart assessment of my scheme—which, after all, carried a non-zero chance of landing me on the state registry for sex offenders.

But all at once, she broke into a smile. “My boy,” she said. “Always so clever—and handy.” Despite their striking inaccuracy, I received these scraps of praise like some other son might welcome week-old bread—or a regurgitated clam.

In return, I offered my mom a chair whose sightline was G-rated.

“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” she said, shrugging and sitting across from Fadam.  “How many times did I change your underpants?”

Far above, the diaper-less gulls wheeled and cried out.  I wondered where the pair of interlopers was now, and suddenly I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about my anti-bird crusade.  After all, it was just instinct that had brought them to our roof, a mother’s desire to protect her young from all those taller, handsomer gulls with more practical skills.

I hoisted my coffee mug in my mom’s direction, but she seemed lost in a lingering appraisal of the harbor.  Or maybe, twenty years later, she was registering—in the ample curve of my flounder-white thighs—that all those frozen wings hadn’t gone to waste.  It didn’t matter.  I proposed a wordless toast to the dedication of parents everywhere—without whom we might not have learned much of anything.  Without whom we might still be squawking in our own shit.

Cape Ann GOP Names Gloucester Native Babson Its Patron Saint

GLOUCESTER—With the 2016 election cycle churning into gear, Cape Ann GOP—the local wing of the Massachusetts Republican Party—has chosen Roger Babson to be its official patron saint.

According to Cape Ann GOP chairman Ellis Pinkerton, the decision was made after the group reflected on the importance of Saint Peter to the City of Gloucester.

“For over 100 years, Gloucester’s fishing fleet has enjoyed the divine patronage of Saint Peter,” Pinkerton said on Friday from Cape Ann GOP headquarters. “If the engine of the city’s economy and touchstone of its cultural identity is good enough for a tutelary spirit, then why not us?”

CapeAnnGOP[Cape Ann GOP Headquarters in Gloucester]

“Let’s just hope that Roger Babson will be a little more on top of things than ol’ Pete,” added Christine Eastman, the group’s treasurer. “With only 12% of Essex County registering as Republican, we need all the help we can get.”

Born in Gloucester in 1875, Babson was an eminent figure in early 20th century American finance, and he went on to establish Babson College, which trains students for careers in business.

“Although Babson never affiliated with the GOP, there are tons of reasons why he’s a perfect fit for the modern Republican movement,” said Pinkerton. “Being a Wall Street tycoon is just one of them.”

Eastman pointed to Babson’s fondness for bow ties and his Colonel Sanders mustache. “He looked like a plantation master,” she said, “right here in the heart of New England!”

RogerBabson[Roger Babson in 1948]

Pinkerton also cited a local curiosity, the Babson Boulders, as another key factor in the group’s choice. In 1934, Babson commissioned out-of-work stonemasons to inscribe inspirational mottoes in naturally occurring granite throughout Dogtown Common, the densely wooded area in the center of Cape Ann.

Babson’s 36 mottoes include “Get a Job,” “Be Clean,” and “Keep Out of Debt.”

Pinkerton elaborated: “Being a hard-nosed businessman and advocate of the free market, Babson knew what people really needed during the Great Depression: not government handouts, but instead an assortment of condescending truisms carved into nearly inaccessible boulders.”

BabsonBoulder[One of the Babson Boulders in Dogtown]

“Plus, he treated Dogtown’s public land as his personal fiefdom,” Eastman said. “If there had been any environmentalists around in the 1930s, they would have been super pissed.”

According to Eastman, the only strike against Babson was his “regrettable” decision to use immigrant labor.

“But they were Finnish,” Pinkerton hastened to add. “So, you know. Not so bad.”

Any ambivalence was more than offset by other conservative bona fides, including Babson’s founding of the Gravity Research Foundation in 1948. Using his fortune, Babson hoped to give legitimacy to ‘gravitational shielding,’ an idea that was popular in science fiction but runs counter to both Newtonian theory and general relativity.

Eastman explained: “Babson really paved the way for millionaires to exercise their right to squander vast sums in support of quack science.”

Shaking his head, Pinkerton added: “Intelligent design? Climate change denial? Where would these movements be without Babson’s precedent?”

TuftsGravity[Gravity Research Foundation Monument at Tufts University]

Before settling on Babson, Cape Ann GOP considered a number of other local historical figures as potential saints.

“For a while, we were really fired up about Howard Blackburn,” Pinkerton said. “Nothing epitomizes the Republican ideal of self-reliance than a guy who, after being separated from the Socialist teat of his fishing schooner, rowed himself to Newfoundland.”

“But then we found out Blackburn did all that rowing while his dory mate just sat there, like some welfare queen,” Eastman said, throwing her hands up in disgust. “So what if the guy happened to be frozen to death?”

“Dealbreaker,” Pinkerton said.

So, how will Cape Ann GOP honor its new patron saint?

“St. Peter’s Fiesta seems pretty popular,” Eastman said. “So we’re thinking of something along those lines in the lead-up to the 2016 elections.”

“Of course, Babson was a prohibitionist,” Pinkerton added, looking off into the middle distance, where the traffic passed by on Washington Street. “We’re still working out the details.”

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.