EXIT STRATEGY

Thinking on an appropriate farewell to Provincetown—the Mailer Center and the idyllic writing life that I found by the bay—as I enter the zero hours of my time here, I gravitate to that somewhat famous goodbye—the one to all that—in which Joan Didion tells us, It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. Often times, this is true. But, try as I did to pretend otherwise, as soon as I slipped the key to my nautically themed condo into my back pocket four weeks ago, I knew: I was not entering an era with ambiguous boundaries. My stay was book-ended after all, a clear arrival time and departure date. A check out procedure. Nothing vague about throwing the dirty sheets and towels in a pile on what is no longer my bedroom floor, leaving the key on the kitchen counter that is no longer my own, letting the screen door slam one last time, and rambling down the slatted walkway with my rolly suitcase.

A month is a good chunk of time away from home. Long enough to allow the illusion that the city life that tends to keep me in some measure of crazy shriveled and died when I cut the cord, hit the sea, cracked open a beer on the fast ferry, and watched dry land fade against the horizon. In fact, I’ve felt more at home in Provincetown these past weeks than I have lately in Brooklyn, where I’ve been living for twelve years. At home, in this case, I will define as a certain type of ease. Desires are radically streamlined when you remove jobs, pets, friends, rent, and bills from the equation. Even the absence of the seventy-three stairs that lead to my charming six-floor walk up has allowed me a degree of increased spontaneity. Here, I just open my door and…I’m outside! Amazing!

And so it was. My usual scramble was de-scrambled. With a clear head, and lungs full of salty sea air teeming with negative ions, I managed to get a rather serene and consistent writing life on lockdown almost immediately upon my arrival. Preparing to head home, I know the little annoyances mentioned above threaten to coax my attentions away from my desk, and like most writers, if I’m not working regularly, I get a little nuts. I was concerned.

Anticipating the sudden, ripped-away-too-fast Band Aid method of bolting town, en masse, with hundreds of other temporary residents was making me feel like a junky whose supply was about to be cut off. Fortunately, I’ve found a way to make the transition easier. I’m sneaking out of town behind my own back, as it were. Turns out, a New York friend is here—one of many, actually. (How long have you people been coming to Provincetown and why didn’t anyone tell me sooner?) This friend is sneaking out too, twelve hours early, to avoid the hysteria induced by widespread 10 am checkout times and sold out ferries. So I’m hitching a ride, ducking out, as I dodge my most recent and troubling reality: I don’t actually live in Provincetown, and I will, very soon, have to screen my calls, cling to my desk for dear life, and, sadly, wear actual shoes. So my goodbye will be a sly slip of the hip, not the one I expected, and because of that, my illusion-prone mind can pretend things are otherwise, and maybe I can keep a bit of all that for a little longer. Later Provincetown, and thanks. It hasn’t been real at all.

Sara Nelson is at work on her first book, the story of an atypical American family: her father is a death row survivor and her mother is a former Catholic nun; their story of origin hinges on a sensational 1959 murder trial. An excerpt from the book appeared in Ploughshares. In addition to being a Mailer Fellow, she holds an MFA from Hunter College, and her work has also appeared in Tottenville Review, where she is a senior contributing editor. She lives in Brooklyn, where she writes, plays bass, and bartends.   

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BIKE RAGE

The first time I rode a bike in Provincetown, I gossiped at slow intervals with Elisa as we climbed one of the slight inclines that precedes the most pedestrian-glutted section of Commercial Street. Faced with two bikers, three walkers, one dog, and a leash linking dog and human in a dispersed wall coming toward us, I moved to the left, and Elisa veered to the right. An elderly gentleman in pink bathing trunks and a muscle tank scowled at me from his bike, having been forced to the far left by the pedestrians and me.

“What d’you think you’re doing?” he spat, exasperated, from beneath a manicured white mustache. I kicked my foot down for stability as we both slowed to pass one another. “I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “You should have just stayed with your friend,” he said. “She knew what she was doing.” He looked very disappointed in me.

Sufficiently shamed, I continued on my way and kept to the right side of the road. But a few days later, walking out of the Mailer House, a woman on a bike zoomed past, a few inches from my nose, and shouted, “watch where you’re going!” Nevermind that she biked along the shoulder and frondy hedges obstruct views of the house. “Those idiots aren’t watching where they’re going — careful,” she shouted back to two blonde ponytailed girls ten meters behind her. “Welcome to Provincetown,” Daniel Okrent, who had just told us about his experiences writing award-winning books, said with a half-snort as he got into his car.

Bike rage in Provincetown is surprising because of the idyll that is everything else here. Here is my daily schedule as a grueling, worked-to-the-bone writing fellow: I wake up and make some tea, do some writing, go for a walk on the beach, do some more writing or maybe read, go to a workshop meeting and talk with smart people, read some more, go for a swim or a run, and sometimes get a beer. In New York, opening the front door brings daily reminders of what’s going wrong in the world: homeless people, Occupy protests, wifi on the subway. Bike rage, I think, is the urban denizen’s outlet for the ire that we’ve learned to tamp down every day. When faced with an absence of appropriately frustrating situations in daily life, we make them up.

Last night I biked down Commercial to get a drink with the other nonfiction writers. I picked up speed down one of those hilly heralds of complication and rolled straight into a group of three heavyset women with a Chihuahua in a pink vest and a young woman in a sundress who didn’t know where to go. I feinted left, she moved left; I turned my handlebars right, she jumped right. “Sorry sorry!” she said breathlessly, guiltily, as she took two broad lateral steps left and I squeezed my brakes. Really, now, how hard is it, I found myself glowering, to just move?

Julia Cooke has worked as a journalist in Mexico City, Havana, and New York City. She is writing a book that combines research on youth culture in Havana with memoirs of her time living in the city. Her writing can be seen on Rum & TuKola, a Cuba-oriented Tumblr, and her personal website, and she can be followed on Twitter here.

LOCAL TRAVELER’S BLUES

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.