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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Q & A WITH TIM BARRY OF TIM’S USED BOOKS

If you like bookstores, you like Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown. It has creaky floors; old covers of Catcher in the Rye and Brave New World tacked to the wall; that sweet, slightly musty smell that is perfume to bibliophiles; and a hastily-drawn “SHUT OFF YOUR CELL PHONE NOW!” sign taped to the front door. And, of course, it has books. Stacks upon stacks of them. Books in closets and around corners and lining shelves, from Tootle to Political Thought in Medieval Times to the memoirs of Flava Flav.

I found the store on my second day in Provincetown, when, after getting acclimated to my condo and buying groceries, I set out for inspiration. I’m working on a crime story, myself, and I was looking for a book I had seen mentioned on Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice: Maria Flook’s take on the murder of fashion writer (and Truro resident) Christa Worthington, Invisible Eden. Tim Barry – the “Tim” of the store’s title — had Eden in stock, of course. And as he recorded the sale in a floppy blue spiral-bound notebook, he mentioned that he appeared as a character in the book. It was the only book in the store of which this could be said, he told me.

I went searching for Tim’s cameo when I got home and I found it near the end of a chapter called “The Petrified Woman.” Deep into her investigation of Worthington’s murder, Flook gets a call from Tim about Worthington’s vast book collection, which includes a volume on Greco-Roman culture with “Adultery is no sin,” scribbled in the margin.

“He told me that a buyer in Hollywood is interested in Christa’s library,” Flook wrote, “but he will still sell it to me, did I want it?” Tim wanted $3,000 for the collection, Flook reported.

“’Try Hollywood,’ I said”

I wound up bailing on Invisible Eden (while examining crime scene photos, Flook wrote, “A bowl of Cheerios is left on the lip of the kitchen table…The familiar oat rings are compelling to me; my own kids walked around with cups of Cheerios.”), but I remained curious about Tim. Who is this guy? How did his store start? What is the life of a used bookseller like?

When I went back to the store and asked him those questions, rapid-fire, he paused.

“Hmm… That’s kind of a tough one.” He had spent a number of years in journalism he told me – arts writing for Premiere magazine, food writing for The Boston Globe – and he believed in asking specific questions. “I didn’t say, like, ‘Write my article,’” he said.

Stammering for a second, I eventually asked, “How long have you been here?”

“Twenty-one years.”

“And how many books do you have in the store?”

“Five thousand six hundred.”

Things improved from there. I ended up chatting with Tim for the better part of an hour. I sat in a miniature wooden chair – the de facto children’s section — watching customers buy pocket encyclopedias on cacti and copies of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory with a sticker marked “Sharon” on the front. And I watched them receive bits of commentary with their change. He told a 23-year old buying a copy of On the Road that he was the “perfect age to read Kerouac.” When a white-bearded man buying a Tom Robbins book said that the author had gone downhill, Tim said, “Yep, but he’s not entirely at the bottom of the hill yet.”

Here are the best parts my conversation with Tim, condensed and edited.

P.E.: As a Mailer Fellow, I’ve got to ask…did you ever meet Norman Mailer?

T.B.: He used to come in here all the time. He was a crusty guy. I met him when I guess he would have been in his late 60s, so he had already mellowed quite a bit from the classic Mailer stories you hear about him head-butting people and things like that. He was gracious. The first time I met him I didn’t ask him to sign any books or anything. I just said, “Oh, Mr. Mailer, right?” And he just said, “[grumbles unintelligibly].” And then the next time he came in, he was buying some books – mostly research for novels he was writing – and he bought his books and as he was leaving he said, “I’d be happy to sign some books or whatever if you want.” And I’m like, “Oh, OK.” I went in the back and got like twenty books and he signed them.  I don’t like to bother people. We get a lot of medium-famous people coming in and we don’t make a big fuss about them. Part of the nice thing about Provincetown is that the Surfer Dude, the Stoner, the Media Celebrity – they all get the same sort of lack of scrutiny.

P.E.: How did you make your way out to the Cape?

T.B.: Well, the first time I came to Provincetown was in 1967. My folks had rented a place in Wellfleet and were staying there for a couple of weeks and they would come out here and they would go to a bar and leave us to go run around the town. I was a young kid. Then I came back in the early ‘90s. I was meeting a friend here who was coming on a whale watch and I had had a used book store up-Cape, but [it] wasn’t successful at all. I was just sort of scrabbling by, barely making ends meet. And I came to P-Town and it was in early May, so there wasn’t much going on. And I saw a couple empty storefronts and I thought, “Wow, this would be a great town for a used book store!”

