a ships wake on the sea: November: boarding the SS Holy Mary

A salty place, Quincy Mass. You say it “Quinzy” unless you want to stick out in this seaside town just south of Boston. It’s something of an offense, not slurring the name, so I’m practicing blurring the lines of enunciation and identity. Let your jaw hang slack just a little bit; say everything like you’re chewing gum. Or like you’ve got a chip on your shoulder.

I think that’s why I thought I might fit in here. I do all those things: blur the lines, try to hang slack, chew on ideas for a while. Often carry a small chip of resentment with me, as if I’d grudgingly earned some kind of bitter token for hard-won street smarts, the kind I figured would be necessary to live on the East Coast for a year.

One day at a time. Right now, I’m holding a mug of coffee, trying not to spill it as I carefully lean back in a wooden rocker by an upstairs window overlooking Quincy Bay.

My balance keeps shifting, moment to moment. To and fro goes the way. It’s a line from the
I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. This is how we recognize that we have reached a turning point — by feeling decidedly off-balance. Even as we seem in dire need of direction. But we must each determine our own next course of action and set off, each wayfarer allowing their own compass to spin and settle, one end pointing toward the horizon they need, the other end pointing back to themselves.

I take a long sip, surveying the view, carefully rocking, simultaneously feeling quite satisfied…and still a bit dubious. I know full well that I’m ill-equipped for the experience I’ve chosen, perched here in the top floor of a triple-decker house, one of these old sea captain’s homes lining the shores of New England that have been cut up into floor-by-floor apartments. I found this spot by luck, and by holding out for what I wanted, for the reason I came here from the desert Southwest: a chance to live by the sea.

The front door of the house is set back under a wide, sheltering porch; my access, however, is up a long flight of wooden stairs on the side of the house, exposed to the elements, specifically (and ironically) those from the northeast. The weathered steps and rails are speckled with chartreuse moss, slippery when it rains, probably deadly with ice and snow. You have to step slightly to the right near the top so you don’t get caught on the bent corner of a rain gutter. At the landing, the second-floor door swings out, crowding you perilously off the wider space and back onto the steps, leaning on the wooden railing. It’s especially tricky to navigate with groceries or, say, furniture.

You enter to find a small room with a fireplace, the opening boarded over, a collection of classic books and glass lamps lining the top of the bricks and the wooden mantle. An antique wash stand with ceramic basin and pitcher fills the corner. I’m always afraid of knocking something over with my elbow as I pass through this snug space. In front of the fireplace sits a solidly built wooden cabinet with a locking drawer, the old lock tumblers still falling smoothly with the movement of the antique key.

“That came off the Constitution,” my elderly guide had told me the day I first arrived. He’d fished out a rental application and a pen from the cluttered drawer of the supposedly historic cabinet. He is the landlord, and also my neighbor in #3. He owns the house. “I built everything myself,” he had told me on the phone, as if he had actually constructed it rather than renovating it. “It was a nursing home when I got it, but I built it into apartments. You have any questions, I can answer.” As we settled on a day and time for me to come by, he had told me I’d either meet the neighbor Holly to see the apartment “or myselfPeterYoung.” He said it so fast in his Boston slur that it took me a second to catch his name.

“Ah! Well, I hope it’s you, PeterYoung,” I had told him, smiling into the phone.

“Okay then,” he’d responded, and hung up.

It was a Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving, when I arrived for the showing. Something about the huge white house with green shutters appealed to me as I walked up the sidewalk. The street was lined with tall trees. Suddenly, there he was: PeterYoung himself, a big man with a round belly and round cheeks and chin, a swollen nose and mischievous eyes, with a thin white mustache and tufts of white hair sticking up at odd angles on his head. He wore a working man’s thick canvas coat and saggy jeans. I walked up and introduced myself.

“PeterYoung? I’m Bo.”

“Yeah. Hi there. Are you Bo?” he asked in reply.

I looked at him quizzically. “Yes — I’m Bo,” I repeated.

“Ah yeah, I’m PeterYoung. I own the house. Wanna see the apartment?”

