Casing St. John’s Church—and Other Surefire Ways to Avoid Making Friends in Gloucester

[ Today’s guest blogger is perennial favorite Adam Kuhlmann, who read this story aloud at Fish Tales, held by the Gloucester Writer’s Center on Friday evening at Short & Main upstairs. If you missed that epic performance, here you go!]

In hindsight, it was perhaps naïve to think we’d find—in an abandoned coat factory in Gloucester, tucked between the railroad tracks, a 7-Eleven, and a public housing complex—coastal New England’s version of Melrose Place.  Nevertheless, those were our thoughts as my wife and I sped down the Mass Pike in July of 2008, the final leg of our move from Houston.  She rummaged through the glove compartment and with a flourish produced the lease agreement to our new home.  It was a top floor unit in a brick box rechristened the Gloucester Mill Condominiums—and a place we’d seen only in underexposed Craigslist images.  Yet somehow we conjured a primetime Aaron Spelling soap opera, minus the AIDS and contract killings.

This was our fault, a product of overactive imaginations and underactive research.  We’d spent our post-college lives in cities with an abundance of luxury real estate.  So when we read that Gloucester Mill was located “downtown” and consisted of “converted lofts,” we filled in the details by extrapolating from the hip urban spaces we’d known.  Most of all, we imagined our neighbors.  We weren’t assuming they’d look like Heather Locklear or Andrew Shue.  But it had been four somewhat lonely years in Houston, a city where the progressive few fend off the armies of conservatism by huddling behind walls thatched with the wiry, salt-and-pepper hair of John Stewart.  We hoped that a peaceable blue state would offer better odds for meaningful friendship with folks like us.

It shouldn’t have taken us long to realize that, instead, Gloucester Mill amounted to the longest of long shots.  As soon as we arrived, the clues were all around us—most conspicuously, the signs reading, “Danger: Oxygen in Use, No Open Flames.”  Of the seven doors between the entrance and the elevator, fully three displayed this lurid red and black warning—and one was complemented by a motorized scooter parked beside the threshold.  But my wife and I were preoccupied.  In the lot sat our exhausted Toyota Camry, ticking in the heat and rigged with personal effects, a Japanese-made update on the jalopy from The Grapes of Wrath.  We were in no position to notice that our neighbors were, by and large, individuals who could recall the fanfare surrounding the publication of Steinbeck’s masterpiece.

It’s not that I am opposed to cross-generational friendships.  At age 34, already I enjoy plenty of activities associated with the elderly, such as reading, gardening, and positively demolishing boxes of high fiber cereal.  But my wife and I learned that, at Gloucester Mill, the relatively youthful were perceived as dangerous interlopers.  Not long after our arrival, I crossed the parking lot to address a shrunken woman struggling with an overloaded grocery caddy.  Too eagerly, perhaps, because when I offered my assistance, she recoiled in terror and clutched her purse as if it were the world’s last box of laxatives.  “Help! Help!” she cried, without apparent irony.

It’s not altogether surprising that I had trouble making friends within the building.  I can be grumpy and aloof—and with my pugnacious, bearded chin and eyebrows like mustaches, I resemble a pocket-sized Bluto, Popeye’s nemesis and a well-documented sexual predator.  But my wife is one of those honest-to-goodness nice people you read about in Bible tracts.  Her smile, which she offers indiscriminately, takes up the better part of her face.  For two years she taught in Watts and managed to win over her students with a combination of absolute devotion and exquisite Southern manners.  Yet even she found herself, more than once, on the business end of a four-pronged aluminum cane.

There were exceptions, of course.  One of our fourth floor neighbors, a chatty spindle of a woman, kept an eye out for our Amazon packages and invited us to her Christmas parties.  Still, it was clear that my wife and I needed to look beyond the Mill for companionship.  During the thirsty month of August, before the school year and our new jobs commenced, we devoted ourselves to visiting a different bar each night.  More often than not, these forays proved less social and more anthropological in nature. So while they yielded few friends, we made some important discoveries—for instance, that New Englanders see gin and tonics in the same way that others do lemon-lime Powerade.  Also, that the Old-Timers Tavern could have deepened its obvious commitment to truth in advertising by calling itself the Piss Drunk Old-Timers Tavern.

Beyond these efforts, we joined the YMCA, frequented the Farmers’ Market, and even attended services at the Episcopalian Church.  My skeptical beliefs notwithstanding, I savored these Sundaymornings.  With the big red door flung open to the breeze, I listened to seagulls heckling the liturgy and admired the sunlight glowing through nautically themed stained glass.  But eventually we learned that churchgoing has a different form and meaning up North.  In Texas, people attend church because everyone does; it’s an opportunity to wear linen, gossip about the truant, and enjoy a tipple beforenoon.  The service itself is just a prelude to the fellowship that takes place afterward over sagging platters of fried catfish and devilled eggs.  But in New England, where church isn’t so much a way of life, regular parishioners seem to be a hardcore, studious lot.  They listen intently to the sermon, scribble notes, and following the benediction shake hands with the priest and hotfoot it home to implement his teachings.  My tendency to hang around the courtyard, sporting a pastel bowtie, elicited only quizzical expressions from the clergy and laypeople alike.  What was so natural down South appeared bizarre, even suspicious, in New England.  Looking back, I worry they imagined I was casing the joint for holy relics or crates of communion wine.

