Provincetown, Shhh! It's A Secretby RayzRealm (c) July 26, 1998
"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more!"
"Everywhere there's freaks and hairies,
Dykes and Fairies,
Oh tell me, where is sanity."
-Ten Years After
My Earliest Memories
During the 50's to early 60's my dad and one of his brothers would pitch in to rent a cabin in Welfleet, a lower Cape Cod town close to Provincetown. The place we stayed in was out in bush and had no electricity or running water. My worst memories were of the outhouse and the ever present "green head flies."
In the evening my cousins and I were left under the watchful eye of my older sister while the grownups drove into Provincetown for some nightlife. We'd beg, "can we come along, can we can we?" This was always met with, "no! Provincetown is for grownups only. Maybe Sunday morning after church we'll take you if you're good." In the wee hours of the morning we'd be woken up by the sounds of laughter and giggling in the kitchen, as our parents stumbled in after a night of drinking and gawking at the weirdoes in town. The terms female impersonator, queer and homo meant nothing to me then, but that was usually the subject of all the laughter in the other room. Oh, and yes, the beatniks.
Sunday morning would come, and as promised, we were taken into town for breakfast, to watch the fishing boats, buy some candy and back to the cabin before the town weirdoes were up and about. I wanted to see what all the ruckus was about, but at 8-9am on a Sunday morning P-Town resembled more a ghost town than Mardi Gras. The last time I was there in my youth was the Summer that Marilyn Monroe died.
The Prodigal Son Returns
I never returned to P-Town until getting out of the Navy in 1971 when a couple of ex-shipmates drove up from New York City for a visit. One was straight and the other discovered he was bi-sexual but both were bohemian hippie types. I was also catching up on the hippie culture that the military denied us membership to and my hair was reaching down to my shoulders, plus grew a rather scruffy beard. Frank and Alex wanted to see the sights since neither had ever been to Massachusetts. I gave them the grand tour of Boston, Harvard Square and my home town, but both wanted to see P-Town, "ohh, I dunno, that's a good 3.5 to 4 hour drive from here and it is Labor Day weekend." My mom and dad added, "Oh, you don't want to see Provincetown, it's full of weirdoes, homos and beatniks." That was all Frank and Alex needed to hear, "c'com let's go. Let's leave right now."
We checked into a motel on the edge of town, then walked down Commercial street just as darkness was falling. The streets were packed with tourists of every description; Midwest families huddling closely together, hippies, drag queens, plus the very visible presence of men with other men, walking arm in arm....hmmm! A nice bizarre cross section of humanity. Women and men hit on our trio as we explored the cafes, honky tonks and bars, "want some love", "hi handsome", "want a blow job."....blush blush! This was just like the places the Navy Chaplain's department used to warn sailors about whenever we entered a new port of call. Even better, P-Town was every place the nuns in Catechism told us to stay out of, lest we suffer the torments of hell. Yahoo, music poured from every doorway, people were laughing and friendly. Hey! what can I say; in my youth I had a taste for weirdness and the avant garde. If this was Hell, then I was in Heaven.
Alex, the gay one got lucky and did not return with us to the motel when the bars closed. Frank had more than his share of males and females proposition him. The next morning Alex stumbled into our room, all shagged out and hung over after an evening of......I can only guess what, but his neck was covered with hickies....tsk tsk! We went to the nude beach where alex made out again, and again and a-g-a-i-n.
Both Alex and Frank kept raving about the wild time they had in P-Town while we drove back to my folk's house. I only saw Alex and Frank two more times when they invited me to NYC as a return favor. Frank promised, "you want weirdness, come to New York." Yes, the Big Apple was weird on a grande scale.
Traveling Alone and Incognito
I booked a week's stay in a recommended guest house for the July 4th week of 1972. The guest house was gay owned like many/most businesses in P-Town, but the host welcomed non gay guest also, if they behaved themselves. It was a pleasant quiet place on the outer fringe of Commercial street. Most of the guests were older gay couples, a couple of straight regulars and a few women. The week was filled with drinking, dancing, eating, doing naughty things, buying stuff and in general just relaxing. Yes this town was a Sodom by the sea, but it felt comfortable. I returned home tanned as dark as a Pacific islander, burned out and hung over, but vowed to return the following Summer.
