“Kaka.” It’s a universal word. French babies say it. Estonian babies say it. American babies say it. My daughters say it. The younger one said it on Friday on the beach.
She was following me out of Provincetown harbor, her legs still in the water, when she cried out in surprise: “Issi, kaka!” I turned and saw the stripe of brown sloping down her leg towards the sea. She stared at her leg in panic too.
“Oh shit,” I looked around at the other beach goers to see if they had noticed my daughter’s ‘surprise.’ “What do you do when your kid shits on the beach?”
I decided that I had no choice but to give her a good rinse in the Atlantic-fed bay. I was ashamed to pollute in public, but there didn’t seem to be any other option. I grabbed her by the arms and dragged her through the tide. To my horror, clouds of brown plumed in the still harbor waters, only to dissipate into nothingness. Within seconds, all was clear again. It was as if nothing had ever happened. As if there had been no “kaka” incident. The water looked fit to drink. Standing there with two legs in the mix, I had to ask myself: How much shit is actually in here?
I rolled her up in my t-shirt and made for my wife who was at a beachfront café. She was lost in verse when I approached her bearing our bundle of joy, now oblivious to her condition, who was pleased to see her mother. ‘Tsau, emme,’ she chirped. ‘Tsau!’ her mother responded, her hand gracefully finishing the last line of a well-thought out sentence.
“Kaka,” I explained. We hurried to the public restrooms. After some emergency surgery, mother and daughter emerged clean, with a plastic bag bearing her unfortunate swimsuit and my unfortunate t-shirt. And there I stood in nothing but a bathing suit in downtown Provincetown surrounded by tourists and locals, many of whom also have nothing on but swimwear. My wife was soon joined by two Estonian friends, who were sympathetic to our ‘kaka’ incident. They have kids too. They understood.
I stood waiting in the hot August sun with our stroller and the ill-fated plastic bag while the Estonians discussed our agenda for the rest of the day. After awhile, I noticed them glancing at me.
“What do you think? Could he be one of them?” my wife gestured at the half-naked guy with the mysterious plastic bag. The trio of eesti naised turned and looked me up and down.
“No, his shoulders are too broad,” concluded one.
“And he’s too hairy to be gay,” the other offered her expert opinion. “If he was one of them, he would have had that stuff waxed.”
We came to Provincetown at the end of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod for a carnival. Epp found out about it and put it on our list of things to do. It was advertised everywhere, a real local event. Carnival! It sounded so quaint. I imagined there would be cotton candy and a Ferris wheel, live music and lobster rolls. It would be a child-friendly happening. Maybe there would be pony rides too, face-painting, and funnel cakes. But this was Carnival Week in Ptown. Instead there were rainbow flags and gangs of roving mostly-nude males holding hands and discussing European fashion trends. Yes, there was a touch of Europe on the main walking street of Ptown that day; I hadn’t seen that many guys wearing thongs since my last trip to the Aura Keskus water park in Tartu.
The first shops I saw as I parked our car on Commercial Street were of the European persuasion. ‘Simply Danish’ hosted a inventory of Scandinavian designs: futuristic vases and metallic ashtrays. Across from the Danes was ‘Red Square,’ which employed crimson motifs. I stopped to look at Danish vases as gaggles of bare-chested, hairless males passed by on the street.
“I’m going to go have dinner,” said one to his friends.
“Ok, we’ll meet you at the café later,” a friend responded. “Just remember: no carbs after 6 pm!”
“It’s 5.50,” the first one chuckled. “I’ve still got 10 minutes!”
As we waded through the masses down this walking street, I noticed that, other than a few curious couples with kids and perhaps family members of the carnival attendees, Ptown was overwhelmingly gay and lesbian. Instead of people staring in confusion at two men holding hands, they shot odd looks at my wife and me as we pushed our daughter in a stroller down the street, as if to say, Wait, you’re married? To a person of the opposite sex? Why would you go and do a silly thing like that?
This is what the world would be like if gays ran it. There would only be elegant shops purveying the finest in interior design and men’s apparel or wild discotheques playing the best of the 1970s. There would only be well-manicured gardens and trendy cafes serving the yummiest of treats and tastiest of drinks with a pinch of this and a hint of that. And, most of all, couples with young children would be kept to a bare minimum: at least couples comprised of one male and one female.
This is how they must feel in straight society, I deduced as I watched a guy with pierced nipples sorting trash from a cafe into a variety of recycling bins. A world where everything is its opposite. We walked down to an ATM in a parking garage. The wall was covered with posters for different local events. Someone was screening a film called Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter Night. On the other side of the garage, I spied a deck on the water and a swimming pool filled exclusively with dudes in fluorescent-colored thongs. Somewhere a radio was blasting Patrick Hernandez’ 1979 hit, “Born to Be Alive.” For me, all stereotypes about gay culture were justified in that one moment.
