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Downwardly-mobile washashores

Liz Lerner

People come to live on Cape Cod for a variety of reasons. I came because its landscape and history spoke to me in such a compelling manner as a subject for writing. To others, the Cape recalled magical summers here with their families, a place where, for the last time, they remember being perfectly happy.

For still others, those of a romantic bent, they came here in pursuit of an elusive love, a pursuit whose passion, once the object of that love was gone, transferred itself to the land as the place where a new love might be found.

But there is another subset of Cape immigrants that is not widely recognized, namely, those who voluntarily gave up a promising or successful professional career to risk finding a more satisfying, if less lucrative life. I refer to these individuals as “downwardly-mobile washashores.” I’ll say it again: “DOWNWARDLY-MOBILE WASHASHORES.” The first time I encountered a representative of this group was during a winter I spent in Provincetown over sixty years ago. One of the first people I met there was Sten Carlson, a fisherman, who invited me to go out with him on his trawler. When I went down into the boat’s cabin, I noticed a copy of John Updike’s recently-published novel, Rabbit, Run. I was still young and snobbish enough to be surprised that such a “literary” book was being read by a local fisherman. Only later did I find out that Sten had been a successful psychiatrist in New York for several years but gave up holding sessions with troubled minds to pursue the mysteries of the sea.

Then there was Dave Furness, whom I knew in the 60s. Some of you may remember Dave as the owner of the Cape Cod Refuse Company, whose memorable slogan, since appropriated by later local trash companies, was “Satisfaction Guaranteed Or Double Your Garbage Back.” His office in Wellfleet was also the home of Dave’s other business, The Record Rack, where he bought and sold used vinal records, mostly 45s. The two businesses helped support his third enterprise, that of being a DJ at local school dances.

That would be an eclectic enough business resume for anyone, but few people knew that, prior to his career on the Cape, Dave had studied Symbolic Logic at The New School for Social Research in New York City. When I asked him how he came to engage in such a disparate set of occupations, he said, “Well, the garbage and record businesses are a case of “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” and that he found a person’s trash was in many ways “symbolic” of a customer’s life.

One of the more interesting variants of this pattern of voluntary downward mobility was the case of Bill Jankowski, whom I got to know in the 1970s. Bill was a cod seiner out of Nauset Harbor. This had been the only occupation he knew until, one day, he realized he didn’t want to be pursuing such an arduous and uncertain profession as he got older. His neck was beginning to give him problems, as were other aches and pains. So he decided to give up fishing and pursue a law degree. This took him about two years to obtain. I remember seeing him in a suit and coat, the only time I ever saw him not wearing rubber boots. He was affixing his lawyer’s “shingle” to an office that he rented in Orleans Center.

I didn’t see Bil for a couple of years after that, but when I eventually ran into him in the supermarket, he was wearing his thick fisherman’s sweater and green rubber boots. When I asked him how his law practice was going, he smiled ruefully and said, “Yeah, I wasted a few months trying to convince myself that that was what I wanted to do.” His neck still hurt him, but he said it was “an honest pain-in-the-neck.”

As far as I know, Bill, remained a small-boat fisherman for the rest of his life.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.