The Labor Day Conundrum

Sep 10, 2019

Credit L. Lerner

In an off-Cape store last month, one of the clerks noticed the address on my account. “Oh, you live on the Cape,” she said. “You must be looking forward to Labor Day.”

I had to think a minute. Labor Day? What the heck is happening Labor Day? Am I supposed to be someplace? Is someone coming to visit? Then I realized, oh, right, Labor Day. That’s when the Cape returns to being that quaint, empty peninsula where nothing happens in the winter.

Oh, those were the days. Once upon a time after Labor Day, the partying neighbors headed back to Hartford; the bridge traffic flowed freely; and year-rounders had a few weeks to land a table at a favorite restaurant before it shut down for the winter.

When my husband and I moved here year-round in the 1970s, our friends in Boston pretty much thought we were headed into the Allagash. Sure, the Cape was a great place to hang out in August, but what about the rest of the year? What the heck would we do all winter?

We were lucky. We had year-round jobs and could afford housing that didn’t require moving out in summer. In winter, we walked our dogs along empty beaches; enjoyed BYO nights at restaurants with seasonal liquor licenses; and hung out at friends’ homes. There were even bay scallops for the taking in Bass River.  It was all so romantic and adventurous to be living in this place apart.

Then we had kids, and what had seemed romantic turned out to be shell in the chowder. There was hardly a place, for example, to buy children’s clothes with style acceptable to a 12-year-old, and the prices hovered at grandparent level. Shopping for sneakers off-Cape was a daylong expedition. When Old Navy opened on Cape Cod, it was like the cavalry had come over the hill.

And therein lies my Labor Day conundrum. There were things I loved about the post-Labor Day quiet and isolation back in the day. But the fact that the Cape’s year-round population has almost doubled in the last 45 years means more services and diversity. I can pick up a box of frozen rice at Trader Joe’s. I can get takeout from any one of several Thai restaurants. I can buy sneakers for the grandkids without driving 40 miles. And while the local economy is imperfect, it offers more opportunity for many people than it did years ago. 

These days, it seems Labor Day doesn’t mark much more than the start of tour-bus season, and it’s easy to lament how we’ve traded quality of life for convenience. But as year-rounders we still have a few tricks up our sleeves. One day after Labor Day, I’ll park for free at the beach, walk along an empty strand, and think about all those people who have to spend the winter someplace else. And I’ll be so grateful that I get to stay.