There are eight million artist stories in the city . This is mine. This is “There’s A Place”.
My sister Sandy had mentioned to me at least a few times a coffee shop she was sure I would like. It’s name was The Chocolate Sparrow. It was – and is – in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Just at the rear end of a parking lot on what might pass as the main street of Orleans. Orleans is the place where the three main roads on the Cape – Route 6, Route 6A, and Route 28 – all meet up for the first time and for the most part become one the remainder of the way to Provincetown, which is kind of the end of the world in the United States. Even though I had grown up in Wareham – the Gateway to Cape Cod was what the sign said in our home town – and had attended for two years and graduated from Cape Cod Community College in Hyannis, some 21 miles away, I had never really spent any time at all in Orleans. My sister and her family lived in Yarmouth and my mother had lived in Harwich and I had friends from my past life up and down the Cape, I just never found myself in Orleans. And I had been on the planet for 59 years by then.
But the summer of 2008 was different. I had been, for almost a year, the Housing Director for the Aids Support Group of Cape Cod, running their permanent housing program in Provincetown called Foley House. I had lived much of that time with my son Spenser – his mom in Florida getting a brief respite – in winter housing in North Truro. But living in a winter rental means you get booted when the rents can go up a zillion times duing the Cape Cod summer, and by late June Spenser was back in Florida and I was crashing in a spare room of my friends Andy and Jamie in Brewster. So I was commuting 30 something miles each way down to P’town five days a week, meaning I was going through Orleans twice a day. And on one Wednesday night after work, around 4:30, I was meeting my sister at The Chocolate Sparrow to say hi and spend a few minutes together and check the place out. It has chocolate in the name because they sell lots and lots and lots of chocolate there. But to me it will always be a coffee shop, now one of my two favorites on the Cape. I began spending a lot of time there, after work, on weekends, after meetings, I made a new friend there. I would bring notebooks in and sit at a small counter looking out over the parking lot and I would write down goals and dreams and where I might work next and what I might do next, and where I had applied for a new job, working with kids, and from where I had already been rejected. (by the way, 73 official rejections and 0 encouragements before I got in my car a few months later and headed west toward Portland, a babe in the northwest wood.)
After I had been at the Sparrow a few times I realized that just across the street out back was the Cape Cod Rail Trail, heading both west and east, a 22 mile paved path on the former railroad tracks running through the Cape. Certainly lots and lots of bikers, but nearly as many runners and walkers as well. So I became a walker on the Rail Trail. The summer before, crashing at my sister’s after returning from a job in San Francisco and before starting with the AIDS folks in
P’town, I discovered the beginning of the Rail Trail in Dennis, and being primarily unemployed I would walk it over and over again, two or three miles out and back. And now I was walking another section in Orleans, and loving it and actually, no exaggeration, thrilling to it, day after warm summer day, through scrub pine forests, the occasional glimpse of Cape Cod Bay, or by a lake or an old cranberry bog. For some reason I almost always walked east the first couple of months, and it was wonderful, but then I began walking west from out back of The Sparrow. I’d get out of work, drive 25 miles, drink coffee and write and write, go change into shorts and a tank top in my car, then walk west over the Mid Cape Highway and down and up through the woods toward Nickerson State Park. Maybe a five mile round trip.
One lovely mid August afternoon, the Sparrow’s coffee strongly encouraging me to duck into the woods, I walked off the trail to the right, up a slight incline and out from between some trees to find myself staring at a meadow, more weeds and wildflowers than grass, the air alive with dragonflys, surrounded on all sides by the scrub pine forest. And even though I was no more than 20 or 25 feet from the Rail Trail and could still hear the occasional biker or runner passing by, I was completely alone. I never used the word “Grace” through most of my life, but I had started using it more recently, and this felt like Grace. I began to go there more and more and pretty soon it became my destination. I went there a bunch of times toward the end of the summer of 2008 and into the early fall and I was never disappointed, and always thrilled to some degree. Never once did I see another human. And I will tell you on one afternoon I walked out and down into the field and stood perfectly still and tried to quiet my mind. And I was able to do that. And from very far away I began hearing the honking calls of canadien geese. I could barely hear them in the beginning. And with each moment their calls became just a little louder. And then louder, and then louder. And finally, my eyes closed, I heard them fly over the trees and over the field and they passed so close over my head that I could hear their wings flapping and swooshing, not just collectively, but each one of their wings. I talk about that day a lot sometimes.
The Beatles have a lot of great songs and one of my favorites is “There’s A Place”. I think it is an amazing song. They sing about a place where they can go when they feel low, when they feel blue. For John the place was his mind. I get that. But for me the place is a meadow just off the Cape Cod Rail Trail in Orleans. And I went when I felt high and when I felt bright. And it was all mine. To me that felt like Grace.
There’s a place.