The ferris wheel came down early in Salem this year lest anyone get blown off it during Hurricane Sandy, but what this city lacks in cheap carnival rides it makes up for in revelers decked out in all manners of ridiculousness. My unscientific survey of the pedestrian mall turns up more adults in costumes than children; when else are adults allowed to dress up and pretend they’re someone else? A little fantasy never hurt anyone.
Still, it’s hard to tell the costumed zombies from the real ones roaming the streets amid tiny super heroes and cotton candy vendors, all backlit by fireworks over the water. Adults in wigs, feathers, and leather (sometimes all at once) replace the briefcase-carrying business folks on the train ride home to Salem. I have to admit it adds a little spice to the commute.
A handful of kids turn up at my door—a quartet of princesses, a Superman, and a masked something or other.
“Trick or treat,” they say in chorus.
“Do you have a dog?” asks a princess.
“No, but I have a cat,” I say, doling candy into their sacks.
“Can I see your cat?” says the masked kid, walking into the house.
“She’s hiding under the couch,” I tell him. “You’re too scary.”
Is this question-and-answer thing a new Halloween ritual?
Is there anything more enchanting than a secret garden? Well, yes. Coming upon Mr. Darcy in said secret garden. But let’s be realistic. This patch of flowers and pebbled trail is tucked away behind a church and historic home in Salem, often overlooked by tourists. Sometimes, I have it all to myself. See that red brick mansion in the background? That’s where Darcy and I live in my fantasy. We restore it to its former glory and stand gazing down upon the garden where we married, reliving the moment again and again. And then his sister saunters in and wants to play a sonata on that damn piano. Always with the piano! When will she get her own place?
These grand English-style gardens always call to mind the characters of Austen and Bronte. Can’t you just picture Jane Eyre sitting on this bench when Rochester sneaks up behind her in his creepy, romantic way?
This is where I like to sit and read about the stern yet tenderhearted men of yore. The shaded bench is better suited to courting lovers, but whatever. All I have is a book and the sunflowers before they turn brown and droop their heavy heads.
When I tire of reading, I look to the koi pond, confident that at any moment, Darcy will emerge, sopping wet in a blousy white shirt plastered to his beefy arms that he will use to lift me off the bench and into the pond for a romp.
I’m seeing my friend off after an especially good beach day (80+ degrees on Memorial Day weekend in New England, hello) that we’ve stretched into sunset and beyond when we hear the faint notes of “Pretty in Pink” coming from across the cemetery. But it’s not on the radio.
I remember now that my neighbor I bought a jacket from after sifting through her eclectic collection of CDs mentioned that the Psychedelic Furs would be playing in Salem this weekend in a venue neither of us had heard of: The Salem Performing Arts at the Catholic Center. Huh? Beyond the obvious delight of picturing the punk band from the 80s playing at a Catholic Center, I couldn’t get past the fact that this community hall was where I cast my votes in elections.
Right now, I hear the throb of the center as the band belts out “Love my Way,” one of those songs you don’t know you know, and I’m waiting for the rainbow Mohawks to stream by reminiscing about when skinny jeans were popular the first time and punk was king.
Roses are red
Violets are blue;
This poem is short
and so are you.
This original poem, my most creative I think, won best amateur poem in the Mass Poetry’s Festival’s newcomer category, which is not a real contest, but should be. I’d have it in the bag.
In reality, the festival breezed into Salem, set up its circus tents of inspiration all over town: workshop after workshop of scribbling poets and readings to recharge writers for months. So much to feast on. So much to plagiarize.
On Friday afternoon, the back yard of the Salem Athenaeum was one giant cliché: a circle of writers sitting under a tree in full blossom, creating poems amongst bird song, sunshine, and wind chimes. Saturday brought more sunshine and poets who could dash off a masterpiece in minutes. On Sunday, carpenter poets read their work, full of hammers and miter saws, in a dark room in the House of the Seven Gables where gables centuries old beamed to see their craftsmen. The day also brought rain, the kind of weather angsty writers need to cultivate a mood and to get down to the business of writing and brooding.
Only Salem, home of more witches per capita than any other place around, would kick off its Halloween celebration with a midweek parade weeks before Halloween. School night or not, kids showed up and demanded candy from the passing floats. I had a nice perch in my friend’s condo that overlooks the pedestrian mall parade route where we watched marching bands and choreographed lawn chair routines (really). This festive city has been ready to celebrate for a month.