In Estonia, there are two takes on how to handle this phenomenon of the West. Persons to whom I am tangentially connected sit at opposite sides of the debate. There are passionate social activists like Lisette Kampus who would be happy if Estonia was a bit more like Ptown. Then there are conservative newspapermen like Priit Pullerits who would prefer if carnival took place at some place in the woods, rather than on Main Street. Most of us probably sit somewhere in between, turned off by the moral absolutism of the gay community and the social conservatives. Curmudgeonly misanthropic writers like me just want to be left alone, thanks.
It was this yearning for isolation that drove me to Ptown in the first place. It sits at the end of an eastern extremity of America. To get there, you have to drive through miles of mountainous sand dunes that shift with the winds of the sea. I see dunes like that when I go to sleep in Tartu. The sands of the Atlantic coast may be the one thing I miss about the place where I grew up. In Tartu, the nearest body of water is the Emajõgi – the ‘mother river.’ That meandering vein through southeast Estonia is persuasive in its own way, but it’s no substitute for the ocean.
It’s probably this longing for lonesomeness that’s drawn so many strange characters to Ptown. “The gays wind up here because this is a place you have to decide to come to,” Epp told me as we rolled along. “You can’t just pass on through. You have to have this place as your destination.” Before it was a gay haven, Ptown was home first to pirates and Colonial ne’er-do-wells and then Portuguese fisherman before the homosexuals seized cultural power, starting in the 1940s, and later political power, starting in the late 1970s. Indeed, in Ptown, gay political power was apparent. As we strolled through, a gentleman dressed in a one-piece pink body thong ala Borat alerted me to the reality of politics in Ptown while soliciting signatures for some particular local cause. In any other town, the gentleman in the pink body thong would be an oddball. Here, he just might wind up as a town councilman.
While Carnival Week in Provincetown was not exactly what I expected, it was fun. I’m not the type to go skydiving and I loathe roller coasters, but there’s nothing more exhilarating than the masochistic shattering of one’s own homophobia. Homophobia – the fear of gays. It’s not easy to walk past a row of half-naked males in your swimming trunks and pretend you don’t notice them eyeballing you. It’s harder still when you are carrying a thick book entitled Gay Lives, Straight Jobs. My spouse bought it, along with other treatises on Ptown life for use in some future essay or book chapter. She must have bought a dozen books in Ptown’s used book shops. I bought one: The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.
I kept Miller’s travel book on Greece on top of Straight Jobs, Gay Lives in one hand so no one would get the wrong idea as I pushed the stroller down the street. Epp had left me to go feed the parking meter. I got tired of the one-handed pushing and put the books on top of the stroller. Then, as I neared a group of guys at the entrance to the Prince Albert Hotel, we rolled over a bump and the books went flying. Straight Jobs, Gay Lives landed front-cover up for all to see. Humiliated, I bent over and picked up it up along with the only book I had bought. It’s not what it looks like. I’m like Miller, I wanted to shake my fist at them. I desire women!
Some women at least. Later that night, the Estonian ladies quizzed each other as to Estonia’s sexiest politician. “Margus Tsakhna,” one ventured. “Or maybe Silver Meikar.”
“How about Savisaar?” I asked. “Some ladies think he’s sexy.”
The Estonians looked nauseous. “How about our president?” one changed the subject. “He’s looking better these days.”
“Who do you think is Estonia’s sexiest politician?” they asked me.
I couldn’t decide on who was Estonia’s sexiest female politician because there seems to be something inherently unsexy about politicians, like they’d only sleep with you if you’d vote for them. I decided to keep my mouth shut.
But there in front of the Prince Albert Hotel, I was ready to endorse just about any Estonian female for sexiest politician to prove that Straight Jobs, Gay Lives was not my book. Even if I had done so, those guys probably wouldn’t have cared. After all, it was my phobia I was dealing with, not theirs.
Why are people scared of gays or any particular group of people? When I lived in Tallinn years ago, I was intimidated by the Russian kids who hung out near the Säästumarket in Kalamaja. They were big and loud and usually drinking something alcoholic outdoors, even in January temperatures. They wore puffy black jackets and were boiling with machismo: if they were ever with women, their arms were draped protectively around their females’ shoulders. When I passed them, I looked straight ahead as not to arouse their attention. That was Russophobic me. But what about homophobic me?