StJohnsChurch

 

As our first New England summer faded into autumn, I started to feel desperate.  Yes, we had found camaraderie at our places of employment.  But at the warm and fuzzy schools where we taught people were contractually obligated to be friendly.  And most colleagues lived over the Bridge in the surrounding towns.  What we hungered for were local connections, voluntarily bestowed, which would symbolize that we’d truly arrived, that we weren’t the tourists or seasonal residents whom we now saw fleeing for warmer climes.

And so I began to see potential bonds in the unlikeliest of places.  Walking from Gloucester Mill to the Family Dollar for trash bags or a toilet brush, I would pass a dingy garage adjacent to a carwash. Ostensibly, it was a commercial enterprise named Dizturbed Kreationz, which specialized in turning perfectly sensible four-wheel drive trucks into rude metallic beasts that farted jet-black smoke. Business hours lasted between noon and 1:30 PM, after which the young employees would abandon their blowtorches, arrange folding chairs, and pass around a squat red cooler of beer.  Often, a flinty-looking girl or two would join them to sing harmonies on favorite Limp Bizkit tunes.  Meanwhile, the boys held remote control transmitters in their stained hands, sending tiny scale models of their prized vehicles whining through the parking lot.  On the surface at least, I had little in common with this outfit. And they treated my comings and goings with complete indifference.  Yet part of me imagined how pleasant it would be to be hailed with some nickname—“Bones” or “Mongoose” or, hell, even “Little Bits”—and have a cold can pressed into my palm.  One afternoon I plucked up my courage and ventured a little head nod to a heavily tattooed fellow, who was taking a cigarette break next to a completely stripped chassis.  He stared for a moment, spat on the ground, and opened his mouth to speak.  In a way, my fantasy came true—but I admit that “bitch ass punk” was a bit more colorful a moniker than I’d bargained for.

dizturbed_kreationz_by_charliemacpaintings-d6sc0g5

As the years passed, my wife and I gave up hoping that any single outlet in town would offer a gateway to an extensive network of friends.  The most promising of these one-stop-shopping approaches—raising a child—seemed like an awful lot of work.  Instead, we resolved to cobble together a social life from disparate materials, to celebrate loose ties as well as strong ones, and—most of all—to not grow discouraged.  Recently, we moved away from Gloucester Mill and into a house closer to Main Street. We have plenty of space, and we can’t wait for temperatures to rise and the roof deck to shrug off its white winter coat, so we can host a party.  Maybe we’ll fill up a kiddie pool and surround it with tropical plants, just like the set of Melrose Place.  As long as you don’t have murder or adultery in mind, consider yourself—and your oxygen tank—invited.

 

Bearded and Pugnacious? A Close Examination of Gloucester’s Manhood by Adam Kuhlmann

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.

howardblackburn

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.

oldman

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.

Len’s Phonetic Alphabet for Call Center Workers Who Hate Their Customers

[Today’s post is written by guest blogger Len Pal.]

From time to time over the last twenty years, I’ve worked in some capacity or another in call centers. Occasionally while speaking with a customer over the phone, one must spell out names or words. In technical support even more than in other types of call groups, accuracy is critical. If a customer doesn’t type the right letters, the command they are typing either won’t work at all, or worse, it WILL work, but will have a very different result than the one intended. To avoid this, we use phonetic alphabets – saying things like “B as in boy, A as in Apple, D as in Dog”, and so on.

I personally always fell back on the phonetic alphabet I learned in the army: alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, foxtrot, etc. This worked well nearly all the time, and most of my co-workers used it as well. But every once in a while, some unenlightened customer would take issue with our choice of words, despite that alphabet being designed by experts to ensure clarity over radio waves, and the fact that it has been in use by NATO forces for over SIXTY FUCKING YEARS. It is the most widely-used phonetic alphabet in the WORLD, and this customer is annoyed that I said “November” instead of “Nancy”.

Do you think I LIKE spelling out everything for you? Buy a damn “For Dummies” book if you don’t like my word choices. I’m doing this for YOU, to make sure you don’t make your problem any worse by typing the wrong phrase into your Windows registry file. You know how when you press the power button, eventually Windows comes up and you can play FarmVille and look at pictures of cats and stuff? Do you like that? Because if you put the wrong stuff in your registry, your Candy Crushing days are over.

