When I was a boy, a seagull once swooped out of the sky and stole a grilled cheese sandwich out of my hands and flew away. An hour later we saw a seagull with black spiky hairs growing out from under its feathers. I was certain the mutation was an instant result of its stealing my human food. Seagulls only terrorised me one week out of the year, on my summer visits to my cousins in Hull, a small town on the Nantasket Peninsula in Massachusetts. I was also bitten by a dog, very porous as a goalie at street hockey, basically a whiffer at backyard wiffleball – but a real whiz at remembering baseball statistics, and the accumulator of jars and jars of seaglass. Otherwise, growing up in Hopkinton, 26 miles west of Boston – site of the start of the Boston Marathon, the first tricklings of the Charles River and a reservoir with a rope swing not quite ready for TV – I was and am a land lover.
My parents, who grew up in Hull and the neighbouring town of Scituate, left Hopkinton ten years ago to return to the sea, and settled in Fairhaven, on Buzzards Bay, in the armpit-like area between Cape Cod and Rhode Island. Last week I went back for a full dose of family gatherings, my first since the Bush administration. ‘Hey shitbag, try some of my moonshine,’ my uncle greeted me when I pulled up to my aunt’s house. In the back of his pickup truck he had two jars, one clear, one dark. That was the spirit.
I have many cousins, some of whom I grew up with, others I’ve never met whose names I don’t know. Of the two closest to me – the boys I used to keep from beating each other up at Christmas parties past – one is a Marine in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, and the other is a lobsterman in Hull. My father, a retired truck driver, spends most of his time sailing (on his own or with his mates), fixing up boats (his own or others’), rowing in the harbour (for pleasure or salvage), serving in the Coast Guard Auxiliary (one patrol a week), or wading in the bay raking up clams (an activity called quahoggin’), or reading books about nautical adventures (he also likes Knut Hamsun). At my aunt’s I sat down next to my father and the lobsterman, who were staring oddly at the closing credits of the movie Finding Nemo. (It’s one of those houses where a screen in every room has to be playing something: others were showing American football and replays from monster truck rallies.)
My father and my cousin started talking about marine mammal overpopulation off the New England Coast. Too many seals. Too many whales. At least, that’s what they said. I heard that whales, especially white ones, are friendly and like to come right up to your boat and give it a bump. They do it all the time. I heard that if a seal comes on your boat it’s illegal for you to do anything to it. You can’t kill it, or even touch it, you just have to wait for it to leave. I heard about a guy who had thirty thousand seals around his property and couldn’t do anything about it. I heard about a lobsterman who had a whale swallow one of his lobster traps, the line and a buoy. The whale died, and the lobsterman was identified by the buoy in the whale’s stomach. He got sued by a millionaire preservationist. He had no chance in court against somebody so rich, so his friends bought out his business and pooled their money to help him pay the rest of the debt. The brand of the beer we were drinking was Harpoon.
I spent just enough time looking into it to come to the crude conclusion that wherever the whale and seal populations stand, there’s no going back to open season. Across the harbour from Fairhaven is New Bedford, setting of the opening scene of what my high school Latin teacher, who has retired there, calls ‘that bad book’, Moby-Dick. (‘The women of New Bedford,’ Melville wrote, ‘they bloom like their own red roses.’) My teacher doesn’t have a taste for pastiche. Neither did four of the five friends I dragged to see Tarantino’s Django Unchained the other night, though two of us were laughing all the way to the diner. This morning I got an email:
Did you hear about the whale that washed ashore at Breezy Point? It died yesterday after a bunch of people tried to spray it with hoses to keep it alive. I was just googling to find out if I could go see the dead whale, but apparently it washed ashore onto the beach of a gated community. (This intensifies my resentment of the 1%.) The New York Times eulogy ended with the following poetic moment of projection: ‘Seagulls stood their distance, looking unsure what to do.’
What they need is a grilled cheese sandwich. They could grow hair like the Ramones.