Thursday, June 16, 2005

A short visit to that abominable city

“I mean, as soon as possible-that is to say, as soon as I can find a cheap, pleasant and healthy residence-to remove into the country and bid farewell forever to this abominable city; for, now that my mother is gone, I have no longer anything to keep me here” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” – Hunter S. Thompson

I doubt if ol’ Nat and HST would have had much to talk about if they had somehow ended up in the same time-frame together; maybe writing styles, as both were reportedly painstaking re-drafters of their own work. And I can’t find any evidence that the Good Doctor ever made it to Salem town. But I suspect he would have shared Hawthorne’s view of the city. Not that Thompson still might not have liked Salem. He always did have a fondness for places where different cultures collided.

There was a 30-degree temperature swing in New England between Tuesday and Wednesday, and I drove the 56 miles down to Salem on a cold, drizzly Wednesday morning as the thermometer struggled to get above 50.

The last time I was in the town was a quiet Fall Sunday and Peggy and I virtually had the place to ourselves. I knew I was in for something different this time around when I found Essex Street barricaded off, and ended up circling downtown Salem until finally finding an empty parking space near the Salem visitor center on Washington. The Salem town fathers are generous in offering metered parking for only 25 cents an hour. Unfortunately the meters’ maximum time is an hour, and the Salem cops, recognizing a bonanza in their laps when they see one, were already swooping down on expired meters in a ticketing frenzy. I plugged in my quarter, noted the time, which was about 45 minutes before the ceremony, and walked the three blocks through a bitingly cold wind that felt as if it had come directly off the Atlantic.

Lappin Park is a small wedge of trees with aspirations of being a real park in the center of Salem. There were perhaps 300 people already in the town center, hunkered down against the wind and cold and staring across at the park, which was dominated by a huge TV Land podium and the tarp-shrouded statue. I circled the barricades, passing a group of visiting witches greeting their Salem counterparts, tried to convince a guard that a blog “was just like a newspaper, even better” but was still ejected from the press area when I couldn’t produce credentials; and then stumbled across a group of grumpy old-style Yankee protestors – one complete with bow tie - preparing signs in the lee of a hotel. They eyed me warily as I brought out my camera, and I decided I’d better ask permission. “You’re not with the police?” one asked. “Hey, Charlie,” another said. “We’re going to be in the N.Y. Times!”

With another 20-odd minutes to go, I went to re-feed the meter. The parked cars both ahead and behind the Rodeo were now wearing a thicket of tickets. I waved at the glum cop hiding in the shelter of a doorway as I bounced my meter’s time back up to an hour and then went searching for coffee to ward off the chill. A tactical mistake as it turned out, as the crowd had swelled to what the papers report as between 1500 and 2000 people when I returned to Lappin Park about five minutes before noon.

Salem is an uneasy mix of styles, people, and cultures, and most of them were in evidence at the statue’s unveiling. Some areas of Salem have very pretty, historical buildings, there are ticky-tacky Halloween/horror/witch-related tourist traps too, and much of the city just reflects what it basically is – a New England working-class waterfront town that has seen both better and worse times. A lot of Salem makes its living from the witch connection, but a lot of Salem doesn’t seem too happy about it, either.

I spent much of my childhood growing up in an area that had a love-hate relationship with tourists and the businesses that cater to them, so I know the syndrome. As John D. MacDonald said about Florida tourists, you just kind of wish things could be simplified and they were all required to wear a little box on their backs. Every 10 minutes or so the box would ring and a $10 bill would extrude out. And whichever native was closest would pluck it out.

I started on the outskirts of the crowd next to a group of Salem troubled yutes, all shaved heads and pierced lips, smoking up a storm. The group would have fit right in with the cast of Deadwood, as their conversation mostly consisted of using “Fuck” as noun, adjective, adverb, and verb. They were in a generally jolly mood, even though they didn’t seem to have much of a grasp on what the fuck was going on.

However, the half-dozen or so Yankee protestors were up front and beginning to position their signs to try to block the view of as many people as possible, and the troubled yutes were getting ugly, with more “Fucks” flying blackly at the protesting crew as the cops moved in. I decided to move on, pausing to watch one demonstrator who I had photographed – dressed in tweed jacket and bow tie - pull back against a cop who had him firmly in tow as the crowd cheered. The other demonstrators wisely kept their signs lowered as the ceremony began.

Feelings toward the statue seemed to improve as I moved deeper into the crowd. A group of children waving Tinker Belle-style wands were screaming gamely as a camera boom passed overhead. The witches were doing some sort of chant, and “Bewitched” fans were cheering as they glimpsed the three surviving cast members who had made the scene. Bernard Fox looked like he could still do a credible Dr. Bombay; Erin Murphy has turned from babe into Babe; and Kasey Rogers was there too and received some polite applause, given that Louise Tate 2 would probably not be on even the hardest of hard-core “Bewitched” fan’s “Top 10 Characters” list.

The ceremony started about five minutes late, “Blah, blah,” said someone from TV Land. “Blah, blah, blah,” said the mayor of Salem, thanking everyone in the municipality including the Salem fire department for reasons unknown.

“Blah, blah, blah, blah,” said a new TV Land exec. Or maybe it was the same one. He introduced William Asher, progenitor of all this, and real-life husband to Liz Montgomery too. Asher was wheeled out, and with no disrespect intended, I was hoping that the ceremonies were would be over soon as he did not look all that hearty and, in fact, seemed to fall asleep when the TV Land flack started yammering again.

Perhaps the rain, which now started to come down as a steady drizzle, helped hurry the speechifying up. In any case, the TV Land dude quickly barked out his last homily, waved his arms, a small smoke charge was set off, and the statue unveiled to a mixed reception of cheers and boos.

“That’s not going to last long,” someone beside me muttered, and a woman said to her companion, “It’s kind of ugly, don’t you think?”

Maybe I’ve spent too much time looking at the “Bewitched” logo, but I have to agree. The moon that the statue is flying over more resembles a Yuggoth-like tentacle than a crescent to me, And to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have said, “Oh yeah, that’s Elizabeth Montgomery/Samantha Stephens,” if I had come across the statue unknowingly. I don’t know. All bronze statues seem to have that element of inhuman weirdness to my eyes. But I think the designers would have been better off with a little less representational and maybe little more fantasy version.

The rain now coming down heavily, I followed the crowd leaving the area back to the Rodeo where there was seven minutes remaining on the meter.

But what the hell. A lot of people didn’t like the Lincoln Memorial when it was unveiled either. It’s part of being a statue, you can’t have everybody like you. And I figure I’ll go back with Peg later this year on another quiet Fall Sunday and see if my perception improves.

Posted by Hello

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ya know what it is? Her skirt's too long! It was the sixties, dammit! :-)!