FEATURE by Alan Bodian
PROVINCETOWN, MA -- Late afternoon, the harbor iridescent pink, stark white sails slanting balletically in the wind, sun flashing in Truro windows like giant headlights, a chorus of gulls squawks as a fishing boat makes its turn and heads for shore. On the deck of the Beachcombers, it's as if time suspends and nature is composing another stunning seascape.
Back in the sixties, in my early days as a member of the Beachcombers, this was the sensation I got when I arrived early for a Saturday meeting. It was still an hour or two before the bell for chow clanged its shrill message, usually around seven. Then members shuffled in and seated themselves at raw tables distributed unceremoniously around the hulk--decorum was verboten--as if to send a message to fraternal orders everywhere that here in Provincetown we did it our way.
On one particular Saturday in June, as I entered, there were few members, except for the cook-du-jour, Grizz (Grizzly) Green, who was making pork and beans, candied yams, salad, Portuguese bread and a gigantic urn of coffee guaranteed to test the enamel on your teeth. Our rustic galley, such as it was, had all the trappings of a chuck wagon out in Monument Valley where John Wayne movies were shot, and where Grizz Green weas a familiar presence in dozens of movies. Whenever possible, as soon as there was a "wrap" on a film, Grizz headed straight for the Cape and the Beachcombers on Saturday night. His patented prairie elocution made one believe our venerable club was really a throwback to frontier days.
"A-lan," a raspy urban voice called out, and soon I was accosted by a familiar face as he backed away from the refrigerator which served as his larder.
It was Aurie Battaglia, greatly admired by older members like Phil Malicoat and Mischa Richter, who were familiar with Aurie's career in Hollywood where he worked for Disney on such classics as Pinocchio, Dumbo and Fantasia, and had a distinguished career as caricaturist, animator and illustrator of children's books. This was now behind him and in 1957 he moved permanently to Provincetown and later bought Mischa Richter's former studio on Bradford and Cook Streets.
"A-lan," he said, staring me down from behind thick lenses like giant microscopes. "You're familiar with The Myth of Sisyphus, aren't you?"
My head turned instinctively to avoid a rather elongated recitation of Sisyphus with extra s's tacked on and what I first thought was an accidental shower of moisture. It was obvious that there was much pent-up emotion which made it sound like "Shishifuss." I moved out of range toward the sink where I found a roll of paper towels to restore some measure of dryness. It was immediately apparent that Albert Camus' essay had had a profound effect on Aurie and he was determined to share his angst with me.
Before I could reflect and respond, I was inundated with another shower of "Sisyphusian" intensity. "Shishifuss" caused me to recoil toward a second roll of paper towels. Each time Aurie repeated his sodden "Sisyphus" I was compelled to go on the defensive much as a trained swordsman might, in the face of assaulting vowels and inescapable spray.
Aurie, named for Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and Stoic Philsopher, had dispensed with any semblance of stoic passivity and went completely on the offense. In my mind, it wasn't a literary encounter but a Darwinian struggle for high ground and dry land beyond the torments wounding my fellow Beachcomber. This was reinforced by the look of alarm on Grizz Green's face when he noticed that his was a finite supply of paper towels which later would be needed to serve as napkins for dinner.
"Sauve qui peuf," I thought, with sincere apology to Albert Camus who had written a penetrating and profound essay on the philosophical meaning of the greedy King of Corinth, consigned to Hades for his sins, and who spent the rest of his existence pushing a heavy rock uphill only to have it roll down each and every time.
It never occurred to me to ask Aurie if metaphorically he rolled his heavy stone up Cook Street after a night at the Old Colony Tap where chums recounted how he often sunk deep in the "sauce." Whatever his private demons, I found it prudent the next time he opened the refrigerator into a cloud of vapor fogging his glasses, to escape out the deck and find the dry land I once knew.
Outdoors, it was thoroughly refreshing and calm; the soft afternoon interrupted only by the clinking of glasses and contented laughter of diners in the Flagship next door.
"Hello, Joe," I said, spotting Joe Kaplan standing at the east end of the deck, looking melancholic with that familiar hang-dog expression I came to expect from one born in Minsk, Russia where chronic gloom seems the result of long winters of discontent.
