It isn’t just the natural beauty that makes me long to move back. Most of the time, Gloucester is cold and wrapped in drizzle. On those days, I would mentally play the Pogues’ “Dirty old Town” and try not to lose my mind with seasonal affective disorder. Nevertheless, I’d still rather make my home in Gloucester, because there aren’t very many places left where the town behaves as if everyone is “all in this together.”
A brief history lesson is in order. After temporary visits from the Vikings, who didn’t get along with the Indians, a group of English settlers put down their Gloucester roots in 1623. They came mostly from Plymouth. The Puritans kicked them out for not being puritanical enough. Gloucester is still a little bit rowdier than its bedroom community neighbors, and I like it that way.
Almost an island, the town never looked very far west. Even today, there are a lot of Gloucesteroni who rarely travel “over the bridge” or “up the line” — meaning to the mainland parishes of Gloucester, or (gasp) beyond the next town, respectively. Why would you want to go all the way to Saugus, when everything you need is right there?
It is amazing that people who think that Natick is in another time zone think nothing of climbing aboard a barnacled rust-bucket of a fishing boat to travel hundreds of miles to the east. But, to earn a living, small groups of men from Gloucester have always ventured beyond the horizon.
Depending on each other to earn a living, and as we all know by looking at the Fisherman’s Memorial, they sometimes died together.
The little fishing town prospered, and it became one of the most important seaports in America. Immigrants flocked there, drawn by the hard work and good pay. My great-grandparents, like many, came from Terrasini, Sicily. They came earlier than most, and their house became a staging point for later immigrants. Most families in Gloucester opened their doors to new arrivals from the old country, and this was not just a Sicilian import. The town has always been willing to help out those in need. Gloucester has, per capita, much more public housing than it needs, and more charitable institutions than a little city of 30,000 would normally support. There is a sense of banding together that seems to come from living on an island, and that was merely strengthened by the rapid influx of those who had spent the past thousand years living next door to each other.
Not everyone always gets along with one another, but if someone from out of town threatens to upset the order of things, even local enemies unite.
I remember one un-puritanical evening when some guy from Revere and I got into a bar fight. His friends came over to up the odds, and I saw a guy who was no friend of mine jump in to help me out. “You suck, cuz, but they aint from heah” he said afterward. This “take care of our own” isn’t always positive. When I was 18, I was mis-identified as being from Rockport (the next town over), and received quite an ass-kicking in front of The Crow’s Nest from some locals who simply wouldn’t believe my pleas that I was “from heah.”
One of my favorite things about Gloucester is the game we call “Whose Are You?” Any time an older person asks my name, they then ask, “Randazza… whose are you?” Then I would explain that my dad was John, but since there were 20 John Randazzas in Gloucester, I had to trace the whole lineage (on both sides). Inevitably, the elder figures out that somehow we are related. Perhaps 4th cousins, 12 times removed, only by marriage, but we are “related.” If I play “Whose Are You” long enough with anyone else in town, at least if their name ends in a vowel, I can uncover a connection that justifies calling them “cousin.” My best friend Jon and I were buddies from age 14. When we were 17 or so, My grandmother asked him “Whose Are You?”, and it turned out that we were “cousins”. He went from my friend Jon to my cousin Jon. We don’t even understand how we are related. He’s my cuz, and that is how the whole town feels. There is a reason that “s’up cuz?” is the universal Gloucester greeting. We’re all in this together.
Until the 1980s, Gloucester prospered with fish-borne wealth. My grandfather never went to high school, but he managed to support a wife and four kids, to buy his own home, and he never drove anything but a Cadillac. If you didn’t make it in Gloucester, it wasn’t for want of opportunity. It was because you were a lazy shit. Anyone could walk down to the waterfront and get a job doing something.
When I was 14, I made $15 an hour “lumping” fish. Back then, with that kind of pay, guys covered the mortgage, clothed and fed their families, and still had plenty of money to save up for a Camaro, buy new clothes at Chess King, and still had enough to all go out together on Friday night – sometimes all the way to Hampton Beach. The guys who had been there a while made double that – a respectable living even by today’s standards.
