I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how small I am — not only in stature, but in significance. I am a tiny person on a medium-sized planet in an even larger universe. In the scheme of things, I don’t matter. I am inconsequential.
Perhaps this is why I find relics so fascinating. They are proof that the people who created them — and the people they belonged to — were real.
When I was home in New York over my spring break, I found myself veering on my morning runs to walk in the old cemeteries and examine the worn-down headstones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There were so many graves that had cracked in half or were barely readable. There are probably very few living people who know who these people were. But the gravestones are there — proof that these people lived and died and were loved.
Last semester, I learned about a poet named Charles Olson who lived and wrote in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a city of 30,730 on Boston’s North Shore. It was the first settlement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and grew to become a seaport and center of fishing industry. The city itself is a historical artifact, but Olson left records of it in his poems. “Polis is this,” he wrote in one.
That I had experienced the town through the words of someone who saw his city as a creation of all mankind made the idea of traveling there all the more romantic. I had heard that one could go to Gloucester and walk to Olson’s house. I imagined walking leisurely along the downtown streets, eating clam chowder at the local pub, and asking the patrons how to get to the house.
My romantic journey started on the 12:15 p.m. train that left from North Station last Saturday. It was drizzling, but the Hancock tower looked as dazzling as ever against the gray sky. An hour later, Manchester-by-the-Sea was temptingly adorable, but we stayed on the train and descended via stairs the train conductor pulled down with his foot.
With no map and empty stomachs, we set off to find a local tavern for my mate to get clam chowder and me to get something else (I don’t eat fish). We walked past the city hall, with a clock tower that reigns over the town, which is currently in the process of being restored.
We stopped at the Gloucester library, hoping to find a tribute to Gloucester’s great poet. We found nothing on Charles Olson, but a gated area in the back revealed some interesting leather-bound land grants and an old cardboard box labeled “T.S. Eliot.”
The town’s main street had multiple used book and trinket stores, as well as bakeries, old-fashioned barber shops, and restaurants. I felt like I had walked into 1956. People said “hello” to each other. The sidewalks outside of stores were filled with objects for sale.
One store left two boxes of used books outside, on sale for $1 each. I picked up a 1945 illustrated edition of Black Beauty, a book of musings by John Milton from 1910, and some leather-bound poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson, printed in 1904. They smelled like vibrant lives gone stale.
After walking along the waterfront and watching the seagulls, we stopped for lunch at the local Top Side Bar & Grill, which advertised a lobster roll and baked cod on a board outside. I ordered turkey croquettes and was so excited about talking to the people in the bar about Charles Olson that I even ate the gravy (I hate gravy).
Sadly, though, no one in the restaurant had any idea who Charles Olson was or where his former house was located. I walked outside and asked a few people on the street. “Sorry, no clue,” they all shook their heads.
We decided that the one place we would be guaranteed to find directions to the house was one of the used bookstores. I walked in and asked the man sitting behind a desk strewn with posters and newspapers. He had long white hair and a three-inch beard. His wedding ring was so tight I wondered whether it could actually come off his finger. “Could you point us in the direction of Charles Olson’s house?” I asked.
He pointed toward the ceiling. “Heaven,” he said, “That’s where his house is.”
“I know,” I responded, “But could you point us in the direction of his real house?”
He took out an old wooden pencil and sketched out a map of the waterfront on the paper. We bought cookies at the Italian bakery and walked along the beach to the house. “You’ll know you get there when you see a lot of balconies. It looks over the water. You can imagine it feeling a bit like a boat.”
I could imagine it. I could imagine this man living a quiet life in his off-yellow house looking out at the brick red factory on the old spit of sand in the water and the lighthouse in the distance. Everything was as I had imagined it.
I took a picture of the plaque that had been placed there and will one day print it out and frame it.
Before we left Gloucester, my friend and I got ordered the Fisherman’s Ale at the local microbrewery. I was sitting next to an out-of-towner talking to a local couple at the bar. “So what’s there to see for someone like me?” he asked them.
“Nothing to see, mostly stuff you shouldn’t see,” they laughed.
“We just saw Charles Olson’s house,” I chimed in.
No one at the bar knew who he was. “I can’t believe I’ve lived here for this long and never heard of this guy,” the bartender said.
I felt my heart skip a beat as I thought about the fact that this man produced some of the greatest relics for their town and these people had no idea who he was. He was anonymous, just a man who lived in a house on the coast, writing poems that have become relics of a person no one knew existed.
I wondered… if this man, this great writer, who lived in a small town in America, has only been dead thirty years and has been forgotten, how long will it take for people to forget who I was?