By Ed Staskus
“Nobody would talk to me at the Lighthouse the first winter I lived in Wellfleet,” said Susan Rarick. “All the other tables were yukking it up, laughing away, having a good time. I sat there alone slouched over a beer, night after night, and nobody would talk to me.”
The Lighthouse was a bar and restaurant in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. It had been there forty-some years at the far end of the peninsula called the Outer Cape. A scale replica of the Nauset Beach lighthouse jutted up from the roof and the menu didn’t lack for crab cakes, littlenecks, and PBR’s. The only towns farther out on the Cape are Truro and Provincetown, on the far fist end of the Cape, which is 14 miles north of Wellfleet.
The Pilgrims, when they landed in North America in 1620, landed in Provincetown. It is where they first shook hands with the locals and signed the Mayflower Compact. When Thanksgiving was over and done, they shook a holy fist at the locals and went south for better living quarters.
“It wasn’t until Barbara Jordan, who was then the social director of the town, started talking to me that everybody else did, too,” said Suzie. “I had only moved to Wellfleet from Provincetown, but it’s very local here, big time. Any small town is like that. But, once you’re in, you’re in for life.”
Fewer than three thousand people live in Wellfleet, once known as Oyster Port, although in summer the population swells to nearly twenty thousand. Almost half of the town is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The rest of the place is a one-horse middle of town, winding residential neighborhoods, and a large harbor.
The town clock on the top of the Congregational Church is the only bell clock in the world that still rings on ship’s time. The Wellfleet Drive-In is one of the few still standing in the USA. It’s the only outdoor screen on the same coastline where the movie was shot that shows the movie “Jaws” under the stars. The Beachcomber at Cahoon’s Hollow is the only beach bar high on top a Cape Cod dune overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
The Incredible Casuals, featuring a transvestite drummer, were the Sunday afternoon house band for many years. But, like the band, not all of Cape Cod where the Beachcomber stands is still there. “When I was a kid, we had to walk forever from the car, lugging all our stuff, to the beach,” said Suzie. “Not anymore. It’s being washed away. The winter before last we had a storm that caused twenty years’ worth of erosion.” The Beachcomber lost its last row of parking. It collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s extremely fragile here. That’s one reason it’s so special, besides the people. Where else can you live where many people don’t necessarily lock their doors? It’s like going back in time,” she said. Recent FBI crime statistics show that Cape Cod is below the national average in everything, while the murder risk, at a third, and the robbery risk, at a fourth, are both far below the national average.
“I feel safe wherever I go, even in the woods, at least right up to hunting season, when you have to start being a little careful,” Suzie said.
You can go everywhere in a small town like Wellfleet, although small towns aren’t for everybody. Since many of them don’t have places to go that you shouldn’t necessarily go to, they are sometimes thought of as small-minded. But no matter where you go, even the world’s big cities, it is only small minds that cling to small things.
Small town life is like working at home, where everybody knows you and you know everybody. “I know everybody here in the winter,” Suzie said. “New Englanders are private, not show-offy, which sometimes comes off as cold, but I know all the local stories now.”
Zsuzsanna Rarick vacationed on Cape Cod in the 1950s as a child, after her parents immigrated to the United States in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. “My parents didn’t even speak English. They said the Massachusetts climate was similar to Hungary’s, so that was where they settled. They went to Framingham with nothing but the clothes on their back. It was a different time to come to the United States. People were welcoming, very welcoming.”
She has spent every summer or lived year-round on Cape Cod since she was four years old. “My friends had families with summer homes, but our family camped. I always loved it. There’s a picture of me at the top of the Provincetown Monument, my front teeth missing. I used to cry going home over the bridge, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I cried. I would lick the sea salt off my skin to get the last little taste of the Cape.”
It is in places like Cape Cod that something is everything to somebody.
After whaling slowly died off in the 18th century tourism began to be promoted in the 19th century. The Cape became a summer place for well-off city folk coming from Boston by packet boat and stagecoach. When Route 6 was finished as far as Provincetown in the 1950s, and President Kennedy signed legislation creating the Cape Cod National Seashore, the sandy peninsula became a go-to vacation spot for many families up and down the Northeast.
“I always tell people when they say how much they like Wellfleet, only tell your very best friends about us. It still has character and it’s still a real community.” Some of the townsfolk wear t-shirts saying, “So Many Tourists, So Few Sharks.” Nevertheless, the driving force behind much of Wellfleet’s economy is off-Cape dollars. Seasonal residents, second-home owners, and tourism account for the better part of the town’s annual income.
“There’s not a lot of year-round work here, so in the summer everybody is working crazy hours. We’re all complaining about it, too. The roads are a parking lot. All your errands you do on your off hours, somehow or other, or not at all. You go for groceries at the Stop-n-Shop in Provincetown at midnight.”
It’s where to gossip with your neighbors who you never see in season.
“But we have to make money, although after September it’s our reward time. We get to be with each other. Cape Cod is your private playground then. You can throw a snowball down the street in January, and you won’t hit a thing.”
Everybody has to come in from the playground sometime, though, and that’s one of the problems of living in Wellfleet, as well as Truro and Provincetown.
“There are people who live here who can’t find a place to live,” Suzie said. “If you have a house already, you’re OK. But, if you’re trying to find a house here, like me, you’re bitter, like me.” Spring, summer, and fall Susan Rarick lives in a three-season cottage, a dwelling without sufficient land around it to qualify as an all-season’s condo. In the winter she is compelled to move to a rental in Eastham, farther south on the Outer Cape. There is a dearth of housing because housing prices have soared, while wages have stagnated.