From the Summer of 73 through 87 I made a pilgrimage to the end of the Cape. I always stayed at the same guest house until the owner retired and sold it to a new owner. The 70's and 80's were a truly wild and whacky period in Provincetown. Some of the guest houses were round the clock party palaces that were not much more than gay/swinger bath houses. Many others ran the gamut from party house to monastery. There was something for just about every taste, but if you planned to visit during July and August, it was best to book reservations well in advance since most bed and breakfasts in town hung "No Vacancy" shingles during peak season.
The air was charged during the Summer here, with all sorts of energy, especially an unmistakable sexual energy. People met people on the beaches, on the streets, in cafes and shops, in the bars, in their hotels and guest houses....just about anywhere. P-Town attracted the pretty men and women from all over, who came to be seen. Then there were the year round and Summer residents. All were very interesting; school teachers working the Summer, high tech and other professionals who abandoned their high stress careers to settle along this special strip of real estate, artist and performers, who not finding fame and fortune would settle for waiting tables or tending bar and garden variety dropouts from society.
Some people came here strictly for sexual satisfaction. If you are attractive, lean, muscular and young you could literally screw yourself into oblivion. But there are many other reasons to visit Provincetown; the food, the ambiance, the beaches, shows and entertainment, endless shopping in one of a kind gift shops, people watching, bicycling or to just plain veg out and leave the world behind.
I used to disk jockey on the side, so spent a lot of time begging entrance to the DJ booths at bars and chatting/comparing notes with the club spin doctors. There used to be a saying that gay DJ's were the absolute best DJ's. I have to agree here to some extent, at least during the height of the disco dance era. If you wanted to hear the very best new music and most innovative mixes, then you went to a gay bar, and in Provincetown some of the best DJ's around spun in the gay clubs. Usually the newest cuts were released in NYC, Chicago, LA SF, then eventually made their way to Boston, but were seldom heard on the radio. All the newest hot singles would get their playtime in P-Town bars, and every time I returned home would always bring back a long shopping list of 12" singles to buy.
If you like spending money, then come to Provincetown and bring your Visa or Master Card. There are many wonderful unique shops to browse in. I used to work out in the gym 5-6 days a week, and when I was younger and bolder flaunted the six-pack abs, pumped up pecs and bubble butt. Well, P-Town is the place to buy workout, beach and club wear that one can usually only find in mail order catalogs. And yes, I used to dump a lot of money in the butch wear clothing shops. Although friends tell me I can still wear this stuff very well , there's something about a guy in his 50's strutting around in stringy, almost nonexistent clothing. Perhaps it's old age, or the biological clock telling me to act my age. Hmmm funny, but when I do put in the hot shorts, string tank tops at the beach women, young beautiful women come on to me. A couple of friends have commented that old Bigboote has become a real "chick magnet" in his old age. Hmmm, why didn't the pretty women ever come on to me during my teens and 20's? Oh well, today I am TOTALLY out of that whole sexual market thing. Old age brings with it, much more pressing priorities, like, death and staying employed :-)
Back After Long Sabbatical
I quit drinking during the mid-eighties; my decision! My entire world changed after getting sober. How did it change, you ask? It's difficult to explain, but spiritually, mentally and physically everything just sort of "chilled out" and calmed down. The desire to be perpetually listening to the hi-energy, "thumpa thumpa thump!" dance/house/tribal beats resided, and I began listening to stuff like Enya, Celtic music, new age, classical and pop like Depeche Mode more. Materialistic urges abated, cut down on time spent in the gyms, avoided crowds and also lost my desire for the once/twice a year week long fix that P-Town provided. I could have cared less if I ever saw that cursed town again; with it's noise, crowds, sex, attitude, lines and hype.
I was at a Boston AA meeting one night and the chairperson owned property in Provincetown. He suggested I visit off-season as this was his favorite time for the Cape. Four years ago I finally came back with John Smallberries for a 4 day visit in mid-September. I found a small, off the map guest house on the edge of town that was for people in recovery. I have stayed here every September ever since. The magic of P-Town is still there for me, but it has changed in form and meaning from the days of my youth.
