Bound for Cape Cod

Called the Cape of Keel by early Norse explorers, Cape Code is a peninsula that juts out from the easternmost edge of Massachusetts.  Punctuated throughout by lighthouses, those magical sentinels that have saved lives and sent many imaginations to wonderful places, it is no wonder writers and artists gravitate to the Cape. Provincetown, or P-Town as its called (an unfortunate name in my view because it occurred to my mind that there may be a UTI epidemic there) is, I am told, an enclave of creativity and, well, fun.

Like most Americans, if not most people, Cape Cod brings the Kennedy Compound to mind. But for me it also brings playwright Eugene O’Neill to mind and, last, and first, my father. My father loved Cape Cod. In fact, he had just arrived in Cape Cod in the summer of 1969 when illness struck and killed him in less than a week. So, I suppose, in some way I will be finishing the vacation he started.

My father and I and, for that matter, all my family, loved the beach, the ocean. When I was a boy one set of grandparents lived in Rumson New Jersey and the other set lived in Ocean Grove New Jersey. Both locations are on or near the ocean. Few things are as extraordinary as the beach, in all seasons. In the mid-seventies I lived in Seagate, a peninsula off the tip of Brooklyn. My apartment was right on the beach. Doesn’t get any better, except when I went out the front door one morning and found a dead sand shark at the foot of the steps. Even dead sharks scare the hell out of me.

And so I am looking forward to this time on the Cape. Time to walk the beach, get some writing and reading in, do a bit of reflecting, reacquaint myself with Horseshoe crabs (I love those dudes) and, of course, hope I don’t run across any sharks, dead or alive.

Damn Ants

I am two years old visiting Mommom and Poppop in Rumson. New Jersey. Mommom and Poppop are my mother’s parents and I adore them, especially Poppop. They have boats and a house on Highland Avenue that looks out over a canal that leads onto the Navesink River towards the Oceanic Bridge. Their home is a heaven to me.

I love Mommom and Poppop, especially Poppop. He reminds me of Jimmy Stewart. He speaks in a stumbling, soft-voiced cadence. His eyes always glow warmth and kindness. He also smokes a pipes. He keeps several of them in a lovely wooden pipe rack near his large wing chair. I love to put the pipes in my mouth and pretend I’m just like Poppop and my father. My father smokes pipes too. Both would prefer I play with the pipes only when they are around.

But I am an early riser.

Early one morning I crawl out of bed, make my way into the living room, climb up into Poppop’s large wing chair, remove one of his pipes from the rack, and pretend to puff away. Pieces of smoked tobacco fall from the pipe and speckle me in my white t-shirt and underwear. I don’t care. I’m having fun sitting in this big wing chair just like Poppop. I look out the window with the pipe stem firmly clamped in my teeth. I have to hold the pipe with my hand because it is heavy. I hear a sound, turn, and there is Poppop looking right at me, trying desperately to look annoyed at me for playing with his pipes when he wasn’t there.

I look down at the black speckles of tobacco all across my front and brush them away saying, “Damn ants!”

Peter & Poppop circa 1955



NOTE: This excerpt was written about a period of time in my life in 1985.
At my kitchen table, drinking coffee, smoking a joint, get me out of here. I am done with the world outside my window. My switch is turned off. One second there is light, the next, all is dark. I am better in the dark now. I’d been the protector of friends, girlfriends, strangers too.

Once in Brooklyn me and a friend of mine see a young black man running down Court Street pursued by angry whites. Catching him they hit him with a pipe and beat him. He is on the ground screaming for his life. My friend and I race in, grab the battered young man, shielding him with our bodies against a car, raging back at the crowd pressing in, promising to damage someone bad if we have to go down too, the crowd pressing in, looking to get at him, terrified and bloodied. A man, older than me and my friend, a big Italian man, comes out of his store and joins us in our protection. Police arrive and take the bleeding terrified man to the hospital.

I am at my kitchen table drinking coffee, my switch is off. I can’t protect a man running down any street now. I can’t protect me anymore. I can’t leave my apartment. I can think of no reason to want to.

I am listening to Bruce Springsteen. I listen to nothing but Springsteen. There is something there, something safe, grounding, deeply familial. His songs bring me to memories of safe places and safe times; summers in Ocean Grove with my father’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa. I gobble up the ineffable magic and mystery of boardwalks and Asbury Park, beaches, and the forever ocean; they bring me to Rumson with Mommom and Poppop, my mother’s parents; they bring me to a time when the world was safe, when my father was still in it. Springsteen’s words are strong and real and emotionally courageous and, best of all, honest. Over and over again I listen to Independence Day and No Surrender, although I know I have surrendered I know my independence is gone, his songs remind me of what was, and help till the soil of what could be.

It is raining hard and there is thunder and I am, for the moment, happy. I cannot hear thunder without thinking of Beethoven. He has been in my heart since forever – a glorious presence of thunder and beauty, of sweetness and heart. The rain strikes the kitchen’s Plexiglas window and rivulets run down. The entire world I know is in this rain and, for the moment, I rejoice because I am part of this world again, for the moment.

There are times I catch myself believing the day might come when I will actually be happy, free of this apartment cell. A day when there will be a yard and flowers, roses even; and there will be wildflowers. I will make sure of that. There is something explosively free about wildflowers: Queen Anne’s lace, Chicory, Bull Thistles, Golden Rod, black-eyed Susan’s, Daisies, Asters, so glorious a tapestry. I will be able to sit and look and smile and swell with happiness. Still, I believe things like this are possible – maybe.

I remember when I was homeless wondering what business a boy like me had having dreams and hopes like this. I remember when my biggest dream was to be able to sleep in clean sheets with a real pillow and a clean pillowcase. And, if I was really lucky, there would be a refrigerator filled with food, eggs and orange juice and real butter and fancy stuff like mayonnaise and mustard and, of course, ketchup; and ice cream! I remember these dreams and hopes and I remember believing too that dreams like these don’t come true for homeless boys. They don’t come true for boys who failed their mothers by quitting dance. They don’t come true for a boy whose father’s died because the boy was such a terrible bastard. A day or two after my Dad died I asked my mother if the doctors did every thing they could to save him. She said, “Maybe if you hadn’t been such a bastard he would’ve had enough strength to live.” Her eyes were stones.

Maybe the wildflowers will come.

At my kitchen table, I remember hard cold nights. I am 17 walking down MacDonald Avenue in Brooklyn near Church Avenue. It is mid-winter and cold sears through my clothes and bites into my bones. It is past midnight and nowhere to go. I am tired. My feet hurt. I’ve been walking for hours. I am tired of trying to find a place to stay warm every night and, if I’m lucky, sleep. I stop walking and decide to give up. I stand there, the cold, free of my movement, bites down harder. I wonder what I give up means. It means kill myself or keep walking.

I keep walking.