When I told my co-workers that I was saving up for college, a few of the guys told me that I was stupid for doing so. They had a point. Four years of college was going to cost me about $30,000. In those four years, they were going to make $50,000 a year fishing, lumping, whatever. By the time I graduated from college, they would have made $200,000, and I would have “a piece of paper.”
“You’re a fahkin’ idiot to go to college,” they said. These were the same guys who used the term “cunn-hair” as a unit of measurement – (it was the opposite of “a fahkload“).
More endearingly, my grandfather (left) didn’t want any of us to go to college. “They go to college, you know what happens?” He asked, “they LEAVE! They go some place and live all alone.” As if New York City or Los Angeles was “all alone.” But, I now know what he meant. After a decade in Florida, I’m surrounded by people, but unless I am in Gloucester, I feel like I live among aliens. Here, and everywhere else, I walk among the medegani .
Back in the 1980s, I rode my bicycle down to the wharf at 4:00 AM, drank a cup of coffee from a Styrofoam cup, threw it in the water, and we got down to unloading the boats. If a boat had 100,000 pounds of fish or more, that was going to be a long day (more money). The average was around 70,000 pounds. Today, the entire port is lucky to see that much.
Even after my lumping days were over, I kept up with the “fish landings” column in the Gloucester Daily Times. It would show the name of the boat, and how many pounds of each kind of fish it brought in. 100,000 appeared less and less often. Then 50,000 became a rarity. Then 20,000 didn’t happen that often either. During the summers when I was home from college, there was barely work on the docks for the guys who supported a family, let alone for some kid who was working for beer money. The wharf closed down. Then it got repossessed. Then my uncle, who owned it, lost his big house with the pool surrounded by cobblestones he recovered from the street where he grew up. He lives in a shitty apartment somewhere in Danvers now.
Less fish, less work, less money. The town suffered together. Some more than others.
A few guys in the industry diversified into dope smuggling. In 1980, the The f/v Judith Lee Rose got busted with a hull full of marijuana, but other boats made it to port with their bales covered by a few fish. Back then, you could buy a joint in the high school for $2. Then came the “war on drugs.” Smuggling was never an easy job, but moving a few thousand pounds of marijuana was too risky. Heroin was easier to hide and had a higher profit margin. Pot went up to $30-50 for an eighth of an ounce. Heroin was $10 a bag.
No fish. No money. Awash in smack. A few tourist dollars came to town every summer, but for most of the year, unemployment boomed, Camaros rusted, Chess King went out of business, and as hope dried up, Reagan’s idiocy trickled down to Gloucester at the point of a hypodermic needle. Lots of cheap heroin in a town where the future looked as gray as a February snow-bank meant that Gloucester became known as New England’s heroin capital. Armed with good intentions, the drug warriors created a generation of dropout heroin addicts.
Instead of watching the Fish Landings, I scanned the police notes. Who got arrested this week? Who died? The names got more and more familiar. Sometimes we’d play “whose was he?” I didn’t like that game as much as “whose are you?”
As bad as things got, the natural beauty of the place kept it from feeling hopeless. Sebastian Junger wrote “The Perfect Storm.” The impressive part about that story is that Junger isn’t “from heah,” yet people opened up to him. People from Gloucester are a bit suspicious when outsiders come asking questions. But, Junger got through that like all good journalists. (Too bad none did during the “pregnancy pact” hysteria). Junger earned the trust of the locals and painted an accurate picture of the town – blemishes and beauty alike. He also showed the real beauty of the town, its spirit that we are all in this together.
Instead of dominating the crime stories, we were the setting of a novel that was on the New York Times’ best seller list. Hollywood showed up and romanticized the all but extinct fisherman. The world looked at us and liked what it saw.
Finally… the “heroin town” stain seemed to wash away. Tourists came and bought lots of crap. The Crow’s Nest was no longer the junkie bar where I got my ass kicked for just walking by while looking like I was from Rockport. As I added diplomas to my wall, stamps to my passport, and miles on my car, I evangelized about my beautiful hometown. I told my future wife that if we ever had kids, we had to raise them in Gloucester. I wanted them to see the harbor from the school bus window every morning, even if they had to scrape frost off of it first. I wanted them to feel that sense that they could never be alone.
“You know the movie the Perfect Storm?” I beamed. “That’s where I’m from.”
“No, the Crow’s Nest doesn’t really look anything like that.”