Shhh! It's A Secret
If you are looking for a unique and relaxing vacation that's off the beaten path, then a visit to Provincetown may be just what the doctor ordered. There is an aura about this place that I find hard to put into words. Many cannot see it, but many more do, which is why P-Town is such a popular vacation spot. As soon as Labor Day weekend is over, the pretty people all return to wherever it is they go to party and be seen, the peak season crowds recede, the long lines for restaurant seating disappear, prices in many shops are slashed, guest house nightly rates drop and the town winds down. What you now have is the real Provincetown, stripped of it's makeup and sequins. There is more time to chat with the locals, and dining in the many restaurants is no longer rushed. The climate is still warm enough to sun bathe, provided our unpredictable new England weather cooperates. If you want to party hardy, you still can, but the atmosphere and crowds have tamed a bit from July/August. Gee, If you're one of those who's only reason for visiting is to get "laid" you may stand a better chance now, since most of the competition has left until next Summer. But remember, the sort of people who visit after the ball is over are usually here to enjoy the peace and serenity that the lower Cape offers during September and October. If you're lucky Summer's end through early Fall days are perfect for beach, walking or cycling. If you're not so lucky, it can be cold rainy and gray. For me personally, there's almost nothing worse than a week in Provincetown where the weather is cold, raw and rainy the whole time. This is a chance you take here in New England. Keep in mind that while here, you are actually miles out at sea, so while it can be cold, raining and bleak in P-Town, the Boston weather might be warm, sunny and in the 80's. The opposite can also hold true, typhoons in Boston, hot and humid on the Lower Cape. If you visit during September/ October, bring your shorts and Summer play wear, but also pack the long pants, sweats and jacket. If all goes well, I look forward to another relaxing getaway on the Cape come September.
Just The Facts Ma'am
Well, there's a thumbnail sketch of my personal history with this magical place; now on to some useless facts and information. Provincetown sits down at the very tip of Cape Cod, the last stop on the bus so to speak. Provincetown can be reached by car, bus, plane and ferry. A word to the wise, especially during Summer, if at all possible leave the Beemer, SUV, Lexus or whatever you tool around in at home. Provincetown streets are very narrow, some almost more like alleys, and parking is at a premium. If you plan on staying, check with whatever hotel or bed and breakfast you make reservations with to see if they have adequate guest parking. Once in town just about everything "in town" is within a half hour walk. There is also ferry service from Boston, and although I have never taken the ferry, have been told it's a pleasant cruise during the warmer weather. There is also a small private airport at the edge of town and many hotels B&B's will make arrangements to pick up and deliver guests. The only reason I drive down is they house I stay at has parking for guests. Once in P-Town I walk or bike everywhere, well unless I plan on visiting sites higher up on the Cape, then take the car.
Provincetown has a long history of being a Portuguese fishing village; very quaint. It has also attracted artists and bohemians for many years, which accounts for many of the one of a kind shops that pepper Commercial Street from end to end. Whether some people like it or not, P-Town has had a long standing sizable gay population. During the peak season, the numbers of gay boys and lesbians explode as this Mecca attracts those of a homosexual orientation from all over the world. For the most part P-Town has a "live and let live" spirit that adds to the attractiveness and local color of the area. Many businesses in town are gay owned and operated, and if you are not gay yourself, you will find the natives to be quite friendly and polite; you be too! In about 99.9999% of cases the gay residents and shop keepers will not push any of their agendas on the non gay visitor. Please return the favor and be just as civil to them. There have been scattered incidences of gay bashing, fundamentalist bible thumping to downright hatred and violence. I've always reacted to such news with shock as "this" sort of thing is not supposed to happen in P-Town. For the most part, I always found it an oasis of tolerance and acceptance of diversity. The bottom line is, if you plan on coming here to be an ASSHOLE, then take your mental demons somewhere else.
Provincetown (as long as I can remember) has always had a water problem, both in quality and availability. If you have a sensitivity to stuff, a weakened immune system; then it might be a good idea to drink only bottled water. The water problem is much worse during peak season when the population explodes. Let's see, how's the old saying go, "like trying to stuff 20 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag." Most hotels and guest houses will usually post warnings about water, "please don't take 2 hour long showers, etc."
