No matter how you choose to travel from the east end of Commercial Street to the center of Provincetown (and back), the trip is surprisingly harrowing. My rusty blue and white Schwinn, my darker blue convertible, or my feet (in battered used-to-be-white Keds) – each method of travel has its own hazards and small frustrations. Parked cars line one side of Commercial Street, cyclists in summer colors dart between the parked cars and the moving cars in two different directions down the one-way street, while walkers amble by staring at iPhones rather than the road in front with the unconscious arrogance of happy tourists (disturbed only when a car or bicycle comes a hair’s-breadth away from causing scrapes or scars).
After my first day’s trip down Commercial in the car, I vowed never to drive downtown again. I went at a sedate 5mph, with occasional full stops to let a traffic gnarl untangle itself ahead. When I reached an open stretch clear of bikes and tourists by Angel’s Foods, I sped up to 25mph with joy, only for a cane-toting white-haired woman to emerge from the grocery store lot and point her cane at me. “Don’t go so fast! You’re not in the city anymore!” This was true. In the city, pedestrians know their place and get out of the way.
Nonetheless, I was ashamed of myself. So, as I prepared to ride my bike down Commercial for the first time, I was excited at no longer being the largest and slowest moving object on the street (I was also excited about the ability to go the “wrong” way down a one-way street). But riding a bike down Commercial is not a smooth transport from one end to the next with the bay wind in your hair – it’s a herky-jerky stop-start dash to pass a family-with-stroller-and-terrier then a lull to catch your breath and then all at once halt to avoid the car passing a row of parked cars, two other bikes, you, and a pair of idle gallery-browsers on foot. The trip can take 30 minutes or more on weekend days, about as long as it takes to walk.
Walking, of course, isn’t a relaxing pursuit either (unless you’re looking at your iPhone). Suddenly every approaching car or bicycle or pedi-cab is a potential danger, a meeting with near-death – at least if you, like me, are conditioned to wide city streets and have an imagination primed for disaster.
Since I’ve begun to travel up and down Commercial almost every day, whether to the Mailer House or Tim’s Used Books or the weekly Farmers’ Market in Portuguese Square, I’ve decided that the idea of peaceful coexistence between the modes of transport is a fiction. Every trip, every narrowly avoided collision, is another item of supporting evidence.
On the 4th of July, I realized that there was at least one day when Commercial Street traffic moved in an orderly fashion and threatened no lives. The Provincetown Independence Day Parade began outside the Harbor Hotel and the condo complex where I’m staying, progressing toward the center of town complete with sirens, fire-trucks laden with people, and an audience. The day before, the Provincetown Banner carried the stern notice: “The Provincetown parade starts at 11 a.m. on the East End of Commercial Street. No parking on Commercial Street from 9 a.m. -3 p.m.” It makes sense somehow that in a place full of what Mailer called “wonderful drunken nights and wild parties,” a place that is “the one town on the Atlantic coast that’s just absolutely freer than others” with Commercial as its riotous hub that the only time the street quiets is for the raucous fanfare of a red-white-and-blue parade.
After seeing the beginning of the march down Commercial, I followed it downtown later that afternoon. Biking down the street, I noticed that the parked cars had already returned. And right by the Lobster Pot I braked sharply to avoid running straight into the mass of parade-goers spread across the street. I walked my bike from that point on; it was less dangerous that way.
Elisa Gonzalez lives at the east end of Commercial Street as a Mailer Fellow and in New York City the rest of the time. She writes poetry, essays and other short pieces, and dabbles in longer work. In 2011, she won the Norman Mailer Four-Year College Writing Award for a group of essays, including one about her experience as a competitor in the National Spelling Bee. You can read more about her writing experience and winning the the Mailer Award here.