“Yes, the town is really that beautiful.”
“It’s the best place on Earth.”
And so it went until last week.
The media jumped on a juicy story about 17 young girls and a “pact.” We were in the news again, and a sloppy (or just plain lying) journalist from TIME Magazine, a foolish principal, and 17 fetuses swirled into a maelstrom of salaciousness that made us more famous than the Judith Lee Rose, heroin, and the The Perfect Storm combined. Emails rolled in from friends in California, Vermont, Australia, Singapore… Gloucester’s “baby club” was a world-wide phenomenon, and everyone I had ever met remembered that I was from thayah — and asked me “have you heard about this?” As if I were the only person in the world who missed this story.
I couldn’t really place the emotion that I was feeling, but it was going to come to me.
I am recently married. My wife and I are expecting a daughter. It went without saying that we were going to move “back home” so that she would be a Gloucester girl. I wanted old people to ask her “whose are you?” I wanted her to feel like she is part of something — a feeling that she will never have anywhere in Florida.
Then the news of the “pregnancy pact” broke.
My wife asked, “this is the wonderful town where you want to raise our daughter?”
The eyes of the world were on Gloucester, but nobody was booking vacation packages to take a duck tour. Everyone was staring at us like we were circus freaks. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was to feel ashamed.
We can’t expect 14, 15, and 16 year old girls to think rationally. That is why we call them minors. We are supposed to take some responsibility for them. Grown-up journalists should do a little more than just repeat a rumor of some “baby pact,” again and again.
The “pact,” it turns out, never existed. It appears that Gloucester High School Principal, John Sullivan, a guy who (big surprise) ain’t from heah, reportedly “exaggerated” his “pregnancy pact” story.
And the international media bought it hook, line, and sinker, cuz.
Meanwhile very few caught the back-story that the state government cut $25 Million from the department that funds sex-education. The student health clinic at Gloucester High was prohibited from distributing birth control because some flunky thought that he or she knew something about liability. Federal funding for sex “education” is restricted to repeating the word “abstinence.” After seven years of “faith based” sex education, teen pregnancy rates are up. Go figure.
The same judgmental puritans who gawk at these girls and wonder where they went wrong should look in the mirror. I’m not ashamed of The Gloucester 17 anymore, and I’m sorry that I ever was. We grown-ups failed them. They stuck together. They should be disgusted with us.
Meanwhile, the “pact” looks like it is something a lot less salacious than what Principal Sullivan threw into the water, and the journalists feasted upon like so many screeching and diseased gulls. If there was a pact, it was a pact by these girls to stay in school even though they were going to be teenage mothers — no matter how hard it was. To help each other. To be in it together.
They knew that being a teenage mother isn’t easy, but neither was moving from Sicily to Gloucester in 1910. Neither was fishing for a living. Neither was clinging to life on the frozen rocky coast of Gloucester, but since 1623 we managed to beat those odds by sticking together.
I don’t know for a fact which “pact” story is really true, but I’m inclined to believe that the truth is found in the latter. This “pact to get pregnant” defies logic, defies explanation, it confuses everyone, and nobody can confirm it — not even Principal Sullivan.
The “pact to stick together” fits perfectly with how this town has gotten along since 1623. Maybe I just want to believe it, because we Gloucesteroni stick together and I am looking for a reason to stick up for “The 17.” Who knows? My own mother was only 20 when she was pregnant with me. I seem to have turned out just fine. If only other people made pacts that large — to stick together — to help each other through times of difficulty. Maybe these 17 are on to something. Maybe they made bad choices, but they are making the best of it, and perhaps we can learn something from them in the process.
Or, maybe these girls are just as bad as the media has portrayed them, but those reporters, they aint from heah.
Whatever happened, the rest of you can just stop asking “what is wrong with Gloucester?” Whatever is wrong with it, it’s still better than the middle America dump where all these squawking critics are from. Where you don’t know your neighbors, let alone their aunts and uncles, where you have strip malls, and everything is a chain, nobody cares about anyone else… and best of all, there is no freakin’ way that Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers ever played the gym at your high school.
From this day forward, I will not feel shame again. I don’t care what these girls did. They stuck together. That’s how we roll since 1623.
Marc J. Randazza is a Gloucester native and damn proud of it.