“Over the past ten years the median cost of a house rose $200,000 while income rose only $10,000,” said Paul Cullity, the pastor of Wellfleet’s Congregational Church and member of the local housing partnership trust. “Not only are people barely earning more than they did ten years ago, but they can actually buy less and less housing each year.”
By standards common to the state of Massachusetts the town of Wellfleet should have 140 affordable homes. “But, we have less than 20,” said Pastor Cullity. The problem is so acute that there is an annual “Housing with Love Walk” to raise money and awareness for Cape Cod housing agencies.
“It’s so friggin’ expensive here, and then, 80%, maybe 90% of the houses are empty,” said Suzie. “The baby boomers are buying everything up. It’s just summer homes for them, someplace where they’ll have a good spot for the 4th of July parade. They don’t live here all year. They live someplace else.” In the race between living and living it up, living it up is winning. “You have to be a certain type of person to live here year-round. We’re not the fast track and our track is disappearing because of real estate. In the 80s a half-acre might have cost $40,000. Today it’s closer to $240,000, or more, if you can find one.”
Real estate land listings in the spring of 2016 in Wellfleet included 1.4 acres on Route 6, Cape Cod’s spinal highway, for $399,000 and 1.2 waterfront acres on Pine Pond Road for $895,000, while 2.3 acres on Perch Pond Way was a steal at $389,000. Almost half of the homes listed for sale in 2015 in Wellfleet were asking over a million dollars. One of the least expensive was a Sears kit house, the kind folks used to buy from the catalog, priced at $329,000.
“Wellfleet was a cottage community, but then people started buying the cottages and making them over into million-dollar structures that they use three weeks out of the year,” Suzie said. “It’s good for our taxes and it’s actually not bad either that they’re not here most of the time.”
Far away makes the heart grow fonder.
“The only saving grace we have is the National Seashore, thank God. Otherwise, there would be condos up and down that shoreline. At least we’re not Provincetown. It’s so sad. There’s nothing there anymore. Twenty years ago, it was a year-round community. It was so much fun. Everybody got along and you could get cheap rentals for the summer. Now, forget it. All the Portuguese sold their family homes for big bucks, walked away, and went somewhere else. You can’t find anything to rent. Everything’s been bought up.”
Always a popular summer resort town, Provincetown has become increasingly popular since the 90s, so much so that no one lives there anymore. “Locals have been relocating,” said Bob O’Malley of Beachfront Realty. “The prices are driving them out of the market.”
Although most of the new homeowners don’t live in town in the off-season, they are the newcomers who have more money, much more money, than the locals. “A lot of people had to leave town because they couldn’t find housing, any housing,” said Michelle Jarusiewicz, the Community Housing Specialist for Provincetown.
“There’s no old-timers, there’s hardly any locals left, at all. There are practically no births anymore and the high school closed,” Suzie said. The last senior class at the Provincetown High School, after more than 150 years of senior classes, graduated in 2013. That was the end of that future.
In the spring of 2015 Kristin Hatch, a volunteer member of the Provincetown Housing Authority, found the shoe on the other foot when she found out she was going to have to vacate her two-bedroom condo. “The landlord sent me an e-mail that he’s going to sell,” she said. “Hopefully something comes up.” In the meantime, she was moving her possessions into storage and staying with a friend.
“Living here is not for everybody,” Suzie said. “What is kind of funny is that in the summertime the tourists are all sitting up here and thinking it’s like this all the time, but it’s not. I was doing a catering event in Truro, at a big, modern house that they got out of a magazine, and one of the guys I was working with said, ‘Come winter I’ll be sitting right here on this deck looking out at the sunset because there ain’t gonna be anybody else here.’”
In winter the shore towns of the Outer Cape go from bustling to evacuated. In summer you can’t park anywhere. In winter you can park anywhere you want. The suddenly empty beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore are anyone’s for the taking, so long as you take along a heavy coat, boots, and a friendly dog to keep you company.
In winter in Wellfleet there might not be anything better than spending an hour or two in a neighborhood bar. “It’s a small community,” Suzie said. “One winter when it was bad there were three guys who always sat at a big table at the Lighthouse telling jokes. We would sit around, and they would start telling jokes. They each had a repertoire of fifty of them, maybe more, and they told them for hours. We thought it was great. It’s pretty isolated here in the winter.”
“Did I ever tell you how Harvey and I tried to set up an anarchist community here in the 1960s, but we couldn’t make it work because nobody would obey the rules,” one of the good old boys drawled between pulls on a Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“But, if you’re in trouble, somebody’s boat sinks in the harbor, the community is there,” Suzie said. “I was going to drive to Florida one time and there was something wrong with my car. The dealer said it was going to be five, maybe six hundred dollars. I took it to my friend, one of the men who used to tell jokes at the Lighthouse, and he looked at it, said it was no big deal, fixed it, and didn’t charge me. That’s what they are, salt of the earth people.”
But, before joining the salt of the earth, one needs a little bit of the earth for oneself.
“I love it here, although you give up a lot to live here. You have got to like yourself because there aren’t many distractions. But I need a house, that’s the biggest thing. I have just got to get a house. I’m crazy about it. I’m obsessed with it. I’ve been looking for years.”
Of all home remedies, a good home is the best. While it may be true that everybody is stuck with themselves at home, it is where everybody usually feels better than anywhere else. Home is where one starts from early in the morning and ends up at the tail end of the day, where there’s always a candle burning in the window.
“I’ll get it,” Susan Rarick said. “I’m getting closer, getting closer, and I’ll get there soon.”
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”