Hearing loss, I decided. He led me up the wooden stairs, through the anteroom of old books and glass lamps, and opened the door to “APT. 4,” which was labeled vertically down the left side of the door jamb in three-inch metallic mailbox lettering. Inside, I found a private entryway with wooden coat pegs, and also a floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinet looming untethered in the corner; I squinted at the cabinet distrustfully. Beyond the coat hooks, one more flight of stairs led up to the apartment itself.

I emerged at the top, following the old spindled banister up into warm sunlight — in every room, on all four sides. The low-silled windows and original wooden doors, thickly-painted antiques themselves with recessed panels and brass knobs, reminded me of my grandparents’ beloved farmhouse in Iowa. I walked into the bright eat-in kitchen to find a round table and two wooden chairs arranged neatly by the windows, overlooking the neighborhood of old homes and tall trees. So green in summer, I thought. I imagined plants on the windowsills.

“Do you hike?” PeterYoung asked me.

“Yes, I’ve been traveling and hiking for a living.”

“You did that long hike in Spain, right? Isn’t that what you told me?”

“Yeah, the Camino.”

“Sorry what?”

“Yes! I hiked across Spain! On the Camino de Santiago!”

“Oh yeah? Ever been to Switzerland? Hike the Alps? The Zermatt?”

“Yes! Switzerland! But I didn’t hike the high peaks! I did the Wanderweg!” I smiled. The Wander Way, my favorite trail name.

“Oh yeah, the valleys, that’s pretty,” PeterYoung nodded. “Yeah, I’ve hiked all over the world, you know. I’m seventy-eight now, but I still hike.”

“You told me on the phone! That’s so amazing! I can’t wait to hear your stories.”

Curious to see the rest of the apartment, I glanced down the hall toward the living room — and saw the ocean. From the kitchen.

The view was stunning, as if the water was about to pour in through the living room windows and flood the old wooden floors, washing up at my feet. I quickly crossed to the living room, straight for the windows, ignoring the bedrooms on either side.

There it was: the sea.

The bay was full to the brim, rhythmic waves lapping steel gray layers onto the beach directly across the street. The brown sand was nearly covered, the waves approaching a lone tree standing just above the high water mark on a grassy strip next to the broad sidewalk. I watched gulls swooping over the water, and a flock of ducks slowly paddling north, following the shore.

The location felt right. The bedrooms were big, the closets ridiculously huge for the small amount of belongings I had brought with me in my car from New Mexico, my futon mattress tied on top. I had wished for a place by the sea with a fireplace, maybe somewhere to store an old kayak if I could find one. Someplace where I could watch the ocean and get to know it over the course of a year, learn to read the water and the weather here like I’d once learned to read Western skies. Understand why I, landlocked all my life, felt so drawn to the sea.

Filled with this lofty aspiration, I turned from the window to take in the rest of the living room. An oversized electric space heater designed to look like a fireplace hugged one wall. Hokey as it was, I was charmed by the arched cast iron details and elaborate oak mantle. Seaside view: check. Fireplace: check, I thought. Then I looked up.

At the tops of the walls throughout the apartment, two- and three-inch iron pipes ran a foot or so below the ceiling. They were all slathered in the flat white wall paint, as if this would make them blend in. An inordinate number of commercial fire sprinklers perched at irregular intervals atop most of the pipes.

Wandering through the apartment, I counted sixteen sprinkler heads, including two in the living room and three in the hallway, two in each bedroom, one in each closet, three in the kitchen, one in the pantry for some reason, and one in the entryway at the foot of the stairs. In one bedroom, these pipes joined onto massive four-inch pipes. These monsters took a deep dive down through the floor in one spot, while another corner was filled with the iron behemoths running side by side, up and down and across the wall before turning to enter the bathroom. Attached to the huge pipes in this room were two spigots (painted over) and another larger valve handle the size of a dinner plate. The effect was of being aboard some type of sea-going vessel.

“This is Holly! I call her Mary,” the landlord called out, as the downstairs neighbor arrived. “She helps me,” he added simply. “So — you like the place?”

“Don’t push!” Holly said to him in another thick Boston accent, with a thin, tired smile. “Hi, I’m Holly.” She looked to be a few years older than me, maybe nearing sixty. I sensed that my estimate may have been based on the visible results of hard living.

