Like many newcomers, I didn’t at first appreciate the extent of our town’s geographic divisions. To my mind, the City of Gloucester was its downtown core, bounded by the harbor and the holy trinity of island landmarks: to the west, the Fisherman’s Memorial; to the east, the Crow’s Nest; and to the north, Market Basket, that fluorescent-lit carnival of bottled waters and bargain rotisserie chickens.
But in time I realized that the city’s 40 square miles include a number of distinct enclaves. Not just proud little neighborhoods like Fort Square and Portuguese Hill. But also Magnolia, Lanesville, and Eastern Point, far-flung tracts with their own post offices, Main Streets, and packs of depraved coyotes.
This winter, after ten years of renting apartments in the shadow of City Hall, my wife and I moved to another Gloucester outpost, Annisquam, a few scant miles away. Lying on the west side of the island, Annisquam is itself divided into two rocky lobes of land, framed by its namesake river and Ipswich Bay. From a gull’s eye view, these symmetrical halves could be mistaken for lungs, or—if you’re feeling childish—a granite rump, with slender Lobster Cove delivering, with each high tide, a chilly saltwater enema.
When we told our downtown friends the news of our impending move, they responded in ways typically reserved for a cancer diagnosis. After all, our relationships had grown from proximity—and from a shared delight in the subtle charms of our streets, like the plaintive cry of seagulls in the morning. Also, the plaintive cry of seagulls in the afternoon. And on nights before trash pickup, a cry that is less plaintive, and more like that of an advancing Viking horde.
“My God,” one friend said. “Annisquam. Isn’t there anything they can do?”
Alas, our case was hopeless. Our landlord, a genial but aging lawyer, was giving us the boot, tired of replacing rotting shingles and eager to cash in on rising home prices. So, after solemnly pledging to remain in Gloucester, my wife and I began to study Craigslist and Zillow with religious intensity. This being January, we found the rental market somewhat bleak.
“Here’s a new listing,” my wife said one morning, her head bent over her iPhone. “Cozy, 80-square foot abandoned cellar hole in Dogtown. Open concept. Period architectural details include walls of precariously stacked, sharp-ass rocks. $1500/month.”
So when, suddenly, there was this little 2-bedroom in Annisquam, we pounced.
As the move drew near, our friends’ initial sympathy curdled into mild reproach. Most of them are longtime homeowners, and they seemed to blame us for bringing this possibly fatal relocation on ourselves. As though being a cash-poor renter was a dangerous lifestyle choice, akin to smoking clove cigarettes or playing jacks with slugs of uranium.
This shift in tone opened the door to their gripes about the 3-mile overland journey between downtown and the Annisquam hinterlands.
“Can we find food along the way,” asked one friend. “Or should we plan to eat the weakest member of our party?”
Others were keen to highlight the class distinctions between the gritty downtown scene and our new genteel village, home to Annisquam Yacht Club and just a single business enterprise: a farm-to-table restaurant that serves spring water in fine glass thimbles.
The night before our move, one of these friendly Marxists stopped by. Along with some help taping boxes, he offered this provocative line of questioning:
“You probably won’t miss the empty nip bottles strewn over the sidewalks, will you, Adam?”
“Nope,” I said.
“Or the fishy aroma, when the wind is just right?”
“Or,” he continued, “the bone-deep authenticity of immigrants and working people?”
This friend may be a dick, but he has a point. Rather than tireless Sicilians, Annisquam has long attracted well-heeled New Yorkers looking to park their generational wealth on a breezy lot with unobstructed views of the water. Our own small, worn home looks out-of-place there. Until one sees that it was once an outbuilding on a grand nearby estate, perhaps the shed where some Rockefeller kept his collection of hunting dogs or top hats.
On the day we signed our new lease, my wife and I decided to walk the surrounding streets, curious about the vibe of the neighborhood. It was the first week of February, but the weather was unseasonably mild. So it was notable that, in an hour’s worth of wandering, we encountered no other pedestrians. Indeed, the only people we glimpsed were behind the wheels of Super-Duty Fords and white vans emblazoned with commercial logos: “Jerry Enos Painting Company,” “Roy Spittle Electric.” It seemed the owners of the handsome manors we passed were busy occupying other homes, somewhere a thousand miles south of here. So they had thoughtfully arranged for these men—thick of mustache and good with their hands—to keep them company, to caress their sides with coats of fresh paint, lest they feel lonely or second-rate.