Instead of letting myself get all worked up, I decided to offer an alternative. I wrote my own custom phonetic alphabet, just for those special customers who feel the standard NATO alphabet is too weird. I don’t do much phone work any more, but I’m passing this alphabet on to those that still do. I encourage you to use this alphabet whenever someone gives you crap for using NATO’s… it will teach them to keep their opinions to themselves. And so without further ado, here it is:

A ARE

B BEE

C CUE

D DJEMBE

E EYE

F FALSILOQUENCE

G GNOME

H HEIR

I ISLET

J JALAPENO

K KNIGHT

L LUMPENINTELLIGENTSIA

M MNEMONIC

N NECYOMANCY

O OEDIPUS

P PTERODACTYL

Q QUEUE

R RHINOTILLEXOMANIA

S SEA

T TSUNAMI

U USAGEASTER

V VOILA (pronounced well-ah)

W WHY

X XEROGRAPHY

Y YOU

Z ZWIEBACK (pronounced swee-beck, it’s a kind of biscuit)

No Snark Sunday: I Don’t Hate You, I’m Just Introverted

[Today’s column is by guest blogger Josh Turiel, who is a city councilor in Salem, as well as being a friend of the Clam.]

Many of my closest friends are people I’ve never (at this writing) met in person. I know them through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail. What makes this interesting is that I really do know a lot of people personally. I enjoy their company. I like to spend time with people. But mostly I like to hang out in the room and watch the fun. I’m a politician. I run a business. I have no problem addressing large rooms of people, and in a small group of people I know well I can be quite entertaining. But put me in a small room where I don’t know everyone and I clam up and stay in the corner. I usually avoid parties with lots of strangers.

Because, despite all the trappings I give off, despite the witty comments you see me write, despite the speeches I give on TV, I’m an introvert. That basically means that when I’m in the midst of a group of people, particularly strangers, I’m really freaking uncomfortable. In fact, for the most part deep down in my lizard brain I’d probably rather be undergoing dental surgery. I’m terrible at names, I have a tough time remembering new faces. There are people I know well whose names I have no idea of. I recognize them, though. It can take me years sometimes to remember a name.

None of it is personal. I like most people once I get to know them. It takes me longer, but it’s worth it. And, like many of us, I recognize it. In fact, I’ve deliberately tried to compensate for it as best as I can almost since the day I arrived within shouting distance of adulthood. I took theatre classes and learned to act. I did a Dale Carnegie course at an old job of mine. I taught myself public speaking – and in fact I’ve become pretty good at it (it’s far easier to speak to a group of strangers than it is to speak to an individual stranger). I ran for office a few years ago, knocked on nearly 800 doors, and won the race (I still have the job, even). It’s very possible to function well when you’re fundamentally introverted. I’m fortunate, especially knowing people with much more burdensome physical and mental issues than this. Being introverted isn’t a disorder. It’s just who I am.

There are some skills you develop as a defense mechanism. You become really sensitive (maybe even over-sensitive) to people’s reactions to you. You can really focus on an individual person in conversation. Reading is a pleasure, and it’s pretty easy to find things to entertain yourself rather than rely on other folks to do it. All pretty cool.

The tough part is when you need to crack that shell open and acknowledge the strangers in the room. Painful, but it’s the only way you can grow as a person, and I can tell you from experience that it’s totally worth it, even if I haven’t always been able to pull it off. Small talk is a struggle for us. If we do engage with you, we can have amazingly deep conversations about nearly anything that interests us mutually. And we’re interested in what you have to say – even when we don’t know it. Depth appeals to introverts. We’re the life of the party online, where we can pick and choose our interactions, engage people at an arm’s length, and we can think through what we say more carefully. All my funniest friends online pretty much fit into this category. Most of the Clamtributors are among them as well.

In musing upon this as I write, it’s probably not as surprising that introverts like me wind up going into electoral politics, or that a lot of us wind up in theatre, or performance-based pastimes of any sort. If we can perform for a lot of people, it’s in a small way easier and less painful than performing for just one person. It also can make for difficult childhoods for many of us in the social jungle that is elementary and secondary education. We tend to be the geeks in school – not so impressed by the mundane things that happen, not comfortable around groups of people, and usually interested in the esoteric and obscure. Extroverted people are the ones who project confidence in school. That’s a system made for them to live in their glory. It’s only after that high school diploma that the world really makes room adequately for both. I’m blessed to have had a relatively normal, well-adjusted childhood going to a school where the people like me were able to find each other and create a peer group. Not all kids are that lucky.

The biggest thing for you all to remember from this, though, is that when you see one of us at a social event, a meeting, or even just if you run into us at Market Basket, when we barely blurt out a “hi” when we see you and then don’t start chatting about the weather? We’re really not trying to be rude. Sorry about that. This is what life is like to an introvert.