“Hi, I’m Barbara, but you can call me Bo.”

“Bo – I like that,” Holly nodded.

“He calls you Mary?” I looked puzzled.

“He gives everybody a new name, I don’t know.” Holly rolled her eyes. “So you came from New Mexico? I did that, too! Just put everything in my car and drove away.” She beamed. “You’ll like it here. You think…you want the place, though?”

I was sitting at the kitchen table, starting to fill out the application. “Oh yeah,” I nodded. “Definitely.”

“Okay good, ’cause if you really do, I got showings all day but I can cancel them…,” she said hopefully.

“Yup — cancel ’em. I want it.”

“Okay great!” Holly smiled broadly. “I gotta go to work. But I’ll see you soon.”

“So you want the place?” the landlord asked me loudly.

“She wants it!” Holly yelled at him.

“Wants it?” he barked again.

Holly walked up to him and yelled in his face. “SHE – WANTS – IT!”

The landlord was unfazed by this verbal assault. “Okay good.” He turned to me. “You just fill out — oh good, yeah, the application. You got a pen?”

“You got my number,” Holly reminded me. She had texted me information about the apartment before I called PeterYoung. I nodded.

As she left, a large, loud man came rumbling up the stairs, filling the kitchen doorway. He, too, was solidly built, with a workman’s gnarled hands, weathered face and leather neck. His broad barrel chest and stout torso were covered in a white wool fisherman’s sweater that was stained and slightly shrunken, the intricate cables and knot patterns interrupted by multiple moth holes. His wavy hair was so dirty I couldn’t make out the color, other than once-dark-now-graying.

He nodded to me at the table as he addressed PeterYoung in a very loud, very thick Irish brogue. “So you’ll be wantin’ to come have a look at the pipes, then,” he directed. PeterYoung waved him off without looking at him, then smiled at me.

“I can’t do the work until you see for yourself,” the handyman continued.

I looked from PeterYoung to this mountain of a man in the doorway, this old sea captain trying to make repairs to a ship that I sensed might be wallowing in choppy seas and slowly sinking.

“If you need to go look at something, that’s fine, I’m just doing this,” I said.

PeterYoung again waved him off. “Just ignore him. He’s a friend of mine.”

“I think – he needs – you – to go – see – the pipes!” I explained loudly.

The huge man in the moth-eaten sweater chimed in, shouting, “She says – you can come – and see! It’ll only take a minute….”

PeterYoung looked at him over his shoulder and shook his head, smiling again as he turned back to me. “Just ignore him.”

The big man dropped his chin, growling in exasperation. He took in a deep breath and lifted his face to stare up at the ceiling, then slowly began to gaze at everything around him, a practiced act of patience.

“This is a nice apartment, this is,” he nodded at me.

“Yeah, I like it,” I nodded back. “So many windows!”

He turned and looked down the hall. “And that view!” he hollered, stepping toward the living room a few paces.

“Isn’t it incredible?” I called.

“Aye,” he nodded, turning back and smiling. “It’s the sea that does it!” And with this, he pulled himself up to his full height, threw his head back and his arms out, roaring, “Makes you FEEL…ALIVE!!” His smile was as broad as his outstretched arms.

“Exactly!” I laughed, opening my own hands in emphatic agreement, and to my delight, he joined in, both of us laughing at our good fortune to simply be here, a bit bedraggled, a better bit lucky.

“Say — do you kayak?” PeterYoung interrupted as if he hadn’t heard, which seemed impossible.

“Do I kayak? Yeah, I just recently got back into it. I haven’t got a kayak of my own yet, though.”

“Well, finish that up, and we’ll go down, I’ll show you — I’ve got three kayaks stored out back, paddles, everything, you can use ’em whenever you want.”

Bless this feast and all who are gathered here. I never even asked, What have I gotten myself into? Instead, I felt rich. The day before Thanksgiving — that’s when I knew I would live on Quincy Shore Drive, in the crow’s nest of this grounded and broken old ship. Quinzy…Shore Drive, my apologies. For what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful.