FEATURE by Alan Bodian
"I say...JOHN WILCOCK here."
August...euphoria...a voice from another plane though several hundred miles away and only a few weeks removed...a most unlikely accent here in this stunning stretch of dune, water and light.
Never before, in those early years Betty and I had been coming to Provincetown, had anyone ever phoned, our style of furnished rooms werre habitually disconnected from any form of information highway.
On this August morning in 1958, we were staying in Tillie's apartments on the west end of Bradford Street. Tillie, wife of the town welder, converted a row of garages into affordable digs and proudly christened them apartments to stake her claim to teritoriality and fiscal independence. Tillie came racing breathlessly across Bradford Street with news we had a telephone call and the man sounded mighty official.
First thoughts: a family emergency...or something even more ominous...like being fired for having the audacity to spend August on Cape Cod while the free world teetered on the brink of an abyss under the stewardship of John Foster Dulles. Some historical revisionists would have us believe the Eisenhower years were calm and benign but from where I lived on Jones Street, I was more disposed to accept the vision of those novelists, atonal composers and tormented urban intellectuals who anointed ours, The Age of Anxiety.
"Dulles flies now," Mort Sahl said most presciently, "and we pay later." For some of us in search of liberation, Provincetown was the seven percent solution, Paris in the twenties, a Freudian metaphor rising up from the Orphic underworld of winter melancholia.
"They say there's an art colony in Provincetown," Wilcock said, punching out manicured syllables like a provincial Brit in denial, as if in the next bend in the shoreline one finds a forest of thatched studios surrounded by clusters of easels. Colonialism was in his genes and in another era he would have signed up for service were the Empire now not in its terminal stage of devolution.
Sartorially, Wilcock missed the chance to make it big time in Calcutta. Once, on a scalding afternoon in summer, I saw him in Harris Tweeds making the rounds of coffee houses in search of material for his column. The logic of his wardrobe often mystified me. On this, his maiden trip to the Cape, he wore a British expeditionary shirt better suited for a safari than for a stroll on Front Street.
Colony? What could one say...what could I say? On his end of the line, Wilcock was determined, pregnant with expectation, a true believer in the hallowed traditions of journalist/adventurer carrying on the sacred trust of Stanley never bending in his search for Doctor Livingstone.
At a loss to provide a definitive plan of the colonial terrain, I suggested we meet at eleven o'clock in front of Town Hall. This was the nerve center of the community, I said, falsely posing as a well informed insider. Fortunately, Poyant's Bakery was open and next to it, a small refreshment stand afforded me the opportunity to entertain my unexpected visitor.
Dunking a Portuguese sweet roll into bland coffee with distinct intimations of iodine, we took seats on an empty bench. Across the path, I recognized the solitary figure of Harry Kemp, locked in a deep silence as if expecting a visitation from William Blake.
"That's Harry Kemp, Poet of the Dunes," I whispered in a very low voice, regaining some measure of respect as a member of the local cognoscenti.
"Come on, let's talk to him," Wilcock exploded, bolting off the bench in the direction of the weatherbeaten bard.
"This is John Wilcock," I said, faking false past prior encounters with Kemp. "He writes a column called The Village Square in The Village Voice."
"Wonderful...wonderful," Kemp gushed, his eyes lighting up as though some lost trove of marvelous memories had been sighted. His face too was wonderful, sandblasted by a master carver preparing for a monument to be installed on the side of a mountain, the eyes were active and darted about in a classically chiseled head, a worthy candidate for induction into the pantheon of authentic originals who practiced the craft of poetry.
"Village Voice...that's in New York, isn't it?"
The mind wandered for a moment and Kemp got wistful.
"Boy, do I remember
New York, long ago, such a long time ago.
Kemp rambled on and Wilcock kept peppering him with questions as if they were old drinking buddies hanging out at the White Horse Tavern, exchanging anecdotes and dredging up the apocrypha of the good old days in Greenwich Village. My mission as Provincetown expert guide was a resounding success and all systems were go. Nothing more to do but leave them in wondrous discourse about absolutely nothing, not that there's anything wrong with that.
Time was passing and the clock in Town Hall struck twice, confirming that we had been sitting there several hours. For Kemp a reminder to go to Land's End for kerosene and then to a package store and then to the Beachcombers to meet a friend who offered to drive him out to Old Snail Road, starting point for a trek into the dunes where his shack was.
"Before I take leave," Harry said, glowing, having been turned on by his glorious encounter with The Village Square, "I must tell you about my first introduction to New York City."
We sat waiting, expectantly.
"My first day in Manhattan I got a two-dollar room in the Mills Hotel on Broadway and 39th Street. It wasn't much of a place but it had running water, flowered wallpaper and a folding bed. If memory serves correctly, it was on the seventh floor and had a pretty good view looking south.
"Dazzled, I was pounding with excitement and unbounded wonder, a Kansas farm boy had finally arrived in the city of his dreams. It was more than what someone so young and untested could stand. I tore off my clothes, thrust open the window and shaking my fist at the city beyond, I yelled at the top of my lungs, 'You Bitch, you fickle Bitch Goddess, I'll conquer you yet!'"
Aroused by the new found power in his voice, Kemp paused for a long while, his heart visibly thumping under a bleached denim shirt, savoring the sound of a minstrel capturing a moment of supreme triumph. It took a while for calm to set in. Though long winters on the dunes had left their scars, his body was still athletic and quivered with the exaltation of once having gone mano-a-mano with a metropolis reputed to diminish lesser men.
A look of disappointment crossed Kemp's face as he looked up at the Town Hall clock which served as his personal secretary. He waved sadly to both of us, as though once more wounded by the swift passage of time, but leave he must, considering the position of the sun and what still had to be done. He shuffled up Commercial Street in the direction of Land's End and then faded out of view.
Wilcock scribbled some cryptic notes in a pad and then gulped down the last of his coffee which should have been quarantined hours ago. What next? Wilcock was recharged, ready and eager for the next item on his itinerary.
"You know, John" I was about to say, "Eugene O'Neill got his start right here in good old Provincetown," and almost Zen-like I halted in mid-passage to empty my mind of such incendiary ideas, recognizing that even an innocent mention of O'Neill would prompt Wilcock to ask if I knew him, where did he live and how soon could he interview him.
On Wall Street, an antique truth has stood the test of time. You can't lose, so sayeth the Smart Money, if you decide to get out while you're still ahead. Life teaches us to accept the wisdom of winners, and so I decided this was one of those perfect moments to embrace their mantra.
Bound East for Cardiff, O'Neill's first play, would have to wait for another day.