Maybe fear isn’t just drilled into us by our family and friends or by films and books. Maybe there are certain instances in our lives that lead us to adjust our instincts a certain way. Nobody on Commercial Street in Ptown tried to touch me or said something suggestive. But when I was 15, I had a friend who had just come out of the closet that did so several times. Each time, I pushed him away. But he came back three or four times. To him, maybe it was funny, but to me it seemed like sexual harassment – that thing they were always talking about on TV. It was harder to determine how harsh my ‘no’ should be because he was my friend, or at least he had been. Such is the painful confusion of human sexuality.
Probably because of that one guy, I felt intimidated in Ptown. It’s not something I intended. It was just a natural response, one that said, Please, whatever you do, don’t invade my personal space. This was the fear I faced. It felt good to deal with it because nobody there bothered me in any way. I understood then that it’s wrong to link one individual’s behavior to a whole group of people. These guys meant no harm. They just wanted to wear thongs and listen to Patrick Hernandez in peace. Once I had identified the root of my fear, I was able to let it all roll off my back. I could walk down the street with my head held high holding a copy of Straight Jobs, Gay Lives.
Epp’s response to the scene seemed different. She’s a kind of cultural bon vivant. She learns about gay culture the same way if we were in Japan she might develop an acute interest in Shintoism. She’s hungry and the world’s her buffet. She fears no one. She savors it all. While I enjoyed the shock therapy of carnival in Ptown, she loved its vibrant colors and exotic characters. She fell in love with the place at once. It was a respite from the banality of American consumer life. For me, it was looked like a lot of fun, but not designed for my personal enjoyment. Instead it took time and a trip to the Portuguese Bakery for Provincetown to win me over.
I am not Portuguese. I only know a handful of phrases I learned from listening to João Gilberto records. But in Ptown, I felt like the Portuguese community was my life preserver, keeping me afloat in a storm not only of a gay vibrancy, but also in the icy terrain of Yankeedom. Remember, this was still New England — a place where people’s surnames often mean things – Bush, Ford, Starbuck.
Even if it was Carnival Week, I could escape to the Portuguese Bakery. I knew that there they would understand. They would have rich, delicious Mediterranean pastries, made with the love of people who appreciate the sweet life by guys with names like Fernandinho or Gilberto and women with names like Carolina or Teresa. If Epp fantasized about blending into Ptown’s dissident culture, I imagined getting on a first-name basis with its Portuguese fishermen and bakerwomen. Maybe they would even one day take me as their own: Justino.
The woman behind the counter didn’t wear a name tag. Instead she had on a t-shirt that read The Crazy Portuguese One. I took a sample of the best-looking treats, giant frosted malassadas, cream-colored pastéis de nata. They were all good, but one stole my heart. It wasn’t the crazy Portuguese one. It was called trutas: a fried, sweet-potato turnover shaped in a crescent and covered in sugar. I bought and ate one. Then two. Then I had to have three. I bought one for my youngest daughter, but she got frustrated with the sweet potato filling and threw part of it on the ground. I’ve spoiled her. She doesn’t yet appreciate that her father keeps her supplied with cannolis and trutas. One day she’ll learn.
In a nearby bookstore, I Told You So by Kate Clinton, political commentary from a gay/lesbian point of view, was on display. I flipped through the essays on gay marriage, the Bush White House, Hillary Clinton, and Ptown, but felt bored. It looked like another artifact from America’s never-ending culture wars. But who wanted to think about Karl Rove on a hot August day? I wanted to read about something delicious. I made for the more captivating Provincetown Portuguese Cookbook to find out how to make my beloved trutas.
Dough made with whiskey and orange juice, filled with sweet potatoes, sugar, and cinnamon. Why didn’t Estonians make things like this? In every bakery in Estonia, they’ll give you moskva sai and dallase sai and mooni sai and kohupiimakorpid. But nobody cares enough up north to mix whiskey and orange juice with their dough or fill their pastries with sweet potatoes. Only the Portuguese are crazy enough to do something like that.
What Tartu really needs, I decided, is a really good Portuguese bakery. Maybe I could start it. Sure, I would be a fraud, but if the 19th century Estonian writer Viidri Välma could take a German as his wife and be known to the world as ‘Friedrich Robert Faehlmann,’ then maybe I could pass as a Portuguese baker in south Estonia.
Sometimes I wonder what I will be like when I am an old man. I imagine there may be sand dunes. I can hear the Estonian being spoken around me. And now, after Ptown, I can see myself standing over a counter, kneading in the whiskey and orange juice, mixing up the cinnamon, sugar, and sweet potatoes. You have to do things that make you happy. It’s like they sing out in Provincetown: You were born to be alive.