"What seems to be the matter," I asked, reluctant to ask, knowing I would get an honest answer.
"No sales," he answered, looking like his Biblical forebear just as he was about to be taken into bondage in Egypt.
"I'm sincerely sorry to hear that," I said, remembering that Joseph Kaplan was an accomplished painter who paid his dues in a career spanning many years, having been included in the permanent collections of museums like the Metropolitan in New York, the Butler in Indiana and the Corcoran in Washington.
His sadness touched me on a deeper level because when I looked into the face of older Beachcombers, they could be mirrors of what lay in store for younger men in the years to come. Being on the other side of thirty, then as now the generational divide might provide some nuggets of wisdom as well as vintage humor which withstood the test of time. If nothing else, the Beachcombers always stood for a belly laugh and outrageous faux pas committed by one and all with positively no exemptions because of seniority.
Standing there with Joe, I didn't know if he noticed a smile creep into my face as I trawled about for some sort of solace or at least a bon mot to help soothe his despair. Even this many years later, the mere recall of that Saturday causes embarrassment for my demeanor during Joe Kaplan's crise de confidence, but the sheer intoxication of an afternoon on the deck of the Beachcombers brings a warm glow, an elixir like no other, nature reinforced by the comforting closeness of the Flagship only a whisper away. What fantasies...a chilled bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse lounging in a bucket of ice...a dozen Wellfleeet oysters...steamed lobster...Key Lime pie...a perfect espresso followed by a snifter of cognac by Courvoisier.
"Joe," I said, interrupting a gastonmomic fantasy, "if you're not selling, there's only one thing to do..."
Deliberately, and for effect, I let my voice trail off, still savoring the crisp aftertaste of an imaginary cognac on my lips. It seemed to have the desired effect on Joe Kaplan, who entered the dialogue and waited for more wisdom.
"What should I do...stop painting?" he asked plaintively, paying homage to his roots in Minsk, notorious for defeatism until the arrival of the spring thaw.
"Nonsense...nothing of the kind."
Stated so emphatically, it sounded like the Super Ego Joe had been desperately searching for, lo these many years of melancholia.
"If you're not selling," I said, with all the psuedo-Freudian authority I could muster, "There's only one thing to do..."
A long pause as Joe waited expectantly for the liberatiung formula.
"Raise your prices!"
Saved by the bell.
Never before had I welcomed the shrill clanging of the Beachcomber bell summoning one and all. Chow was on!
Though Grizz Green's chuck wagon extravaganza was hardly a match for what our neighbors at the Flagship were savoring, I more than welcomed any dish, even pork and beans, anything that spared me the shame of what I had just shamelessly said out on the deck to poor old Joe Kaplan.
Inside, once we were seated, my attention was distracted by the presence of Aurie Battaglia at the other end of the long table where Joe and I found ourselves. To my utter shock and amazement, Aurie sat primly and stoically waiting for his plate of prairie delights about to be ladled by Grizz Green in haute frontiere style, accompanied by designer napkins from a roll of Scott towels which had mercifully escaped the wrath of Sisyphus.
Some weeks later, middle September, I arrived early one Saturday and went out on deck to catch the waning light of late afternoon as days grew noticeably shorter. There stood a familiar figure, someone I hadn't seen all summer, realizing that for each of us there are intervening priorities which change normal patterns. For whatever reasons, I hadn't seen Joe Kaplan since our meeting in June, and this time I was on guard, consciously cautious about anything I happened to say.
"How goes it, Joe?" I asked defensively, still suffering the shame of dispensing reckless advice.
"Much better," he said, with surprising exuberance, "much, much better. There have been quite a few sales."
I took another deep breath, more out of contrition than to make another provocative comment, feeling a profound sense of relief after a whole summer to ponder the damage words can inflict. Life, one painfully learns, is never a game when it parodies the trials and tribulations of another person in pain.
"Did you raise your prices?" finally I asked, hoping against hope it wouldn't open ancient wounds.
"As a matter of fact, I did."
There are certain moments when a voice within admonishes you to say absolutely nothing to avoid the sins of the past.
I remained speechless but even so words weren't necessary.
A broad smile wiped away all the familiar creases in his face and left him beaming, a most welcome thank-you as if I alone was the sole author and responsible for the recent success of Joe Kaplan.