And you thought those blow up lawn decorations were just for Christmas.
The carnival at night
But the other morning, when I woke up to see not tourists in the cemetery but a witc—well, judge for yourself—I knew Halloween was on.
Not hours into October and already the throngs have descended on Salem. It’s as if people were sitting in their cars, costumed, just waiting for the calendar to flip. All of a sudden there’s smoke coming out of the witch museums and vendors popping luring even the locals (apple cinnamon buns?). Overnight, in an abandoned lot in a prime location that always puzzled me, a sign goes up: Parking $20. I remember waiting for my real estate agent on the day of my home inspection last October and grinning when he cruised in on a scooter, parking his car for the month to avoid the traffic. A smart man, that agent.
At Target, before the shelves are even half-bare, I buy a boatload of Kit Kats to satiate the neighborhood kids—all two of them; the odds are good that the loot will be mine. And I don’t have to go around collecting it with a pillowcase.
But living in Salem levies a certain pressure to be outlandish when it comes to Halloween. My friend needed two days to decorate. But I eschew the skeletons, witches, the homemade graveyard made from cardboard and decorate for my first Halloween in Salem by refusing to sweep away the cobwebs that spiders have sewn in the corners of the house. I’m going for the natural look.
I will also be picking from a patch, or more likely buying, a plump pumpkin for my front step, but that’s as far as I go. No orange lights strung along the garden; no skulls resting in a flower pot; and absolutely no candy corn-colored decor wrapping around the dying shrub. I’m a minimalist.
If people want the full treatment, I’ll point them in the direction of the cemetery haunted by the old sheriff. I pay him 20 bucks to scare the hell out of people taking pictures with their iPhones.
In my hood, the neighbors' house is the color of a jack-o-lantern. Decorating? Check.
1. An extra day off makes a long weekend longer, in case you didn’t know.
2. Hanging out with Maple, who despite her fur, doesn’t seem to mind the heat as much as her human, though mouse chasing is done with less relish.
3. Reading The Tiger’s Wife and lamenting that I will never be a New Yorker 20 Under 40 writer unless I write a book, publish it and get the New Yorker to fawn all over it in the next year.
4. Buying an obscene amount of chicken wings at Whole Foods to grill because grilling is a God-given American right. Carcinogens: check!
5. Watching a guy walking down the street shielding his family from the pre-fireworks rain with a patio umbrella.
I love living near a cemetery and I’m not at all creeped out by my friend who keeps asking if I’ve glimpsed the ghost that’s rumored to hang out there, you know, in the epicenter of the whole witch trial business. Nope. Doesn’t bother me at all, even when it’s dark and the street light is out and it looks like I’m speed-walking home. I’ve even been known to glance over there, and the other night, instead of the old Salem sheriff long dead, I saw the moon.
I’ve been dying to read Ann Patchett’s new book State of Wonder, so when I got the email that the book had arrived at the library, I trekked there in the storm. Opening the heavy door, I peered in to a dark, cavernous Salem Library: the electricity was out. Such a quiet, tranquil spot the library is, but all the more so when it’s dark and cool. All I could think though was: will I still be able to pick up my book?
“Sure,” the librarian said, switching on a flashlight. She scanned the Hold shelf for my book and handed it over, noting my card number and the book title on a paper log, like the days of old.
We agreed the lights-out night at the library was kind of nice.
“I told the other librarians we should roast marshmallows and tell ghost stories,” she said.
“Plenty of stories here,” I said.
And here in Salem, all the stories are ghost stories.
The Massachusetts Poetry Festival is coming to Salem and I can’t wait to meet Emily Dickinson. I hear she doesn’t get out much, so this should be a treat. Looking forward to connecting with Robert Frost too, if he takes the road more traveled by.
The event starts tonight with readings and continues tomorrow in the cafes, museum, and old colonial buildings all around town with a variety of workshops, forums, and poetry shenanigans. I’m bringing a pen so I can plagiarize all the good lines.
I didn’t buy a Christmas tree this year, but I think I will next year, if only so I can throw it on the pyre that Salem has for its dried-up pines. No, not very green, but the bonfire is a community event that draws a crowd to Dead Horse Beach (answer: no) with music, hot chocolate, and burning trees—definitely a step up from burning witches.
I had a cool video of the night, but it seems it’s impossible to get it on here; instead, picture flames rising over the harbor, while you take in a smoky breath, and hear Ring of Fire playing in the background.