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It's Not About the Whales

September 11, 2019

Down MacMillan’s Pier I clop in my Danskos, past kiosks of artwork, do-dahs, thingamajigs. The salt air is unbelievably crisp at seventy degrees, the sky is overcast, and my nostrils dance to the smell of the harbor, the fish, the biodegradation. I inhale like my life depends on it, taking deep yoga breaths, hoping to remember this odor forever, which I’m sure if it were bottled, would stink. To me, though, it’s perfume.

Provincetown is disappointingly packed on this September day. Steven and I foolishly think the tourists would have cleared out by now (though we are annual tourists ha), instead we find literal busloads of folks older than us ambulating all around Commercial Street, in line at the fried clam joints, pouring out of the souvenir shops. And….egads! a cruise ship looms obnoxiously in the Bay.

I purposely slow my walk down the wharf, as I am early for my whale-watching trip. I stop at the pottery booth and run my fingers over smooth bowls, ramekins, trays, a few featuring fish or whales. A tiny rectangular dish attracts me with its orange and turquoise. Festive. It sports miniscule black figures of Provincetown landmarks. Adorable. I fork over the twenty dollars and thank the potter lady, then meander toward Dophin VIII, my assigned boat.

En route to the well-stocked whale cafeteria that is the Stellwagen Bank, the plan is to write this blog or something else. That sequel to my novel. That memoir. My ABC’s. Anything. And because I seek out humpbacks once a year out of P-Town, I have the schedule down pat. The boat will putter out of the harbor, past the protective jetty with its sentinel cormorants comically splaying their wings, like a thousand black flags. We will pass Long Point Light Station where the fingers of the Cape’s arm curl, Wood End Lighthouse, then Race Point Lighthouse; and after leaving Cape Cod Bay, open throttle into the Atlantic. Before reaching Stellwagen Bank, the Humpbacks’ favorite diner where krill is the daily special every day, we will bounce over choppy green water for about an hour. This hour will be precisely when I reflect, write, examine my navel. This hour used to be a small break from mothering small children or from Steven. Now, it’s simply introvert time for this extrovert.

Ah, the plan.

Before me and behind me, hordes of people, ninety-nine percent of whom are ten to twenty years older than me, wobble on to the boat. It is becoming clear that the Dolphin VIII’s cetacean-gazing adventure will be packed with homo sapiens.

“Can we sit here?” A lady points to my side of the booth, which I was hoping would be empty, and asks.

“Of course,” I say and smile but think: how will I write? I have already put off this blog-thingie throughout the week, as I prioritized time with Stevie vis-à-vis walks on the beach and long bike rides on the CCRT trail.

To my boys, I text photos of the packed vessel. They, too, are used to half-full whale-watching boats. I follow up quickly, however, with but God has a plan. And maybe these people are part of it. My adult kids must be so sick of hearing this, as I have oft-repeated it for the last twenty years, whenever their dreams and schemes get interrupted.

Truth be told, my internal mantra, which flares up when I am on a mission and it is thwarted by folks is: People first. People over chores. People over activities. I am not sure from where I got this exactly, except that I will hereby give props to my Southern roots, my Southern saint-of-a-momma, and to my friendly hometown of New Orleans.

I wish I could say at the end of this practice or creed, there is a visible or tangible reward for following it, that I will score a good recipe or a stock tip or a new book recommendation; but then that is just my Americanness rearing its head, the there-must-be-a-goal-at-the-end-of-this. The reality is, though, I think, that at times we simply need to experience others. To connect. Perhaps the so-called bounty, if there is to be one, is feeling less lonely on this often cruel planet. Or dare I say, making someone else’s day by taking the time to be human.

I mean, is talking to other people okay?

Americans are too busy! This I hear often from immigrants, that we are always doing, always looking for our next task, always looking at our watches, as if talking to another is a burden. If talking to people is bad, we’ve got a problem. We have a busyness problem. Myself included.

Up until this realization, though, I am tense. Once I decide to throw the journal or laptop back into the bag, my shoulders relax. I accept this “task” (talking to folks), and I am fine—no, more than fine.