There are NO shopping malls or "chain" businesses in Provincetown; thank God for this! If you're looking for a Burger King, MacDonalds, that sort of thing, you'll have to venture further up in the Cape. There is a very well stocked A&P supermarket in Shankpainter Rd, if you want to buy some picnic stuff. There are no 24hour a day convenience stores or coffee shops in P-Town, so keep this in mind if you get the munchies at 4am. Spiritus Pizza on Commercial stays open til about 2am, after the bars close. You'll know Spiritus by the crowds that gather after last call. If you are a bar type, the clubs close at 1am. After 1am Commercial street can be busy with people (mostly men) who are trolling around for some sexual escape. Well this old fart is long asleep by this time, so to those denizens of the dark, "keep your wits about you, use your head (the one on your shoulders), and don't say I didn't warn you of any hazards. In more recent years, I'm up at the crack of dawn, while the party crowd is either asleep, nursing hangovers or still making wild "whoopee!" The streets are usually very quiet, with mostly trucks making deliveries and locals being the only living beings up and about.
Eats, Both Cheap And Otherwise
Provincetown boasts a multitude of restaurants and cafes. Like many other resort areas, the prices tend to be "not cheap," but there are some that are reasonable and a good value for the money. I won't give a detailed restaurant review here but will include a couple of my favorites. Many guest houses can suggest places to eat, also keeping copies of current menus in their common areas. So here are a couple of my faves, but don't take my word for it, explore on your own, ask the locals or your host for recommendations. There are many, many more eateries than I have listed here, plus a lot of local fast food stalls where you can grab a burger, hot dog, pizza, ice cream, fish, etc.
Shop Til You Drop
- Sal's Place: Toward the end of Commercial, bear left near the Coast Guard station. You can also ask directions. Sal has great Italian food, served in a waterside casual setting. Very generous portions, well prepared, and whenever I leave Sal's, it's time to take a long walk to work off dinner.
- Ciro And Sal's: Way down the other end of Commercial, another very good Italian eatery in an intimate setting. Can be pricey.
- Napi's: Great seafood and Italian, pricey but excellent.
- Post Office Cafe: On Commercial. Any regular can direct you here as it is a very popular eatery; great breakfasts, reasonable prices and tends to get very busy later in the morning/afternoon. I have not yet had dinner at the Post Office.
- Gallarani's: Commercial Street. I have only had breakfast here which was excellent, with generous portions.
- The Boatslip: Motel, bar, etc. Very nice dining in an intimate setting. Can be reasonable to pricey.
- Fat Jack's: One of my perennial favorites on Commercial Street. A pub atmosphere, with varied menu and reasonable prices; if there is such a thing as reasonable prices in P-Town :-)
- Cafe Blasť: Sidewalk cafe atmosphere and good prices. Eat out in the open and watch the people on Commercial street.
Another fun way to pass a cloudy day or evening is visiting the multitude of shops and galleries along Commercial Street. You can find all sorts of stuff to suit your fancy. This is by no means a comprehensive listing.
Things To Do, Places To Go
- Art: Many galleries, from the grotesque black velvet Elvis paintings to true original works of art by local artists.
- Crafts: Again from flea marketable chatzkah (painted smiling clam shells) to real original art work; stained glass, bric-a-brac, lamps, carvings, etc and so on.
- Recovery: Recovering Hearts is a very nice shop for people in 12 step programs or for the shopper looking for crafts; a lot of women's crafts.
- Jewelry: From junk jewelry to custom made high quality gold and gemstones and estate jewelry.
- Clothing: You can find Army/Navy store quality to custom made apparel here. There are a number of leather shops, fetish clothing stores, preppie casual wear to beach/workout togs. I usually drop in to Saint Tropez, a store selling mostly summer, casual men's clothes. If you have the body to carry it off, Saint Tropez might be to your liking. There are also a couple of other stores carrying similar styles. Body Body is also worth a visit.
Where To Stay
- Bicycling: You can either bring your own bike or rent one in town, but if bicycling is your thing, P-Town is a great place to peddle around. There is one of the best bikeways that runs through the lower Cape and National Seashore. You can spend days just exploring the area by bike. It's also a good way to get around town, but keep in mind, lock up your bike wherever you stop.