I saw a sign, so I went in and talked to the person. And I said, “How much is the rent?” and they said, “It’s $15,000 [for the season].” In 1991, it was like if you said it was $150,000.  But it seemed crazy, because I was paying $200 a month in rent where my store was up-Cape. But I said to myself, “There must be a reason why they can get such high rents, you know?” So I took the plunge, borrowed some money, put down a deposit, and opened up Memorial Day Weekend 1991, and made a couple thousand dollars that weekend. Before that, the most I’d ever made in used books was, maybe, I think I might have had a hundred-dollar day before. But suddenly I was making several hundred dollars a day, consistently, and I was like, “Whoa!”

So, yeah, I found my niche here in Provincetown, as it were. The great thing about P-Town is that you get a lot of smart people from academia, the professions, the arts – especially the arts – who come here on vacation and love it and a lot of them keep coming back because they love it. So, because you’re drawing from New England and New York you’re getting a sort of high concentration of smart people who are interested in books and ideas and the arts. Whereas, in other areas, I don’t think you really have that.  I know that because I had a store in L.A. for a couple of years in the mid 2000s and nobody reads in L.A. Or if they do, they weren’t buyin’ ‘em from me.

P.E. What did you make of the way you came out in [Invisible Eden]?

T.B. Well, she actually fabricated a lot of that.

P.E. The parts about you or the book?

T.B. The part about me – it’s completely misrepresented. I don’t want to go into specifics because then it sounds like it’s all ‘sour grapes’ and, you know, people embellish and put spin on things. The thing is, you can take facts and you can present them in such a way that is not true to the essence of what happened. I did try to sell her the books. It was a lot of books and there were a lot of really good books: fashion books and literature and stuff. So for the amount of money that I asked, it wasn’t like I said, “Well, I have this one book that Christa owned and I want five grand for it…” It was a ton of books; it was forty-some cartons of books. And it did have a lot of personal letters and diaries and things from the person and I thought, “Well, if she’s doing a research project on this person, wouldn’t she want this stuff?”

P.E. Do you often find yourself going through books of recently dead people?

T.B. Oh, all the time. On a weekly basis. At least half of our books come from estates. Somebody dies, we get a call, “You’ve gotta come out and get some books.” I was in a house yesterday that there was a bunch of books and they weren’t that good and, but, interestingly, it was a guy who had been fired from his job because they found out that he was living with a man. This was in the ‘50s  and they were gonna fire him from his job. He worked for Lockheed, or something… national security, whatever. And he quit his job rather than break up with his lover and I thought, “That’s really cool…in the ‘50s, that didn’t happen.” But the interesting thing was…he also wrote plays, and the person who brought me in there to look at the books said, “Wow, all this stuff is just going to be thrown out, whatever you don’t want. And he has these really interesting plays that were never published and they’re all about his relationship with his lover and what happened with the government and all that…” And I kind of think I have to keep those plays… just so they don’t get thrown in the trash. I mean, they’re probably not good. Who knows?

P.E. When you say the stuff wasn’t that good, what do you look for?

T.B. Well, a lot of them were musty and there were things like copies of a biography of Adlai Stevenson. You’d be lucky if someone ever paid a dollar for that. Although if I had a 10,000-foot store, I would probably stock it because someone doing research on the ‘50s or something would go, “Oh, do you have anything on Adlai Stevenson?”

P.E. What’s a book that you see that you’re like, “OK. I can work with this”?

T.B. There was a ten-volume set of the life of Abraham Lincoln by Nicolay and Hay. And John Hay was secretary of state under Lincoln. And Nicolay was Lincoln’s personal secretary. So that’s a pretty scarce item, the complete life and papers of Lincoln. So, something like that is good to have. People like Lincoln.

P.E. Is there a book or kind of book you sell the most?

T.B. I’d say beach reads, frankly. Mysteries. Chick Lit. But the nice thing about that is that pays for all the Poetry, Literary Criticism, Semiotics – all the stuff that I think gives us interesting context. I know people who have had bookstores where they’re like, “Well, I’m just going to have fine first editions. I’m gonna have really arcane European Deconstructionists.” And those people last like two years if they’re lucky. The analogy that I give is, “You don’t win a ball game with home runs, you win it with base hits.” So, yeah, I could stock first editions, signed, and charge $500 for them and eventually I’d get a customer who’d want one. But I could sell a $3 or $4 book a dozen times an hour, then that’s what pays the bills.

P.E.: I noticed there’s no background music and there are no cellphones [in the store].

T.B. Well, it’s not that we do it consciously to have it as a throwback, but, I think it’s maintaining civility that people aren’t chatting away on cell phones when people are trying to browse through books. And, also, the ubiquitous drone of music in every store? We don’t need it. It’s not what we’re about. There’s a lot of things we could do. I’m sure if I ever studied merchandising or retail management, they would say, “You have to have music in a retail shop, because it gets people upbeat and they boogie around and they pick more things up off the shelves and you make more money.” But, you know, I could make more money having a t-shirt shop or a liquor store. But it’s not just about money. It’s about, “This is a place where I can sit. I can read when it’s not busy, have nice conversations with people about books and other things, you know general topics of the day. And maybe make a few friends, some great acquaintances.  And sometimes they leave behind money when they leave.” What’s better than that?