I meet a couple of ladies across the table from me from Upstate New York, who appear to be in their sixties, maybe best pals. They crack a few jokes, and I like them instantly. We trade Upstate New York versus Manhattan stories. I am next to the window. Squished on my left side of the booth are a mother and daughter from Virginia and Georgia respectively. The momma is an octogenarian, an older Glen Close perhaps, with sparkly blue eyes and a shock of short gray hair. The daughter is a quinquagenarian with a brunette bob and larger blue eyes behind spectacles. Both reveal heavy drawls that remind me of my Mississippi-born-and-raised momma. I want to swoon like Scarlet. Already, I am in love.

By the end of the trip, the Glen-Close-look-alike-octogenarian, whose name I learn is Katherine Anne, and I have had a long conversation. In it, I discover that she lives in the same house that has been in t her family for three hundred years. We discuss Fredericksburg, Virginia, which isn’t too far from her abode and was our first president’s childhood home. I reveal that George Washington slept near my town in Connecticut and add the oft-recited one-liner that he slept everywhere. We both chuckle. I am smitten.

Along with Terry, a sexagenarian guy in sunglasses who now sits across from us in the booth, we discuss the state of the States. How America doesn’t feel long for this world. Ms. Katherine Anne brings up how she thinks its destruction will come from external forces. I say internal. Terry nods to both.

Somehow, we get into civil rights. This frightens me a little as I don’t know on which side of the fence sits my new friend.

With an impish grin, Ms. Katherine Anne says, “You know what I used to do?”

“No, ma’am,” I answer. I am fully Southern again, respecting my elders, using my best manners. I am thrown back into Picayune, Mississippi and am talking to my grandma Nettie.

“Well, our people had to eat in the kitchen away from us, you see,” Ms. Katherine Anne says with a sly grin. A punchline is on its way, I can see it buried beneath the surface.

“Oh, were they servants?” I ask. Logical.

“We didn’t call them servants,” she defends.

“Okay. Employees?” I figure this to be in the 1940’s firmly in the middle of the Jim Crow South.

“Yes. They used to pick berries and vegetables on the farm.”

“I see.”

“I would take my sandwich into the kitchen and eat with them,” Ms. Katherine Anne rushes to the punchline with a beautiful snicker. She is a real live Miss Skeeter from The Help. Her pink face crinkles in a lovely way, the manner in which I hope mine does in thirty years. It is pure crepe paper, the future of all freckly-skinned girls.

“Those were terrible times, you see?” Ms. Katherine Anne throws in there.

Terry, behind the glasses, moves his head up and down. I no longer worry about discussing today’s political clusterfudge but still I won’t bring it up.

“What we did to the Indians was awful. And then what we did to others…” her voice trails off. It’s clear that this woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South and lives to tell about it doesn’t know what to call African-Americans or Black Americans.

I know what she means. “Yeah. It was terrible,” I answer.

Her knotty hands entwine. She lowers her head, then adds, “I’m afraid there will be a comeuppance one day for our people.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I agree, but add, “But they are kinder than us, so maybe not.”

“Maybe not,” she says with another nod, as though it was all her fault—the slavery, the Jim Crow, the oppression.

No. We are all guilty, I think.

Before long, Dolpin VIII docks back on MacMillan’s Pier. Our booth’s tête-à-tête covered a variety of topics, but mostly I just listened to Ms. Katherine Anne’s stories. I want to ride the paint horse of her childhood, which her daddy said was “good for nothin’.” She admitted that that horse would throw anyone but her. I relish in her eighty-two-year old laughs at being naughty.

I want to hug her, but I don’t. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that all passengers are preparing to disembark. Maybe it’s just that she reminds me so much of my mom, and I would prefer not to be vulnerable. After all, isn't it easier just to listen and run?

In a brown-sugar, praline accent, Ms. Katherine Anne bids me good-bye, “Well, it was sure nice talking to you.”

"It was lovely to talk with you," I confess. Can I take you with me? I want to say. Can I sit next to you for, say, the next thirty years of my life? I want to bottle her up. Stick her in my pocket.

Ms. Katherine Anne ambles up the gangway with her daughter. I follow. We lose each other in the crowd on the pier.

Will this human exchange alter the state of the Union? Maybe not. Will the planets realign themselves in response to our friendliness? Um, no. But did I make an elderly woman happy? Hopefully. Did she lift my spirits? Definitely. Will this pass? Of course. Still, I would like to think that these tiny exchanges are happening all over the world, and that en mass they will flip our planet decidedly towards love.

Oh, and by the way, we saw several humpbacks on our expedition, and they were majestic. Just like the humans.

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