When moving day finally arrived, it was three such men we hired to schlep our boxes to Annisquam. They arrived bright and early on a Saturday morning, crammed into the cab of a battle-scarred truck, the flagship of a local moving company that I will decline to name, for reasons that will soon become evident.
Each man was notable in his own way. There was Walt, an outgoing older fellow who never stepped foot in either apartment and handled our belongings only long enough to assess their resale value. Calling himself the “brains of the operation,” he preferred to sun himself like a cat on the ledge of the truck’s cavernous interior, while critiquing the other men’s efforts. “You’re sure doing that the hard way,” he said, stretching, as his partners staggered under the weight of an old steel sleeper sofa.
One of those partners, Al, was built like a two-car garage. The other, Tim, was at least twenty years younger, but he was moving slowly and gingerly. After depositing a load, Tim would wince, remove a gray baseball cap, and wipe his brow. Later, I noticed him using one hand to carry a heavy suitcase, while the other clutched at his gut.
“You…doing okay?” I said.
Tim mopped his face. “Ya,” he said, “It’s just that…I’ve got this.”
Without further prelude, he lifted his sweatshirt to reveal his belly—hairless, pale, and flat, aside from what appeared to be a baby’s fist punching through his navel, as if the tot were frozen in the act of escape.
“Wasn’t so big this morning,” Tim observed.
Perhaps it’s not as dire as a waiter with amnesia, or a janitor with Norovirus. But in terms of occupational limitations, a mover stricken with an umbilical hernia isn’t so far behind.
“Lemme take that,” I said, reaching for the suitcase.
It’s unlikely that a passerby on the street would have mistaken me for a professional mover, what with my tasseled loafers and child’s dimensions. Certainly, I was not in the same class as Al, who could tuck an upholstered chair in the crook of his arm like a sack of groceries. So I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when Walt began to rag on my efforts too from the comfort of his sunny perch. “Distressed furniture,” he said, nodding at a wooden end table I’d fumbled and dinged against a door frame. “It’s very trendy these days.”
For a moment, I felt a twinge of shame: how could I be so careless? Until I realized that I owned that table. Moreover, I was paying to carry it down three flights of stairs, to the tune of $225/hour. Had it been my fancy to, say, smash the table with a small tomahawk, then set fire to it, and roast weenies over the smoking embers, well—for that kind of money—it would have been my prerogative.
I didn’t mention this to anyone, especially not to Tim, who was gamely lifting what he could: lampshades and decorative throw pillows. Instead, I continued to serve as a temp for this ragtag local business, sweating and absorbing Walt’s ridicule alongside men twice my size. Despite the irony of an inverse hourly wage, there was something about the whole situation that seemed right.
I understood this feeling better when we all caravanned to the new apartment in a clattering truck and a pair of Hondas. Snaking along the coastline, we passed over the causeway that marks the start of Annisquam. And with that, my wife and I didn’t just leave downtown Gloucester. We quit the domain of these men, calloused and liberally tattooed, whom we had the privilege to hire, on a Saturday, to labor like common draft animals. Perhaps joining their crew was my farewell penitence. But also it reminded me how hard we have to work to overcome our divisions for even just a moment.
Unloading the truck went much quicker. And soon we were standing on our covered porch, admiring the view of the Annisquam River in the slanting winter light. Walt too emerged from the truck, looking tan and rested. He produced a pack of Winstons, which he passed around to the other guys.
Al hadn’t said more than a few words all day. But suddenly, with the work complete and a cigarette in hand, he became downright chatty. “When summer gets here,” he said, “you can find me right over there.” He pointed toward Wingaersheek Beach, which, at low tide, sat across a blue channel of water just a hundred yards wide. “Lawn chair, fishing pole, cooler of beer.”
According to Google, I’d have to drive 20 minutes and 8.5 miles to join Al at Wingaersheek. And standing there, surrounded by cigarette smoke and lonely, million-dollar homes, I knew I probably wouldn’t. But it was nice to know he would be close enough that I could wander down to the water’s edge, cup my hands to my mouth, and shout hello.