Philip Eil is from the other New England “P-Town”: Providence, Rhode Island. His book research includes corresponding with federal inmates, watching Roy Rogers re-runs, attending pain management conventions in Las Vegas, and being screamed at by talk-radio show hosts on the Gulf Coast of Florida. You might read this book eventually, hopefully, God-willingly. In the mean time you can follow his reporting for the Providence Phoenix and other publications. He is a frequent patron of used bookstores, but, before speaking with Tim Barry, he never realized so many of the books he buys come from the recently deceased.

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.

DANCE WITH PROVINCETOWN

This stage named Provincetown is fantastical. It hums with electric energy—so many emotions, turmoil, grief in-betweens have been left here. Mine too will be left and when I return, if I return, Provincetown will be recalled from bodily memory as a place of magic and warmth, a calm embrace of someone wise, someone who has known tumultuous grief and has endured it all and let me enjoy the grace of the in-between; the utter calm, the ocean breezes, storms, warm or hot sun, the wooing of the Atlantic waves, the lulling of the bay tides, the shifting of the sand dunes that display a different landscape from each mound. I am standing there changing too, not realizing the constant shift that is occurring, so subtle like the fine grains of sand that rotate a quarter of a quarter-inch to offer a dance of land playfully, playfully.Soojin Kim is a translator and writer from Seoul, Korea. She has been artist-in-residence at Ragdale, I-Park and Ox-bow as a fiction writer. As a translator she enjoys collaborating with visual artists. She is exclusive translator for visual artist Jamie M Lee among others. At the Norman Mailer Writers Colony she has been revising a novel told in the collective voice of four sisters growing up in Korea.

ABBREVIATED THOUGHTS FROM MY STAY IN PROVINCETOWN

ImageShe surrendered completely to the river’s whim, formless and spinning as if a tangled knot of rootless weed. Only her heels, the blades of her shoulders, and the bloodless mounds of her buttocks broke through the water’s surface. A thin cotton gown, near invisible against her sallow skin, floated about her waist like the translucent flesh of a jelly fish. I will never finish this story.

Yesterday I sat in Norman Mailer’s recliner while I edited my novel. To a recliner one ass is as good as another.

I have never been so long without seeing my children.

The most beautiful woman in Provincetown works at a souvenir shop on Bradford Street. I now possess more souvenirs of my stay here than I shall ever want or need.

No writer of fiction will ever attain his goals.

I would rather be a whale than a sailor, despite the loss of legs and access to television.

Never do people add more frivolous detail than when describing the time they met someone famous.

I briefly considered getting a tattoo of a giant squid, until a kind young woman warned me from a distance it might look like a penis.

I have met more bearded ladies here in Provincetown (four) than I ever encountered in all the Tri-County Fairs of my youth.

Each Monday I mailed my son a piece of candy.

I fell in love three times on the ferry ride over from Boston.

Norman dreamed of a woman with bright red hair floating in the seagrass. The smooth, white underbelly of a fattened fish.

Over an eight day period I got poison ivy, a shin bone contusion, an attack of pancreatitis, and lost the filling from my incisor tooth. Only one of these can I blame on eating Red Hots.

From the wealth of glances I receive downtown, I believe I would have made a magnificent bear.

Lighthouses lose their luster when you realize they are automated.

The Celtics will break your heart.

At 2:18pm on June 4th, 2012, I saw the ghost of Norman Mailer arguing with his own reflection in the bathroom mirror.

When you are alone this long you write to people you should not write, and you say things you should not say.

The cemetery on Winthrop Street is too beautiful and haunting to overlook the Shop & Save. Its edges should dissolve into clouds, or the sea.

Often life doesn’t even seem worth killing oneself over.

I dream of my baby daughter’s big, warm head nuzzled next to mine.

I fear this ocean is bottomless and that Lucifer lurks in its bowels.

There is something charming about seeing a copy of Old Yeller nestled among the many books of Mailer’s personal library.

Tell a woman you’re a logger, and she’s all kinds of impressed. Clarify you said blogger, and not so much.

I pray there is no Heaven. This is enough. More than enough.

Cape Cod is a dull and discordant name. Truro is worse. But Provincetown and Plymouth are as lyrical as they come.

A young woman arrives at the preacher’s door in the driving rain. She holds an infant. A boy. His bastard son. The preacher’s wife suspects. Months later the child’s mother will watch from the shore as the preacher carries their son into the river to be baptized. The preacher drowns the child. His petite empire is preserved. This story is like pennies in my pocket, waiting to be lost in the wash.

Grant Jones is a Fiction Fellow at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He has recently completed his first novel, Annabelle, and is hard at work on his second, Blind Tigers, on the subject of moonshine and baseball in the early decades of the 20th century.