Each state has its customs, its traditions, its ways of thinking and modes of dress. In fact, most states are composed of multiple states-within-the-state – the customs and etc. that prevail in Dallas, for instance, are quite different from those of Austin, although both cities are very much part of Texas.
Provincetown, a sliver of a town at the very tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is both typical of Massachusetts and almost a state unto itself.
It is, on one hand, fully possessed of certain Massachusetts convictions: respect for tradition (if you buy a house in Provincetown, you are not permitted to alter its exterior in any significant way); a gathering of forces in the face of extreme weather (if you’re snowed in, a neighbor with a plow will arrive shortly, to dig you out); a respect for thrift (why buy a new sweater, when the thrift store is full of perfectly good ones, that cost less than ten dollars?).
Provincetown, however, is also one of the only places in Massachusetts — in the entire U.S., for that matter — that not only tolerates eccentricity, but prefers it.
In Provincetown, you could meet a man who sings, and looks like, Celine Dion, perhaps more precisely than Celine Dion looks like herself.
You could meet a nudist who serves on the Board of Selectmen (who, by the way, arrives fully clothed at town meetings).
You could meet a biological woman who not only lives as a man but has been transformed into a man, while retaining his central woman-part.
You could also meet a fisherman or a bank teller, usually of Portuguese extraction, who was born in Provincetown, and whose family has lived there for seven or eight generations.
That’s one of the main reasons I love Provincetown as ardently as I do. There’s no such thing there as a typical resident.
There is, of course, much to say about Provincetown’s natural beauty: the tranquil bay embraced by an enormous circle of sand, with the town arrayed along its gently curving banks; the dunes studded with dwarf pines and beach roses; the stands of beech forest that have thus far withstood the encroachment of the dunes, harboring within their shade numberless ponds, all strewn in summer with hundreds of water lilies.
There’s much to say about the light there, as well.
Being situated on such a narrow finger of land, with salt water on three of its four sides, the light in Provincetown is much like the light you’d see from a boat, fifty miles out to sea. The light rivals that of Paris, although Paris’s light has received rather more attention over the centuries.
Still, a significant aspect of my devotion to Provincetown stems from the freedom it extends to any and all of its denizens.
So many of its people have gone to great lengths to migrate there and, even if they were born there, endure considerable hardships in order to remain.
Its waters have been pretty much fished out — making a living by fishing is precarious, at best. Its economy rests almost entirely on the money tourists leave behind in July and August. Its winters are beautiful, but desolate.
I want, then, to offer this brief paean to Provincetown, where the unorthodox trumps the ordinary; where anyone is welcome, including many who were simply too peculiar to live happily in most other places.
Long may it (struggle to) prosper.
Michael Cunningham is the author of The Hours, among other novels. He has lived in seven or eight different states, and is beginning to doubt his capacity for living, even briefly, in any of the remaining forty-two. He teaches at Yale.