- Beach: Herring Cove is the closest beach and within walking distance of town. There is also a parking lot near the bath house; I walk. During the 70's and 80's the dunes were notorious as a hot and cold, nonstop sex spot, whether one was gay or straight, but mostly gay men prowled around here. I heard many an unbelievable story about the antics in the dunes. In these kinder/gentler 90's , the dunes are patrolled and they do ticket or arrest, depending on what the sunbather is up to (or down to). Nude sun bathing used to be everywhere, but if you are caught now, the rangers WILL cite you, so be aware. Herring Cove beach is not a pristine powder fine sandy beach, and can be rough on bare feet; lots of pebbles and gravel, but if you wade out far enough, is good for swimming, with little to no undertow.
- Entertainment: There are a number of cabarets and clubs where live shows are performed, from rock and roll to comedy and female impersonation.
- Drink'n'Drown: I won't give a review of bars and discos as I am no longer qualified to comment. There are a number of gay dance clubs, straight saloons and honky tonks, and a cocktail lounge here and there. If you are gay, either check with your guest house host, ask around, check out a gay news paper that might advertise Provincetown's club scene, or follow the boyz.
- Check out other lower Cape towns. You can either drive or bike through Truro, Welfleet and Orleans. There is a lot of New England Cape Cod charm to be found, plus some beautiful seashore to be explored.
- Whale Watch: Ask around for where to sign up to go on a whale watch. This is a very popular pastime with visitors.
This runs the gamut from cheesy motel rooms, shacks, inexpensive B&B to high priced lodging. Again, many guest houses are gay/lesbian owned. Check with the chamber of commerce, Provincetown Business Guild or friends for recommendations and prices. Off season prices tend to be a bit lower than rates from July 4th through Labor Day weekend, but since P-Town is becoming a year round getaway some prices do not change much. Many guest houses offer coffee and continental breakfasts for guests, some offer full breakfast, others don't even offer coffee. Some have community activities for guests like cookouts, whale watch parties, group dining at a restaurant. I have always preferred staying at a guest house, because of a more personal and communal atmosphere. For the more adventurous there are campgrounds on the outskirts of town, but sleeping in alleys or on park benches is frowned upon.
Provincetown is NOT for every personal taste that exists. It is like a world unto itself, and I always feel a twinge of depression on the return trip home, "back to reality, back to the treadmill." The town has changed a lot since the wild and crazy pre-aids, pre reagan/bush, pre-yuppie, pre-rampant commercialism, pre-cynical 90's era. Some of the magic and charm are gone, or at least have mutated into something I no longer feel at home in. The owner of the guest house I stayed at throughout the 70's and 80's shared similar feelings with me. This was in September of 1987, and I was one of the last guests who stayed there before he turned the keys over to the new owners the following week. It had been a truly marvelous week, with sunshine almost every day and temperatures in the high 70 to mid 80's. There were only two other guests at the house that week, a married couple in one room and two women in another. I usually rented the same single, C3, which I had every year, but when I arrived was when the owner told me about selling his place. He let me pick any room I wanted for the same price as my usual austere single. On my last day it was cold, raw and raining. We sat in his kitchen and I asked why he was selling. He said that the town was not the same place he grew to love, but had become too commercial, too attitude filled and there was an arrogance among the young and beautiful crowd that was totally absent in earlier years. He had also lost a lot of close friends in town to Aids, the same people who had built this village into a close business and social community. I had to agree with him that P-Town was not at all the same place I looked forward to each year. In my first couple of years of sobriety I was seeing Provincetown from the vantage point of someone who no longer came to party.
Post Labor Day Summer through early Fall period has helped me regain some of the magical feel that Provincetown has always been well known for among it's yearly pilgrims. And perhaps, it's just my age and slowing biological clockwork, but off season is the only season for me; a time to relax, explore and contemplate my inner self. There is also a large community of people in 12 step recovery, who enjoy this season for the same reasons as I do; serenity, peace, a sense of connectedness....and the absurd thrown in for good measure.
Links To P-Town Information
- Provincetown Business Guild Gay/Friendly Business Organization
- Provincetown Village Website
- TAGG2 Homepage of owners of guesthouse I stay at now.
Have fun, play sanely and bring lots of money