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.



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.


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.